The theatre of cricket, 1993

The roar of the greasepaint - the smell of the linseed

All the world's a stage, wrote somebody qualified by birth to play for Warwickshire; and no part of it is more theatrical than a cricket field. The parallels are many and obvious.

Enter Stage Left: A leading batsman. Warm applause. Expectant hush. The dialogue begins. A battle of wills ensues. Crafty strokes are made. Advantage swings this way and that. Decisive points are reached. Longueurs are experienced. Pre-arranged intervals are taken. The denouement arrives. Ovation as bows are taken from the pavilion balcony.

That, of course, is just a framework. Michael Billington, the theatre critic of The Guardian, has a complementary view: The instant, one-day game is rather like a one-act play, whereas a five-day Test corresponds to Elizabethan five-act drama with its swift reversals of fortune and cumulative tension.

The allegiance of the theatre and its players to the summer game may well go back to the days when knights were bold and their attendants merely dismissed. However, leaving aside a casual reference in Thomas D'Urfey's 1693 play The Richmond Heiress, the first connection can be picked up at Norwich in 1744, when one Geo. Alexander Stevens assumed the character of a cricketer in part of an epilogue to a play desir'd by the Gentlemen Cricketers of Barrow:

Of all the Joys our Parents did Partake,

From Games Olympic, down to Country Wake;

To one more noble they cou'd ne'er resort,

Than Cricket! Cricket! ever active Sport.

The noble joy was referred to only in passing by the playwrights of the late 18th and 19th centuries. Cricket lovers in the audiences at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, for the comedies of Thomas Morton, John O'Keeffe and George Colman the younger, had to make do with lines such as, Stay - here's Kent, fertile in pheasants, cherries, hops, yeomen, codlings and cricketers. But Kent had the rite of the annual cricket week, which mixed the sporting and dramatic. Tom Taylor of the I Zingari club appeared on stage there in August 1842 to deliver a prologue. He was wearing full cricketing apparel with bat in hand.

Hearing they played to-night in the cause of cricket

I thought I'd come and se'em, that's the ticket!

(Producing a ticket for the Play)

But scarcely had I reached the play-house door,

When three chaps rushed upon me, with a roar,

'We've found a Prologue!"Here, you sir', says one,

'Just clear your throat, shoulder your bat, and on.'

'On where?' says I. 'Why on the stage, at once!'

And here they've left me, looking like a dunce,

To speak a Prologue - Heaven knows what upon.

Theatres and cricket clubs often worked in harness in the 19th century to mount gala benefits for local professionals. And for a period, roughly between the demise of the various professional touring teams like All-England and the early days of the County Championship, troupes of Clown Cricketers entertained the public. The cricket was of a farcical nature with balls disappearing through trick bats and caught on hats. The players did celebratory somersaults when wickets fell. After a game in an afternoon the troupe would decamp to a nearby theatre to give a stage performance in the evening. W. R. Gilbert of Gloucestershire, and Tom Emmett and Edmund Peate of Yorkshire were three of several first-class cricketers who turned out under assumed names.

The only time that county cricketers as a team have played the game on the West End stage was when the impresario Sir Oswald Stoll mounted a variety spectacle for his winter season of 1908 at the Coliseum. The billing read Surrey v Middlesex, with four professionals from The Oval captained by Alan Marshal, against the same number from Lord's led by Albert Trott. J. T. Hearne and 19-year-old Patsy Hendren were in the Middlesex side. The audience were given a scorecard to keep tabs on the official scorer who was on the stage itself. The painting on the backcloth was of a village green surrounded by trees, depicting a pastorally idyllic summer's day. The pitch was restricted to 15 yards and adapted rules applied; for instance, a hit meant a run had to be attempted. The runs scored at each performance were cumulative and each morning the revised score was posted outside the theatre. At one performance, the net which protected orchestra and audience from the four-ounce ball could not be raised for some reason and the game proceeded with those in the stalls acting as extra fielders. Fortunately, no one was hurt. At the end of a week, Middlesex just managed to beat Surrey.

Several theatrical eminences of the era were great enthusiasts. A small boy, calling himself W. G., appeared in Walker, London, J. M. Barrie's first really ambitious play. Barrie, who led his own team, The Allahakbarries, often to resounding defeat, also collaborated with Arthur Conan Doyle in a musical called Jane Annie, which contained a cricket number. The show flopped.

