Will Self: Initiates in a special ritual

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The Independent Online

A very fat man, the waistband of his nicotine-coloured trousers tightly cinched about his paunch, was struggling to get over the row of tip-tilt seats. It would've been hard enough if he were unburdened, but he was clutching two plastic bins of urinary beer. "Oof!" he exclaimed and half-fell into the lap of an amiable, snowy-haired pipe smoker who was listening to the Channel Four match commentary on a rental earphone. The very fat man regained his seat and his composure. He supped his beer and there was an audible sigh of relief from the other overweight, middle-aged men sitting nearby. A few rows down, towards the front of the Lock Stand, younger, leaner, drunker fellows started up a chant: "Super Freddie! Super Freddie..!" but it soon died out and we were all left, staring at the rain which fell leadenly from a pewter sky.

I blame my own father - but then I would, wouldn't I? During my childhood he may have been absent when it came to bath times, meal times and indeed just about any practical childcare, yet when it came to ball sports he was massively present. For hour after hour he would deliver googly tennis balls the width of the garden with a roll of his massive, Viyella shoulders, while I defended the trunk of the oak tree with my willow wand. He took me to the Sussex County Ground and piqued my interest with the macabre intelligence that Fred Titmus was a great pace bowler despite having lost half his foot in a water skiing accident. He took me to Lord's - and even to the Oval, where in the skeletal shadow of void gasometers we watched Viv Richards swat balls as if they were somnolent flies.

Cricket belonged to the paternal; it was amiable, unfocused, solipsistic. It was the daft buffers in The Lady Vanishes, who are so preoccupied by the Test match score that they remain oblivious to Nazi skulduggery beneath their moustachioed noses. Cricket was about branch lines, inter-war summers, buttered crumpets, flannel trousers - and, above all, fair play. It was this I could never manage; I hadn't an ounce of English phlegm in my body. I burned with the desire to hit, run and triumph. I lunged and swiped at those tennis balls, and when it was my turn to bowl, I tried to put King Polybus's eyes out with them as he stood, bemused, at the crease.

If it was grim in the back garden, it was worse still at school. With failure I would not cope. An indifferent, round-armed bowler, and a cross-eyed batsman, there was never any question of my making the team. And damn it! If I couldn't win then I wouldn't play at all - that'd show them! When my father packed his bag and sauntered away from the marital pavilion, my desire to compete went as well. Not long afterward my ability even to spectate left me and I became that most peculiar of Englishmen: a sporting refusenik.

That was in the early 1970s, so to find myself 30-odd years later, sitting in the Oval on the third day of the last match of an Ashes series which has gripped the nation like no other in decades is a bizarre experience. I am the Rip Van Winkle of cricket spectators, returned from my protracted sleep to find sponsorship logos on all horizontal and vertical surfaces, players and punters alike in garish costumes, cameras angled at every moving thing, giant VDU screens lighting up the empyrean, the new Vauxhall Stand like a humungous, futuristic banana - and beside me in the Lock Stand a long, stylish streak of a 15-year-old son. He sits in his anti-fit jeans and Prada jacket, iPod plugged into his downy ears, his expression inscrutable. I have the bizarre sensation that my own Dad's sporting persona has been reincarnated, and that I am the perpetual child, sandwiched between these two, phlegmatic cricket fans.

Indeed, we wouldn't even have been at the Oval were it not for Alexis. All summer he slowly brought me back to the game. During the fourth Test at Trent Bridge, we were, curiously enough, on holiday in Northern Queensland. For hours each day Alexis would thunder across the damp, tropical grass and unleash the ball at whichever of our Australian friends' little sons happened to be minding the portable metal wicket. That these batsmen were half his own height didn't seem to deter Lex at all - he respected them as worthy opponents; and as befits a nation where sport is a religion and every hamlet has its own oval, ceremonial site, they hammered the ball into the lush vegetation.

Then, when evening came, we'd settle down for late-night viewing of the combat on the other side of the world. Lex instructed me in the foibles of Flintoff and Hoggard, the vanity of Pietersen, the puckishness of Geraint Jones. Kerry, my old Australian friend, offered his own insights into the inadmissibility of defeatism to the Australian psyche: "You Poms," he'd say, "you can handle defeat - defeat brings out the best in you, but for us losing has no nobility about it, it just shows us up for the convict rabble we know we really are." On another occasion he tut-tutted as Shane Warne effortlessly took a wicket. "Warnie," he sighed, "he should be the bloody captain, but being captain of the Australian cricket team is like being prime minister and bishop rolled into one - they've gotta have the straight feller."

