Who in the name of God would bring a half-eaten eight-ounce jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise to a public meeting? (Tom Wolfe)
I’m at the batter’s end for the last over before tea. I’m suffering from the heat and desperate for a cuppa. But there’s a problem – the home club teas are dreadful, both the quality of the food and logistics of eating it. I’ve been coming here for a good few years and the teas are enough under par to win the British Open. Today, I have brought my own packed tea made up of leftovers from last night’s magnificent vegetable quiche served up by Mrs Umps. Of course, I’ll join my colleague and the scorers at the tea table, and I’ll have two cups of tea, but until this club can sort out a decent tea, I’m not participating.
The British cricket club tea is a quintessential national institution that stands proudly alongside Changing of the Guard, Wimbledon, Glastonbury and losing on penalties in knockout stages of football tournaments. Given its iconic place in the British psyche, I am surprised that these teas were not on the Carry On roster of saucy comedies. Sid James would play the home team captain as Barbara Windsor (the chairman’s daughter) emerges from the pavilion kitchen with a tray of home-made buns. Sidney: There’s a couple hanging off the edge, darling. Barbara: Ooh ‘ark at you. I ‘ope you can keep that bat raised longer than you did last night.
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 for some clubs the tea interval has transformed from a delightful half-hour break of merriment into a cricketing dystopia involving a twenty-minute binge of comfort food purchased from the savings shelves of discounting supermarkets.
It is extremely rare for me to come away from a League match feeling satiated after treading carefully around a minefield of processed sausage rolls, imitation KitKats 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 bag shaped like a pyramid, a warm carton of milk (regularly UHT) with a sell-by date in Latin and the real touch of class; a stir-it-yourself plastic spoon.
Is this desecration of a hallowed tradition really about saving money (an excuse I regularly hear from club officials)? Actually, no. There are clubs who know how to do it right, and by that I am not only talking about the food – it’s the ceremony and organisation that whet my appetite.
Occasionally I am dispatched to a particular club that understands the difference between a Wetherspoon gut-wrenching curry and a Michelin Star pub lunch. I eagerly anticipate the assignment, because tea at this club is an experience to savour. It is cricket’s equivalent of the American Bar at the Savoy. After a sumptuous and bountiful round of sandwiches, the tea ladies – mums, wives and girlfriends of the players – bring out trays filled with an appealing melange of scones and cakes. Jam sponge umps? I made it myself. The frisson is tangible and I can feel a tear welling in my eye as I offer my empty plate: Well if you made it yourself my dear, it would be impolite to refuse. My goodness, that’s a generous slice.
Set against a backdrop of framed black and white photographs of a visiting touring side boasting some of the greatest names in cricket, this masterclass in presentation and content is beyond the wit of the majority of clubs I visit. What used to be a baked loaf with an ample filling of cheddar and pickle has morphed into a white-sliced square of processed plastic that has nothing to do with the dairy family. When I started playing League cricket, a home-made cake would boast more tiers than than the Albert Hall. These days I am confronted with a paper plate containing Savers custard creams and bourbons with a similar 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 have sent him packing with a close LBW, especially when the front of his cricket sweater has become a receptacle for a jammy dodger. Touches of some class like tablecloths, bread from the local bakery (or even the supermarket in-house version), teapots and home-made cakes is surely worth the expenditure. We should 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. We can surely replace chemically induced supermarket pizzas with salads and fresh fruit. And an obsession with the crisp family (especially Hula Hoops) is hardly a positive contribution to healthier eating.
I particularly like the entertainment served up by players performing synchronised slapstick as they shuffle along and fill their boots off a makeshift buffet. It’s like a cricketing version of the Fritz Lang classic Metropolis, a feeding frenzy as players devour platefuls of sugared confectionery before an obligatory session on the smartphone. I imagine them searching for emojis to accompany a photo they are posting on social media with the caption: Wicked tea.
It doesn’t need to be like this. Just as there are guidelines for sight screens and boundary markings, so there should be minimum standards for what constitutes a decent club cricket tea. Let’s calm down and respect the game by having a civilised half-hour with polite conversation and a proper brew. Such breaks complete the day and leave me feeling refreshed and ready for whatever the next three hours may throw our way even if the groundsman (played by Bernard Bresslaw) comes in to the pavilion crying Anyone seen my big brush?