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County cricketers conversant with TS Eliot will already know that April is the “cruellest month,” though he was on about the return of life and sensation after winter’s dulling effect, rather than the cold Siberian blasts that have seen players of the summer game so far improvising to stay warm.
The most striking image of this was the sight of Peter Siddle bowling in a dark blue beanie last week, for Essex against Hampshire at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton. It made the game look mickey-mouse, like a practice match, but with the temperature barely nudging 5C degrees, Siddle was clearly more interested in staving off hypothermia than looking like a first-class cricketer.
Such a move 20 years ago would have seen missives whizzing back and forth from Lord’s as to whether or not Siddle’s headgear constituted bringing the game into disrepute, practicality never being a sound enough reason to disobey the game’s conventions, written or otherwise.
Interestingly, the beanie appeared to have an Essex badge on it which must mean, firstly, that they are standard issue (presumably for pre-season training); and secondly, that they are marketed with the intention of being sold to the public. “Get yer Essex helmets, caps, sunhats and beanies here.”
At the risk of accusing Siddle of being a wuss, Essex have played in far colder conditions, at least for part of the game. The occasion in question was against Cambridge University at Fenner’s in 1981 on 22, 23 and 24 April, the ground being a renowned icebox that time of year whenever Easterlies blew in from Russia.
The air temperature during the Cambridge innings was 0C degrees. At one point, Ray East, Essex’s spinner, ran off to borrow a long trench coat from a spectator, and there were a few of those hardy souls even then. I’m pretty sure Easty wore a bobble hat, too, though he didn’t have the temerity to bowl in one unlike Siddle.
Looking like a lost soldier, East stood at cover for several overs until Don Oslear, the senior umpire, got the message and offered us the chance to go off under a clause citing “harsh and unconscionable conditions”.
I was batting for Cambridge at the time and as it was my muckers from Essex, I agreed to Oslear’s offer, though I probably would not have done so for any other county. If the fielders and bowlers were grateful, the Test and County Cricket Board were not impressed. To them, “harsh and unconscionable” did not mean cold and Oslear was given a severe telling off for his liberal interpretation of the playing regulations.
Staying warm on a cricket field in an English April, given the longueurs in the field, can be a challenge. Of course there are the lovely woollen cable-knit sweaters, but there is a limit to how many of those a player can wear before all mobility was restricted. It used to be that clubs only handed out two, a short-sleever and and a long sleeved one, with replacements provided only after the moths had got them. These days, modern equivalents notwithstanding, you get new ones every time the club changes sponsor.
Multiple sweaters were also handy when a point against officialdom needed to be made, as on the occasion when umpire Oslear made Essex go out to bowl two overs at the end of a match. It was power mad behaviour, the game having been heading for a draw even before bad light had wiped out most of the final session.
The seven minutes that Oslear deemed remaining, would have needed two overs to fill it, but with bowlers having already showered and changed, and therefore not keen to get fully kitted up again for action, Brian Hardie hatched an idea where he would fill the remaining time with just one over.
To achieve this he put on five sweaters and, looking like the Michelin Man, bowled the first ball, though how it got the other end nobody knows. After which, and channeling his inner stripper, he took off the first of his sweaters and handed it, with great ceremony, to Oslear. He then bowled a second ball, removing a second sweater and so on until the over was completed, by which there was no time left for another.
The crowd which had remained loved it. Hardie, though, sweated profusely, the match, at Southchurch Park in Southend, being in July.
Another way Essex’s players would keep warm back then was to wear ladies’ tights, and, no, the team were not renowned cross-dressers, wacky though most of them were. Thermals were in their infancy then and expensive. With players having to buy their own playing clothes anyway, ladies tights, and they were no doubt advised on this by wives and girlfriends, were a cheap option.
By the time I’d left the club chemical hand-warmers were being used, extensively, one of the chief hazards of cold weather being bones broken in the slips due to half-hearted attempts at catching a hard ball seemingly made more lethal by the cold.
Essex lucked out in this regard as Peter Such’s brother was a pharmacist who supplied us with boxes of the things. This was high-tech, comprising teabag-like packages you could put in your pocket along with any hands that needed warming. Of course when I was at school, hands in the pockets of your cricket whites was forbidden and I was once punished for doing so despite my excuse that the wind was far too cold for a boy from Nairobi.
In Victorian and Edwardian times, cricketers were quirkier in their accoutrements as a quick look at any team photo will show, with sweaters of all shapes, styles and sizes. Cravats and neckerchiefs were also de rigueur, with England captain Freddie Brown particularly fond of the latter.
When it was cold, scarves would have been the neckwear of choice, though in some county dressing-rooms, like the Nottinghamshire one under Arthur Carr in the Twenties, brandy would also have been taken to stir the blood and warm the body.
Although every cricketer will want a warm May, the cold can have its benefits. In 1991, England played the West Indies at Headingley and beat them, the first time they had done so in a home Test since 1969.
That match began on June 6, and it was perishing (in 1975 it had once snowed during a Championship match in June at Buxton, Derbyshire). That meant West Indies formidable bowling attack never really settled as they couldn’t get warm. They were still a handful on a tricky pitch, one only Graham Gooch was able to handle with an unbeaten 154 in England’s second innings.
That series was shared 2-2 and was the first sign that the West Indies’ era of dominance, which stretched back to 1980, had begun to wane. They didn’t actually lose a Test series until 1995, when they went down to Australia in the Caribbean, but this was the first time they’d showed they were vulnerable in a generation and it all began in the Yorkshire cold.