Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.One day late last year, a lifeboat weighed anchor from Swanage on the Dorset coast in England to give a solemn burial at sea to a cake. It was a surprising, but rousing ending to a long story.
This was also true of the third Test in Cape Town. More broadly, it was true of the entire Test summer. And this is a cricket story. Bear with me, the way we have remembered again to bear with Test cricket this summer. More than any other, it is a game whose destination is made rewarding by its journey, one crest after another, ridge and valley, swale and peak, a new horizon at every turn. Australia this summer has had the rare pleasure to travel hopefully and to arrive companionably in a rapturous place.
More than 30 years ago, on a washed-out day at Lord’s, 12 English friends with a fondness for cricket and warm beer formed the Riff Raff club. On a whim, they invited Test Match Special’s inimitable Brian Johnston to become president, since he so obviously shared their love of ”daftness, eating and drinking and, above all, cricket”.
Johnston agreed. On the Friday morning of each Lord’s Test, the Riff Raff club would present Johnston with a list of candidates potentially to succeed him, usually ”scurrilous” newsmakers of the moment. Shane Warne’s name appeared regularly. In the afternoon, the club would signal to Johnston his inevitable re-election by waving white handkerchiefs from the top of the Compton Stand, like puffs of Vatican electoral smoke.
All these rituals, Johnston would discourse upon on air, when lulls permitted. Being Test cricket, they did, frequently. It is the lulls that give meaning and gravity to the surges. On the last day in Cape Town, as South Africa tried to wait out Australia’s siege, the lulls became the point. Who would crumble first, irresistible force or immovable obstacle? The batterers or the battered?
A TMS conceit, as most know, is that listeners send in cakes for the commentators’ tea. On Johnston’s 80th birthday in 1992, the wife of a Riff Raff club member baked him a cake featuring an almost life-size pair of the brown and white Gatsby Spat shoes he wore to the cricket. Johnston liked it so much he refused to eat it, instead keeping it in his freezer and periodically reporting it intact. Test cricket’s timeliness makes it possible to have your cake and not eat it, too.
When Johnston died in 1994, the cake was an artefact at his funeral at Westminster Abbey, with a note thanking the Riff Raff club. Johnston’s wife, Pauline, succeeded him as president and came to every Christmas lunch for the next 18 years. She kept the cake in the freezer, once summoning the original baker to touch up some trim.
When she died last year, son Barry discovered the cake, and asked the Riff Raff club for instructions. After many pints, they became clear. Both Johnstons had been devoted presidents of Swanage Lifeboat. The cake would be sent off with full honours. The Swanage lifeboat crew were up for it, and so the still uncut cake was piped to its final resting place on the floor of the English Channel.
It is possible, I suppose, that this story appeals only to those of a certain age and temperament. Some cricket authorities would have you believe that Test cricket appeals only to a narrow and sentimental demographic anyway. And yet this summer, everyone seemed alive to it. Of course, it helped that Australia was winning. My English friend who told me about the cake was less enamoured as he left Australia. But you can be certain that he will be at Lord’s, pint in hand, on day one.
The eight Tests of summer displayed Test cricket in all its moods and humours and Sybil-esque personalities, except nailbiting. Australia’s seven wins all were by wide margins, and so was its single defeat. Only in Cape Town did the game’s third dimension, time, become a factor, excruciatingly, deliciously. But after the travail of the northern summer, for Australians, the fact of these victories was enough, their scale a bonus.
Importantly – I think – they have reasserted the primacy of Test cricket. Now administrators might be able to put their heart into what in recent years has sounded like a mournful platitude. Against these Test epics, the game’s other forms are more clearly defined as what they are: scale models. That is not to deny them their place and value in the fairground, nor their own virtues. Indeed, it might be possible after all for cricket to have its cake and eat it, too. But right now, Australians should take time to smell the roses, too, if that is not altogether a sensory overload.
The Riff Raff club sails now under the presidency of Derek Underwood. He knows about journeys. In nearly 700 first-class games, including 86 Tests, spanning 25 years, he took 2465 wickets, and made one century. The ton is like the cake, destined to far outlive him.