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Oh to be at Lord's

I first went to Lord's in the summer of 1993. I was then a student in Britain. I still have a picture of myself in a tweed jacket (as English as I could make myself), maroon tie, and white shirt, leaning against a board that said, "No standing when there is bowling at the other end." I remember clearly what I'd felt that day.
I had felt cheated. The ground was not bathed in the kind of sunshine with which I had thought Lord's would be. It had rained a lot that day, and there wasn't much cricket. The grass didn't seem as green as I'd expected. The slope at the Nursery End had less of a gradient than I'd imagined. (What had I imagined? A real hill inside a cricket field?) And the players - county players playing an insignificant match on a rain-spattered afternoon - seemed to be going about their jobs with little enthusiasm.

I wonder now what it was that would have made me happy. And I don't know the answer.

The trouble was that Lord's and the notion of watching cricket in the English summer had been until then constructs of my imagination. They were born of airwaves (Test Match Special commentary) and literature, of poems like Edmund Blunden's "Forefathers":

On the green they watched their sons
Playing till too dark to see,
As their fathers watched them once,
As my father once watched me;
While the bat and beetle flew
On the warm air webbed with dew.

When I went to Lord's for the first time, I was ready for the "warm air webbed with dew", but not for what I really saw. Cricket in the English summer in my mind had always had something to do with the quality of light, the shifting season, the sun, and the long days after the bleakness of winter. In The Mimic Men, VS Naipaul eloquently describes the English winter light: "It went dark in the room, and I noticed that the light outside was strange. It was dead, but seemed to have an inner lividness."

Summer in England is the time when that inner lividness bursts through, when the light is as alive in shades and texture and depth as it can ever be. And cricket was the summer game (it still is called that in England, though the English team, like all international teams, play it all year round), the pursuit that to me most exemplified that season. But all of this was in the imagination. And at Lord's in the summer of 1993, I was confronted with the reality.

Once I had overcome the gulf between my construct of how things ought to be and how they really were, there were unexpected delights. For someone who had grown up watching cricket on the subcontinent, I was struck by how comfortable the whole experience could be, how civilised and pleasurable. I associated watching the game with eking out eight inches on a concrete bench for my bum, queuing endlessly for food and water, being pelted with an orange or worse if I stood up to applaud. Here there were sumptuous lunch hampers, there was wine and beer, as much space as I wanted for myself, a book for the breaks, and the patter of measured applause. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. Sometimes the cricket seemed only incidental.

For someone who had grown up watching cricket on the subcontinent, I was struck by how comfortable the whole experience could be, how civilised and pleasurable

Of course, cricket in England prided itself on its measured applause, in maintaining its distance from the yobs and lager louts who were invading the football stadiums. Watching cricket in Australia, I found out later, is a great thrill. It is just as comfortable as watching in England, but it is much more participatory, much more effervescent and inclusive, than watching it in England.
England wasn't in those days as multicultural as it is now. The Indian economy, having just opened up, wasn't anywhere as strong as it is today. That summer none of the teams from the subcontinent toured. And even if they had, you wouldn't have seen the swathe of brown faces and flags that you do now. You traditionally saw great support for West Indies at the Oval, since the south London ground was close to the areas in which thousands of immigrants from the Caribbean islands lived. But being at a game at an English cricket ground was largely the preserve of white, middle-class males - or so it seemed to me.

There was a lot happening in English cricket that summer. There was the Ashes series (a six-Test one, no less), and Australia battered England 4-1. Michael Atherton became captain in the fifth Test. He won the last one. Ted Dexter resigned as chairman of selectors. Middlesex, led by Mike Gatting, won the county championship. And, yes, it was the season of the Ball of the Century: MW Gatting bowled Shane Warne for 4 in the first Test at Old Trafford.

I later came to love English grounds, especially the smaller ones and their prettiness and quirks. But that first summer, my experience of watching cricket in the English summer was defined more by absence than anything else, by the lack of things that I'd believed ought to be there: the hill, the light, the shade of the grass, the genuflection from players at what I then thought was cricket's shrine.

It happens when imagination collides with reality.