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Bats And Ballots - The History Of Parliamentary Cricket

Patrick Kidd on the history of parliamentary cricket (Alamy)

4 min read

The Lords and Commons cricket team has been a parliamentary fixture since the Victorian era. Patrick Kidd traces some of its hilarious history.

The cricketing career of Harold Macmillan is almost as celebrated as Geoffrey Boycott’s opera-singing, but in 1955, two years before he became prime minister, Supermac got to bat in front of a crowd of 3,000 at East Grinstead against an opposition who included a current England player.

Macmillan, then foreign secretary, went in at No 6 for a Lords and Commons team against a Stage XI in a match in aid of a Sussex almshouse and was out hit wicket for two. The politicians’ side included Gwilym Lloyd George, home secretary, Viscount Kilmuir, lord chancellor, and Walter Monckton, labour minister, who was bowled by a ball from Rex Harrison that bounced four times. John Mills and Richard Attenborough also turned out for the actors but Dickie went to hospital after being struck on the head by a ball hit by Walter Bromley-Davenport, MP for Knutsford. His injury allowed the actors to give their star “ringer”, Denis Compton, another go when the England batsman was bowled second ball. Heavily made-up, he returned as “Denis Pastry” and made 32.

Ringers have long featured in Lords and Commons games, from the first recorded match against I Zingari in 1850, when John Wisden, one of the best bowlers in the country and later founder of the eponymous “almanack”, took nine wickets as an honorary politician, to one this summer when Matt Hancock captained L&C against a charity team featuring the former England spin bowler Monty Panesar.

Generally, though, the side has consisted of cross-party members of both Houses (and both sexes, with Angela Eagle and the late Cheryl Gillan also keen to play) and parliamentary staff like Brian Mustill, who for years was a Downing Street policeman and opening bowler. Tom King kept wicket and roped in the Special Branch minders he had from his time as Northern Ireland Secretary. Apparently he would request bodyguards according to the team’s needs. “This week could I have a slow left-arm bowler and a middle-order batsman?”

For 30 years one of the more dependable bowlers was Richard Heller, former chief of staff to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman, who had an eccentric windmill action that fooled batsmen. Heller recalls that when he joined the team in 1980, it had the air of a 1950s county side, in that Tory MPs and peers tended to be the batsmen and dogsbodies like him were brought in to bowl and run around in the field.

Over the years, the side has toured countries like South Africa, where they lost a ball after it was swallowed by an ostrich; India, where they were beaten by their hosts’ parliamentary team featuring two Test match openers; and Morocco, where the arrival of English cricketers brought a sudden and heavy end to a drought. Part of their mission on these tours is to distribute free kit to needy teams and raise money for charity.

Lord Lisvane, who played as a Commons clerk when he was Robert Rogers, recalled that “oceans of Pimm’s lubricated play” and created a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Nicholas Soames used to smoke a cigar while fielding while Michael Cocks, the Labour chief whip in the 1970s, allowed absences from votes to play for the club even during the minority government. Harold Wilson once called the Vincent Square pavilion during a match and was told that Cocks, an unskilled player, had just gone out to bat. “I’ll hold,” Wilson replied.

The desire to get one over the Australian parliament in 2018, however, led to one British MP being sledged by his own team-mate. Needing two to win off the last ball, Guy Opperman mis-hit it to square leg and set off sedately. “Run faster, for f***’s sake,” Chris Heaton-Harris shouted as he completed his second run while his partner was still turning with a speed that was compared to the Queen Mary. “This is true,” Opperman conceded recently, “but we still won.”

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Read the most recent article written by Patrick Kidd - Lords reform: Backwards, not forwards