The lure of Lord's

HQ still has an atmosphere no cricket ground can equal. The idea of it may irritate, but the actuality placates and uplifts, never disappoints

Peter Roebuck

Lord's: A museum, a ghost house, a great cricket ground © Getty Images

Thomas Lord's old cricket ground has an effect upon every cricketing person to set foot in it. Steeped in history, remembering past glories, knowing the giants and the gnomes of the game, distinctive with its slope and Father Time, formerly stuff and now merely a fraction stiff, it has an atmosphere no other cricket arena can equal. To arrive at Lord's on the day of a big match is to feel a rare warmth, a wealth of expectation, a depth of knowledge; it is to see a hundred famous faces and a hundred thousand runs. More democratic souls may sense the embrace of the establishment, but such sentiments tend to be swept aside by the weight of cricketing tradition.

To enter the dressing rooms is to observe their size, simplicity and sense of service. The rooms, with their hairbrushes, attendants and nearby baths and showers, have not changed much over the years, or needed to. Although built long before cricket teams adopted such large retinues, they are ideally suited to them. In every respect Lord's was built on the grand scale, by visionaries confident of their game and their place in the world. Even the small balconies between the rooms and the field have glories of their own, high above the action and yet open to the public gaze. It was here that Sourav Ganguly tore off his shirt and waved it above his head as India celebrated a victory. Here was a blow for the scorned! But Lord's survived. Actually the ground has a secret. It does not take itself quite as seriously as it pretends (which is just as well).

Lunch is taken upstairs, in the pavilion, and requires a walk down corridors lined with photographs and little rooms that house unknown persons with small parts to play in the scheme of things. Players mingle with members as they progress, and the shy can feel intimidated. It is not that members are hostile; quite to the contrary. Mostly they are understanding and discreet. Doubtless they have scored ducks in their time, and know about the imminence of man's fall. Just that the creaking corridors seem to talk of Plum Warner and Lord Hawke and Ranji and CB Fry, and humble country boys tend to feel inhibited.

Everyone has read the books, everyone knows the story. It is the story of cricket, and they yearn for a little part in it. Lord's is a museum, a ghost house and a great cricket ground. By the way, lunch is usually a feast.

Likewise the journey out to bat is itself an experience that can become an ordeal. Of course it is a nervous time anyhow, but Lord's adds to the effect. To leave the security of the rooms is to embark on a trip so daunting that stepping onto the grass comes as a relief. The doors to the dressing rooms are large and located in the corners, so a batsman must walk past opened cricket cases and benches and bowls of fruit and whatnot even to get that far. Meanwhile he can sense the opposition awaiting his arrival, the fieldsmen gathered in the centre, the crowd applauding the fallen and discussing the prospects. Hereabouts a fellow can start to feel inadequate, unworthy of the occasion. Lord's forces players to examine themselves. Who would walk in Bradman's footsteps? At no other ground does the thought arise.

Lord's lives up to expectations. Visitors may be surprised by the slope but never disappointed by the venue. Lord's has an ability to still the tongues of even the more radical amongst us

Upon departing the rooms the batsman walks down some wide steps. Again, it is not a private moment. There is not much privacy at Lord's. In that regard it is not unlike a public school. Instead he passes numerous members going in both directions, talking about this or that, some unaware that a wicket has fallen. The batsman may need to thread his way past some descending at a leisurely pace, in the manner of visitors to an art gallery.

The first staircase has two sections, an arrangement that famously confused David Steele when this stalwart was plucked from county cricket and asked to block the path of the 1975 Australians. Steele kept going down the stairs until they ran out, whereupon he looked around and found himself in the basement. It is not as hard as it sounds because the staircases look the same and the mind is somewhat preoccupied.

