Thursday 29 March 2012

Objects of Fetish V: Screams From The Balcony

It hardly needs saying that a bat is more than the physical line of defence; it's a symbol, a totem, invested with dreams, subject to the forces of superstition and luck, the single prop for the vulnerable, suggestible psyche of the batsman - and if you've not got one of those you're either Viv Richards or not a batsman.

For much of the history of the game batmakers were behind the curve. The hints were there - WG wrote to Gray Nicolls to congratulate them on one of his blades, a sweet longing evident between the lines - yet the psychology only began to be exploited with the defining bats of the 1970s and early '80s, the Jumbo, the Scoop and SP.

Now though,with the epic re-invention of the object itself - the supercharged, hyper-tooled, bigger, deeper, thicker bats of the new century – the marketing has roared ahead into the areas in which men buy: sex, technology, power. As the bat catalogues come out for the new season, it's evident that the thesaurus has been well-thumbed, the copywriters have been blue-sky thinking. Neville Cardus it ain't...

So for the fourth annual survey of the goods on offer:

First the bats for men whose self-image is that of a velveteened, 40-ish Hugh Hefner, louche occupants of the top order, those who arrive at the ground in middle-age crisis cars - roof down, natch - in short, bats that sound like 1970s hairspray or pub-machine condoms: the TP Willow Rumpus, the Samurai Keibo, the Kookaburra Rogue, the Woodstock Curve Platinum, the Vulcan Apollo, the Chase Lancer, the GM Epic DXM, the Willostix Anaconda, the Matrrixx Gladius, the Black Cat Phantom, the Puma Cobalt, the adidas Libro, the Charlie French Recurve.

This year sees an emergent military theme, willow weapons for weekend warriors who talk loud, work in sales, arrive at the ground in two year old 4x4s that take up three spaces in the car park, who bat six and think of themselves as 'the finisher': the Newbery B52 Bomber, the Kookaburra Recoil, the Instinct Sniper Upper Class, the Hawk X-Bow, the Gray-Nicolls Quantum Warrior, the Hunts County Reflex Reckless, the Boom Boom Blaze, the Bulldog Spirit, the Choice Willow Teutonic, the Instinct AK47, the Newbery Uzi.

Joining them but with a more gothic hue are bats for the kids pushing for that second team place, who get dropped off by their dads and moodily re-read We Need To Talk About Kevin in the pavilion, who want a bat that sounds like an obscure Iron Maiden B-side: the Hell4Leather 666 Monster, the Gray-Nicolls Oblivion Slayer, the Willostix Medusa, the Newbury Mjolnir, the SAF Hades, the Choice Willow Immortal, the Vulcan Fire, the Hunts County Mettle Monster.

For the man who looks upon batting as a higher calling, who sees mysticism in its challenges, who trusts in luck and destiny, who is re-training as a counsellor and arrives in a nine year old Volvo on the back of which one of the lads has written 'clean me': the GM Luna, the Choice Willow Saladin, the Vulcan Zeus, the Surridge Ocre, the SF Saphire, the Solitaire Pink, the SAF Infinity.

There are some epic fails, of course: is there anyone under 50 who'd think that the Puma Bionic represents the cutting edge of bat technology? There is the totally left field: The Piri Piri Tampiqueno Dias Pro (although kudos for fitting it all on the sticker), and there is the frankly unintelligible: the Salix Praestantia, the adidas Pellara. There's also the mistimed marketing moment: it's hard to image the Gray-Nicolls Powerbow LE Strauss walking out the door on present form.

There must be a champion, though, and this year's award goes to a bat with a name that conjours almost perfectly one of the defining moments of the modern game: the SF Stanford. Perfect. Arise, Sir Allan...

Wednesday 14 March 2012

The cricket match in Ever Decreasing Circles

You might remember Ever Decreasing Circles, a British - make that English, because it could only be English - sitcom of the early 1980s, the fading final years of a genre that quite often looked at notions of class and aspiration and then gently took the piss out of them.

