Cricket is not renowned for embracing change. The introduction of the middle stump, overarm bowling and Kevin Pietersen were all greeted with great suspicion. But now the biggest change of the lot is proposed. Forget the Hundred: the traditional cricket tea is under threat.
This summer, as a result of guidelines to tackle Covid-19, amateur cricketers were not able to use changing rooms, shine the ball with saliva or sweat, or enjoy the customary tea provided by the home club. Now the Sussex League is voting on whether to make
tea voluntary next season for its 140 clubs. They will decide whether the home team should provide the cakes and sandwiches that players and officials have come to expect in the interval between innings. The clubs have already voted once (against compulsory tea, 114 to 89) but another ballot is due. Perhaps detecting excessive Russian influence, the Sussex League chairman wrote ‘we cannot say with absolute certainty that the process was immune from the possibility of inaccuracies’.
Football has its half-time oranges and darts its pints of lager. But cricket’s tea interval remains a sporting oddity. Asterix in Britain captured this beautifully, as the Britons stopped fighting against the Romans at five o’clock each afternoon to go and drink hot water with a spot of milk. It makes no sense for cricketers to stop play and feast on the sort of food that would give a sports nutritionist nightmares. Cricket is a game of relative inactivity interspersed with moments of explosive action. A bellyful of Victoria sponge is exactly what you don’t need when opening the bowling after the break.
Players’ motivations vary, however. I captain a writers’ team of mixed ability and we usually play sides like us — actors, priests, publishers. Once we played the national side of Japan. I dropped the historian who usually opened our attack and brought in the former England bowler Ed Giddins. We won, thanks largely to our newcomer and the home conditions. Our regular opening batsman still reminds me that he didn’t bat, bowl or even touch the ball in the field that day. Tea was all he had. He is not alone in this. Many players will find greater enjoyment at the tea table than at the crease. Cricket is a cruel game in which you can be out first ball of the day, with six hours of play remaining.
The secret of club cricket is to balance competitiveness with conviviality. Tea is a big part of that, allowing both sides to mix. Many clubs do this well. Others don’t. Much of it comes down to money. Running a cricket club is hard work and providing a substantial meal for at least 25 people at the weekend is a thankless task for a captain, particularly when the dietary requirements come flooding in. Well-funded sides can pay someone for teas. Others rely on volunteers to bake cakes and make sandwiches. Some just send the youngest player to Iceland.
This threat to cancel tea has roused many. But just how traditional is it? The fictional feast in Hugh de Selincourt’s The Cricket Match — complete with both cucumber and paste sandwiches, and plates of small cakes — took place in 1921 but the idea of tea during the innings interval was introduced only a couple of decades earlier by a touring side. Traditionalists are actually fighting for an Australian import.
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