Cricket's still the ticket, but British sports sagging

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

June 24, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON — An article in Thursday's Sun said that England's soccer team had failed to qualify for next year's World Cup. Actually, England's chances are still hanging in abeyance.

The Sun regrets the error.

LONDON -- It was a perfect day for cricket. There was sun. The grandstand at Lord's was a sprinkle of Panama hats, protecting men in white shirts.

William brought bread, cheese, Parma ham. David had beer, but it was warm. Nigel's binoculars wobbled. Nothing is perfect: An English picnic isn't right unless some of the crockery is cracked. It took a while to learn that.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

This was a continuation of a test match between England and Australia, and England was hundreds of runs behind with little hope of catching up.

These are not good times for English sport. The cricket team had lost its last six test matches (contests between countries). This was to be number seven. Last year they were sacrificed by Pakistan right here at Lord's, this shrine to the most English of sports. Later, in India, they were turned into curry by the fast bowlers of the subcontinent.

And it's not only cricket. The Grand National steeplechase fell apart this year in the hands of its own inept stewards. After two bad starts, the race was declared void. "England's Shame," screamed the headlines.

The rugby team lost to New Zealand. The soccer team failed to qualify for World Cup play next year in the United States. They were even beaten by the U.S. team. So chagrined were they by that, people wouldn't even speak of it. They only shook their heads and muttered, "Even the Yanks?"

But that day at Lord's held some hope. Mike Atherton was batting for England and doing well. Spirits were buoyant. The beer flowed, and one could hear the pop of champagne corks.

England wasn't going to win; it had become a matter of making the defeat respectable, and to that end Atherton was slowly accumulating runs. All around one heard the tentative exclamations of the English fans. "Good show! Jolly good!"

And those of the Australians: "Awthhhaeeaae!" Or something like that. It would get louder as the fans from Oz made more pints of lager disappear.

Cricket is not usually very exciting. Maybe it's not meant to be. Some Englishmen look on it less as a sport than as an element of culture. You take it in the expectation you will be improved by the experience. But don't get excited; easy does it. Good advice for a match that lasts seven hours.

"Civilized," Nigel would say, sucking his pipe. "Civilized."

About 1:30 p.m., the match stopped for lunch. We went to the grass, as thick as a Persian carpet. Weeds are not permitted in the sacred precincts of Lord's.

When play resumed, Atherton had nearly 70 runs. He was heading for a "century," 100, which would be a little less rare than, say, seeing a grand slam home run. It still wouldn't have been enough to bring England within tying distance of the Aussies, but he was clearly firing the team. Mike Gatting also started scoring.

Teatime began near four. Back on the grass, William produced some moist and sugary cakes, the last thing in his bag. Nigel, the bearded polymath, initiated a discussion of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. All joined in. Then he talked of Lord's deep tradition. The first match was held in 1787. Lord Byron played here. The Long Room contains memorabilia of two centuries of the game, even a stuffed sparrow, killed by long drive (a six) by a famous cricketeer, now himself dead as the bird.

About an hour after teatime, something exciting happened. Mike Atherton was run out one short of his "century." It was a heart-pounding moment, almost like a runner being tagged out at home on a throw from center field. The English fans cheered, sportingly. The Australians detonated.

David, William and Nigel wanted to learn about baseball, to compare the two sports that involve bat and ball, both incomprehensible to those not raised with them.

Next year, they were told, they could probably make the comparison themselves: Major League baseball would open at Lord's for the first time.

On hearing this, they all went a little pale, and second thoughts about their previous ecumenism became evident.

"At Lord's?" asked Nigel, incredulously.

"It's in the paper. The contract's signed."

"At Lord's. . . . "

Could things get worse?

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