Episode 97: Can serious cricket survive pornography asks Simon Heffer

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Simon Heffer has had a distinguished career as a journalist, historian, academic and man of letters, above all as a cricket-lover who contributes a monthly column on the game to the Daily Telegraph. He is the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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They begin with a tribute to the late Queen, tracing her visits over more than sixty years to matches at Lord’s and other grounds and her meetings with international teams. She was not a devotee of the game (although there are touching images of her watching Prince Philip play it) but Simon suggests that she recognized the power of cricket as a common bond for her Commonwealth family of nations. Of current Test-playing countries she never saw Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Ireland in a Test at Lord’s (Afghanistan have yet to play one). Simon cites her epochal visit to Ireland in 2011 and suggests that King Charles might add to its success by visiting the Ireland Test at Lord’s next year.

Many players have cited their presentation to the Queen as a highlight of their careers. One was Dennis Lillee, who had the temerity to pull out his autograph book at the Centenary Test in Melbourne and ask for her signature. He was rebuffed at the time but the Queen arranged for him to receive a signed photograph of their meeting afterwards. A leading Pakistan batsman, Saeed Ahmed, claimed to have had a private encounter with her at Lord’s on their 1967 tour – in which she issued him a remarkable personal invitation. If he had accepted in his post-cricket career, when he became intensely religious, she might have had difficulty recognizing the dashing batsman and dapper man-about-town she met in 1967.

Turning to the current cricket scene, Simon is scathing about the Hundred, which he does not regard as cricket at all, mocks the ECB’s commercial ambitions in introducing it and predicts its collapse in six years or fewer. He has no faith in the Strauss blueprint for English cricket, envisaging a further reduction in the County Championship and suggests that it simply has no understanding of the highest standards of the game in the form of red-ball cricket and the ways in which it inspires its players and devotees. He believes that the ECB is still in a “Gerald Ratner” phase (after the jewellery maker who memorably trashed his best products). For five years in his columns he has castigated the ECB for citing Test cricket, rightly, as the pinnacle of the game but destroying the first-class cricket which is its nursery.

He acknowledges the appeal of white-ball cricket, especially T20, but instead of surrendering to it and destroying first-class cricket he urges the cricket authorities to set up a system of separate co-existence for the two forms which would enable white-ball revenues to continue to support the first-class game.

He makes a telling comparison with publishers, who sustain their lists of serious academic works from the revenues of pornographic novels and other popular works. He suggests that the ECB has lost interest in its “serious list” and is seeking salvation only in promoting “pornographic” forms of cricket. Since the 1960s the cricket authorities have never attempted to promote first-class cricket and has pursued ever-shorter forms of the game. The first of these, the former Gillette Cup, was an innovation that preserved high-quality cricket (such as Geoffrey Boycott’s century in the 1965 Final which he had witnessed). But the culmination – the Hundred – had lost all connexion with the game. The ECB, he suggests, now regard the public as morons with a tiny attention span – a mistake which good newspapers never make about their readers.

The ECB’s failure to promote first-class cricket was all the more fatal given the migration of Test cricket from free-to-air television.

Simon suggests that critical analysis of the Hundred and its impact has been muted by journalists and administrators who are under contract to its promoters, the ECB, Sky and the BBC. As a member, he suggests that the MCC has abandoned its guardianship of standards in the game through its dependency on the ECB to allocate two Test matches to Lord’s each season.

He castigates the MCC’s decision to drop the Eton versus Harrow match from its calendar and its manner of reaching it. Arguments about elitism were irrelevant: the fixture at Lord’s  had a continuous history of over 200 years and should have been defended by the MCC as a body claiming to preserve England’s cricketing heritage.

He cites a very entertaining passage in his edition of the Chips Channon diaries when Chips visits Eton-Harrow match of 1927. The American-born socialite never took to the game and his visit seems to have induced a mood of existential despair. The newly published edition traces his long relationship with Terence Rattigan (who opened the batting for Harrow at Lord’s two years later): he never understood Rattigan’s devotion to cricket. Another American who famously failed to take to cricket at Lord’s was  Groucho Marx.

Simon deplores attempts to impose “woke” attitudes and behaviours in cricket. While condemning any display of racism in cricket and calling for its strict punishment, he believes that all team sports excite sharp clashes and sharp personal comments on performance. They were part of human nature.

Simon describes his youthful support of Essex and the joys of watching the county at its many out-grounds. His present relationship with the county is more restricted. He presents his own blueprint for the county cricket season, including restored visits by touring teams.

In 1990 Simon published The Daily Telegraph Century Of County Cricket. Might he produce another cricket book? His present commitments would make it very difficult. But he does plan a book on British culture from 1939 to 1951, in which the Golden Summer of Compton and Edrich will be a major part.

Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne 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.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

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.

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