Cloudy with a chance of sun
Endless days of cricket (and fruity liqueurs) feature in memories of London summers past
I write this from the peak of the Delhi summer (my first as a resident), where steam seems to rise from the pavements even at 10pm. Hairy dogs lie listless in the noonday sun. Everything—from tree leaves to parked cars—is caked with a layer of dust. Each time I step out, I feel the hot air entering a million tiny pores on my face. Most evenings, breeze is only a memory.
What now feels like once upon a time, I lived through two summers in London. The London summer is the opposite of the Delhi one. One does not escape from it, one escapes to it. Unlike the summer of the north Indian plains, it does not ride in on a wave of inevitability. Each year, Londoners never fail to be pleasantly surprised by its sweet arrival. There are false starts—in my limited experience, a bright Thursday in mid-May followed by an entire weekend of the usual grey gloom—but an opportunity to put on “sunnies” and knock back a cold pint, al fresco, is not to be missed.
There is something hard-earned about the London summer, a prize for enduring months of rain and cold. People soften up and smile more and are keen to entertain. It is “as if the sun burn away all the tightness and strain that was in their faces for the winter”, to borrow the words of the late Trinidadian novelist and long-time London resident Sam Selvon.
Summer is the season for cricket. Grounds that were until recently frosty, dewy wastelands come alive with men and women in whites gliding over freshly mowed grass. In the case of the weekend player—England, after all, is the original home of the cricket dilettante—not quite gliding, but agreeably ambling along to the short boundary as opportunist batsmen scamper for a third run. Temporary heroes are everywhere, and summer is their time to shine.
There is an entire subgenre of cricket literature committed to romanticizing a summer season of amateur cricket—Marcus Berkmann’s accounts of captaining an incompetent but obsessive bunch are particularly good. The vagaries of the weather are as much a cause for exasperation and jubilation as the actual cricket. Cloudless blue skies turn an inky, foreboding grey without warning. Heavens that threaten to pour all morning clear miraculously as the players come out of the pavilion after lunch.
Summer is the time for banter. One balmy afternoon in late July, I had lapsed into dreams close to a boundary line on the lawns of the Fields in East London. I was woken by the sounds of a game that had commenced a few metres away. Most of the players in the bowling team were of Caribbean origin.
“Give de cherry some turn, bai. You a spin man or straight bowler, eh?”
“You gonna play at dat or no? My nani could’ve made hit of dat, mate.”
All through the English summer, it is not just birds and insects that one can hear chirping in and around the cricket fields.
Then, there is the professional cricket to look forward to. England typically hosts two international teams on full tours. The gold standard of domestic cricket, the County Championship, is played across the length and breadth of the country. Nowadays, the calendar even accommodates the slam-bang of a domestic Twenty20 competition.
But, the real attraction is Test cricket. Everything about it lends itself to comforting ritual. One gets on the Tube, bound for St John’s Wood station. The carriage has floppy-hatted old men—sensibly wearing blazers, for there is a nip in the air—straightening out the day’s papers to get cracking with the crosswords. The younger men are in open-collared blue shirts or pastel polo shirts, coloured shorts and sockless boat shoes. The ladies have on their dainty little summer dresses. Everyone carries a brolly.
Together, like genteel pilgrims, we exit the narrow turnstiles at the station and make our way purposefully down Wellington Road towards the “Home of Cricket”, the storied Lord’s Cricket Ground. I imagine us to be a congregation going to the opera. The sound of leather meeting willow on a mild-weathered day at Lord’s is a special kind of music.
Those of us without home-made picnic baskets may duck into the Tesco supermarket on Circus Road to pick up lunch sandwiches (Egg-Cress and Ham-Cheese-Pickle for me) and a can or two of Pimm’s, Britain’s favoured summer liqueur. In the ground, before the start of the day’s play, there is a palpable frisson of excitement. It causes us to talk about the weather in slightly shrill voices, in a tone that manages to convey both pomposity and resignation. We take it one ball at a time. If we try to curb our enthusiasm, it may not rain and we may get the full 90 overs.
Growing up in Mumbai in the 1990s, watching cricket on TV, I would wonder why the players were all wearing black-bordered sweaters (which the commentators called “jumpers”) if it was summer. Sweaters were for winter. As young children, I think we understand opposites largely in material, tangible terms: hot and cold, summer clothes (T-shirts and shorts) and winter clothes (jackets and sweaters). It is only later that we begin to view the world through the more amorphous conceptual binaries of the heart: home and away, insider and outsider, integration and ghettoization.
In April 1990, the Conservative politician Norman Tebbit suggested that South Asian and Caribbean immigrants who supported their native countries in Test matches against England had failed to be integrated sufficiently into British society and, therefore, posed a danger to it. The Tebbit Test, as it came to be known, continues to be cited in British public life discussions on multiculturalism and assimilation. What do they know who only cricket know, C.L.R. James famously wrote in his classic on colonialism and cricket, Beyond A Boundary.
The Tebbit Test might be the last thing on the minds of Virat Kohli and his team as they embark on their long tour of Old Blighty. Yet, it would be fair to say that they will bask in the balance of familiarity and anonymity that comes with a tour of England. Wherever they play—London or Leeds or Birmingham—they will find vociferous support and generous desi hospitality.
As for me, I will follow the series from Delhi. Hopefully, by the time the first ball is bowled in the T20I game in Manchester on 3 July, the rains will have provided the Capital some respite from the searing heat and swirling dust. As I watch the cricket, I will think of my personal history with the London summer, and dream—briefly—of living it again.
My sentimentality has already been forgiven by the cricket correspondent Paul Edwards, whose despatch from the season’s first county game has been, for the last few years, my marker of the start of the English summer. In July 2016—the month I watched Pakistan beat England from the Grand Stand at Lord’s—he had written: “Dreams may, indeed, take their time to arrive and be gone in a casual glance but that is no reason not to enjoy the reverie, be it a day at the cricket or the scent of a once-familiar perfume. Decembers come soon enough.”
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