6th December 2012
In An Ordinary Spectator: 50 Years of Watching Sport, I list a “First XI” of Sporting Nano-dramas that I have witnessed over the last half-century. I refer to these as “the drama of the moment – of the micro-second – in which a defining characteristic of the sporting contest is revealed… It is in these moments that sport really makes the heart pound and causes the sharp intake of breath to be made”. The book’s examples cover incidents from rugby league, rugby union, cricket, football and golf and they involve, amongst others, Geoff Boycott, Martin Offiah and Payne Stewart.
An obvious question to ask, given the contents of the list, is: “Which sporting nano-drama would I most like to have seen, live and in the flesh, either during my period of sports spectating or in earlier times?”
There is a long list of possible candidates, of course: Jesse Owens crossing the line to win gold at the Berlin Olympics of 1936, Don Bradman’s duck in his final test match innings at The Oval in 1948, Roger Bannister breasting the tape for the first sub-four minute mile in 1954, Geoff Hurst’s controversial goal in the World Cup final of 1966, Johnny Wilkinson’s winning drop goal in the Rugby World Cup final of 2003… An impossible task to select only one, perhaps.
And yet I have a clear favourite. I would go back to Saturday 26th July 1947: the first day of the Fourth Test Match between England and South Africa at Headingley.
This was the first post-war test match to be played at Yorkshire’s headquarters, the previous game having been against Australia in 1938 when Bradman had made a mere 103 to follow his Headingley triple centuries of 1930 and 1934. The series stood at 2-0 to England with two matches to play. Norman Yardley, a Yorkshireman, captained the England team.
South Africa batted first and were bowled out for 175 allowing the England openers – Len Hutton and Cyril Washbrook – to begin the home side’s innings with an hour to play on the first evening. The scene is beautifully described in John Marshall’s Headingley, published in 1970:
“Hutton and Washbrook walked, apparently quite unconcerned, to the wicket. The crowd gave them all the encouragement of which a fervent Yorkshire crowd is capable, and that is plenty. After applauding the pair all the way to the wicket, there was a very special burst, taken up all round the ground, as Hutton took guard”.
The nano-drama I would most like to have witnessed is that moment when Len Hutton takes guard and the applause rings out from all corners of Headingley. 65 years on, I find it both immensely moving and hugely symbolic.
At one level, it was about Len Hutton and Yorkshire cricket. Although he had made his record test match score of 364 as long ago as 1938, the Second World War had of course severely interrupted Hutton’s career and the 1947 South Africa game was his first test match at Headingley. The Yorkshire crowd had come to cheer on their own son, much as they would do in a slightly different way – and as described in An Ordinary Spectator – when Geoff Boycott made his 100th first class century on the same ground against Australia in 1977.
But there was more to it, I think. It was also about a sporting occasion reflecting the society around it. By July 1947, the war in Europe had been over for over two years, but, for the British, there was now a stark realisation about the long economic struggle ahead. It was a time of austerity and rationing. The heavy rain that interrupted that year’s Headingley test match was an apt reflection of the greyness of the times.
However, it was also a period of hope. Hitler’s Germany had been defeated. Families had been re-united. A baby boom was underway. People could look forward to peaceful times. The policies being enacted by the post-war Labour Government – including the nationalisation of key industries and the creation of a National Health Service – would lead, it was believed, to the New Jerusalem.
Marshall’s “special burst” of applause, as Hutton was taking guard, reflected all these aspects of the Headingley crowd’s psyche: the pride in the local hero, the gratitude that they had survived the long ordeal of war, the desire that things revert to what they had once been, the hope for the future…
This particular nano-drama dates from some 14 years before the beginning of the narrative of An Ordinary Spectator. It was also 7 years before I was born, so I have some excuse for not being present. However, the writings of another readily create a poignant mental image of the occasion and its central character.
Len Hutton was dismissed for exactly 100 on the following Monday. (Sunday was a rest day). John Marshall states that, when Hutton reached his century, “[t]he noise of [an earlier] thunderstorm was a gentle rumble compared with Yorkshire’s tribute to the Pudsey lad”. England won by 10 wickets on the third day.