Cricket is the most gracious of games. County grounds in the lee of cathedrals, village greens in the perfect setting of trees and a pub, and not far from the parish church: even if the match will not be over in time for evensong, there is more than a hint of Dearly Beloved, a phrase which captures so much of English civilisation.
Cricket is an intellectual game. It baffles Americans. Try explaining that a Test can last for five days and then end in a draw — which may well be the right outcome, morally and aesthetically. Think of Gavaskar’s immortal match in 1979. Any other ending would have been much less satisfying.
Cricket engenders humour. At his best, Cardus is up there with Wodehouse, MacDonald Fraser (in the McAuslan books) and even Waugh. ‘It was as if God had taken a piece of good old Yorkshire clay, moulded it into human form, breathed life into it, and said: “Thy name is Emmott Robinson and tha shalt open t’bowling from Pavilion End.”’ The barmy army can be funny, especially when baiting Australians: ‘If your grandad was a convict, clap your hands.’ But the unceasing cacophony ruins those moments of profoundly eloquent silence, when the bowler begins his run-up to a batsman who has been playing and missing throughout the over — and the entire field is crouching round the wicket like a pack of piranhas.
The barmies also drown out the inspired heckle. Hutton, batting at Headingley, is hit on the box by a delivery from Lindwall (can you be given out ‘balls before wicket’?). Anyway, the poor chap limps in the direction of square leg, massaging the stricken region. Voice from the cheap end: ‘Stop pleasurin’ thyself, ’utton, and get on wi’ match.’
Cricket is the cruellest game, and not only when a fast bowler is unleashing ferocity. Imagine a batsman approaching the end of his career and out of form. The tension of his journey to the wicket is severe enough, but the return leg to the pavilion after being dismissed first ball: little can be more stressful, apart from a condemned man’s walk to the gallows.
Then there is the problem that all sportsmen must have, which also afflicts some former SAS men, as it did Margaret Thatcher in retirement. If you are used to a diet of highest-octane adrenaline, how can the rest of life compensate? The suicide rate in retired cricketers is far too high.
But some have found other outlets. A number of South Africans, including Jacques Kallis, have become wine-makers, as has Ian Botham. His evolution has been fascinating. Starting out as something of a larrikin, he has become one of the game’s elder statesmen and a knight of the realm: a future president of MCC, perhaps? The knighthood was well-earned for his charitable work, but he has also thrown energy, passion and hard thinking into producing wine, in Australia. I tasted some the other day and it is far too good for the convicts.
His Chardonnay 2016 could not be mistaken for a Burgundy. It did not have that blend of butter, hay and honey. But it did offer minerality, fruit and structure. This is a sophisticated wine. The same is true of his Cabernet Sauvignon 2018. To my surprise, this was ready to drink now, but it will also last. That was true too of his Shiraz 2012. Although it is not yet up there with Grange Hermitage, there is length, finesse and subtlety as well as the power one would expect.
Sir Ian was introduced to wine by John Arlott, in the form of Beaujolais nouveau (yet Arlott was said to be a connoisseur). The Botham palate survived and he spent the next 40 years refining it, in between becoming England’s mainstay. Inter alia, he took Gavaskar’s wicket in both innings in 1979. Batting, bowling, fielding, wine: this is a truly great all-rounder.