One of the iconic images of the great British seaside holiday of the fifties and sixties is of happy families playing beach cricket. Everyone joined in, playing with child-size bats, balls and stumps that reduced fathers who fancied themselves as Dexter or Sobers to the same level of competence as their seven year old sons, non-sporting wives and even the family dog (when they were still allowed on the beach between May and September).
Sadly, the advent of the foreign package holiday, breakdown in traditional family structures and expansion of leisure pursuits, all contrived to render such a scene virtually obsolete. Over the past weekend, therefore, I embarked upon a one man (at least for now) campaign to revive this venerable but floundering tradition, pitching up on Ramsgate Main Sands with my wife at 2pm on Sunday for an impromptu game.
I say impromptu because my planning had left something to be desired – a brief glance at the tide times beforehand would have revealed that this was the worst time of the day to start. Nevertheless, after 20 minutes inspecting the fast diminishing slither of sand along the bay, I found a strip that was marginally more playable than the Rose Bowl. It quickly became clear, however, that if the game was to be remotely watchable, or attract other participants, it was pointless bowling anything other than full tosses because once the ball had pitched, it was firmly plugged into the sand.
Pudding-like wicket aside, it proved a batsman’s paradise as the leg side boundary shortened sharply with the onrushing scum brown tide, ensuring that the merest of flicks resulted in a four or six. That said, the smacking of my extra cover drives against the sea wall was more satisfying. Frank Keating once wrote that Ian Botham played a net “as if he is on Weston-super-Mare beach and the tide is coming in fast”. I’d like to think that if you substituted Broadstairs for Weston, that might accurately describe my batting on this day.
Public interest was negligible, evidenced by a succession of families, oblivious of the sacred nature of my work, plodding across the wicket at regular intervals. It reminded me of my primary school football pitch which had a public footpath running diagonally across it, constantly trodden by young mothers with prams during vital matches against our bitter rivals from the adjoining parishes of Luton, Delce and Arden. Understandably, dribbling was a skill particularly valued at Glencoe Road.
But back to the summer game.
Human indifference was not mirrored in the behaviour of the indigenous bird population. An improbable infield of seagulls occupying short square leg, silly mid on, mid wicket and mid on loitered, more, I suspect, in anticipation of the next tasty titbit thrown up by the thrashing waves than hovering in hope of a bat pad. Eventually, with the wicket completely submerged, the players were forced to dash from the square to the nearest ice cream van.
Undaunted, I resumed my missionary work on Monday with a game on the much larger and more suitable Viking Bay beach in Broadstairs. Low tide was scheduled for 2.04pm but, conscious that the tide came in a lot quicker than it went out, I decided that play should get underway an hour earlier.
An early inspection of prospective wickets revealed not only a soft, dune-like sand texture inconducive to a meaningful contest, but also an unmanageable abundance of people, deckchairs, windbreaks and bouncy castles, along with the ubiquitous volleyball court, populated by hordes of young latin youths, led me to cancel plans to play there. However, we rounded the bend at the end of the beach to enter Louisa Bay which, a full hour before the scheduled start of play, sported a vast expanse of dark, compacted sand and only sporadic handfuls of spectators scattered around what would serve as the boundary.
My anticipation was heightened by the sight of TWO sets of wickets already pitched further along the beach. This was promising. Our game got underway and soon acted as a magnet for every bored child on the beach. Questions such as “can I play?” and “can my brother / sister join in?” (only the absence of the suffix “mister” reminded me I had not been transported back to 1960) were music to my ears as I suddenly found I was setting fields for TEN kids and having to remember in what order they all batted and bowled to avoid arguments. The majority exuded more willing than competence, all wanting to field at mid wicket for some unaccountable reason, but uncomplainingly hared after every ball, regardless of how far and in what direction it had been despatched. Falling into a rock pool or getting entangled in the profusion of seaweed were no barriers to their enthusiasm.
On a more serious note, it was heartening to learn that you could still play an innocent game in public with a group of children that you had never met before, without being accused of wanting to take salacious photographs of, or interfere with, them. In fact, the parents seemed content to allow them to play, even the mother who was called upon to console her ten year old when he retired hurt after being hit on the left thigh by one of my rising 80mph inswingers.
The only poignant moment arose when one small boy advised me, with evident pride, and in hushed tones, that the reason his brother was scoring so freely with quasi-classical strokeplay and bowling off a run up that started just to the left of the Goodwin Sands, was because “he PLAYS cricket”.
The game lasted nearly three hours, interrupted only by obligatory lunch and tea intervals, dictated more by my need for regular rest than by the tyranny of the clock. Each succeeding resumption of play appeared to draw even more players until the insistent tide washed the wicket away.
So beach cricket is alive and flourishing in the cradle of the game, not quite the High Weald, but still in God’s own county. Next stop on the campaign trail is likely to be the East Cliff Sands in Folkestone, a firm wicket similar to the one played on today, though that may have to wait until later in the summer.