Pinter's England – no finer sight

v Gaieties at Stoke Newington

“I used to get up at five in the morning and play cricket. I had a great friend who is still going – he lives in Australia – called Mick, Mick Goldstein. He used to live around the corner from me in Hackney, and we were very close to the River Lea, and there were fields. We walked down to the fields; there’d be nobody about – it would really very early in the morning, and there would be a tree we used as a wicket. We would take it in turns to bat and bowl; we would be Lindwall, Miller, Hutton and Compton. That was the life.”

This was Harold Pinter talking to Andy Bull in 2008, in what was to be his final interview. In his study was a full set of Wisden, an oil painting of him batting in the nets at Alf Gover’s cricket school in Wandsworth and pictures and memorabilia from his days with the Gaieties. There were echoes of it all on a Sunday afternoon on the edge of Hackney Marshes, an afternoon of torrid weather, crackling atmospherics and cricket to match.

Pinter came to the Gaieties through his coach at Gover’s, Fred Paolozzi. I first went to Gover’s school when I was twelve, and spent almost every winter Saturday there for the next four or five years. It was gas-lit and cold, and it seemed as though all human life was present. Alf’s son John ran the shop downstairs and coached occasionally, bowling immaculate, gentle inswingers from a perfect action. The bar was manned by Terry, who had a weekday side line hauling fridge-freezers around. Alf would emerge from his office in full whites and his England sweater to patrol the snooker table and its pay-as-you-go light, and he still coached too, round-armed now and calling the shot: ‘one to drive…’

My coach was a buccaneering Australian called Jim Cameron, who would occasionally be nursing what I now realise were towering hangovers for his early half-hour sessions, and sometimes ridiculously glamorous women came looking for him. He was attuned to cricket in the way that very good players are, picking up its distant signals. Everyone was treated the same at Alf’s, and one of the regulars was a man called Joe, who seemed ancient – fifty at least. He would arrive at lunchtime, spend the afternoon drinking brown ale at the bar and then have the last net at about 5.30, by which time he was smashed enough not to care how he batted. Being a kid and stupid, I didn’t grasp why Joe might be there every week. To me, there was no point in playing cricket unless you were going to be good at it.

I think of Joe quite often now, given that the Authors are regularly in combat with much younger opponents. We, or some of us at least, are the old guys over on Joe’s side of the bar, and the view is different from here.

The location for Sunday’s game had a slightly dreamy quality, a circle of ground on the farthest tip of the Southern Marshes, whose wide flats and distant goalposts were visible only from one end. The other was ringed by a path and trees and a branch of the river and felt more like the Hackney that Harold Pinter was describing to Andy Bull.

Assembling by the boundary, the current Gaieties looked young and certain. Campbell, on his birthday and with another year in the scorebook, lost the toss and Gaieties took first use of a used pitch. The onslaughts came, first from the bat, then the weather, a brief, skittering shower, then the bat again, the opening pair of stylish youngster Schnieder snapping crisply and wristily into his drives and Gwyn [check] Jones, severe on anything full or short.

Campbell, Holland, Beckman and Falk stood up well, but fine batting, a sleek outfield and short boundaries saw both openers pass fifty and beyond before the introduction of Andy Duff’s left arm spin eased an opening. Will Fiennes, head immaculately over hands as soft as a new-born’s, took two excellent catches from fine edges.

Shomit Dutta, tall and stooped in a sunhat and rimmed glasses, resembled a right-handed Clive Lloyd as he powered an entertaining 42, Duff – again – rattling his stumps just as the innings hovered on carnage. Holland returned to bag Ditnow, stumped, his gentler pace a reflection of nine tough overs and a Saturday spent searching for some non-existent river or other. A genuine youngster, Smout, somehow eluded Holland, and struck a couple beautifully before going to Beckman, the Gaieties calling their innings off at 234-5.

“Drama happens in big cricket matches. But also in small cricket matches. When we play, my club, each thing that happens is dramatic: the gasps that follow a miss at slip, the anger of an lbw decision that is turned down. It is the same thing wherever you play, really.”

This was Harold Pinter to Andy Bull again, words that echoed through the Authors’ reply. It certainly looked like proper cricket, Gaieties opening bowler Kelleher marking out a run halfway to the sightscreen, Authors’ openers Will Sutton and Tony McGowan surrounded by slips, gullies, short legs.

Kelleher got it through at good pace, McGowan pulled uppishly and was well held by Smout. In went Hemmings, by his own admission in the grip of hangover of Jim Cameron proportions, and battle was enjoined, Kelleher ripping a couple past the bat, Hemmings responding with four cover drives, supremely struck, in a single over: there’s nothing like a quick bowler to reinvigorate the senses.

At the other end, Davis bowled with less pace but more skill, moving it both ways and ending Hemmings’ brief but dashing knock with a brutal inswinging yorker.

Sutton and Hotten, who combined almost made up, alphabetically at least, Pinter’s hero Hutton, dug in until drinks, content to survive and accumulate.

The first ball after the break brought one of Harold’s angry LBW appeals, Hotten convinced he was struck outside the line, Dutta at slip disagreeing volubly, and as the Authors’ pair grew more expansive, the atmosphere tightened, the air got heavier, the clouds brewed rain. The required rate ticked down from eight to seven, and then Sutton perished to a brilliant throw from mid-off, Hotten to a good catch at deep square. Falk kept things on track with three quick boundaries, but the return of Davis saw the match swing once again. He bowled Falk, and then got Campbell with another fine Yorker, ending realistic thoughts of a chase.

Hogg and Fiennes were left with ten overs to get through. The rain swept back in, the light dimmed and Kelleher returned. Hogg, bristling, had words, the next overs tense until the skies broke and light returned. He and Fiennes fought through to the draw, a small match decided with true grit. That was the life.

Gaieties 234-5 (Schneider 72, Jones 67, Dutta 42; Duff 3-36); Authors 176-6 (Hotten 36, Sutton 32, Hogg 28*; Davis 3-24). Match drawn.

Rathbones moment: Chris Hemmings for his four boundaries in an over.