Beefy, of course, was for Brexit. How could it have been otherwise? How could English cricket’s greatest living champion be expected to truckle or bend the knee to Brussels or Strasbourg? Announcing his enthusiasm for leaving the European Union, Ian Botham declared: “Cricket is a game where you achieve the greatest success when you are confident in your own ability to go out and stand proud. Britain has that spirit.” You may not agree with the analogy, but when Botham complained “we have lost the right to govern ourselves”, he was – as the referendum confirmed – speaking for many. Similarly, his bullish declaration that “England should be England” revealed the essence of the Brexit debate: this was a very English revolution; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had walk-on parts.
It transpired that Botham – parroting lines from the standard Brexit texts – was resolutely on-message (more so, certainly, than when he suggested republicans should be hanged). “In my cricketing career,” he said, “I played alongside team-mates and opposition from all over the world – from India, Australia, the Caribbean. Countries like these are our natural friends.”
There was no need to add that countries like France and Italy and Germany are not, and we know this because, mystifyingly, they cannot appreciate the genius of cricket. If that means ditching the Dutch, so be it…
In fact, Botham was closer to an older spirit of cricket than he knew. As long ago as 1877, one writer – Charles Box – observed: “The effete inhabitants of cloudless Italy, Spain and Portugal would sooner face a solid square of British infantry than an approaching ball from the sinewy arms of a first-class bowler.” A joke, yes, but not entirely – and a reminder that, for a certain kind of Englishman, foreigners are always odd. It is a conceit not always discouraged by cricket.
Even in a country obsessed with football, this tendency to seek greater truths in cricket lives on. Writing about the then prime minister David Cameron, journalist Peter Oborne once noted that, though expansive, he was too heavily geared towards the leg side. “This tendency to strike across the line,” wrote Oborne, “allied perhaps to a lack of basic concentration, too often brought about a premature return to the pavilion.” As in cricket, you may think, so in politics.
Be that as it may, Brexit was also – according to Michael Gove, one of its leading advocates – a protest against the experts and a revolt against the liberal elite: a triumph for provincial England over metropolitan Britain and, given the balance of informed opinion, of the amateur over the professional. Pre-1963 county cricket, before the abolition of the Gentleman–Player divide, would have been proud.
Cricket, or at least the counties, had an explicit reason to be interested in Brexit too, since leaving the European Union – whenever and however it occurs – may have an impact on their ability to sign Kolpak players. But the divides revealed by the vote also map neatly on to some of the divides long apparent in English cricket. Alastair Cook, for instance, happiest on his Bedfordshire farm, is believed to have backed the Leave campaign; one or two of his more metropolitan team-mates did not.
Just as Brexit relied on some left-wingers supporting an argument largely led by the right, so cricket’s popularity crosses the class divide, even if it is largely defined by a particular, conservative, tradition. Or, as historian Derek Birley put it: “Cricket mythology requires us to believe in progression from rustic innocence to a golden age, followed by a decline.” What could be more conservative – or more English and Brexitish – than that? Paradoxically, this sentiment is not confined to the right. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn enjoys cricket, which could explain why his politics is soaked in nostalgia for a left that never quite was, but may be once again.
If this is unfair, then doubtless it is also unfair to note that Theresa May, daughter of a cricket-loving vicar – and wife of cricket-loving Philip – said in 2012 she had been a “Geoff Boycott fan all my life”, admiring the manner in which “he solidly got on with what he was doing”. It is hard to avoid the thought that this is how the prime minister sees herself. An entire generation of Yorkshiremen must feel reassured.
In reality there is no famous cricketing counterpart to a much-quoted line from Bill Shankly: “The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.” On the contrary, a large part of cricket’s tension lies in the interplay between the individual and the collective; if the game does not encourage selfishness, it can still reward it. Indeed the newspaperman and Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt, a cousin of former England captain Bob Wyatt, once cheerfully observed: “No country which has cricket as one of its national games has yet gone communist.” (Causation, of course, does not imply correlation.)
Mind you, it is always wise to be on your guard. In The Cricketer in 1922, Lord Harris harrumphed: “Bolshevism is rampant and seeks to abolish all laws and rules, and this year cricket has not escaped its attack.” The attack? Nothing less than the lax application of county cricket’s residential qualifications.
