Allure of the timeless Test

BEING THERE
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The Independent Online
Picnics, Pimm's, grass and cricket. The Lord's Test is a uniquely British summer occasion. Nick Coleman tucked into it

There is a small ellipse of rich green grass behind the Warner Stand at Lord's. It is about the size of a tennis court and is girdled by a low wall. A path bisects the lawn allowing foot-traffic to approach a tastefully appointed stand at which Pimm's is served by the jug. At 10.25am on a Test match Sunday the green is alive with activity.

Vigorously, yet decorously, members stake out their patch, unfolding, clipping, stacking, spreading, entrenching their picnic gear - their rugs, their hampers, their portable tables - until the green is a quilt of tiny fiefdoms, each one moated with nine inches of grass, rising at each centre to a mighty castellation of the latest in ice-box technology. Having established themselves, the members then go away and watch the cricket. By 11.02am the green is empty of people. Only the ice-boxes and hampers remain, monumental on their rugs. There is an atmosphere of sumptuous desolation. It is as if some boffin has invented a neutron bomb which, on detonation, vaporises MCC members yet leaves their picnic equipment standing.

The cricket on Sunday was not exciting. It was a day of drift and counter- drift, in which the initiative was offered but declined by both sides for fear of disturbing the nervous equilibrium established over a Test match and a half of fretful striving. The image that filled the mind was of two underweight sumo wrestlers lacking the strength to hump one another out of the ring, instead tacitly agreeing to mooch about in the middle and clash bellies for formality's sake. There were side-issues of course - Rahul Dravid's approaching century, for one, Alec Stewart's approaching superannuation, for another - but by and large torpor reigned. In the stands the usual things were going on: people lining up snacks for the first session, testing the rigidity of the seat-backs in front, settling under their hats.

Lord's is beautiful on days like these when the sun plays peekaboo from eleven until the close, dividing the ground into dissolving sections of light and shadow. It is possible on these days to stare without blinking for minutes at a time and see everything happening at once in synchronous fragments. I like to sit near the top of the roofless Edrich Stand, out of the breeze but high enough to include within a single field of vision the action in the middle and all the peripheral stuff, which is essential if you want to do Lord's properly. The peripheral stuff at Lord's is always central stuff. The tone, the order, the meaning of the place is governed by its architecture and the way it disposes of space, which is another way of saying that wherever you are at Lord's you get the feeling that you are being watched.

To the left of the Edrich the high modernist-colonial rigging of the new Mound Stand rises like sculpture above the boxes of the corporately sponsored. Ahead range the Members' Stand, the Pavilion, the press box, the Warner. To the right, you follow the declining curve of the Edrich's twin, the Compton, which rakes down to the four-square emulsioned Grandstand and its all-seeing eye, Father Time, who can, on good days, look benign.

It is a pie chart, Lord's; a diagram of a vision of society expressing not a single indivisible whole but a construction of discreet but interlocking parts, each of which stands as an essential constituent in the self-regard of the others. Some parts you are entitled to enter, others not. At all times you're aware of your place, and of being patronised. Lord's is Victorian democracy realised in bricks, mortar and the abstract principle of enclosure.

I have a feeling I like the top tier of the Edrich Stand because it appears to be neutral in this respect. It is featureless. It has no emblematic status. Underneath, on the lower tier, is the place for getting pissed and shouting. Above and to the left, separated by an eight-foot void and a couple of sets of railing, are the enclosures of those privileged by money, who get drunk and chit-chat. Opposite, across the grass, up the slope, behind a picket fence in the lap of their giant red pavilion, sit the men in orange and yellow ties, the proprietors. They seem to be miles away in several senses, immobilised certainly by distance, possibly by fatigue, disappointment and pink gin. They were all fighter pilots and submarine commanders once. And when they do move, they walk slowly around their cloisters in twos and threes under panama hats looking pained, their eyes travelling ahead reluctantly, freighted with dread.

"Accountable," gloomed one, without looking at his partner as they passed slowly through the Mound Stand ambulatory, mid-morning. "Someone must be accountable..." His partner made a dark sound in his throat but did not reply.

So I like it up there on the Edrich top tier because in my mind it sets me above snobbery (which is, let's face it, in itself an act of snobbery by internal memo rather than by exhibition). Here, you can participate without actually participating. You can watch dads and their sons doing their stuff.

For instance: a middle-class son is restrained by his father from leaping up in the middle of an over to visit the gents. "You know why, don't you?" dad says reprovingly. He is kitted out in the warm-weather togs favoured by middle-aged Englishmen in the pomp of fatherhood: big khaki shorts, socks, sandals, pink polo shirt, a sucked-looking floppy cricket hat - baby clothes in all but size and context. His son wears a baseball cap and a frown. "Yeah. Sorry."

In the row behind, another tussle. The voices are public school, one ex, one current; one past its youth, the other full of it.

"So..." It is the younger voice, filling a pause that has endured since the last pass of the vacuum flask. "So, what were your moments of personal cricketing glory?"

There is a good 10 seconds of silence during which it is impossible not to think of an empty bucket plummeting down the shaft of a deep, dry well.

"Oh, I don't know, really," replies Older Voice, evasively.

"There must have been some?"

"Well..." Older Voice sighs. "Well, I did most of my cricketing for my house at school. Didn't play very often. Hardly at all in fact. I don't think I was a key member of the team."

"But you must have had a moment of glory. A brilliant catch? A big six? You know... a run out?"

"I didn't have any glory at all, I suppose." He sighs again. "Didn't get picked very often. Never seemed to score more than about 20. Don't know why, really..."

"Oh."

There is another pause. Alan Mullally pitches short and the ball balloons off Dravid's head. There is a gentle expulsion of air from the nostrils of Older Voice.

"Um... and you? Your moments of cricketing glory?"

"Well, I haven't scored a century yet..."

A West Indian gent, carrying his MCC's steward's moss green jacket and a bag, settles himself in the seat in front. It is 12.30; half an hour to lunch. He unpacks a huge baguette and begins to work his way through it as Peter Martin chunters in from the Nursery End to Srinath. The steward's ears go up and down as he chews. The Lancashire swing bowler's knees pump as he runs, and as he lengthens his stride before delivery, the steward's ears and the bowler's knees for a moment become synchronised in motion. Then the ball is released, the mouthful swallowed and the overspill of wobbling flesh at the steward's neck retreats back within the rim of his collar. The ball beats the bat. "He's bowlin' well, that boy," says the steward, rotating his head benevolently to address his nearest neighbour, which is me. "Y'know, I like the look of that boy. D'you mind if I smoke?"

He is a charming man. He works the lift to the private boxes in the Mound Stand. This year he has had Mick Jagger and J Paul Getty in. He drinks from two bottles, one containing colourless fluid, the other something pink as geraniums. He tells me an innocuous anecdote about one of his regular customers in the lift, which I would like to recount but dare not for fear that Lord's would visit itself terribly upon its steward. Lord's is a genteel place but one fairly seething with oedipal rage.

It is one o'clock. The players troop off and spectators swarm down staircases, over concourses, into action. In the Compton Bar a weary man pours UHT milk into the black plastic dustbin provided and drops the empty plastic UHT container into his cup of coffee. He curses mildly, shakes his head and walks back out into the sunlight.

Meanwhile, behind the Warner Stand the grassy picnic area is alive again. It is taking on the look of a garden party. Glasses chink and people hitch their legs up underneath their bodies to ride sidesaddle into lunch. And all the ice boxes are exactly where their owners left them, because at Lord's they are safe. Safer here by far than in their own homes.

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