Exploring the pleasures and tribulations of cricket in West Scotland, and its key moment in international football history.
The first international football fixture…on a cricket ground
In November 1872 the first official international football match took place between Scotland and England at West of Scotland Cricket Club’s ground in Partick, Glasgow. It was, predictably, a 0-0 draw, and was watched by 4,000 spectators who paid a shilling to watch. It is reported that there was a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere and it was not until the 1970s that the fixture adopted the more hostile tones of the Auld Enemy rivalry.
Today the ground, pavilion and surrounding buildings are still recognisable from the drawings of the match and the earliest photos of cricket at the ground. The West of Scotland continues to be one of the big cricket clubs in Glasgow and the ground is in a low-key, leafy part of the city overlooked by typically grand sandstone buildings.
It is a curiously-muted celebration of a moment in sporting history, a moment that was the first step on the path that led to the development of the World Cup and the Euros, Fifa corruption, the pubs packed with singing fans, media saturation, relentless marketing and rampant commercialism to the point where the economy loses billions if England don’t qualify for a summer tournament. It threads to the current torment of abject failure and embarrassment in qualifiers and tournaments for both Scotland and England and it all started on a cricket pitch in a quiet corner of West Glasgow.
Cricket in West of Scotland
At this time of the year throughout West Scotland bats are being oiled, boxes checked and whites that have been left to compost and fester unwashed during the winter are being hurriedly washed. The cricket season is about to splutter, depending on friendlies and weather, into life on grounds hidden away in unremarkable and semi-reclusive pockets of Glasgow or in full glare of busy through-fares and main roads.
Inventing cricket to feel eternity
Glasgow is infamous for its football, but its cricket goes back to the early 19th century. The city provides clubs for the Scottish regional and national leagues sustained in the modern age by Scots, Scottish Asians, English, and students and workers from Commonwealth countries. Despite this, the recent run of poor summers has decimated playing seasons to the point where being a cricketer in the West of Scotland has almost become a grim definition of existential pointlessness. It causes men, and occasionally women, to obsessively scan the skies, monitor the weather forecasts on numerous devices and huddle together to stare down at rain-flayed puddles on the pitch, as if trying to divine some mystical answer to something more than the prospect of play for the day. George Bernard Shaw once quipped that “the English are not very spiritual people, so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity.” On Shaw’s notion the Scots know more about eternity from foul weather than from a sport invented on a damp island whose climate, in typical British irony, is frequently ill-suited for play.
Cricket: the fantasy and the reality
West Scotland cricket does occasionally follow the old fantasy of village cricket in idyllic settings with convivial banter, home-made cake for tea followed by rounds in the clubhouse. It enables travel around corners of Scotland with an odd assortment of companions thrown together by the love of the game. Gatehouse of Fleet’s secluded ground is found in the middle of bluebell carpeted Dumfriesshire woods overlooked by a couple of twee woodsman-style cottages with smoke drifting from the chimneys. It’s like a Grimm’s fairy tale, when silence falls after everyone has gone you expect fairies to brush the pitch and restore order for the next match. There is also a touch of Alice in Wonderland as the field crazily see-saws and curves, the captain can enjoy the visual pleasure of sending a fielder to one part of the boundary where the ground falls away so sharply only his head can be seen. Gourock ground is high up on the hills overlooking the Clyde estuary where you can watch the weather roll in and out, and, once in a while, the sight of a nuclear submarine nosing its way towards the Faislane base. The Elie cricket ground in Fife is famed for matches played on the beach in between tides while playing Bute involves a pleasant ferry trip to a lush green island.
On the other side of the coin matches take place in inner city parks, outer dead zones of anonymous towns that could be anywhere, or cheap and functional sports centres. In the inner city parks dog walkers stroll across the field of play; drunk Buckie-maddened neds decide they want to join-in and Tartan Army fans stop by on their way to the football and provide a boisterous good-natured barracking. Strolling teenage girls catcall and jeer while janitors lord it over their fiefdoms of concrete bunker changing rooms and, used to the precise hours of football matches, throw out your clothes and possessions hours before the end of the match to lock-up on their time. In the field you survey the dog crap and broken glass glittering in the grass and decide it’s perhaps best not to go for any diving catches.
During the season in the basement league one can look forward to occasional triumph, arguments, bleak comedy, batting creases disappearing into quagmires, stomach cramp from too much tea and the frustrating despair as to why brilliant play in nets practice turns to such chronic ineptitude in matches. There will be the teas provided by Scottish Asian teams with baskets of pakora, bhajis and the delicious sticky sweet jalebi. There will be admiration for the Muslim players who abstain from eating and drinking while it is Ramadan, even on the occasionally hot long summer days. There will be characters like the wicket-keeper who lines his beer cans up like a slip cordon, gathers them up at the end of every over and carefully lines them up again, glugging away at lulls in the action. There will be long journeys to a away fixture where rain stops play after an hour. There will be sledging, cheating, terrible umpiring and poor gamesmanship that is forgiven and forgotten within hours while the failure of the home team to provide tea for two is the one crime that never is.
The magic of cricket
If you pass a game lingering late into a mellow summer’s evening of long shadows and warm sunlight you may see the evocative nature of cricket. A spell is cast when day has become transcendent and the players are simply enjoying the pure pleasure of the game. There is a tableau of crouching fielders, waiting batsman, and a bowler paused at his run-up. You sense that the players are utterly absorbed and the world has stopped at the boundary rope. The bowler runs-up and bowls, the batsman defends and calls no to his partner, a fielder springs into action and slings the ball to the wicket-keeper, there are some cries of encouragement then everyone settles back into the tableau. Cricket can be nerve-racking, edgy and heartless but its dawdling nature also has an ancient, eternal rhythm that has been going for centuries. The moods of cricket are magical to those who love the game, baffling to those who hate it.
The scene would be complete with a blazered old MCC buffer, gin-soaked and asleep in a deckchair, to murmur in his sleep “not tonight Agatha, Mr Tiger is sleeping”, then splutter awake and shout “oh well done boys. Play up, play up and play the game”. Sadly such buffers are few and far between in Glasgow.
Update: July 2013
I have come across a little more about the history of cricket in Scotland since I wrote this article.
Cricket was introduced to Scotland in the 18th century by English soldiers garrisoned after the 1745 rebellion. It’s why Scottish cities such as Edinburgh, Stirling, Aberdeen and Perth, cities with large garrisons, are considered traditional strongholds for Scottish cricket.
Scottish cricketers played an England XI in Edinburgh in 1849 – 33 years before the first international in football.
There are an estimated 180 cricket clubs in Scotland and 10,000 players play competitive cricket (according to a June 2013 BBC programme).
A number of Scots have played for England including Mike Denness and the infamous Douglas Jardine (of the notorious ‘Bodyline’ series)