The connection between cricket and fieldsports goes beyond dress codes and conviviality: these seasonal pastimes are two sides of the same sporting coin
Anyone born in Britain in the 1960s, and allowed to watch television as a child, will remember Mr Benn. The animated series’ eponymous hero was, at first blush, quintessentially English, leaving for work in a dark suit and bowler hat. But then he did something odd but actually deeply revealing of the national character. He went into a fancy dress shop, there to be transformed into a pirate or wizard or spaceman, before exiting via a secret door, ready for an adventure. I feel a sense of kinship with Mr Benn. Like him, my middle-age physique spends most of its time cocooned in sober work clothes. But twice a year, at the onset of winter and then again as the days lengthen, a change of costume heralds new escapades as sporting tweed gives way to batting whites.
CRICKET AND FIELDSPORTS
We have many seasonal sports but there’s something uniquely complementary about shooting and cricket. Both are feast days, when the rules of ordinary life are joyfully suspended. Unusually, both offer participants solitude and conviviality. A batsman taking guard finds himself in a lonely place. A gun waiting at the peg for the first drive, sound dulled by ear defenders, finds an unexpected peace. And yet, moments later, the bothy and pavilion offer noisy fellowship.
Both sports bear the hallmarks of Victorian codification. The Game Act of 1831 established a statutory shooting season for pheasants running from October to February. Four years later the Marylebone Cricket Club approved a new code of laws governing cricket. Consequently, both cricket and game shooting maintain the genteel anachronisms of that era, whether that’s ‘elevenses’ between drives or ‘tea’ to divide sessions of play.
There is also linguistic intermingling, so that a fielder might ‘pluck’ a catch from the air. They also have ‘captains’ to maintain order, plus a slightly 19th-century obsession with posterity and record-keeping. A world before selfies, there came gamebooks and scorecards. And, pace Mr Benn, both sports demand a bit of dressing-up. Preparation too: gun oil for the shotgun; its linseed equivalent for a much-loved bat.
For enthusiastic amateurs like me, there is a natural synergy here. Far from ever being an elite sportsman, I am now a creaking 50-something. Shooting and cricket, game crop and greensward, offer me a sporting brace that can’t be beaten. One is enjoyed when the hedges are bare, the other when the boundary oaks are in full leaf. But together they are a test of failing athleticism, eyesight and patience. Here’s the thing, though. This connection between shooting and cricket has another corollary – not for duffers like me but for household names. By 25 some cricketers can find themselves the objects of global adulation but their playing days can come to an end, sometimes less than a decade later.
First-class cricketers are hard-pressed for time. Some find the demands of touring, practice and sheer toil in the field too much. Rates of depression, even suicide, among cricketers are disproportionately high. It is a game that can look effete. In reality, it’s hard yakka. Shooting, by contrast, involves lethal weaponry yet can be a balm for the weary, a restorative tonic for the wrung-out.
And certainly there is a lengthy list of top-flight, international cricketers who appear to relish replacing spikes with gumboots. They seem to find that shooting, while demanding less physically from an ageing body, still offers a sufficient test of nerve and skill, as well as providing some of the Corinthian camaraderie that characterised their younger, cricketing salad days. Helpfully, they’re also less likely to pay for their sport, since an elite cricketer with a back catalogue of first-hand anecdotes is always a popular guest.
According to former Surrey all-rounder Graham Monkhouse, who was nicknamed ‘The Farmer’, the social aspect of shooting is a big attraction for many players. He cites the “comradeship” and a “shared love of wine” as two draws. Given that Monkhouse retired from the game to farm in Cumbria, his shooting is more often functional than recreational “to thin out the pests around the farm: rabbits, crows and the occasional fox, when he’s cleaned out my free-range hens for the fifth time”, he says.
Perhaps the most famous cricketer-cum- countryman is another Mr B – not Mr Benn but Lord Botham, whose heroics against the Australians at Headingley in 1981 struck teenage fans like me as a kind of miracle. If anything, Lord Botham has become a lightning conductor nonpareil for those who would ban shooting. Saboteurs attempting to disrupt a grouse shoot in the Peak District last year secured national media coverage after discovering that the former England captain was there. If ‘Beefy’ wasn’t deterred by the 90mph chin music of Alderman and Lillee, he’s unlikely to have been intimidated by the sledging of a handful of militant vegans.
