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 a quintessential national institution that stands proudly alongside Changing of the Guard, Wimbledon, Glastonbury and losing on penalties in the World Cup. Given its iconic place in the British psyche, I am surprised that Carry on Umps was not on the roster of these saucy holiday postcard comedies. Sid James would play the home captain as Barbara Windsor (the chairman’s daughter) brings round the home made buns: There’s a couple hanging off the edge, darling. To which the redoubtable Ms Windsor would reply: Ooh ‘ark at ‘im. You ought to keep that bat raised longer than you did last night. Happy days.
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 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 to come away from a League match feeling satiated after treading carefully around a minefield of sausage and 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 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.
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 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.
Set against a backdrop of framed black and white photographs of the visiting nineteen-sixty-four Australian tourists who shared the same pavilion space, this masterclass in presentation and content is beyond the wit of the majority of clubs I visit. What used to be a home-made loaf with an ample filling of cheddar and pickle has morphed into a white-sliced Savers with a 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 one commissioned Grace Kelly and Prince Rainer for their wedding. These days I am confronted with a paper plate of Savers custard creams and mini-rolls invariably spelled incorrectly.
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 he is savouring the delights of Jammy Dodger. The cost of plastic tablecloths, bread from the local bakery (or even the supermarket 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? Cricket teas are winning the arms race carbs war by a distance.
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 tea. 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.
But there is more to a cricket tea than the quality of sandwiches and Royal Dalton receptacles. It’s tough out in the middle and I need the tea interval to provide me with the enthusiasm and vigour that I had when we started at one o’clock. The last thing I need is to rush the tea, however late we may be. Sometimes tea feels like a relentless pursuit of the clock like the Fritz Lang classic film Metropolis, with players walking around looking for a vacant seat, and a frenetic atmosphere of eating and catching up on social media through smartphones.
Let’s calm down and respect the game by having a civilised half-hour tea with polite conversation and a properly made cuppa. Such breaks complete the day and leave me feeling refreshed and ready for whatever the next three hours throw our way, especially if the groundsman played by Bernard Bresslaw comes in to the pavilion shouting Anyone seen my big brush?