I must confess a weakness for the coffee table book. Particularly those of a cricketing nature. Flicking through the pages, reading the odd paragraph and gazing with wanderlust at the pictures of beautiful sunny grounds with a snifter on the nearby table (normally a cup of tea or a glass of Coke Zero) is a perfect personal scenario, even when the book in question is a well thumbed tome and I know exactly what will appear as the page turns.
Hot on the heels of enjoying Brian Levison’s Remarkable Cricket Grounds the arrival of Pete Langman’s The Country House Cricketer provokes the same mouth watering anticipation enjoyed a few months previous. The mandarins in charge of the game in this country may well be preaching the gospel of packed stadia with painted faces, flag waving, drink induced chanting and smelly burgers but the heart of cricket in England is surely located in the countryside. It is hardly surprising that there is a symbiotic relationship between the sport and the country house, another of England’s great traditions and part of the nation’s heritage.
Thus, this rather stately offering from Langman follows his journey around a dozen such venues, providing details of the grounds, the houses themselves and Langman’s on-field exploits. Whilst the former prove informing it is the latter that perhaps proves the most endearing. In truth, the book will probably not be everyone’s cup of tea. For the T20, six junkie the concept of an afternoon’s cricket in the country played at a leisurely pace is likely to be adrenaline anathema but the tome highlights the wonderful, social nature of the game and its undoubted synergy with the countryside in this country. Indeed, the brief anecdote of how teams readily welcomed the author into their team despite not having met him prior to an initial email aptly demonstrates cricket’s more amiable character.
From the outset one is very much aware that this is more than just a book about a bloke playing cricket in nice places. Post flicking through the beautiful pictures a peruse of the introduction highlights Langman’s attempts to raise awareness of Parkinson’s disease. The information that Langman himself is a sufferer immediately adds a different nuance, a different angle to the book. Langman finishes his opening words by highlighting that every time one opens the book they will be reminded of Parkinson’s and that may make someone’s day. It is an admirable theme to finish the introduction and begin the book itself.
Perusing the pictures and venues one instantly ponders how many of these beautiful venues are local to where one resides. An air of familiarity drifts as the likes of Arundel, Goodwood and Blenheim Palace are featured but the nearness of Stansted Park, Parham Park and Stourhead to one’s personal Blighty prompt thoughts of “I fancy watching a game there.” Langman’s appearances for the Authors Cricket Club further provoke the sense of familiarity courtesy of the two books featuring their exploits.
Nevertheless, it is the human stories which really strike a chord such as the resident scorer at Chiswick Park and her sobering story, Stansted Park with their bounteous welcome and Ian Parmiter batting in a shirt and stripy tie, Knole’s changing rooms in the House dungeons whilst, later in the contest at the same venue, the author, alongside his wicket-keeping duties, coaches a novice batsman into flaying a boundary, an event amusingly described as anti-sledging.
Then there was the match at Blenheim Palace from the time of the 9th Duke that was interrupted for an hour due to some players being pressed into service to put out a fire in the palace itself, the through the looking glass nature of Arundel with its buffet lunch served by waiters and waitresses along with actual spectators watching the game, the author’s ambidextrous batting conundrums and fishing the floating ball out of the adjacent lake at Audley End. All of which are intertwined with the author’s personal travails and quest for form across an extensive summer, both timely reminders that this whole project was more than simply playing cricket in nice places.
Each chapter is accompanied by a selection of fine photographs recording the moment(s) for posterity and providing a visual touchstone to the reader whilst the text for each house is beautifully written, engaging and thought provoking. Langman, akin to many an amateur cricketer, may be self-deprecating about his cricketing abilities but his talents as a wordsmith are certainly most impressive. Perhaps one of the most glowing compliments one could pay is that The Country House Cricketer is the sort of book that one could easily pore through during the lunch interval at a bucolic ground. Rather fittingly, all proceeds from the sale of the book have and will be donated to Parkinson’s charities whilst the text notes several occasions when players and clubs have made donations themselves.
The tome is neatly book ended with another contest against the authors and a hilarious leg-before interchange. The match ends just before the heavens open, perhaps a fitting English conclusion to this most English of projects. The scorecard on the inside cover provides a moment or two to enjoy and peruse before reaching a final conclusion although a quote on the back cover very much sums up the book: “Your coffee table will rarely be better served.”