Other than the bonhomie, technically, what is it about shooting that gives formerly full-time cricketers a buzz? “The reason they enjoy it? Shooting requires a lot of concentration, similar to batting,” believes former England spinner Monty Panesar. “The precision and hitting your target accurately is similar to placing the ball into the gaps. It challenges your hand-eye coordination but is a mental exercise rather than a physical one as there’s no running between the wickets.”
Similarities in technical dexterity are not confined to batting. Anyone who has stood for what seems like an age waiting with cupped hands for a cricket ball sent high into the sky to come to earth will know that there are wide variations in an individual’s ability to predict trajectory. “Butter-fingers!” goes the cry when a catch is grassed. But actually we take for granted the remarkable ability of the human brain to forecast motion, to track a tiny red ball in a big blue sky.
As with many aspects of our subconscious mental arithmetic, such everyday sporting feats defy the workings of even the smartest computerised artificial intelligence. That same mark-one-eyeball tracking system is there in shooting. The wicketkeeper who watches a rocketing piece of red leather into his gloves, making a series of rapid and intuitive adjustments to line up the catch, is surely jacking into the same part of the brain that allows a gun to bring down a high bird. A low sun or tricky wind is only ever a partial excuse in either case.
Does shooting appeal to all former professional cricketers? Of course not. But among those who catch the bug, it seems to infect batsmen more than bowlers. Erstwhile England captains David Gower and Sir Alastair Cook are both noted shots. The former Kent batsman Rob Key, who now manages the national team, was given lessons in how to swing through on the bird by no less a fieldsports luminary than George Digweed.
And it’s not just about predicting flight paths. It’s the psychology too. Batsmen and guns both spend a lot of time visualising what a good shot looks and feels like, trying to iron out unhelpful trigger movements. The peg and the batting crease are places where muscle memory is encouraged in a pantomime display of rehearsed shots. When a batter or a gun misses out on a freebie, the distinctive chunter of existential doubt sounds remarkably similar. A good shot is admired, often with a flourish and a follow-through. A bad shot prompts another bout of self-recrimination. “Most top sportsmen are, by nature, highly competitive,” reminds Monkhouse. “They are incredibly single-minded. They have to be to succeed.” Both activities also demand an ability to decide which shots to leave well alone. A batsman because he’s apprehensive about edging, a gun for fear of being guilty of behaviour seen as unsporting or downright unsafe to the beating line.
For those who don’t don whites over summer, my faith in the unique complementarity of cricket and shooting might sound overstated. And, of course, it is all too easy to overanalyse. “In my experience, shooting is a lovely way to spend a day in good company and forget about the day job,” maintains Monkhouse. Further, let’s not forget that cricket is fairly accessible with relatively low entry costs. Shooting, not so much. But that doesn’t alter the fact that this summer, as I wander around the back of the stands at Lords, there’s a strong chance I’ll bump into someone with whom I’ve once shared the shooting line. Not only because these two quintessentially English sports draw from the same tribal well but because, for me at least, they epitomise and optimise the sporting year. Whether you’re a former England batsman or a village cow-corner specialist, the bat and ball offer a deep, atavistic connection to the all-too-brief joys of summer.
By the equinox, with the days shortening, the paraphernalia of our sporting year gets its annual reshuffle: the moth-eaten sweater, the arm guard, the pads and the spikes. Down in their stead come the shooting socks and the tweed breeks. As with Mr Benn, so with this Mr B: a change of costume heralds fresh adventures. The gun and the bat. The pavilion and the bothy. Flip sides of the same unimprovable sporting coin.
FAMOUS CRICKETERS BOWLED OVER BY THE DRAW OF FIELDSPORTS
A celebrated all-rounder in every sense. ‘Beefy’ was feared as a batsman and a bowler. He’s also a country boy who loves everything from wildfowling and pigeon shooting to pest control and fishing.
SIR ALASTAIR COOK
Sir Alastair remains England’s leading runscorer in Test matches and is regarded as one of the greatest batsmen. He’s also rather keen on stalking.
The former left-hander is considered one of England’s most stylish batsmen. Gower is also passionate about shooting and is a patron of the Country Food Trust.
This 19th-century cricketing legend was also great friends with James Purdey the Younger. Grace was a keen shot. In fact, he was nearly forced to retire after sustaining an injury while shooting.
Although Emburey grew up in south London, the spinner got a taste for fishing while on tours with England and took up shooting on retirement as a player.