Field of Dreams
In 1905, the Authors’ XI Cricket Club played its first game. The opening batsmen were Arthur Conan Doyle and PG Wodehouse (the former rather good, the latter hopeless and near blind). AA Milne and JM Barrie also put in their time at the crease before the team petered out with the coming of the Great War. More than a century later, the Authors’ XI was woken from its slumber by the literary agent and swing bowler Charlie Campbell. Now it has taken over our lives.
For most of us, this late-blooming cricketing adventure has come as a burst of unforeseen joy, as if the great umpire in the sky has offered us one last innings in the sun. We’d thought cricket was the preserve of the limber and youthful, left behind in an era of uncomplicated friendships and guilt-free sex. There’s always a moment during a game when I catch the eye of one of my team-mates – James ‘Biggles’ Holland or William ‘Alehouse’ Fiennes (yes, our nicknames are embarrassingly schoolboyish) – and a current passes between us, a moment of transport at the astonishing hand that fate has dealt us.
I’m one of the youngest – only Downton Abbey heartthrob Dan ‘Crawley’ Stevens has fewer runs on the board; the team’s average is in the mid-forties. Sebastian ‘Basher’ Faulks, anchor of our middle order, passed his half-century a while ago. We’re all writers of one kind or another, profoundly unathletic, bespectacled and portly, trailing unusual injuries and complex neuroses. It is hard to express the sense of camaraderie, of jubilant defiance that has knitted itself between this ragtag gaggle of balding men and our one, glamorous, female player, Kamila ‘Shamso’ Shamsie. We have even started winning. Last year, we took on the Japanese national side – ranked 37 in the world – and beat them. They heard our cheers in Tokyo. In February we won against a team of tea planters in the Sri Lankan highlands. Victories are rare and all the more cherished for it.
Of all the happiness that has come with the Authors’ XI’s first two seasons as a 21st-century concern, the greatest by far has been the opportunity to play at Wormsley, a ground so quintessentially British that only an American could have built it. John Paul Getty Jr – billionaire scion of the American oil dynasty – bought the house from descendants of Sir Adrian Scrope, one of the men who signed Charles I’s death warrant (and was hung, drawn and quartered by Charles II). On the 3,000-acre estate amid the undulating Chiltern Hills, Getty built a temple to cricket, the game that saved him from depression, addiction and the ghosts of a dissolute past.
The Seventies was a dark decade for Getty. In 1971 his second wife, Talitha, overdosed in a Rome hotel room, was rushed to hospital wrapped in a mink overcoat and died several hours later. In 1973, Getty’s eldest son, John Paul, was kidnapped in the same city by Calabrian gangsters. When Getty couldn’t get the ransom together, they hacked off John Paul’s ear and mailed it to his father (a postal strike meant that the ear sat in a package in a Rome sorting office for three weeks). John Paul was eventually released, but Getty descended into a depressive spiral, finally retreating into a life of gloomy reclusiveness.
It was a friend from his Sixties pomp who helped Getty beat his black dog. Mick Jagger was a neighbour on Cheyne Walk and, on summer afternoons, would come over to drink tea with the lonely billionaire. If there was a cricket match on, Jagger would ask to watch it. Here began an obsession that would shape the rest of Getty’s life. He began to visit Lord’s, cultivated cricketing friends – not only Jagger, but also Harold Pinter and John Major. He became close to the Old Etonian former captain of the England team, Sir George ‘Gubby’ Allen, whom Getty described as ‘like a father to me’. Getty even bought Wisden, the cricketing almanac. But Wormsley was his greatest act of veneration to the cricketing gods, his most sublime achievement. For seven years he toiled with a vast army of workmen to build the ultimate country-house cricket ground. Ninety thousand trees were planted, orna-mental lakes sunk, follies and ha-has sculpted. A mock-Tudor pavilion with an old red telephone box outside it conjures up Arcadian images of endless English summers. At Wormsley, a glass of Pimm’s is never more than a bat’s-length away.
That Wormsley has become the Authors’ XI’s second home is fitting. Getty’s other great love was books, and a castle-like wing of the house holds his library, a place of exquisite treasures – a Shakespeare folio, a first edition of The Canterbury Tales, Anne Boleyn’s psalte. We now host a regular festival at the ground – Words and Wickets – which raises money for First Story, the charity founded by William Fiennes.
The 2013 Words and Wickets game, against a team of actors and directors featuring Damian Lewis and Sam Mendes, saw perhaps the definitive Authors’ XI moment. Anthony ‘Doughnut’ McGowan, the most bespectacled and affable of us, had long spoken of the 99 he made aged 18 in 1983. He felt that somehow it was a metaphor for his life – the nearly man, now past it. That glorious day at Wormsley, as his family looked on and red kites cut angles through the air above him, Anthony, now 48, battered his way to a glorious century. The sight of him, on his knees, staring up into the kite-strewn heavens as the scoreboard ticked over to 100 will stay with me always. I cheered as if I’d hit the runs myself.
Anthony’s innings stand as a metaphor for everything that the Authors’ XI, and Wormsley, have brought us: unlikely successes scripted against glorious scenery, regular bursts of great joy, deep friendships that will last long after the umpire finally raises his finger on our game.
Alex Preston’s novel ‘In Love and War’ (£14.99, Faber & Faber) will be published in July.
David Gentleman's new book celebrates rural life
Spend a night at Downton Abbey
Garsington Opera at Wormsley
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