As I write this, near the end of June 2013, it’s almost three and a half years since my dad died. Which at my age – 47 – feels like no time at all. So he’s rarely far from my thoughts. His absence is especially apparent to me on the eve of an Ashes test match cricket series. My dad loved cricket, which isn’t as unusual for a Scot as some people might imagine. He grew up in the north-east of the country, where he played the game thanks to the dryer climate on that side of the Grampian mountains allowing pitches to be maintained to a reasonable standard. I remember seeing his Northern Counties cap and sweater in a chest of drawers at our house, and he would take me for net sessions at the high school where he taught, bowling his leg breaks and telling me how the googly was also known at the ‘Bosie’, after its inventor B.J.T. Bosanquet, the father of celebrated ITN newsreader Reginald Bosanquet. There’s no doubt I inherited my dad’s love of arcane detail, the abundance of which makes cricket such a great game.
In the summer of 1975, on our annual family holiday to stay with my aunt in London, dad took me to my first cricket match: England v Australia at Lord’s. Not a bad way to start. In those days, you didn’t have to shell out a small fortune six months in advance to get a ticket, and after queuing for an hour we were sat in the cheap bench seats underneath the Edrich Stand at the Nursery End. What an amazing spectacle. It was the first day of the second test. Australia had already pummelled England in the first match, which proved the last for England’s captain Mike Denness. Having been tormented along with most of the other England batsmen by the Australian fast bowlers Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson during the previous winter’s tour Down Under, the decent but luckless Denness was given one final chance to redeem himself. He failed to get beyond double figures in both innings and got dropped.
I was intrigued by the fact that Denness was a Scotsman captaining England; that sort of thing didn’t happen in football, and I’m sure the anomaly helped shape my ambivalent attitude towards national identity. I liked how cricket functions as a succession of individual contests played out in a team context, thereby allowing for shifting allegiances. The Australian bowlers seemed pretty attractive characters to me: wilder than their English counterparts, with open shirts and long hair they had rock star appeal. I especially enjoyed watching Thomson, with his odd slingshot action and his hate-hate relationship with the English crowd. On the other hand, I could also identify with England’s newest underdog hero, David Steele, a prematurely grey-haired 33 year-old from Northamptonshire who looked like the quintessential Man at C&A yet swatted away Lillee and Thomson as if battling a troublesome wasp with his daily newspaper. Steele scored 50 and was then bowled by Thomson: in that moment I felt the wonder of a sport which allowed the spectator so many ambiguous perspectives and conflicting emotions.
My other main memory from that day is of my dad subsequently complaining of an upset stomach, which he blamed on the Australian beer he had bought from the Lord’s bar. Dad would typically dismiss any deviations from the middle of the culinary bat as “filthy foreign muck”. This attitude made his choice of beverage that afternoon (I’m sure he waited until at least 12.01 before deciding he’d better “go now and beat the rush”) uncharacteristically reckless. I can’t recall exactly what type of beer it was – we were several years before Fosters and Castlemaine invaded the UK – but I want to say the can was green and possibly featured a map of Australia.
They must have been lobbing it out at a very competitive price; there’s no other way to explain him selecting this instead of the dependable English ales that would have been on offer. If only he’d followed the signs and taken Courage. He usually did.
Dad and I went to many cricket matches after that. We saw the mighty 1976 West Indies team at Lord’s, albeit in a warm-up match against Middlesex. Because they played at Lord’s, which wasn’t so far from my aunt’s basement flat in Hampstead, dad would go on to take me to see Middlesex play whenever we were in London. During the late ’70s and early ’80s, Middlesex had a great cricket team, full of contrasting characters: the cerebral captain Mike Brearley, potty-mouthed spinner John Emburey, the always disgruntled but tireless seamer Mike Selvey, dashing Graham Barlow, gritty Clive Radley, and most thrillingly the great West Indian fast bowler Wayne Daniel. Dad was so enamoured of them all that he soon became a club member. This allowed him the opportunity to watch matches from the pavilion, where he rubbed shoulders with the great, the good, and Roy Hattersley. He even once claimed to have enjoyed a conversation at the bar with Harold Pinter, albeit a brief one.
Dad: “Excuse me.”
Pinter: (pause) “…”
Many years later, dad signed me up for Middlesex membership too, though with a heavy heart I recently let it lapse: being a dad myself now means I don’t get the chance to go often enough to justify the expense. I miss it. I never saw Harold Pinter, but on the rare occasion whenever I do go back I swear I can still hear dad applauding a slightly fortuitous edge to third man, or wondering whether the pitch is “doing a bit for the seamers”, or declaring apropos of nothing that “Brearley was worth his place in the team for his captaincy alone.” Which, of course, he was.
Once the Ashes series gets underway I intend to park myself by the radio for a couple of hours, fire up Aggers, Blowers, Tuffers and the rest on Test Match Special, and raise a mug of foaming ale to the old man. Maybe a Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, or Thornbridge IPA, or possibly Harviestoun’s Bitter & Twisted. The best that England and Scotland have to offer. None of that filthy foreign muck.
Keith Cameron is a journalist and author who was born in Inverness and now lives in London. His book, Mudhoney: The Sound And The Fury From Seattle, is published by Omnibus Press on September 2.