Howzat for Hospitality

Staunch medium-pacer Bill Knott recalls a time when cricket’s hallowed tea break took on a devious tactical hue

By Bill knot with illustration by Wesley Merritt

July 25 2019

This is a vintage year for cricket. Not only are we in the middle of the World Cup, but England are narrow favourites to regain that precious urn that Australia took from them in the Ashes in 2018.

Cricket is the only sport civilised enough to be structured around meal breaks – lunch and tea, to be specific.

The lunch served to the players in the Lord’s Pavilion used to be cooked by a small, fierce Irishwoman called Nancy Doyle, who had the Herculean task of keeping Mike Gatting’s plate full. England captain Mike Brearley once complained that she overfed his players. She jabbed him in the chest with a sharp finger and said, “If you don’t tell me how to bloody cook, I won’t tell you how to bloody bat.” Nancy’s legendary roasts and stews have gone the way of all flesh, sadly.

Players now have personal nutritionists and tailored diet sheets, something unimaginable even a generation ago. Harold Larwood – one of England’s greatest fast bowlers of the Thirties, renowned for his “bodyline” style – would warm up for bowling with a few pints of beer; more recently, Aussie legend Shane Warne regularly terrorised England’s batsmen on a diet of toasted cheese sandwiches and cigarettes. Happily, the amateur game still puts on a good spread, and nowhere more so than in Devon’s village cricket clubs.

I used to tour there every year with a London pub team, and the teas laid on by the local womenfolk were superb. Our most keenly contested match of the Devon tour was always against Clyst Hydon, a team who, after years of renting a pitch, finally scraped together enough money to buy their own ground and build a pavilion. Our first match at their new home was memorable, in particular for The Curious Affair of the Clyst Hydon Tea Rota.

"Cricket is the only sport civilised enough to be structured around meal breaks – lunch and tea, to be specific"
"Cricket is the only sport civilised enough to be structured around meal breaks – lunch and tea, to be specific"

I was captaining our side for the first time, my presence relying less on my trundling medium pace bowling and utterly hapless batting than on my ability to keep the scorebook and throw a reasonably straight dart after a few pints. Captaincy was far above my pay grade. I threw myself in to the task, up much of the night before changing bowlers and setting fields.

The new pavilion was a thing of beauty. The bar held a firkin of beer on wooden chocks; trestle tables creaked under the weight of a gargantuan spread, protected by damp tea towels.

We batted first, and posted a decent total, declaring, as is the custom, at teatime. The Clyst Hydon tea was the highlight of the tour, but that year’s spread was even more lavish than usual. Their captain explained that there had been a mix-up in the tea rota, with the result that every woman in the village had baked a cake or a plate of scones. I thought nothing of it, happily chomping on thick-cut ham sandwiches, slathered with mustard; toying with crumbly, rich fruitcake and scones topped with clotted cream and strawberry jam (in that order – we were in Devon, not Cornwall), all washed down with a pint or two of Otter Ale.

Had I been more vigilant, I would have noticed that our opponents, generous to a fault in handing out cakes and pulling pints, were far more abstemious than our lads; sipping tea, nibbling on cucumber sandwiches.

As I later discovered, it was all a fiendish ruse: Fill the other side up with beer, sandwiches and
cake, and wait for the results. The inevitable happened. None of my carefully-laid plans for victory stood a chance. Our demon fast bowler was reduced to the pace of a snail, his athletic frame wrestling unsuccessfully with beer and cake; meanwhile, our catastrophically arthritic fi elders lumbered about like bears. Clyst Hydon won at a canter, our sole success being a freak run-out, the ball rebounding from short legs’ distended stomach onto the stumps. We were utterly humiliated.

Appalling greed and skulduggery may have cost us the match, but nobodyseemed to mind. Everything in moderation. Including moderation.

Food writer Bill Knott is the restaurant critic of the FT’s ‘How To Spend It’, known as ‘The Gannet’