Sir Frank Benson, one of the old school of actor-managers and best remembered for his Shakespearian touring company, maintained the most balanced view of all between cricket and the stage. When he needed a replacement he reputedly wired: Urgent - send a slow left-arm bowler to play Cassius. Benson's casting arrangements were simple - all he wanted was a reasonable eleven to take on sides at each of the stops on the tour. Sheridan Morley recalls that his first question to aspiring actors at auditions would be Position?, which apparently did not have present-day overtones.

In Benson's company for some years was Oscar Asche, lyricist of the oriental musical fantasy Chu Chin Chow, which ran in London for many years. Asche, whose real name was John Stanger Heiss, was born in Australia of Scandinavian descent; he liked to describe himself as a rotund striker. On the night of one Eton and Harrow match he wanted all the robbers in Chu Chin Chow to carry miniature cricket bats on to the stage. He detested slow cricket and his invective was once turned against a labouring J. T. Hearne at Lord's: How I would like that fellow to play Desdemona to my Othello, because I should enjoy strangling the life out of his carcass.

Tom Jenkins, The Guardian Botham at Bournemouth: The Pavilion Theatre, not Dean Park.

Any mention of cricket and threatre catches up eventually with the England captain turned actor, C. Aubrey Smith, who before fostering the game in Los Angeles had founded a theatrical cricket club in England called The Thespids. They sported the same colours as the suffragettes - green and white with purple stripe - and were good enough to play a match against London County, captained by the real W. G. They had a number of well-known actors in their ranks, including H. B. Warner, H. H. Ainley, Gerald du Maurier and Basil Foster, one of the seven Foster brothers who played for Worcestershire. In a production of The Dollar Princess at Daly's Theatre, his understudy was another cricketer, Surrey and England fast bowler N. A. Knox. Over the years, The Thespids had several off-shoots and successors, notably The Actors, The Stage and The Concert Artists Association. The CCA XI at various times included David Nixon, Jack Warner, Cyril Fletcher and Jimmy Cutmore, who, when opening the batting for Essex, generally refrained from using his fine baritone voice.

During the 1930s, stage offerings on cricket included R. C. Sheriff's Badgers Green, Herbert Farjeon revues and A Bit of a Test by Ben Travers, which featured Robertson Hare as captain of an MCC side touring Australia. In more recent times the threads between pitch and boards have become even stronger as cricket continues to exercise an ever greater hold on the imagination of dramatists. Perhaps it is because the game contains an element of concealment, an unspoken sub-text, part of what that cricket-loving playwright Harold Pinter meant when he referred to a hidden violence.

This thing here, says writer/hero Henry holding his cricket bat in Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It's for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you've done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly ...

Other contemporary pieces involving cricket either intrinsically or incidentally include Outside Edge, Richard Harris's comedy parading sexual mores in the pavilion, which starred Julia McKenzie and Maureen Lipman in an early cast at the Hampstead Theatre; Underwood's Finest Hour by Terry Jones and Michael Palin, in which Derek Underwood's unlikely six over the Vauxhall stand to win the Test with three minutes remaining cues the birth of a child in a maternity ward; Close of Play by Simon Gray; Alan Ayckbourn's Time and Time Again and some of his Intimate Exchanges- They've started this filthy floodlit cricket with cricketers wearing tin hats and advertisements for contraceptives on their boots. Modern dramatic invention is high on linseed.

A previous generation saw Nobel prize-winning all-rounder Samuel Beckett and batsman Terence Rattigan - Dublin University and Harrow respectively - retire from playing at the height of their promise. Googly-bowling critic Kenneth Tynan, who was much troubled by cartilage strain, had a very good leg glance. Trevor Howard would insist that any work contract should contain a clause allowing time off for Tests. And Peggy Ashcroft, who is supposed to have secreted a small portable radio under her wig in the Stratford run of The Wars of the Roses in order to listen to commentary on the Test match, captained the Lancastrians against the Yorkists, led by Donald Sinden. Her team had Cyril Washbrook as honorary captain and mine had Len Hutton, Sinden recalled. You need to know your history to appreciate why Brewster Mason as the Earl of Warwick was the umpire. Politically the result of the match had to be a draw.

The West Indian philosopher C. L. R. James declared: Cricket is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle. It belongs with the theatre, ballet, opera and the dance. Sir Laurence Olivier once said: I have often thought how much better a life I would have had, what a better man I would have been, how much healthier an existence I would have led, if I had been a cricketer instead of an actor. On the other hand, Ian Botham gave up the chance of a Test match in New Zealand because he was playing the king in Jack and the Beanstalk in Bournemouth. The grass is always greener.

David Rayvern Allen is a BBC radio producer and the author of 20 books on cricket.

© John Wisden & Co