As I walk through the water meadows, I feel the strength of a friend’s observation that an English summer’s day is the most beautiful thing on earth. I have just set out from the city of Winchester in Hampshire, 100 kilometres southwest of London. Behind me are its ancient cathedral, castle ruins, cavernous bookshops, and cobbled roads. Spread out in front is a glorious English scene, straight out of the books of nursery rhymes I grew up with.
To my right are meadows dotted with cows and dappled with sunlight. Buttercups roll towards wooded hills, and a sparkling river meanders through them. To the left gurgles a slender stream, with trout darting in its cool shallows, ducks snacking on the water weeds, and a bull terrier chasing them off. A bird—unfortunately I can’t tell a lark from a thrush or a chaffinch—sings to its heart’s content.
A short distance ahead, we come across a beautiful cricket ground set in this bucolic background. It is part of the 14th-century Winchester College, the oldest running public school in England, belonging to the same elite league as Eton and Harrow. There’s a school match going on complete with all the paraphernalia of the game: white flannels, V-neck sweaters, gloves and pads, a scoreboard, and a pavilion where I am sure the ritual of afternoon tea is scrupulously followed.
Cricket has a long relationship with Winchester. Some people claim that it was here that the game matured from a schoolboy pastime to an adult sport. There is even a 17th-century Latin poem that mentions boys playing cricket in Winchester. The area’s inns and public houses have names like The Bat & Ball and The Thomas Lord, the latter for the founder of Lord’s Cricket Ground, who retired to West Meon in the Winchester area. But the most interesting of Winchester’s cricketing connections has to be this one: Jane Austen, who spent most of her life in this part of England and died in Winchester, is believed to have been a great devotee of the sport. Before setting out, we visited the writer’s grave inside Winchester Cathedral, and passed by the Georgian double-storeyed building where she lived.
At the school, cricket has always been serious business. The best of Winchester College’s several cricket teams is called the “Lords.” Amongst the famous players who have captained the Lords are bowler Douglas Jardine (infamous for his “Bodyline” action), and our very own Tiger Pataudi, albeit 40 years apart. In fact, Pataudi broke Jardine’s record of the highest number of runs and season average in 1959. This accomplishment was sweetened by the fact that Jardine had unfairly thrown Tiger’s father out of the England cricket team when the senior Pataudi protested against bodyline bowling. Incidentally, Tiger Pataudi’s record still stands to this day.
Strolling further down the meadow, we see another match being played on yet another stately ground. I flop down amidst the buttercups and primroses, fish out my sandwiches, and follow the action. There is something sublime about the humble school match—the eagerness of the boys and the sound of the cherry hitting the bat—that warms my Indian heart. Cynics may cry out about the death of cricket at the hands of commercially lucrative forms like T20, but at least in Winchester, the sport is alive and kicking.
Appeared in the March 2016 issue as “Cricketing Country”.
Winchester is 110 km/1.5 hr southwest of London and there are many train and bus connections between the two cities. Games are played at the Winchester College grounds every Saturday throughout the summer term. Saturday afternoons are a good bet for catching other local cricket clubs like Hambledon and Chawton in action. The Winchester Cathedral, its crypt and treasury are open 9.30 a.m.-5 p.m, Mon-Sat and 12.30-3 p.m. on Sunday.
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