Nick Ahad: Congregation gather to worship at the altar of Yorkshire cricket

Jason Gillespie
Jason Gillespie
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Have we talked about religion yet?

I can’t remember but in any case, if you’ll excuse me a moment of indulgence, I need to very briefly explain my religious background to make sense of some of what follows.

So: my dad’s a Muslim (sort of), my mum’s a Christian (sort of), I was raised a Catholic (entirely – Friday Mass, Communion, a guilt complex that stays with you a lifetime, the lot).

Stay with me, I’m not done yet – and it gets even more complex.

I wanted to be baptized a born-again Christian at 17, my parents forbade it and then I spent five years studying Theology.

Despite this fairly complex and integral part religion has played in my life, I ended up an atheist, and a fairly confirmed one at that.

I’m not a Dawkinsian zealot – to each his own I say – just because I don’t think Magic Sky Man is there, I don’t mind if you do. Just as long as that’s where it starts and ends (and please, before you get your pen out to write a strongly worded letter about my disrespect for the religious, re-read my own background above).

So, even though I have a healthy disrespect for religion, here’s the odd thing – I am really pleased I had a religious upbringing.

I could have done without the canings, and the nun headmistress of my primary school struck terror into my very soul, but without my religious education, I don’t think my moral compass would be what it is. It also gave me, it transpired this week, a frame of reference for understanding my deep, deep love of cricket.

Those early years I spent sitting in a freezing church, reciting the Lord’s prayer came rushing back to me last week as I had what I can only really describe as a religious experience while sitting in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.

The theatre’s studio space was crammed to the rafters of the great and good, the followers and fans of Yorkshire cricket.

We were all there for the first in a series of events celebrating the 150th anniversary of this most special of cricket clubs, on the very spot where it had been inaugurated by the Sheffield Match Fund committee. Then the venue was the Adelphi Hotel, today it is a theatre and we gathered to celebrate Yorkshire’s sesquicentennial with players, friends and fans, and special guests Andrew Gale, Michael Vaughan and Sir Geoffrey of Boycott.

I’ve sat in that theatre often while on assignment as the Yorkshire Post theatre critic, watching some great plays, but rarely have I been as moved as I was by the event held to celebrate the cricketing fortunes of England’s greatest county.

While listening to journalist David Warner read out a report from JM Kilburn, this newspaper’s cricket correspondent for 30 years, about the last journey home for a Yorkshire team before war broke out in 1939, I had a moment of realisation.

I was absolutely rapt, listening to Warner deliver the words of the greatest cricket writer ever to grace the game, I looked down and realised my hands were clasped together in the same way I used to fold my fingers between each other to pray in church when I was a little boy.

I then realised that my head too was bowed as I listened to Kilburn’s tale of a band of weary brothers winding their long way home from Hove, before disbanding – and never to meet again.

I was moved, I was enthralled – and I had unconsciously assumed the position of the religious at prayer.

I was worshipping at the altar of cricket.

I realised that for those on the outside, the obsession all of us in the theatre that night have for cricket, and Yorkshire cricket in particular, might seem a bit silly.

After all, why was I clasping my hands in an imitation of prayer while listening to someone’s words describing something that might be dismissed as just a hobby or a past-time?

To us it means so much more than that.

We were a congregation. And, like a congregation we were bound in the worship of something bigger than ourselves.

Outside the theatre, after the emotionally-charged evening, I had a brief chat with Yorkshire’s first-team coach, Jason Gillespie.

How does it feel, I asked him, as an Aussie, to get to experience the privilege of wearing the White Rose? There was nothing loaded in the question – I was actually just excited to meet a hero, pictured – but he clearly heard an accusation in the question.

He immediately went on the defensive, explaining that he has his Yorkshire cap from the two seasons he had playing for the county back at home in Adelaide, seeming to need to prove his Yorkshire colours. It’s a club that does that to you. Makes you want to feel it claims you as its own, that you belong to it as much as it to you.

The current Yorkshire players were also there. Young men whose lives are consumed by sport, you might not think that the weight of history affects their hearts as deeply as it does those of us who love the game and our county team not because they are our gainful employers, but because of something deeper, something irrational dare I say, something almost spiritual.

One of the players – I’m not going to name him – was playing with his phone while some of the speeches took place. At first I was offended, then it occurred to me that the relationship we fans have with the game and the county is not the same as the players’. He happens to be very talented at playing the game we love – a number of the game’s high profile players have confessed they would be happier playing lower level football than high level cricket – it’s his job, why should he care in the same way that we do?

At the end of the evening I witnessed the same player who had been so engrossed in his phone, make his way through the throngs of people to shake the hand of Brian Close. I was wrong. He totally ‘got’ it and that was his moment of paying respect to the history of which he is now a part. And I thought: “Hallelujah.”

And another thing...

Sometimes it’s a bit frustrating that we’re not allowed to use profanity in the Yorkshire Post, because sometimes only a really stiff swear word will do.

Like right now, when I could use one to explain just how angry I am at Shane Warne and Marlon Samuels’s shocking, shameful behaviour on the sacred ground of a cricket pitch.

Like transubstantiation, when a priest says a prayer over a goblet of wine and a piece of bread, they become the body and blood of Christ – when you stick two sets of wickets in a patch of green, that field becomes a cricket pitch. And on the sacred cricket pitch there is a right and wrong way of conduct.

Samuels and Warne, if they know anything, should know which theirs was when they got into a disgusting display of on-field violence, Warne pulling on Samuels’s shirt then throwing a ball at him and Samuels throwing his bat in the air perilously close to Warne.

I wish they had been in Sheffield to listen to tales of the history of the game that they carry responsibility for when they step onto a cricket pitch.

Surely anyone who understood that responsibility they carry on their shoulders simply could not have behaved the way they did?