Who in the name of God would bring a half-eaten eight-ounce jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise to a public meeting? (Tom Wolfe)
The great British cricket club tea is the kind of quintessential national institution that stands proudly alongside the Changing of the Guards, the Crown Jewels, Wimbledon and Glastonbury.
The image of a steaming tea pot (no, not a wretched urn), home-made scones, jam tarts, sandwiches generously filled with an assortment of egg, tomato, cheese, chutney and ham – all washed down with a proper cup of tea is embedded in cricket folklore. But as with much of modern life, for some clubs, the tea interval has become transformed from a delightful half-hour break of rest and merriment into a cricketing dystopia involving a 20-minute binge of comfort food purchased from the savings shelves of discounting supermarkets.
It is extremely rare to come away from a league match feeling satiated after treading extremely carefully around a minefield of sausage rolls, mini rolls, imitation Kit Kats and miserable white bread sandwiches which, had they been served in prison, would have precipitated a riot. And to compound the felony, some clubs feel no shame in presenting a cup of tea as some kind of capability test consisting of a tea bag, urn, plastic carton of milk (regularly UHT) with a sell-by date in Latin and the real touch of class – stir-it-yourself plastic spoon.
Is this desecration of a hallowed tradition really about saving money (an excuse I hear time and again from club officials)? Actually, no. There are some clubs who know how to do it right, and by that I am not only talking about the food. For me, the ceremony and organisation are equally important.
So when I am dispatched to a particular club that understands the difference between a Wetherspoons’ gut-wrenching curry and a Michelin Star pub lunch, I eagerly anticipate the assignment, because tea there is an experience to savour. After the delicious and bountiful rounds of sandwiches, the tea ladies (two or three mums and wives of the players) come round with trays filled with an appealing melange of scones, cakes and buns. “A slice of jam sponge umps? I made it myself.” The frisson is tangible as I hold out my plate: “Well if you made it yourself my dear, it would be impolite to refuse. My goodness, that’s a generous slice.”
But this kind of lavish tea set against a backdrop of framed photographs of the 1964 Australian tourists who ate in the same pavilion is sadly rare. For whatever reason, a white sliced savers loaf with a square of of processed cheese dumped on top of a discounted slab of margarine along with savers custard creams and processed sausage rolls does not leave a good taste.
As a bare minimum, every tea should include a table for umpires and scorers. I don’t particularly mind the queue for the smorgasboard but it’s a tad awkward sitting next to the village blacksmith half an hour after I sent him packing with a close LBW (especially while savouring the delights of a Lidl custard cream). The cost of plastic tablecloths, bread from the local bakery (or even the Tesco in-house version), teapots and home-made cakes is surely worth the expenditure. Can we also dispense with the paper or plastic plates and cups typically found and used in fast food outlets and replace them with appropriate cutlery and crockery? Do we really have to put up with chemically induced supermarket pizzas or sausage rolls? Why are salads and fresh fruit regularly banished from cricket pavilions? And what is the obsession with cheap crisps and Hula Hoops? As it stands, cricket teas are winning the arms race carbs war by a distance.
There are simple ways to improve the cricket tea. And it needs to start at the top. Just as there are guidelines for sightscreens and boundary markings, so there should be minimum standards for what constitutes a decent tea. Clubs could promote an initiative with a College and invite students on a Cookery Btec to provide teas; a local restaurant could provide ideas for a tea in return for catering a club’s AGM.
The issue here is clubs’ interpretations of an acceptable standard. I am not looking for PR gimmicks, rather I am looking for some clubs to raise their catering game so that there is a level playing field and standard that makes all the cricketing stakeholders happy. If the wicket plays like a minefield, we have a duty of care towards the players who may end up with a painful reminder of their afternoon’s entertainment. The same principle should apply to the tea. And for what looks like a great value tea made with attention to detail, here is what clubs should aspire to.