July 21, 2011

A plot of earth that knows its worth

Michael Henderson
Cricket is coming home for its 2000th Test, but even if the game's a dud, it cannot take away from the glory of the ground hosting it

Lord's, glorious Lord's! Whose step does not quicken at the prospect of visiting the greatest sporting forum in the world? Yes, greatest because it is not merely a place where cricketers play: it is the living, breathing home of the sport they practise. People come from all over the world just to set foot in it. And forum because it tends to attract those people who love the game most, and for whom the Lord's Test is a never-ending conversation.

Let's summon a few witnesses.

"Welcome to the greatest room in the world." With these words Harold Pinter greeted guests to a bash in the Long Room, organised on his behalf by the BBC, which was presenting a festival of the playwright's works on radio and television. Pinter loved Lord's. He bunked off classes at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to watch the great players of the post-war era, and later in life could usually be found in a box during Test matches, watching intently the contest between batsman and bowler. Whether the Long Room is the greatest room in the world, it is surely the greatest room in sport, and the heart of Lord's. All those famous portraits on the walls, great figures from the past secretly judging today's players as they process through the room to take their place in the middle.

"Lord's is a pendant to the Royal Parks of London." So says Philippe Auclair, French journalist, broadcaster and author. Auclair was taken to Lord's when he first came to London, and now he never misses a Lord's Test. He is not an uncritical observer. "These people wandering round in blazers, trying to recreate the Golden Age. They're just buffoons. Don't they know that Grace and Ranji were pioneers? They weren't looking back." Lord's is indeed a pendant to the Royal Parks. What a wonderful phrase.

"It's a reason for living in London." This is how Michael Billington, the Guardian's long-serving theatre critic, sees Lord's. Growing up in Leamington Spa, a keen follower of Warwickshire, he imagined the delight of popping into Lord's for an hour or two to be part of London life. And it is certainly true that while Lord's looks magnificent en fete, with a full house savouring a classic Test, it looks pretty good all summer long, whether Middlesex are playing Glamorgan, or Eton playing Harrow.

What makes the Lord's Test unique? The setting, the history, the occasion. There are bigger grounds, and grounds some may consider to be more beautiful - Trent Bridge, Adelaide, Cape Town spring to mind. But Lord's stands alone, not in an arrogant way, simply as a plot of earth that knows its worth and sees no reason to apologise for its breeding. It has a dignity that nothing can erase.

There are bigger grounds, and grounds some may consider to be more beautiful - Trent Bridge, Adelaide, Cape Town spring to mind. But Lord's stands alone, not in an arrogant way, simply as a plot of earth that knows its worth and sees no reason to apologise for its breeding

As for a sense of occasion, that must never be overlooked. Even when people are not watching the cricket (and there are hundreds of people dining on the lawn of Coronation Garden who hardly see a ball bowled after lunch), they are still playing their part in the drama. It would be wrong to call it part of the "season" but it is a gathering of the cricketing clans. The invisible threads that link English society, through school, university and club, twitch vividly into life behind the Warner Stand every lunchtime. And Friday is the great day.

The best Lord's Friday of all? It is hard to beat the 2000 Test when England skittled West Indies for 54 to set up a victory target of 188. The next day was one for the annals. Not a mouse stirred as Michael Atherton and Michael Vaughan added 92 of the most valuable runs either man ever scored. Time and again Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh went past the bat. If an over yielded as much as one run it was a boon. The crowd, mindful of the circumstances, drank it all in, silently. Things reached a hectic pitch in the afternoon, as England won with two wickets to spare, and the celebrations were loud and long, yet it was the silence in the morning that remains the abiding memory of that day. It showed Lord's at its best, and the best of Lord's is unmatchable.

We live for such days, storing them in our minds, sharing them with friends so that they acquire a fresh lustre with each recollection. There are those who speak of Ted Dexter's batting against Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith in 1963, the match when Colin Cowdrey came out to bat with a broken arm. Others recall how the pavilion stood to acclaim Greg Chappell in 1972, when he made one of the great centuries. More recently Mohammad Azharuddin charmed everybody with his century in 1990, and Andrew Flintoff's ferocious bowling against the Aussies in 2009 added another chapter to the old story.

The 2000th Test match promises to be a classic contest. There are two good teams, and Sachin Tendulkar needs one more century to make it 100 hundreds in international cricket. Whatever befalls him, and the other players, we shall all leave the greatest ground with happy memories - even if it rains for five days.

Michael Henderson is a former cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph