In God’s Country

The platform was longer than he remembered. And, some four decades on, he was no closer to understanding why the station name should be that of another village. One so small it hardly ever featured on maps. A hamlet really.

A scorching hot day, the track rippling with mirages. Even the songbirds and crickets were quiet. With a perfunctory tap of his cane he turned. At least they haven’t moved the pub he thought. From the outside it all looked familiar. The Broken Arms – beer garden, satellite and wifi. And the bar had moved. Jack thought “I have been away too long. Too much has changed”.

He clattered coins on the bar, turned and, with a little incontinent splash of ale on the carpet, sat down with a crumpled sigh.

Zara knew better than to ask. It was just one of his ‘moods’, one of the times at home when he seemed to withdraw to a different place. Maybe even with a different girl. She often wondered.

“It’s all different” he murmured. “It’s not how I remember it”. She placed her hand ever so gently on his. He looked up for a moment. “I wanted it to be the same”.

“It’s been forty years I’ve been away” he thought “that’s half a lifetime. More to some”.

Even the beer had changed. No longer the yeasty froth of yesteryear. “Bloody chemistry kit now” he said aloud.

“Come again” asked the barmaid, her jade green, almost orange, eyes, all buttons and bows, fancy ties.

“Nothing” said Jack “Nowt. Nowt of ‘owt”. Even the words sounded stupid and untrue in his voice. Pastiche. Phony Yorkshire.

He was a phony Yorkshireman. He knew it and it didn’t fool Zara for one minute.

Jack grew up in Yorkshire or at least he thought he did. His comical absentmindedness, and Zara’s gentle ribbing, had long since given way to dementia. He took tablets for it, when he could remember.

That tickled him. “When I can remember”. Without his noticing, she would count his tablets to be sure none were unaccounted for. It started as a kindness but the years had made it a necessity. Sometimes he muddled one tablet with another. Sometimes he forgot altogether. She could tell those days. He hardly recognised her, withdrawn to his private world.

Mostly she saw him on Thursdays. She did his washing, tidied the kitchen and read from the newspaper when he couldn’t find his glasses. “Down the side of the sofa?” she would ask, enjoying his childish look of surprise when there they were. They were always there. Along with biscuit crumbs, broken biros, postage stamps and torn scraps of paper with phone numbers.

“Penny for your thoughts” Zara would venture.

“They’ve gone up. They start at tuppence now. Inflation, you know” he sometimes replied. She rarely pressed him further. Sometimes he just talked gibberish. Once in awhile he mentioned names. She knew none of them.

Sometimes she would talk to Jack, remind him how they had met, replaying the narrative for him. Like Steinbeck’s Lenny, he never tired of hearing it. He was older than her but somehow, when she told the story, he was younger, stronger and braver. And, the bit he liked best, he was a Yorkshireman. One of the proud sons of God’s Country, as he never tired of calling Yorkshire .

“I come from tough northern stock” he would say, chest puffed with pride. Sometimes she would tease him, remembering the days when they traded one-liners, fast and furious, sharply sparring with each other. Those days were long since gone. He couldn’t think fast enough and she was too kind to hurt him.

He thought it was his idea but actually it was hers – to travel south, to visit the land of his exile one more time. He needed a change of scenery – she knew that. Something to close the gap between reality and his private distant world. Maybe she would find him again in Yorkshire, maybe the hidden places were real and she could share them. Maybe he was in “God’s country”.

Yorkshire belonged in those anguished dreams and false memories that overwhelmed reality as his mind crumbled. Outside of his demented reveries, he was a Kentish man, a man of apples and hops, his landscape punctuated by oast houses, fertile fields of fruit, of tractors and hay bales.

He hadn’t wanted to travel by train. Steam railways were in his blood, in the corners of his dissolving mind. He had no place for diesels. From the fragments of stories long lost in the eddies of time, generations of his family had built locomotives and carriages at the plant works in Doncaster. His grandfather had supped at the Black Bull, down by the marketplace. Supped too much, if truth were told. As his own memories of Kent faded, he replaced them with an imagined Yorkshire childhood.

But there were no more trains. So they travelled by car, ticking off the towns as they passed. They spoke little. Sometimes he slept, slumped forward against the seatbelt. Sometimes he seemed awake, but remote. Occasionally she would catch a tear. Sometimes she thought that the more he wandered, the more she loved him. “Isn’t that what love is” she thought.

He tried to show her some of the places he visited in his mind. The plots, overgrown with thistles and weeds, where his imagined grandparents lay. The bridge where he used to watch the great locomotives of the London North-Eastern Railway pass beneath on their way to Edinburgh. The houses where he had lived, the town fields and their rusting goalposts. They watched kestrels flutter above the motorway, past idle pit heads in Armthorpe and Askern. Where he conjured Rotherham, Barnsley and Sheffield from Ashford, Canterbury and Broadstairs, she could not follow.

Jack’s voice even changed. His accent drifted north with him. She hadn’t seen him smile in months as his decline had accelerated. But here, he positively beamed. At first. Gradually it became too much. His mind, filled with memories of a Yorkshire childhood, both real and imagined, confused him. Jack thought “I have been away too long. Too much has changed”.

Zara would take him each day to the Broken Arms where he would nurse a pint, maybe a sandwich to eat. The pub took him in, frail, distant and warm. Regulars listened to his incoherent ramblings about Yorkshire. Zara often left him snoozing in the sunlight. He talked about being “called home” as he put it.

It was a Tuesday when he died, quietly unnoticed by the fireside. No fuss or bother, his hand clenched around the price of his pint. Although in Kent, he was always now in Yorkshire.

Zara could hear him mouths the words – In. God’s. Country.

Take off those pyjamas

Okay, repeat after me “limited overs cricket is not cricket”. Again. “Limited overs cricket is not cricket”.

Cricket is a game of infinite subtleties, nuances and fluidity. When played at its best, the game is almost infinitely beautiful, composed of tiny, almost invisible elements, a cornucopia of tiny battles between batsman and bowler. Cricket is the sound of leather on willow, the scattering of stumps and the slap of leather on hand.

And this soundtrack is played out over the most elastic of timeframes. In a full test match, taken to its most extended form, the game incorporates five luncheons (not lunches) and five tea breaks. A further fifteen short breaks may be taken for drinks.

This is the way sport should be played. Cricket is tactical and strategic, skilful and subtle, strong and courageous. Whether or not we like it or concede it, cricket, in common with so many team sports, is a surrogate for warfare and all the better for that. Countries that compete with each other in team sports on the whole do not fight each other. That course of action is conducted on the cricket field.

Over the last several decades cricket has truncated somewhat. Increasingly we are offered “limited overs cricket”, a grotesque parody of the real game. The real game of cricket takes place over the course of 4 to 5 days at the professional level with two innings for each side. That said, my old school used to play an annual fixture at Lord’s against Harrow. Although only two days in duration, it nonetheless consisted of the magical two innings per school. It was therefore, by my definition, cricket. Also, if you were playing, it excused you from double geography.


Why was that cricket (not why were you excused double geography)? For two reasons. Firstly the game took place over two innings and, secondly, all three results (win, lose, or draw) were possible and therefore all shades in between. It taught the players all sorts of realities about life. It taught players of the injustices (there was no Hawkeye, ball tracking or snicko in those days). If the umpire raised his finger, you were out, plain and simple. Your protest, of which there should, in any case, be none, was, even when given by the most myopic umpire, limited to a brief raising of the eyebrow, lasting no more than a second before walking off. You did not offer your thoughts on the umpire’s parentage, eyesight, or intellect. Nor did you invite him to pistols at dawn, a ruckus in the car park or any one of a plethora of punishments. The truth is you were out for no greater reason than that you were given out.

