Saturday at Lord's, once a carnival now a crypt of codgers

Test at the home of cricket against West Indies brings back memories of fun and games on both sides of the boundary rope but the picture is very different these days
  • @vinerbrian

There is something special about the Saturday of a Lord's Test match, something so tangibly English that it would serve no less than the Henley Regatta or Royal Ascot as an illustration to a passing extraterrestrial of what a curious breed we are.

What unfolds in the actual arena, of course, is in some ways incidental. As at Henley and Ascot it is the spectators who make it a spectacle, especially those portly coves of the Marylebone Cricket Club who, unlike the rest of us, don't see a Saturday as a day not to wear a tie, but unwittingly hint at the enduring kernel of truth in Jak's wonderfully mischievous cartoon, now in the Lord's museum, in which a bunch of elderly MCC stalwarts, stark naked except for their egg-and-tomato neckwear, stand in the Long Room looking daggers at a fellow who has just come in respectably clad but wearing an open-necked shirt. The caption needs only a single exclamatory word: "TIE!!!" Did I call it the enduring kernel of truth? Make it the lieutenant colonel.

They are there every day of a Test match, those old codgers with eyebrows like unclipped hedges, and younger, trainee codgers in marginally less battered Panama hats, but they are at their most floridly conspicuous, and conspicuously florid, on Saturdays. Moreover, they seem to belong so integrally to Lord's that one wonders if, like the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts, they creak up from the very turf at the start of Test matches, then crumple back into the ground at stumps.

But for all their proprietorial notions about Lord's, the venerable ground has always been a palace of the people, and what a Test match Saturday lacks that a Thursday and Friday offer is the dozens of grubby-kneed Just Williams on their school trips, watching just enough of the cricket to kindle impromptu games behind the Compton Stand, with plastic bats and balls, and wheelie-bins as wickets.

Even for the grown-ups, watching the cricket is strictly optional, a filler between the chatting, the quaffing, the ambling, the scoffing. I once had the faintly disagreeable experience of attending a tennis tournament at the Royal Albert Hall, where the thwock-thwack of serve and volley was all but drowned out by the clash-clink of corporate cutlery and crockery. Yet at Lord's, it somehow doesn't seem to matter that the golden rule of sport, keeping the eye on the ball, is flouted by practically everyone beyond the boundary. I would doubt whether, at any one time, more than 50 per cent of the paying customers are following the cricket.

This partly depends on the opposition, however. On Thursday afternoon, as the big-hearted but modestly-talented Darren Sammy tried to impose himself on England's bowling attack, the scoreboards flashed up a message: "The Aussies Are Coming 2013". Well, if even the England and Wales Cricket Board are preoccupied by an Ashes series more than 12 months away, what chance the here and now? Meanwhile, the disturbing dearth of West Indian supporters – walking around the ground during the first-day tea interval, I counted only three, one of whom was a steward – is an even more potent symbol of the Caribbean's cricketing decline. It would be stretching a point to say that Lord's during a Test match against the West Indies in the 1980s was like Trinidad during Carnival, or even like The Oval, but there was at least a flavour of jerk chicken to proceedings. Maybe it will be livelier today.

As for those Lord's Saturdays of yore, the memories are enough to make England fans misty-eyed, let alone West Indians. In 1980, Desmond Haynes went to bed on Friday night 92 not out, and cavalierly doubled his score the following day. I watched him do it, too. It was my first visit to the home of cricket, and in those days the West Indies offered 11 good reasons to keep your eye on the ball: Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Kallicharran, Bacchus, Lloyd, Murray, Roberts, Garner, Holding and Croft.

Viv Richards also scored a ton in that match, yet somehow England chiselled a draw. Not so seven years earlier, when Garfield Sobers in his valedictory outing at Lord's contributed to a massacre by an innings and 226 runs. He was 31 not out at the end of the first day's play, and a few years ago told me what happened next. Clive Lloyd took him for a curry at the home of some Guyanese friends. He went, had a good time, and then progressed to the Q Club, a London nightclub owned by Jamaicans, where he met a pretty girl he'd already encountered in Birmingham, and danced with her until 4.30am. She then gave him the slip, so he went with another West Indian friend to Clarendon Court near Lord's, where he drank until 9am.

"Then I got a cold shower, walked up to Lord's, got my pads on and walked out as the umpires called play. I took guard, but all I could see as Bob Willis ran up was arms and legs. The first five balls I missed, and I could hear Rohan Kanhai and everyone else up in the pavilion laughing. Anyhow, the sixth ball hit the bat, and I got to about 70, but then my stomach started giving me problems. I got my hundred, then walked over to [umpire] Charlie Elliott. I said, 'Charlie, I have to go'. He said, 'Go? What for? I haven't seen you get any injury.' I said, 'Charlie, I've held this in for 50 minutes, I can't hold it any longer. Put down whatever you like. I gone...'" He retired on 150 not out, and still does a fine impression of John Arlott, commentating for Test Match Special after the scurry for the sanctuary of the pavilion: "West Indies 550 for 5, and Sobers yet to come..."

That was the Friday. The next day, stomach settled with port and brandy, he took four catches to account for Amiss, Fletcher, Greig and Illingworth. The tangible Englishness of a Saturday at Lord's has always benefited from a dash of overseas genius.