Then comes the next ordeal. Still in the middle of a throng of smartly dressed members of various ages, some of them ancient and a few of them young (physically at least), the batsman must enter the fabled Long Room, home of portraits and paintings and bats and other paraphernalia of the past. Upon entering, he may hear a smattering of sympathetic applause for his incoming colleague, and otherwise a hush that is meant respectfully but can come across as confronting. Most likely he will enter the Long Room alone, feeling his isolation. Naturally he will sense that all eyes are upon him, assessing his merits, pondering his place in the pantheon. In some respects it's easier for village cricketers and schoolboys. Nothing much is expected from the villagers, least of all by themselves, whilst schoolboy illusions are not as easily shattered.

It's a long walk through the Long Room, across the uncarpeted floor, between the chairs, trying to think about batting, trying to look composed, and all the while feeling under the spotlight. At last natural light beckons and the player stands at the top of the stone stairs that lead to the small swing gate already held open by the attendant. Now the batsman is exposed to the crowd and the occasion, and the opposition is ready to be swallowed up. The private time of preparation is over and he must face the full glare of the game. He makes his way down, between spectators with their Telegraphs and flasks, hearing encouragements, more sensitive to them than usual. At last he walks through the white picket fence and onto the field, to begin the advance to the middle. And it is quite a journey at Lord's because the straight boundaries are lengthy. Already it's been exhausting and he has not taken guard, let alone faced a ball!

Only now can the batsman truly start to settle his nerves; only now can he apply the habits that attend other innings in the same company. He might accustom his eyes by looking skywards, swing his arms around, practise a few strokes or talk to himself. For some reason partners seldom come across to offer advice at Lord's.

The Long Room in 1984 © The Cricketer International

Everyone, too, seems to be on their best behaviour. It does not seem the place to become embroiled in controversy. Apart from anything else, the world's cameras are watching, or on lesser occasions, one's parents. The Siddles, Hugheses and Haddins will be amongst those sitting proudly in the stands watching the first Test match. It's a good time to score a hundred or take wickets, not much of a time to curse.

Great batsmen have often responded to the unique challenges of Lord's with great innings. World Cup and domestic 60-over finals played at the ground have been decorated by wonderful performances from Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Aravinda de Silva and others. Lesser lights can need time to adjust to the ground's apparent expectations. At first they can feel like county councillors called upon to speak in the House of Lords. Lord's has a way of extracting the truth.

Visiting teams rarely feel any such inhibitions. Rather, and somewhat to England's disadvantage, they are inspired by the surroundings. Australians, especially, play well at Lord's. Indeed they have not lost a Test match at the ground since 1934. Even weaker Australian sides have relished the opportunity. Partly it is a sense that Lord's is England's stronghold. Once taken, the team must totter. Partly it is that the ground represents the Empire, and the new country is eager to prove it can stand alone. Mostly it is the response of players suddenly surrounded by all the things they had heard about whilst growing up on their banana plantations or on vast cattle farms in remote outback places. Plain and simple, Lord's is it, the game's past, its traditions; these blokes want to be part of that. Lacking old buildings and a long story, Australians have always been more respectful towards history and traditions than their image allows. And is what they expect from England.

No less importantly, Lord's lives up to expectations. Visitors may be surprised by the slope but never disappointed by the venue. Lord's has an ability to still the tongues of even the more radical amongst us, including notorious leftists and republicans like your correspondent! The idea of Lord's may irritate, but the actuality placates and often uplifts. And it's not easy, because Lord's tends to be judged by higher standards than elsewhere, and it is run by a private club with its own strict rules.

And so the Australians arrive at Lord's, still a feared opponent but more familiar in these days of Home and Away and exposure in county cricket. No longer are the Australians cast as gum-chewing creatures with grim features from a dry and distant continent. Nowadays they are regarded merely as an especially rugged brand of homo sapiens. The newcomers will be inspired by the location, and though the team must manage without Glenn McGrath, whose tall nip-backers were so superbly suited to the slope, the visitors can be expected to put on a good show. As so often, Lord's will bring out the best in them.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It