At school we could not get our fill of cricket (which is more than can be said for geography). I listened, under my blankets, on a scratchy crackling radio to the test matches in Australia where, in those days, overs of eight balls were the norm. Whatever happened to that?

Let me get to the point (and there is no need for that language). “Limited overs cricket” is not cricket. It is a travesty of cricket, like a cricket cartoon. The kind of cricket that might be played by the seven dwarfs. Comedy cricket without any competitive edge. Limited overs cricket is not, I repeat not, cricket the For a variety of reasons. Here are some.

CRICKET IS NOT PLAYED IN PYJAMAS. Even when I’m asleep and dreaming of cricket, it is in whites, or technically more accurately creams. Playing cricket in pyjamas was, I suspect, the creation of someone without any background in the game. A marketing man perhaps. Kerry Packer incarnate. Personally I struggle to keep a straight face when I see otherwise respectable cricketing figures in pinks, fuchsias, oranges, and so on.

2. CRICKET IS NOT FOOTBALL AND THEREFORE DOES NOT REQUIRE NUMBERS. I can understand their usage in the hustle and bustle of a football match but the same does not apply in cricket, a largely static game. Does it really make it easier for commentators? Or is it just another way of milking the merch. I don’t have any problem with discrete numbers on a player’s cap, denoting his position in the pantheon of former and present players. That seems a genteel nod of respect. By the same token, we do not need their names on the back of their shirts either. Cricket calls for neither numbers, names or night attire. Cricket can trace its origins back as far as the 16th century with international cricket being recorded in the late 19th century. Nowhere does it say pyjamas are acceptable.

SHORTENING A GAME DOES NOT MAKE IT MORE EXCITING. This seems to have been a false premise from day one. 50 over cricket was conceived as a way of getting a meaningful match between two sides which could be completed in a day. In other words the game was fitted to the format rather than developing a format which suited the game. But the biggest problem and the most savage of indictments is the fact that it has stripped the game of that most valuable of commodities – patience. It was only a short step from there to even shorter forms.

THE HUNDRED AND T20 FORMS OF THE GAME HAVE SHIFTED THE EMPHASIS FROM QUALITY STROKEPLAY TO MERE SLOGGING, chasing wide deliveries and so on, lofting the ball to Cow Corner. In my opinion they are profoundly detrimental to the development of quality batsmen. Defensive strokes are practically unheard of. And in a T20 game, where the entire quota of wickets is rarely taken, the penalty for squandering one’s wicket is much less punitive – somebody else can get the runs.

LIMITED OVERS CRICKET IS KILLING THE ART OF BOWLING. Whereas test match bowling is a weapon of infinite subtlety and variation, in the limited overs game the emphasis is solely on dot balls and defensive field settings. We are losing the art of attacking cricket. Slips are a rarity, attacking fields equally improbable. Were it not for the imposition of a minimum number of fielders within a short distance of the wicket, captains would simply pack the boundary. The fact that such rules as power plays were introduced reflected this natural imbalance.

One can, and many do, cite the success of the IPL. Yes, it is successful. Yes it allows cricketers to be paid handsome sums of money for their services and yes, it owes its success to the relative failure of test match cricket as a spectator sport in the subcontinent. Fireworks, loud pop music, dancing, microphones, illuminated bails. Who knows where it will end. It bears no relation to any version of the game I’ve ever played. Why 20 overs? Why not reduce it to 10. Then the whole match will take no longer than a football game. Is this really the future we want for the game?

By now you will have realised that I resent any incursion into the test match structure as anathema. Pink balls, floodlights, even day-night games are a no-no as far as I’m concerned. They have no place in test match cricket. As Richie Benaud once famously said “limited overs cricket is an exhibition. Test match cricket is an examination”.

And long may it remain so. Throw away those pyjamas, shine up that red ball with spit and sweat, and stare into the batsmen’s eyes. Because that’s cricket.