February 2006

Closing time

The days of the post- (and pre-) match drinking session appear to be a thing of the past. Paul Coupar investigates the effects of a less sociable game

The days of the post- (and pre-) match drinking session appear to be a thing of the past. Paul Coupar investigates the effects of a less sociable game

David Gower: smashed on Bundaberg rum at an official reception, he was dragged away, giggling and groaning
It was a matter of hours before England's first match of the 1986-87 Ashes and David Gower's preparations were behind schedule. Smashed on Bundaberg rum at an official reception, he was dragged away, giggling and groaning, stuck under a shower and told that a return to the bar would be a bad idea. "This I knew," recalled Gower, "having by now lost the power of speech."

That was 19 years ago. It feels like 90. According to a TWC survey the bars in county clubs are quieter than at any time since the war, frothing pints fewer and chin-wags with the opposition rarer. "Some teams are instructed not even to say hello to the opposition in the morning," says Surrey's Martin Bicknell. "It's bizarre."

"Something has been lost," sighed Wisden Almanack editor Matthew Engel recently, and three-quarters of the senior figures we contacted agreed. Many of their replies arrived quickly - which suggested we had touched a nerve - and most were doleful: "Very sad"; "Very unhealthy"; "Regrettable". But what is that "something" that was being mourned?

Listening to players of the 1950s and 1960s, county cricket sounds like one big jolly-boys' outing. "They were very, very happy times," remembers Don Wilson of Yorkshire and England, still chuckling over a tale involving Yorkshire winning the 1959 Championship at Hove, a three-gear van on Park Lane, many bottles of champagne and a sympathetic policeman from Sheffield. "Yeah, we always mixed," says Wilson's team-mate Ray Illingworth.

Of course memory sieves out the happier times. No one mentions the moment when a young Geoff Boycott, then teetotal, was grudgingly brought a glass of orange-squash, humiliatingly decorated with fruit on sticks. And Glamorgan's Don Shepherd was once gruffly told by Wilf Wooller, his authoritarian captain, that he'd "never bowl quick on orangeade". Shepherd later turned to spin, and bitter.

Shepherd also admits that players of the 50s and 60s often didn't have much choice but to mix: they went to away grounds together, on a bus or train, so leaving the ground early meant reaching into shallow pockets for a taxi fare. Those who stayed were often wearing the club tie and under the paternalistic eye of club chairmen, checking for signs of serious drinking. Some of the stories, however, were more than a little embellished. "Fred Trueman was portrayed as a great tough, beer-drinking man," recalls Wilson, "but he was one of the worst drinkers the world's ever seen. I mean, two pints and a packet of wine gums and he was smashed out of his mind."

Despite those quibbles, most agree that evenings were jollier before the 1990s. The 12th man would bring his team-mates drinks as they left the field. "It was pints of bitter and lager, not these fancy drinks that put energy into you," says Wilson. The only thing that had changed by 1986, when Bicknell started out, was that the bitters had been replaced by gin & tonics. Well, he did play for Surrey after all. Then it was usually off to the club bar for a couple more pints and a chat, with umpires, opponents and county members.

The amount of time spent together (cricket was six or seven days a week) and the influence of the war generation, who knew the game was exactly that, does seem to have bred a more relaxed camaraderie. Grim evidence of the players' togetherness emerged later, says the historian David Frith, when an unusual number began killing themselves in retirement.

By the 1980s the constraints of poor pay and paternalism had loosened and heavier drinking was possible for those who were so inclined. On England's 1981-82 tour of India Ian Botham scored 122 in a tour match in 55 minutes, including, as Engel recently recalled, a drinks break. "A drinks break was the last thing he needed. He hadn't actually been to bed. And there was very little brandy left in Indore."

Botham may have been a one-off but there were plenty who tried to keep up with him. In our survey we asked people to describe an average county player in the mid-80s, with nought being teetotal and five being "Enjoys a good few drinks every night and regularly drinks heavily". The average score was 4. "The teams used to mix an awful lot," says Northamptonshire's Rob Bailey euphemistically.

So when were last orders called on the post-match pint? Why? And does it matter?

Perhaps players were bound to start taking things more seriously as the influence of the war-generation waned. Keith Miller was fond of saying, in reply to today's players complaining about pressure, that "pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse". Perhaps it was the advent of more knock-your-head-off bowling. "People like Derek Underwood thought it was hypocritical," says Frith. "Lillee and Thomson tried to murder him one minute and wanted him in for a drink and a chat the next."

But several fingers, including those of Bicknell, point to one date: 1989. Slowly in the post-Packer age cricket had become more businesslike and therefore more scientific and ruthless. Then, in 1989, Allan Border's Australia arrived in England, smarting from two Ashes defeats and carrying a nice-guys-come-last mentality. They didn't mix and they thrashed England. Many saw a connection between the two. "People saw that," says Bicknell, then a 20-year-old junior pro, "and they thought `We'll do it like that'."

This had dire consequences for the post-match pint. As the run-off from the storm of 1989 trickled into the county game, bars grew quieter. Three-quarters of replies to our survey said the last 10 years were when change really bit in county cricket.

Beer was bad for you, said the nutritionists now coming into the game, citing studies like one by Professor Ron Maugham which showed an unusual percentage of goals in football were scored in the 90th minute, as dehydrated teams made mistakes. "I would be doing my utmost to reverse that completely," says ECB dietician Jane Griffin about the three-pints-a-night regime.

Australia, some thought, had also shown there was competitive advantage in staying aloof from opponents. James Pyemont, a county player in the mid-1990s, sums it up: "Having a drink with a Test player made them more human. It demystified them a bit." Close contact with opponents could be an advantage. "The way Pietersen played Warne this summer was as a drinking mate rather than as a cricketing god."

Beside the stick, applied by county coaches, dieticians and policemen with breathalysers, there was also a dangling carrot, as rewards for those who reached the top increased.

All of which added up to emptier bars. According to our survey, mixing with the opposition is down on 10 years ago. Drinking is down. Staying after the game is down, and many young players know no different.

Nottinghamshire's Graeme Swann, seen as a bit of a maverick, admits that he still hears the odd report of a big night out and has just returned from a Christmas party with his team-mates that involved a football match against the Glamorgan squad. "But there are no Colin Milburns any more", he says.

Has anything been lost, beyond a few inches from waistlines? Certainly some benefits of the old way can be exaggerated. Many players talk of learning the game in the bar but few can point to specifics.

But the end of the post-match pint is also a symptom of something troubling. "Teams are becoming more introverted," says Bicknell. England have cocooned themselves in Duncan Fletcher's bubble, a band apart. There are more barricades - money, media-managers and lifestyle differences - than ever between player and supporter, certainly more than when an ordinary county member could meet a player in the bar.

There is now a bigger gap for the spectators' imagination to leap if they are to empathise with a player. And that empathy is crucial to sport: all good stories need flesh-and-blood characters that the reader cares about. That is why victory achieved by robots seems unfulfilling; why, despite his string of wins, the remote, inscrutable golfer Nick Faldo was never well-loved; why the flesh-and-blood Andrew Flintoff is. You cannot now meet most players for a chat in a pub. When you cannot imagine doing so, something important will have died.

So is there a way back, short of another war? Maybe. In the past five years, both Surrey's Adam Hollioake and Australia's Darren Lehmann played with inspired fearlessness immediately after suffering personal tragedy. Both said the root of their success was putting cricket back in its place, as a game. Which leads to the thought that there could be competitive advantage in not making cricket your be-all-and-end-all, a point supported by Nasser Hussain. And if that's true, there could yet be a path back to a more sociable game.