Ever Decreasing Circles, like Terry and June, The Good Life, Brush Strokes, Keeping Up Appearances and several others, featured the nascent middle classes, dwellers in the cul-de-sacs of the 70s boom-burbs; commuters, middle managers, golf club members, with their dreams of conservatories and souffles and the company dinner-dance. These pretensions were easily speared, but not often as darkly as they were in Ever Decreasing Circles.

It's contextual, of course: the show is a thing of its time, written by John Esmonde not Chris Morris, but there's a quiet, unacknowledged and deep-running despair to it that in retrospect seems quite daring. Richard Briers plays Martin, a pedantic, obsessive-compulsive valve salesman with a photocopier in his garage and moral code as inflexible as a periodic table. In 2012, he would reside somewhere on the autism spectrum; back then he was just funny, and not unrepresentative. Most people knew someone like him.

His neighbours were Howard and Hilda, a couple that seem weirder now than they ever did then, a middle-aged, guileless pair who wore matching jumpers and thought the same thoughts at the same time. In 2012 they would have been hounded to death by Jeremy Kyle kids or under the care of social services. The jeopardy came from Paul, a new arrival in the close who was handsome, urbane, funny, good at everything, and - most shockingly of all - the owner of a successful hair salon. Martin loathed Paul of course, not just for who he was, but for what he represented. There was a darker subtext, too. Martin's wife obviously fancied Paul, to which Martin was oblivious (thus making any hint of betrayal all the more devastating).

Ennui, boredom, acceptance, resentment, disillusionment, loyalty - it was all there, just alluded to rather than highlighted. The other day I stumbled on an episode on Youtube (parts 1, 2 and 3). It's a about a cricket match. The set-up is classic; like all sitcoms, it telegraphs its ending while allowing it to be savoured. Martin is the team's skipper. He has run the side for 14 years, dreaming of promotion to a division where they could play a club that has 'under floor heating in the dressing rooms' (another impossibly glamorous idyll of the 1970s). He is also the fixtures secretary and the man responsible for looking after the kit, which he has just whitened and varnished.

He's desperate to stop Paul playing, of course, because he knows he'll be better than everyone else. The rest of the team all want him in, even if it means they can't play themselves. There is a tremendous little scene around this in Martin's garage, where Paul arrives to confirm his availability (he's told he'll still have to fill in and return the postcard that Martin will send to him); Here Martin recalls Denis Compton, ('I always get emotional when I think of him'), and Compton's captain at Middlesex, FG Mann, 'Not so great a player by many a long chalk,' Martin says, 'but nevertheless his captain. 'Never ever did you see Denis question FG, slight FG or demean FG.'

'What are you trying to say?' Paul asks, disingenuously.

'I'm not trying to say anything,' says Martin. 'I am saying it'.

It's kind of funny, but kind of awkward too. It has heart, and it has another twist for the '80s cricket fan in that the actor playing Paul is a dead ringer for Phil Edmonds, that most haughty of Middlesex players.

The story runs its inevitable course: Paul isn't playing until a bloke called Curly (he's bald of course, as all people in sitcoms called Curly are) is injured in the warm-up. The opposition bat first and rack up 200, partly because Martin won't bowl Paul. In reply, they're 46-7 when Martin is out in ridiculous circumstances, leaving Paul to bat with Howard, a man who, it's revealed, proposed to his wife while stoned on endorphins after making his highest ever score of 11. Paul gets the runs.

There's a sting, though, in the last scene. Martin is in the dressing room with his wife, avoiding the jollity of the bar, where Paul is holding court. The opposition skipper comes in and announces he won't be accepting Martin's offer of a jug for his lads. 'That bloke who got the runs played for Cambridge University. If you want to win that much, we won't be drinking with you'.

It could have ended there, with Martin proved right. Instead, his wife suggests they go into the bar, where Martin always plays the piano and everyone has a sing-song. Just as they go to open the door, the piano starts up. Martin's wife looks through. 'Yes,' she says, 'it is him...'

