Cricketers – and cricket writers – tend to adhere to Napoleon’s mantra: they like to march on their stomachs. They have always done so, as the tale of George Gunn – a Nottinghamshire batsman for three decades either side of the first world war – demonstrates.
In his day, play usually began at 11.30am with the players withdrawing for lunch at 1.30pm, but occasionally there might be a change to the schedule with the game starting at noon and lunch being taken at 2pm. The story goes that in one of these games Gunn, having taken umbrage that play was still going on, got out deliberately half an hour before the interval; he tucked his bat under his arm and headed towards the pavilion, announcing that “George Gunn lunches at 1.30”. Upon his arrival in the dining room he would not have been greeted by piri piri breaded tofu.
So much for lunch. Tea was always a bit of a scramble for a county side in the field. It was never the leisurely experience we associate with the village green: strawberries and cream as well as an assortment of bake-off treasures, which the umpires would never dream of deserting until everyone was satisfied.
In the professional dressing room priorities were different, especially for the smoker. In the space of a quarter of an hour, it was necessary to consume a cup of tea, a few sandwiches and two cigarettes before the resumption of play. There was not much time for conversation, tactical or otherwise. It was a more leisurely undertaking if your side was batting, although here some regulation was necessary. Too often the two batsmen who had been valiantly fending off the opposition’s fiercest bowlers out in the middle would return to the dressing room to find the sandwich tray empty.
The team dinner was a less rushed affair but it only took place before special occasions. In the 1980s, any newcomer to the England side would be required to sit alongside the chairman of selectors on the eve of a Test match. So before my Test debut, at Headingley in 1982, I sat next to PBH May and the sadness is that I cannot remember anything of our conversation. What an opportunity missed – on my part.
Towards the end of the meal there would be some words from the chairman and the captain, all rather stilted as we were on our best behaviour, and at the end Ian Botham would insist on going to the bar for a pint or two – to ensure that we were properly relaxed before the trials ahead.
Team dinners at Somerset were infrequent but more boisterous; they only happened on the eve of Lord’s finals and they tended to be noisy affairs. There was a determination among the players to enjoy the club’s rare hospitality to the full. The port might be passed, not necessarily in the right direction, and at some point we might attempt some sort of tactical talk before our big match. For about the only time in the season, we would try to analyse our opponents. Once again Botham would be to the fore. “Don’t worry about him. I’ll take care of him,” he might say. Or he would insist that so-and-so should on no account be bounced, advice he contradicted right from the very start of his spell the following day.
Oh so shrewdly, one or two of us might point out how key opposition batsmen “might struggle against Joel [Garner]”. Then the arguments would begin: “He’s a strong leg-side player,” someone would interject with absolute certainty. “No, he’s not: he loves to carve through the covers.” “He likes to cut.” “No, he likes to drive.” It would get increasingly animated, occasionally ill-tempered, and then the captain, Brian Rose, would spread his arms in exasperation and try to terminate proceedings by saying it was time for bed.
It wasn’t very scientific, but somehow over the years it became a relaxing ritual. In fact, before the 1979 Gillette Cup final (when Somerset won a trophy for the first time in their history), Rose decided to accept an invitation for the entire team to go to dinner with the Weston-super-Mare-born John Cleese on the eve of the match. This proved to be a very good idea since it was such an unusual and enjoyable distraction to the trials ahead.
Sometimes a less relaxing ritual is the after-dinner speech that many cricketers find themselves giving. Often the meal can be as taxing as the speech itself. In the little Devon village of Shobrooke up in the hills beyond Crediton, they still recall Viv Richards attending their annual cricket dinner back in the 1980s.
It is hard to fathom how Viv ended up there. It must have taken place during his benefit year since he would hardly have committed himself to such an event otherwise. Viv was always meticulously polite with supporters, but he never really relished mingling with them for long – unlike Joel, who was a pied piper at Taunton with queues forever forming behind him as he wandered around the ground while we were batting. Viv was not so at ease in public and he preferred to keep his distance. He could be shy in the company of strangers and he was not especially adept at small talk. Yet here he was, inside the quaint thatched pavilion at Shobrooke, and, as the guest of honour, he was naturally seated at the top table.
Next to Viv was the octogenarian president of the club, another shy man. He was not a particularly ardent cricket fan but he was the president because he was the local farmer who owned the field upon which Shobrooke’s cricketers gratefully played. All round the pavilion there was the buzz of cheerful conversation as the dinner began – except on the top table.
Viv was sitting there without uttering a word and the old farmer did not seem to have anything to say either. So there was a conversational vacuum, which gradually became more and more uncomfortable. Eventually the old president gave way to the urgency to break the silence and he turned to Viv with a question. In a dialect fashioned in mid-Devon for eight decades, he asked: “Do you play much of this cricket, then?”
Viv’s response has not been recorded but we can surmise that this proved rather a long evening for the greatest batsman of the era.
Edited extract from Late Cuts: Musings on Cricket by Vic Marks, published on 3 June by Allen & Unwin, RRP £16.99