At the end of the holiday, having observed Alexis's cricketing zeal with affectionate eyes, Kerry offered this estimation: "Your boy could be a half-useful pace bowler y'know. 'Course, he thinks he's a top flight batsman - but they all do at that age." High praise indeed from a grizzled Australian - words that came back to me as we watched Flintoff pause by the npower decal painted on to the pitch, and begin his run-up. The rain had cleared and the second burst of the day's play was under way. The boy was focused on it intently enough - but my attention roved around the ground.

The cricket spectators of my own childhood were as uniformed as the players; they wore blazers and club ties, they applauded in a measured way, and, as I recall, hardly ever raised their voices. Matches had the hushed, prayerful atmosphere of concert recitals. Now there are potbellied supermen thronging the stands like temporarily grounded Fathers4Justice activists. In emulation of their prolier, tougher, football counterparts the crowd chants: "Barmy Army! Barmy Army!" Amazing that anyone should want to enlist in such a thing. During protracted breaks in play they roar exuberantly as they toss a beach ball from hand to hand. Yet, as the Australian batsmen stolidly and indefatigably piled on the runs under the minatory sky, and the Ashes seemingly floated away from England's grasp, it was the similarities that became more plangent than the differences.

Sports commentators often remark on the resemblance between the psyche of a nation and its national teams, but the truth is that the English cricket team doesn't represent England at all - it represents only those English who are interested in cricket. It shadows the cricketing nation, concentrating its essence. And cricketing England is all about fathers and sons. These limber, long-limbed lads out on the scuffed turf may sport earrings and divots of facial hair; they may have estuarine accents and professional attitudes, but they are still the sons of the potbellied men up in the stands. For the crowd at the Oval is overwhelmingly male and overweight. They oof and ahh, they chug beer, Pimm's and Bollinger. They chomp on pig roasts and southern-fried chicken bought from concession stands. They butt up against one another like convivial walruses. I've no doubt that most of them are as passionately and angrily engaged by the combat being played out below as any football fan, but the slow-motion attrition that even a top-level Test match displays dampens down any histrionics.

An elderly, lugubrious Australian sat beside us all day. He was small - and plump - with Asterix's moustache and a colander nose. He didn't cry out, he didn't applaud. He seemed lost in some intense and private Weltschmerz. Watching him, it occurred to me that perhaps the reverse was the case, and that it was the men up in the stands who were infantilised by their combination of passion and inanition - and that they were waiting for their young fathers to quit the playing field, then finally, belatedly, teach them how to walk.

Alexis and I had walked to the ground. Down through the red brick, south London estates from our home. This cricketing Götterdämmerung was a very domestic affair for us, played out against a familiar city scape: the Archbishop Tenison's School, the hideous gull's wing penthouses of St George's Wharf, the duff finials of the MI6 building. That we should only get to see half a day's play, and that those 45 overs were under such low, urban skies, seemed entirely suitable. If fraught paternal relations were the emotional reality of my sporting childhood, then rain and gloom were the backdrop. Sitting in the darkened stand, watching on the TV monitor rain fall in some other paddock, I found myself fixated on the oval of turf itself: this earthy epidermis, covered up with plastic like a fetishist's skin, then, when the rain eventually stopped, subjected to mechanical mopping with a spongy roller.

Alexis instructed me in the Hawkeye simulator which second-guessed the umpires' three dubious decisions of the day. I was amazed by his maturity. Of one unallowed catch - which would've massively advanced the English cause - he merely remarked, "Well, people make mistakes." And when Ponting was caught at gully off a Flintoff ball, and Alexis missed it because I was getting him to scan the stands opposite with the binoculars, so he could tell me why there was a cohort of men dressed up in bald wigs and yellow suits - he only sighed heavily. The day's play also ended with a whimper and we joined the L S Lowry painting of the departing crowd; another father and son blessed by this ancient, athletic pretext for masculine intimacy. A barmy army indeed.