London on Saturday stages a precise convergence of the sporting seasons. At the Oval England’s cricketers play the decider of their compelling and all too short Test series against India, and upriver at Twickenham England’s rugby men have a penultimate dress-rehearsal for their imminent World Cup defence in just a month. But it is the restart of Premiership football and its overflowing baggage of baloney, avarice and artful dodging which will be given pole position by its enamoured obsessives in broadcasting and the public prints. Take a deep breath, it’s a long, long way from August till May. It is curtain-up in the capital at Arsenal’s Emirates stadium, at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge and — to my mind the most implausibly intriguing Act 1 Scene 1 of the new season — at Upton Park where West Ham (as they used to say) entertain Sven Goran Eriksson’s Thai-owned Manchester City.
I fancy Arsenal could well profit without its preening French monarch Henry who, after threatening annually, has finally cashed in his pension chips at Barcelona. Last winter, Arsenal’s sulky talisman had such a petulantly regal strut about him that the highly promising young runners around him were forever on too awestruck and fretful tiptoe. Chelsea make their debut today without their new £135,000-a-week man, Terry, an appealing enough bulldog of a centre-half all right, and one who employs, obviously, an even more appealing rottweiler of an agent. Down in old dockland, West Ham are thankful enough to be in the Premiership at all — last season’s dodgy dealings should have had them whistled down a division at a stroke — but their patch is a humorously apt enough stage for the return to London of the dreaded, suited Swede, that almost surreal figure, the sexpot Sven. How tartly will the terrace wags welcome his weekly winter progress around the land, I wonder?
I’m for the Oval. Cricket could have taught soccer something — as both codes of rugby routinely do — had England’s cricketers been first to cut out their tiresomely puerile ‘sledging’. Some hope: it’s ingrained in almost all the flannelled dolts these days. Deplorably, the habit is encouraged by their bosses, who readily admit selecting players (like England’s two most recent and not-very-good skinhead wicketkeepers) primarily because they are voluble ‘sledgers’. A relieving joy of the first two Tests was the bowling of both sides, especially the left-arm swingers and swervers. Riveting stuff. Hooray as well for England’s new beanpole right-armer Tremlett: he doesn’t need to ‘sledge’, he just narrows his eyes, mean and nasty like a silent-movie villain.
In his first Test at Lord’s a couple of weeks ago, Tremlett made ‘a pair’ — an inauspicious nought in each innings. His late grandfather, handsome, hale-faced strapping Maurice was, in contrast, a bonny smiler of a ciderman and one of my west-country favourites of boyhood. Maurice bowled fast for Somerset and batted boomingly (16,000 and 16 centuries) but in his three Test matches 60 years ago, although he never actually bagged ‘a pair’ he troubled the scorers only to the extent of 0, 0, 18, 0, and 2. While checking those scores I came across the precise centenary this very summer of, apparently, the worst run by a batsman in all county cricket history when, over 14 consecutive innings in 1907, Yorkshire pro, Deyes, made 0, 0, 0, 1, 1, 0, 0, 0, 0, 1 not out, 0, 0, 0, and 0. I daresay he heard the occasional ‘sledge’.