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The Long Room

A snooze, a smoke, a roar

The Test match-watching experience has changed over the years - the players' faces are obscured, the grounds are more coldly impersonal - but the buzz of a big game remains

David Frith
An expectant crowd settle in to watch the action at Lord's, England v South Africa, 1st Test, Lord's, 1st day, July 10, 2008

The Lord's view: orderly, peaceful enjoyment  •  Getty Images

Unless you're unfortunate enough to enter a Test cricket ground during one of the more noisy and unruly patches of play, there are similarities to entering a temple of worship.
The crazy world outside can persist in its frenzy. We have entered a very special zone, where all that concerns us - apart from any expressions of partisanship - is the rhythm of the cricket, the artistry of the players (interrupted only by their occasional silly errors), and not least, the pleasure of conversation with friends and strangers alike.
It is not quite as personal and intimate as it used to be. Many decades ago, when I began watching Test cricket, batsmen and fielders wore caps or sun hats or nothing at all on their heads, and you could see clearly who they were. Their shirts and flannels were untouched by advertisements. They seemed almost like us rather than warriors concealed behind sponsored armour.
But you get used to most things, and while I cherish colourful remembered images of Keith Miller, Neil Harvey and Ray Lindwall from the 1950s, I've relished the arrival of fresh generations of new faces, some of whom have risen to legendary status. Hutton, Compton, Laker, Trueman, Weekes and Worrell have been followed by Pollock, Sobers, Benaud, Davidson and O'Neill, and the stars of the 1970s, a decade that gave rise to helmets and the lamentable concealment of personality.
From then onwards you had to rely on body shape and movement, with the scoreboard sometimes helping identification. With the Packer revolution in the late 1970s, cricket was turned into a more coarse and grossly commercial pursuit. What I'm saying, I suppose, is that crucial and precious elements of the game died for me when batsmen began to conceal themselves.
Devout cricket lovers will never be driven away. I have watched Test matches around the world, and hundreds more on television, and been gripped hour after countless hour. There was never a danger that I'd walk away from the game that first bit me when I was still in short trousers. I will confess, though, that I have a quiet snigger when I try to picture the head of WG Grace or Jack Hobbs concealed in a helmet. With Don Bradman it's different. He told me he'd have worn one, at least during the 1932-33 Bodyline series, had they been in vogue then. He was a very practical man.
The Melbourne Cricket Ground, for all its careful acknowledgement of history it has simply become too large. From the top of the Great Southern Stand, the players are mere dots. All intimacy has gone
So much for the people out in the middle who are paid to entertain us as they fight for their countries' honour and for their own careers in their globetrotting. What about the venues, the stadiums large and small, that stage the matches? Here again sentiment plays a part.
One sound reason for going to the cricket is to meet old friends and make new ones. Who doesn't retain a special place in his heart for the ground where he was inducted into this strange ritual called Test cricket? For me the elegant Sydney Cricket Ground (before its sweeping concrete developments) was a paradise. It remained little altered during the 20th century, and the barracking used to be genuinely funny. "Tie ya bat to ya leg, Parfitt!" bellowed one chap from the Hill as the England left-hander padded Benaud away over after over. "Yeah, Dexter, what about the Common Market!" was a topical, political and puzzling shout during the 1962-63 Ashes tour.
But whatever noise was generated at the SCG was nothing when compared to the roar at Eden Gardens, Calcutta during the 1987 World Cup final. And that was for a match that didn't even feature India. Same went for the Madras ground two years earlier when Fowler and Gatting made double-centuries and the latter gave the local cricket lovers their first glimpse of the reverse sweep. I shall never forget the gasps of amazement flowing across the seating in the stands.
During a big match you hope that followers from both sides will fraternise and go home happier for the experience. It has warmed my heart to see English and Australian fans share a joke and a beer during and after serious matches. How often should we remind ourselves that it's only a game? That may sound naïve, and I'll admit to having been caught up myself sometimes in national fervour. However, I must plead that it's always the other bloke who starts it.
I've had particular problems with the West Indies bouncer bowlers of the 1980s, and Michael Holding is not happy about it, resenting the lack of appreciation. The five or six short-pitched balls each over, the absence of slow bowling, and the plight of batsmen who could only duck or play off the back foot wrecked much of my viewing for 15 years. The crowd noise was deafening in the Caribbean grounds and in England too, where West Indian fans filled the terraces. I'd been delighted by the West Indians of the Worrell and Sobers eras, but this ceaseless bouncer barrage, with 40 batsmen consigned to hospital between 1976 and 1990, was anathema. Fortunately it ended, and I began to look forward again to going to the cricket.
Lord's is spotless almost to a clinical degree and sometimes feels rather starchy, though there is a welcome sense of peace and orderliness. The Oval used to be attractively shabby, unpretentious, and an enjoyable place to relax. Now it's heavy with flak-jacketed stewards whose brief seems to be to spoil one's day. Give me friendly old Trent Bridge any time: rosy-cheeked and pipe-smoking (the men), a welcoming arena that has been developed tastefully, with the spirits of Larwood and Voce available to those with imagination.
It was all the more surprising to find that another elegant ground, Adelaide Oval, has thrown preservation to the wind under the influence of local football finances, although at least the evocative old scoreboard is protected by a preservation order. As for the Melbourne Cricket Ground, venue of cricket's all-time greatest gathering, for the 1977 Centenary Test, for all its careful acknowledgement of history it has simply become too large. From the top of the Great Southern Stand, the players are mere dots. All intimacy has gone.
But nowhere has the cricket-watching experience changed more than at Brisbane's Gabba ground. I remember it for its ramshackle stands and barbed-wire enclosures, with glorious red poinciana and pale-blue jacaranda trees. Today it is a giant concrete bowl. They could at least somehow have left one of the trees on view. As for the traditional Queensland friendliness, last year I moved into an almost deserted stand to chat to a friend but was told by a grossly overweight uniformed steward that I couldn't sit there. Move on.
All of which persuades a man that the best cricket-watching now might well be at the scenic grounds such as Arundel in Sussex or Cheltenham College in Gloucestershire. Deck chair, a smouldering pipe, perhaps a brief snooze. That's fine for a while. And yet I think I'd soon be yearning again for the big buzz of a Test match, albeit with its faceless gladiators.

David Frith is an author, historian, and founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly