Growing up in Sussex, cricket was something I rather took for granted. I was a game I’d play with my friends, even when quite young. I was a keen cricketer by the time I was eight or nine.
What I failed to appreciate was just how deep the roots of the game go in the Weald. This is, after all, where cricket is supposed to have its origins, on the close grazed fields amidst the forest clearings, in villages where shepherding and iron-working were the mainstays of the local economy.
One of the earliest references (c1300) to what may have been a mediaeval precursor of the game, creag, involves the fifteen-year-old prince who was to become Edward II and mentions Westminster and the village of Newenden on the Kent/Sussex border between Tenterden and Bodiam.
Amongst the earliest village matches recorded were those between West Hoathly and Horstead Keynes in mid-Sussex and ‘Weald and Upland’ and Chalkhill played at Chievening – both mentions dating from the early 17th Century.
Sevenoaks Vine is certainly one of the oldest cricket grounds in the world, given to the town in 1733.
Penshurst (above), west of Tunbridge Wells, claims to be the oldest (1752) privately owned ground in the world.
The bats, balls and stumps are made of plastic but the enthusiasm isn’t. Parents and members of Leigh Cricket Club spend an hour on Sunday mornings through the summer to encourage the next generation of village cricketers.
But what I find especially heartening in Leigh is that though the villagers are overwhelmingly of white European origin, there are quite a few from different backgrounds. Everybody is welcome to play cricket on the green and many do. Everybody wears white, but the faces are of many colours. Those who think that English village life is monocultural have probably been watching too many episodes of Midsomer Murders and not getting out into the country enough.
So when Norman Tebbit asked his famous question about what cricket team people cheered for I’d say, quite adamantly, that he was asking an irrelevant question.
Identity is a many layered thing. I am from my village, I’m from the Sussex Weald, I’m an Englishman, I am European and, like Tom Paine, I am ‘a citizen of the world’.
The point is not whether I cheer for England or the West Indies, South Africa or Pakistan. The real joy of a game like cricket is that, regardless of backgrounds, regardless of who we cheer for, we can enjoy the game together as friends.
So while, in building a multicultural society, we want to celebrate our diversity we also need to establish common points of contact, activities through which we can better understand one another and enjoy the things we have in common and the differences that make life richer.
We may need to agree a set of values (such as a respect for the democratic process and the rule of law) and agree to work to eliminate other traits (practices like forced marriage or honour killing and attitudes such as racism) in order that divesity can be a boon rather than a problem, but that process is all the easier if we can recognise ourselves in others through the shared enjoyment of simple pleasures, like cricket.