It's equivocal and bittersweet, and for the time, brilliantly done. The cricket match is equally well observed: it rings with scenes and characters familiar to any club player - bored wives on the boundary, no spikes in the pavilion, the crooked, unchallengable away umpire; even those distant and long-gone tropes the home-knitted jumper and the club kit bag. I'd say John Esmonde was a fan: alongside the Compton/Mann scene, Paul walks into bat with a Jumbo, which in the early 80s was the bat du jour. Martin makes do with a Fearnley.

The 'action' is badly filmed, another faded tradition. Cricket would appear quite often in shows like this, because it represented something, and how the characters reacted to it said something about them. No-one's used the game in this way for a long time, and it would take a good writer to make it work in these more atomised days. Writers now might be more savage, funnier, but they don't often have such lightness of touch.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

A meeting with the King

'When he went to the ring, he was often smiling. He knew that when the heavyweight champion of the world defended his title, it was a solemn moment, but he found it hard to forget how strong he was.'

Good that, isn't it... AJ Liebling wrote it about Rocky Marciano, but it might just as well be about Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards walking out to bat. He was usually chewing gum instead of smiling - although the flash of teeth from underneath that Roman nose sometimes gave the impression of one - and his journey to the wicket was inordinately slow for the entrance of a gladiator.

'Hurry up,' someone in the Yorkshire crowd once heckled. 'That's why,' Richards said, 'when you look at records and things, and you see the record of Vivian Richards against Yorkshire, I could be high up where averages and runs are concerned'.

I met him last year. It was on a flat, cold morning at the University of Surrey, and he'd come straight from the airport to a reception to promote the Antiguan Olympic team's use of the facilities there come 2012. The room was full of journalists and local radio and TV people, and I heard him before I saw him. He was talking to a young and beautiful radio reporter standing somewhere towards the side of the bar. 'My full name,' he was telling her slowly, 'is Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards... It's a very long name, isn't it...' He left an arch pause before breaking into that unmistakable, high laugh.

He was 58 then, almost 59, but aside from the smallest fleck of grey in his goatee, he looked the same as he had when he retired from cricket in 1991, head shaved, face unlined, eyes bright and dark, stomach washboard flat and shoulders and waist still ascribing the perfect 'V' of a middleweight boxer. He'd famously never been inside a gym, but those boxing references just kept on coming. Some who knew him well called him 'Smokey' after Smokin' Joe, with whom he'd shared such indomitable spirit. To everyone else though, he remained simply King Viv, destroyer of bowlers, avatar of modern batsmanship. Even the knighthood, which he shrugged off ['Hi man, hi... call me Viv'] didn't seem quite enough. King Viv it was, and is.

I'd known for a while that I might be able to speak to him, and I knew exactly what I was not going to say: that the first three times I saw him bat, he made 291 at the Oval, 138 not out at Lord's in the World Cup Final and 118 in a Benson and Hedges final for Somerset a couple of years later - 'You see, Viv', I was definitely not going to tell him, 'you were getting worse every time...'

We sat down at a small table overlooking some plastic hockey pitches. He was drinking orange juice. 'You know Viv,' I heard myself saying in a voice that seemed to come from a distant, empty room, 'the first three times I saw you bat...' He listened patiently. '...So you see,' went the voice that was apparently mine, 'you were getting worse every time...'

He looked at me for a second, glanced down at his juice... and then smiled. It felt a bit like like I imagine getting off the mark in your first Test innings feels. We had some common ground - not a sentence you can utter every day - in that we'd both been to Alf Gover's cricket school in Wandsworth; he reminisced about the eggy smell of the old gas lamps that lit the place and the penetrating winter cold that took until lunchtime to lift, and remembered lovely, Patrician Alf and his famous 'one to drive...'

What he recalled most about that 291 at the Oval was also something sensory: how hot and brown the pitch was; how un-English. We spoke for about 15 minutes, I suppose, and he said something I'll never forget, a phrase that serves as an epitaph for his epic career: 'You see,' he said, 'with the bat, I was a soldier...'

That's good enough for Liebling, good enough for anyone. 'With the bat, I was a soldier'. He was, and more. Happy birthday King Viv.