No wonder cricket, at least in England, is reckoned a profoundly conservative expression of the national psyche. It seems notable that the sport’s soul – if it possesses such a thing – is southern and pastoral, not northern and industrial. It speaks to the soft romance of the village green, and an England that is eternal, even as it disappears year by year. The reaction against a city-based Twenty20 competition owes something to this sense of rustic tradition too. The histories of the Yorkshire and Lancashire leagues tell different stories, of course. So too does the emergence of a generation of city-spawned English Asian cricketers. Ahead of his time, Basil D’Oliveira ended his autobiography thus: “I shall always offer Britain as my model example of the decent, multiracial society any country should be proud to copy.” Given the manner in which he was treated by the game’s authorities, this was a generous appraisal.
Times change, and so do attitudes. Norman Tebbit’s cricket test seems a less burning question now that identity is more readily acknowledged as multilayered. When Moeen Ali is booed at Edgbaston by other English-Asians, the dominant reactions are sadness and even pity, not anger. We are a little more relaxed these days. In that respect, the game is a mirror for an evolving society.
A cricketer in England fending off accusations of dual loyalty is as likely to be white and from Durban as brown and from Birmingham. Yet, except when playing Australia, English cricket can be so lacking in nationalist fervour it might be thought of as post-national. There is a pleasure in seeing England play well, though also a peculiar enjoyment in seeing them play dreadfully. In general, the game’s the thing: caps are doffed to Bangladesh in 2016, just as they were to Pakistan in 1954.
What of the cricketers themselves? John Arlott’s observation that there were never more than half a dozen left-wingers on the county circuit may have been exaggerated, but only to a degree. After all, Mike Edwards, the former Surrey batsman, suggested cricketers were “the only group of employees more rightwing than their employers”. And Simon Hughes recalled that Jack Russell was an oddity in more ways than one: he voted Labour at a time when “you could probably count the socialist cricketers on the fingers of one hand. After a couple had been amputated.”
So no one was surprised when Ted Dexter stood as a Conservative candidate in the 1964 election in Cardiff South-East, where he helped Jim Callaghan increase Labour’s majority from 868 to 8,000. Nor that, when Andrew Strauss was linked with a political career following his retirement in 2012, it was the Conservatives who were said to be thinking of adopting him. Nor that the prime ministers most associated with cricket – Alec Douglas-Home and John Major – were both Tories. Nor again that, if you select a team of Victorian MPs with first-class experience, Tories outnumber Liberals five to one.
Two nations, as Disraeli put it, but only one of them got to own, or define, the game. And cricket’s attitude towards class was often not so much conservative as grimly, extravagantly, blimpishly reactionary. As late as the 1950s, the cricket writer G. D. Martineau could claim: “Professionals are as much the backbone of English first-class cricket as non-commissioned officers are the backbone of the British army.” They were necessary, in other words, but not quite the thing. And it was a reminder, for some, that Orwell’s appraisal of England as “a family with the wrong members in control” has applied to its cricket too.
John Major’s panegyric to an eternal idea of a “country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers” was nostalgic tosh even 25 years ago. But his plea for a “classless society” and “a country at ease with itself” indicated that these virtues had not always been apparent. Cricket could have told him this. It seems equally telling that Tony Blair’s New Labour government, the most thrusting and selfconsciously modern administration in recent memory, also had the least evident enthusiasm for the sport. Cool Britannia had more time for football.
Cricket and the European question have some history, too. When Geoffrey Howe resigned from Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet in 1990, precipitating the crisis that led to her defenestration, she chose her metaphor carefully. “I am still at the crease,” she said, “though the bowling has been pretty hostile of late.” There would be “no ducking the bouncers, no stonewalling, no playing for time”. On the contrary, “the bowling’s going to get hit all round the ground.
That is my style.” The bowlers disagreed, as did some of her own team. As Howe told the Commons next day, Thatcher’s relationship with her senior ministers had broken down. Her approach, he suggested, was “rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”.
The day after Brexit was confirmed, and Cameron had returned to the pavilion for the final time, all eyes turned to an improbable man of the moment: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Would he be Britain’s next PM? What, now that he and his buccaneering band of Brexiteers had won the day, was the plan? Trapped by reporters outside his London home, Boris mumbled that this was not the moment for such trivia. “Christ,” he said, “I’ve got to go and play cricket.” And off he tootled to a charity match at Althorp House, home of Earl Spencer. According to his critics, this was a suitably ludicrous coda to a fantastical series of events. But there was also something reassuring about it: even in the midst of political crisis, there must be space for cricket.
It was surprising Johnson missed the opportunity to quote Henry Newbolt’s “Vitaı¨ Lampada”: “And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat/Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame/But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote/‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’”
The poem represents the acme of cricket’s embodiment of a particular Englishness; it also matches the spirit of Brexit, as imagined by Johnson and Botham. In politics, as in cricket, we bat on.