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It was startling that Sir John Major did not reach for the cricket analogies as he came off his long run over Europe again recently.
If you recall, our great game was mentioned in his famous speech 24 years ago, when he told the Conservative Group for Europe that closer integration with our continental friends would not change the British way of life. Britain, he said, “will still be the country of long shadows on county [cricket] grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and… as George Orwell said, ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’.”
Well the pools have pretty much sunk since. The beer is perhaps not quite so warm. There are more craft ales, and they are chilled. We still love dogs. But county cricket is beleaguered – to be replaced by city slickers in lime and silver jumpsuits whacking white balls in the name of Birmingham and Cardiff, perhaps.
Although Major’s use of cricket was designed to allay fears, it is still the type of argument used by Brexiteers when they outline just what they are afraid to lose. Do not forget Nigel Farage visited Headingley, Worcestershire’s New Road and the Nevill Ground at Tunbridge Wells (“a very English scene”, he called it) ahead of the EU Referendum. Their worry – real or not – is that increased unification will lead to the creation of a homogenised Eurozone, with everyone playing football, basketball or athletics. Like Italy or Macedonia.
We British believe we are different, and nothing personifies that more than cricket. “When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air,” Orwell wrote. “Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd.”
Orwell was not trying to make a point. He just wrote what he saw, as the journalist-cum-author that he was.
The quote Major used was from The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, published in 1941. Three years later, Orwell wrote: “Cricket gives expression to a well-marked trait in the English character, the tendency to value ‘form’ or ‘style’ more highly than success… It is a game full of forlorn hopes and sudden dramatic changes of fortune, and its rules are so ill-defined that their interpretation is partly an ethical business. When [Harold] Larwood, for instance, practised bodyline bowling in Australia he was not actually breaking any rule: he was merely doing something that was ‘not cricket’. Since cricket takes up a lot of time and is rather an expensive game to play, it is predominantly an upper-class game, but for the whole nation it is bound up with such concepts as ‘good form’ and ‘playing the game’.”
In As I Please, a series of articles he wrote for Tribune, he recalled an incident from a village match of his childhood. “The captain of one side was the local squire who, besides being exceedingly rich, was a vain, childish man to whom the winning of this match seemed extremely important. Those playing on his side were all or nearly all his own tenants. The squire’s side were batting, and he himself was out and was sitting in the pavilion. One of the batsmen accidentally hit his own wicket. ‘That’s not out,’ said the squire promptly, and went on talking to the person beside him. The umpire, however, gave a verdict of ‘out’, and the batsman was halfway back to the pavilion before the squire realised what was happening. Suddenly… his face turned several shades redder. ‘What!’ he cried, ‘he’s given him out? Nonsense! Of course he’s not out!’ And then, standing up, he cupped his hands and shouted to the umpire, ‘Hi, what did you give that man out for? He wasn’t out at all!’ The batsman halted. The umpire hesitated, then recalled the batsman to the wicket and the game went on.”
Orwell described this case of somebody of a higher social status pulling rank as the “most shocking thing he had seen”. Fortunately all this did not deter him from cricket. It is such an elegant, seductive game, it is a good thing that politicians do not always grab it for their own ends.