The real spirit of cricket

Fans drink beer Getty Images

In the summer of 1989, three years prior to reaching the legal drinking age, I admit I'd already cracked open a good few cans of lager. Before I even watched David Boon in England during that Ashes series, I knew he had guzzled 52 tinnies on the flight from Australia. Fifty-two cans, on the way to an Ashes series. Perhaps it tells of the brash confidence of that great Aussie side that the almighty piss-up began before the 4-0 victory rather than after. Or it simply reflects the long and torrid relationship between cricket and alcohol.

All the blokes I played cricket with drank, as did the professionals of that era, and every other cricketing era. The modern game was born in a pub, the infamous Bat & Ball inn on Broadhalfpenny Down. From those beery afternoons with gamblers in top hats to mega-breweries emblazoned across billboards, willow and hops have forever been entwined.

Writing in 2009, shortly after Andrew Symonds had been dismissed from the Australian team for one beer too many, again, Mike Atherton worried that "cricket and booze" were inseparable. After calling out the hypocrisy of an organisation bankrolled by beer brands, and the "finger-pointing" righteousness of Ricky Ponting, a reformed legend of lager overload himself, Atherton also reminisced about his own drunken celebrations.

Cricket reflects culture, and this culture likes a drink. Therefore our cricketers like a tipple or two. Much of social cricket exists for the pub, and not the wicket. Every friendly XI has a local watering hole that may well be visited before and after - and quite possibly during - the game. This is a society that ranks machismo by counting drinks. I guess keeping score of pints downed over the course of an evening can be likened to tallying up your runs. A Man-of-the-Match award at my old rugby club was the right to demand a pint off the 14 other players. The No. 8 who went around the entire team twice was a 28-pint hero. No one recalls what he did on the pitch that day, just his mythical drink stat.

Beer might not fuel many great innings - although it may take wickets, as Nottinghamshire skipper Arthur Carr always made sure Harold Larwood had an ale at lunch - but it does bank pounds in the club coffers.

I watched some fine cricket at The Oval last year. At least I presume I did. The manic energy of those Friday-night T20s felt like a frat-house riot at the end of the world. The plastic cup relay was relentless. Blokes ferried pints from the bar like stoic pack mules, dangling cardboard carriers with drunken brio up and down the concrete steps, and only wobbling if a white sphere threatened to spill their carriage. The crack of leather on willow was drowned out by the cacophony of shoes crushing plastic cups. I forget the exact number, but the figures of the night weren't a miserly economy rate or stratospheric six count. It was a Bradmanesque ground revenue compiled from malted barley. Did Surrey win? No one was quite sure. The hammered fans were falling back into the Underground, and the staff were cashing up by the fistful.

Apart from swelling club accounts, like any drug, alcohol can bring pleasure, or pain. Jesse Ryder, James Faulkner, David Warner, Andrew Flintoff and Monty Panesar - although one could argue that the bouncers Panesar reportedly urinated on had a greater problem with his boozing - have all succumbed to the demon drink.

Perhaps I'm stating the helplessness of cricket's symbiosis/poisoning with alcohol to assuage my own guilt on being sent home from a cricket tour. Now my hair is more silver than ginger, but I at least have this much in common with Ben Stokes, expelled from an England Lions tour to Australia in 2013. I put forward my youth - I was a teenager - as my defence, along with the poor construction of a Norwich hotel. After a dozen or so spirits and lurid mixers, and a near-lethal climb onto the hotel roof, I decided a fire-exit sign was the ideal spot for a chin-up contest. The sign, and most of the ceiling, ended up on the floor, and the police found my room by following a trail of gypsum, broken glass, and vodka-blackcurrant.

I'm not blaming anyone for my behaviour. I was young and reckless, naïve to the powers of hard liquor. Reading Toby Hall's withering and well-researched "Cricket has a dangerous relationship with alcohol" in the Sydney Morning Herald, where he claims that saturation advertising by breweries resulted in "4600 incidents of alcohol promotion in just three one-day international cricket games", I have a case for indoctrination. Quoting international research, Hall contends that "exposure to high-level alcohol promotion teaches pro-drinking attitudes".

Take the hyphen away from the penultimate word of that last sentence and we're back to Boon on the plane in 1989. Don't worry, this isn't a Pom blaming an Aussie for his boozing. In fact that 2005 victory parade, where England's gods of the summer celebrated by unzipping their trousers in the garden at 10 Downing Street, probably launched an entire generation of sozzled wannabes.

Yes, we could temper our reliance on brewery branding, and certainly provide better support for players who seek solace in the bottom of a glass. However, the human condition is the cricketer's condition. Beer has been brewed since Neolithic times, and despite the bat-like shape of a caveman's club, we were drunk long before that first ball was ever bowled.