CRICKET AND POPULAR CULTURE PART 2
From our Arts correspondent Barry Tynan
Cricket and popular culture have always proved uncomfortable bedfellows. Although on safer ground with fiction and poetry, the sport has struggled with attempts to bring realism to TV or the cinema, whilst any worthy cricket music is thin on the ground.
Apart from The Final Test (discussed in my previous article) the only other cricket movie to make any significant impact was the Bollywood blockbuster Lagaan – Once upon a time in India (2001), starring Indian superstar Aamir Khan. Set in British India in 1893, the English are unsurprisingly portrayed as arrogant and capricious, in a plot involving a cricket challenge between local villagers and a British Army team over the right to impose crippling taxes on the subjugated community. The story explores many issues, including both Indian and British class structure, and at 215 minutes in length is a bit of a stretch, but if you can get past the sub-titles and obligatory song and dance sequences, the cricket action is quite plausible. The film is well worth a viewing though you can probably guess the denouement.
A more measured attempt to bring cricket to the screen was the 1984 Australian Channel 10 mini-series Bodyline, celebrating (?) the 50th anniversary of England’s controversial 1932/33 tour where they won back The Ashes by curbing Bradman & Co. with short-pitched leg-side fast bowling. Diplomatically sub-titled ‘The day England declared war on Australia’ the 7-hour film (shown in 5 episodes on BBC2) quite naturally explores the conflict from the Aussie viewpoint, not only the hostility between the Australian players and crowds over England’s tactics, but also the dichotomy between the amateur toffs, team management and subservient professionals in the English eleven. The visiting captain Douglas Jardine (Hugo Weaving in his first big role) was portrayed as a stiff and priggish patrician Englishman (he was in fact Scottish), with TV hunk actor Gary Sweet as a hopelessly over-glamorized Bradman. Weaving has since had an illustrious movie career, appearing in many feature films including the Lord of the Rings and Matrix franchises. The action scenes are slightly more credible, despite being filmed from obtuse angles including an overhead camera and one seemingly buried in the pitch, the best scenes taking place in the dressing-rooms. Sadly, I believe this series is only available on Australian DVD systems these days.
Cricket themes have also featured on the small screen with varying degrees of success. The 1979 play by Richard Harris (the prolific TV writer not the Irish actor and hellraiser) Outside Edge – an afternoon’s cricket turns into utter chaos! was recreated as a one-off TV play, then subsequently a TV sitcom in the 1990s, had no cricket action, being somewhat overshadowed by the theme of marital conflict. Cricket matches have also featured in episodes of Ever Decreasing Circles and Dad’s Army*.
Musically, cricket has had an even tougher time. Capitalizing on the success of their cricket team in the mid-1970s, Aussie rock band Sherbet had a massive worldwide hit in 1976 with Howzat!, although this had more to do with love cheats than cricket (‘You messed about/I caught you out/Howzat!’). The single from the album of the same name reached No.5 in the British hit parade. More recently the Irish band Duckworth Lewis Method have released two CDs – Duckworth Lewis Method (2009) and Sticky Wickets (2013), but these had only minor novelty value.
Probably the most celebrated cricket song is Roy Harper’s When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease from his 1975 album HQ, an elegiac homage to bygone days, the singer and his guitar backed by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band (‘When an old cricketer leaves the crease/ you never know whether he’s gone/if sometimes you’re catching a fleeting glimpse/of a twelfth man at silly mid-on’).
Folk rock poet Harper, ever irreligious, opinionated and cantankerous, was nevertheless revered by both his fans (for not selling out to commercialism) and his contemporaries, most notably Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Kate Bush. He sang lead vocal on Floyd’s Have a Cigar from their 1975 album Wish You Were Here, later appearing alongside the band at the 1975 Knebworth festival, and backing vocals on Bush’s 1980 hit Breathing. ‘Cricketer’ had such an effect on DJ John Peel that he requested it to be played as his requiem. Today, Harper’s albums, none of which appeared in the lower rungs of the charts for more than a couple of weeks, are quite obscure and much sought after.
Also worth a listen are the comedy CDs from Australian Billy Birmingham as The Twelfth Man, based on his impersonations of Channel 9 TV commentators Bill Lawry, Richie Benaud, Tony Greig and others, and the 1972 LP record King Cricket – The Sovran King of Sports, an anthology of cricket poetry and prose featuring among others, Michael Parkinson and John Arlott.
*DAD’S ARMY Series 4 Episode The Test (guest appearance by Fred Trueman (1970). The ARP Warden challenges the Home Guard to a cricket match.
Scores: ARP XI 152-4 dec. Home Guard 156-9 (Capt.Mainwairing 17, Sgt.Wilson 81*, Pte.Pike 0, L/C Jones 18, Pte.Frazer 7, Pte.Walker 12, Pte.Sponge 1, Pte.Godfrey 8*, Extras and extras not known. Godfrey hits a six to win the match.
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