Today (June 27) in London History – “Cricket is basically baseball on Valium”

New Zealand played its first ever test match at Lords on June 27, 1931. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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Story time. History time.

A couple of weeks ago England took a 4-0 pasting from Hungary in a UEFA Nations League match. What compounded the misery – for England supporters – was it was an away game for Hungary. England were playing at home. Made the thumping they took that much more embarrassing. 

Now I’m just going to take a minute or so and do a bit of translation for American listeners. The game was what pretty much everybody in the world – the United States maybe excepted – calls football. Soccer, as it used to be known to American ears. UEFA is an acronym. It stands for the Union of European Football Associations. In American parlance that would probably be leagues. The Nations League is – we have it from Wiki – “a biennial international football competition contested by the senior men’s national teams of the member associations of UEFA,  the sport’s European governing body. Major cultural difference here. For their main sports – American football, baseball, basketball – Americans don’t really do national teams. Ok, I suppose the Olympic basketball team but that’s only once every four years. And even the All Star baseball teams are not “national” because they’re two different teams, the American League team and the National League team. And same goes for the American football Pro Bowl game, those two teams are made up of the best players from the 16 teams in each of the two NFL conferences. You’d never describe one or the other of those two teams as the American team. They’re both American teams. The quadrennial Olympics basketball competition excepted, there’s just no such thing as an American national team in baseball, basketball or American football. It’s a foreign notion. It doesn’t compute. But everywhere else in the world, the national side – we’re talking football here (soccer as it used to be known to Americans) – is a very big deal indeed. 

Ok, so that’s the translation. Let’s get back to what happened at Molineux Stadium in mid-June. Molineux Stadium, if anybody’s wondering, is in Wolverhampton in the Midlands. As I said, playing at home, in a Nations League match against Hungary, England got trounced, 4-0.

Twelve hours later my eye was caught by the way one of the national newspapers headlined the story. The quadruple headline read:

England humiliated by Hungary.

Fans turn on Southgate’s limp side.

Worst home defeat since 1928.

Manager: [here they quote the England manager Gareth Southgate] “It’s very painful.”

Well, as headlines go, I thought, that’s not bad at all. I especially liked that adjective “limp” as in Fans turn on Southgate’s limp side.

Though the verb in the headline that got top billing was also a humdinger: England humiliated by Hungary.

It’s taken me a long time to learn to read – however imperfectly – the national response here to football, get an idea of just how important it is. It’s a complicated complicated business. Football was invented here. And they sent it round the world. It may be their most successful export. But because they invented it they seem to feel a certain amount of proprietorship. We own this game, that sort of thing. And it rankles that other countries – other national sides – often do it better. Every time the World Cup hoves into view expectations are sky high – and, I’m afraid, time and again, they’re disappointed. You saw it in that Euro 2020 slogan, “it’s coming home.” It’s coming home is England’s official World Cup Anthem. It hearkens back to England’s winning the World Cup in 1966. And at the same time it’s saying, “our time has come again, we’re going to win a major international championship at home.” It’s coming home. And the yearning and hope and fervour in that song – it was originally a song – that slogan, it’s akin, really, to heartfelt religion. It’s got the force and urgency and need of the second coming. And of course the bad news is England just keeps falling short. Praying for it, chanting, singing, lusting for it, believing it’s coming home doesn’t get it home. It doesn’t come home. So I think maybe the sense of disappointment here – the sense of dashed hopes – is perhaps greater here than anywhere else in the world. The history is so potent – and it’s the problem – it’s the albatross round the national neck – the business of this country having invented football. England being the home of football.

Anyway, that’s all by way of a bit of a preamble. I was so taken with that headline that I sent it to our great American pal, Jim Albritton, the Mississippi filmmaker. Jim’s very bright. He’s quick. He’s fun. And he sent back a very American response. He said – this in response to that 4 nil scoreline – Hungary 4 – England nil – “A team scored more than a point in a game? I could start to get interested in this sport.”

A supremely American response. I understand it completely. And I’ve had English friends explain to me why a 1-nil scoreline is a really wonderful thing. And I look at them and I sort of get it – but truth be told, not entirely. It’s a cultural difference.

And by a roundabout way that brings us to this Today in London History event. And, yes, it’s another sporting event. It started on this day, June 27th, 1931. At Lord’s, the Yankee Stadium of London cricket grounds.

It was New Zealand’s first test match in England. 

And definition time again for my compatriots: a test match is a championship game or series (as of cricket, for example) played between teams representing different countries.

So in this case, the two countries were England and New Zealand. And – bears repeating – on June 27th, 1931 New Zealand’s first test match in England got underway, in London, at Lords.

Now, hand on heart time again, cricket is an even more impenetrable mystery to this Yank than football.

But thinking of Jim Albritton’s sense of wonderment at four scores in that England v Hungary match – a team scored more than once, hey, there may be something in this sport for me – well, you know that sensation of being spun round and round as a kid and getting really dizzy and having trouble standing up, well, this spinning party doesn’t end with that 4-nil scoreline at Molineux Stadium – it’s time to give you a couple more whirly twirlies – namely the score of the first New Zealand test match in England. Ready? I’m going to quote from the newspaper. Not least because this defies translation. Here we go.

New Zealand batted first and at the end of the first day the scores were: New Zealand, 224; England, 190 for seven. Then, the New Zealanders’ batting, on the second day, yielded 161 for two wickets. On the third day New Zealand brought their second innings total to 469 for 9 and declared. England then made 146 for 5. The result, therefore, was a draw.” 

Jim Albritton, I expect to hear from you sometime in the next few hours. 

And a Today in London recommendation: Has to be a Lord’s Cricket Ground Tour.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just the right size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

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It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a blockbuster question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do what you have to do to attract and keep elite, all-star guides. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason we’ve got a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality – it’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Guide of the Year Award winners… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

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And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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