Robert Winder: The untimely dismissal of a most singular figure

Friday 26 December 2008 01:00 GMT

The news of Harold Pinter's death will shock more people than can be counted, but there is one fraternity in particular that will see his passing as a blow from which there is no obvious recovery.

Among his more famous accomplishments – the vivid and original theatre, the world-spanning production schedule, the screenplays, the political fury, the Nobel Prize – there is a fraternity of cricket-lovers who will raise a glass and remember him for other things: the tenacious innings, the warm letter of congratulation, the implacable raised finger. It was obvious for a while that Harold Pinter could not go on forever, but most of his cricket acquaintances assumed (not least because the opposite was unthinkable) that the pause between his illness and his end would be much, much longer than this.

As a cricketer, Pinter was never a Flintoff – no binge-hitting all-rounder. In his prime, he was a studious opening batsman unlikely – as he readily admitted – to win a Nobel Prize for Sport. But his love for the game was strong, serious and theatrical. It was off-putting for those of his opponents who knew him only from the moody studio portraits, or edgy evenings in front of No Man's Land or The Caretaker, to see him up the other end of a cricket pitch, raising and lowering his bat.

Not many Nobel laureates will have spent so much time on sports administration. He devoted a legion of summers (and winters) to his team, taking pains over fixtures and selection, or standing the post-match rounds. It was hard to buy a drink if Harold was in the room.

His approach was not grim, but he played cricket as if it mattered – so it did matter. Backs would stiffen when his black car nosed into the rutted car park. One day, in Roehampton, his two opening batsmen (Ian and Justin) put on 264. This was an unusual feat, and Harold was delighted. As it happened, someone marked the occasion with a rum-ti-tum Betjeman rip-off which included the following verse: "Harold commandeers the bar (Justin's lager, Ian's wine)/Recollects his finest hour, caught midwicket, 59."

This reference to his finest hour was a guess: who knew what his top score was. We had not read his resonant tribute to a club stalwart, the ex-Somerset and England all-rounder Arthur Wellard, in which Harold himself recalled Wellard's words of praise for a highly determined match-saving innings of 25.

"I was proud of you," Wellard said.

"I don't suppose any words said to me," wrote Harold with feeling, "have given me greater pleasure".

Harold liked the poem and was keen to circulate it, but there was this one thing: his top score was not 59, but 39. Would I mind awfully ... (pause) ... changing it?

Precision mattered to him. Thirty nine it was.

On social occasions connected with cricket, Harold would often recite the famous poem "At Lord's", by Francis Thompson. It was almost a ritual. He did exactly that a month or so ago, to a room full of friends, team-mates and admirers. His voice was only slightly halting, but it sounded as though he knew what lay ahead: "For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast, And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost, And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host As the run stealers flicker to and fro, To and fro: O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!"

Two of his loves – literature and cricket – were met in those lines that night. A most singular figure has been dismissed. Neither of his fields will be quite the same again.

Robert Winder is an author, former Literary Editor of The Independent, and a member of Harold Pinter's cricket team, the Gaieties Cricket Club

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