Episode 29: Jill Rutter on watching cricket with Prime Ministers and others

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller have launched a new podcast to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They chat regularly about cricket topics – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Jill Rutter had many high-profile roles in British public service, including Director of Communications at the Treasury and a spell in the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit. She is now a Visiting Professor at King’s College, London and a senior Fellow at the Institute For Government (which has the uphill task of promoting better government.) She has been a regular and trenchant commentator on Brexit issues and the machinery of government (especially when this breaks down). But most important, she is a lifelong cricket lover, which is why she is the latest guest on the regular podcast by Peter Oborne and Richard Heller. Peter still being away on assignment, Roger Alton again takes the new ball in his place.


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Jill talks about her early life in Birkenhead, where she developed her obsession with cricket although top-class cricket matches with Lancashire were not easy to access, being overwhelmingly concentrated on Manchester. She remembers walking with her father through fields to bucolic club matches, and occasional excursions to the festive one-day matches with the Rothman International Cavaliers, with stars such as Rohan Kanhai. She describes her feelings of isolation as a girl watching cricket matches and the lack of encouragement for her and other girls to play the game, although at school she was coached by the then England women’s wicketkeeper, Sheila Plant.

Her first Test match (England v Australia Old Trafford 1968) was a dull drawn affair. Alan Knott gave her his autograph, Geoff Boycott refused and rebuked Knott for giving his. (Her father mistook Alan Knott for a schoolboy.)

County cricket became much more accessible when her family moved south and she became a member of Surrey CCC. Apart from the Oval she went to many outgrounds, and regrets that they have fallen out of use.

Jill vividly describes the qualities that made her fall in love with cricket at an early age: the sheer beauty of great batsmen, the excitement of fast bowlers (but not when used for sheer intimidation), and the mix of players of all shapes and sizes. Above all, the constant drama and the potential for any individual player to change the course of a game, sometimes (like Jack Leach at Headingley last year) using their non-chosen and unrated skill.

She enjoys all formats – and will go to the 100 if it gets going. Lockdown has made her an addict of the IPL. She especially likes Womens T20, and all international matches with fans from the Asian diaspora, which both have a completely different atmosphere for woman and children as spectators. She calls for an end to the alcoholic culture of men at nighttime T20 matches.

Jill joined HM Treasury in 1978 and she tells how she very quickly discovered its strong cricket culture, although after Botham’s epic at Headlingly 1981 senior penny-pinchers stopped her and her colleagues from using official phones to check the Test match score. She was lucky to be posted to the private office of another Surrey CCC fan – John Major, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury. She took him to the Oval to watch Graham Hick, whom he had never seen before. She and other favoured officials were invited to watch cricket passages on his ministerial television.

She describes senior official colleagues who played for the celebrated Mandarins cricket club (colours mandarin orange and civil service grey). The most eminent was Robin Butler, who became Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service: unsurprisingly he was a very correct batsman. She formed an enduring bond with cricketlovers in the civil service and still watches matches with them, both here and in Australia. She loves the atmosphere at Australian grounds – if she is not too close to the Barmy Army. She discusses the prospects for England’s next Ashes visit.

From her lifetime of watching cricket in different places, she offers prescriptions for cricket to restore its audience after Covid. They include lower ticket prices, restoring the ability to go to matches on the spur of the moment, and better public explanation to live spectators of incomprehensible events on the pitch (such as the conclusion of last year’s World Cup). And accelerated membership for women in the MCC.

Peter Oborne, Richard Heller & Roger Alton

Roger Alton, guest host for this episode, was formerly editor of The Observer and The Independent, and is currently the Sports Columnist for The Spectator. He has been a cricket enthusiast since watching it at the Oxford University Parks in the 1950s and took part in the legendary Wounded Tiger tour of Pakistan.

Peter Oborne, the regular host, has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.