Cricket: Basking in corporate hostility

Why did women ever want to join the most spoilt, selfish and complacent body of men in sport?
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In those far-off days of innocence and optimism, when we thought that England's cricket team had a middling chance if not of winning the World Cup then at least of staying in the competition for longer than Scotland, I went to Lord's to see Alec Stewart's men take on the Sri Lankans.

The venerable ground was packed to the gunwhales, except for the pavilion, which was barely half-full. Seats for which most cricket-lovers would have given their eye-teeth, plus several dog-eared copies of Wisden, remained conspicuously unoccupied for the entire day because members of the MCC had declined to buy tickets. Indeed, so aghast were they at being asked to pay at all, that, amid great wailing and gnashing of dentures, a significant minority have demanded an Extraordinary General Meeting, to be held next month, where they will attempt to keep a steady hold on their pink gins while spluttering their outrage.

With honourable exceptions, including some of my favourite friends and relatives, the MCC is - how shall I put this politely? - an excrescence, an abomination, an anachronism and a disgrace to cricket. God knows why women even wanted to join. For, if this is not the most spoilt, selfish and complacent body of men in sport then I cannot think what is. For little more than the cost of an egg-and-tomato tie, or at any rate for an annual subscription of considerably less than pounds 200 a year, they are entitled to tickets for every day of every Lord's Test match, and for all one-day finals. There are other membership perks too numerous to mention. Yet they recoil when asked to pay pounds 45 to watch the World Cup from the best seats in the house - a 25 per-cent discount, incidentally.

All of which contrasts starkly with the case of a wealthy businessman of my slight acquaintance, whose cricket-mad son pestered him to buy tickets for the South Africa Test at Lord's last summer. The match was already a sell-out, but there was a hospitality suite going spare, so he very resourcefully shelled out tens of thousands of pounds and leased it for three years. On the one hand, therefore, we have the MCC duffers who have a ticket offered to them on a silver platter but decide that even if they can afford pounds 45, "it's the principle of the damn thing, old boy." On the other hand, we have the chap who cannot purchase a ticket until he cheerfully pays the best part of pounds 50,000. Either way, not quite cricket.

Actually, though, corporate hospitality is cricket. Not to mention football, rugby, tennis, golf, racing and, for all I know, cross-country kayak-throwing. I feel ambivalent about corporate hospitality. It provides sport with vast revenue while diminishing it by giving the best vantage points to people who don't know Alan Shearer from Alan Sugar.

A few years ago I went to a tennis tournament at the Albert Hall, where the umpire's calls literally could not be heard above the clashing of cutlery and the popping of corks. And at White Hart Lane I witnessed another troubling dimension of corporate hospitality. As Spurs fans were leaving after defeat to West Ham, a Hammers fan in one of the boxes almost incited a riot by ostentatiously raising a glass of champagne to them. "You bleeping bleeping mother-bleeper," screamed the man next to me, or bleeps to that effect. It was all most unpleasant.

Still, if I am honest, then, my ambivalence boils down to this: there is nothing more irritating than seeing a bunch of bloated fat cats, their unappealing gobs full of Australian Chardonnay and Scotch egg, slobbing around in their centrally-heated boxes while the real fans shiver in the cold and the wet... until I am invited to become one of them. Suddenly, corporate hospitality becomes an absolutely super day out, in the company of witty and erudite conversationalists whose grasp of the offside trap is second to none.

On Saturday, I attended the England v Sweden game courtesy of a very generous fellow, whose company has leased a box at Wembley. I sauntered into the stadium under a sign saying VIPs only. In the box, an extremely attentive waiter filled and re-filled our glasses while we listened to Sky's pundits on the telly. A svelte young blonde popped her head round the door to ask if we fancied a bet. We then helped ourselves to an agreeable buffet of cold meats, pickles and cheeses and, just before kick-off, trooped down to our seats, ideally positioned over the half-way line. At half- time we returned to the box for coffee and an assortment of fresh cream fancies. If it had not been such a crap match, everything would have been perfect.