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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lily Allen's lyrical love of Test cricket is more than just flannel

I'm interested in Lily Allen. Not in her music, I'm afraid, or in most of the other aspects of the life and career that have made her into a sort of national treasure at the age of 24. But if the singer of Smile and The Fear is the shape of cricket supporters to come, then bring on multitudes.

She likes Test cricket, basically. She doesn't care for Twenty20, one-day cricket or coloured uniforms. What she likes about the five-day game, she said in a Test Match Special lunchtime interview on Saturday, is the way its slower rhythms form a counterpoint to her own somewhat hectic life.

She likes Flintoff and Onions and Broad and she also thinks the England team should be wearing shirts and flannels and sweaters with a bit more cream in them, rather than the sort of shocking white adopted this season as a result of some marketing man's brainwave ("A bit football" is her verdict on that).

She's interested in the traditions and the arcana, such as the umpires' signals and what the extras are made up of. Honestly, you'd think she was trying to jump the waiting list for MCC membership.

The shock of seeing a Rolling Stone at Lord's subsided many years ago, but Lily Allen is something else again. Although the 2009 Ashes series was compelling enough to flourish quite happily without PR gimmicks, her presence at The Oval, apparently prompted by sheer enthusiasm rather than a pop star's need to promote something, provided an indication that Test cricket's future is not a matter of an inevitable slow fade into the shadow cast by the Indian Premier League.

As a product of the digital age, she might not be expected to treasure cricket for its infinite range of nuances, such as the way that umpires need to be able to hear the sounds of ball on wood or pad in order to make their judgements. But that's exactly what she told Jonathan Agnew. "I like the beauty of the game," she added, "the whites against the green, the pace of it, and the fact that you're allowed to drink in the stand, which you can't do at football."

It probably helps that she has childhood memories of being dragged along to watch her father playing in pub teams. "The boys played and the girls made sandwiches," she remembered. Even if she showed no interest in the game at the time, something of its qualities may have permeated a deeper layer of consciousness, to be awakened a little later in life.

She tweeted about the Ashes to her million-plus followers ("More than Bumble," she told Agnew with a giggle). Here's one: "Broad is a genius. And he doesn't have a beer gut." And another: "Collingwood is dull. He'll probably still be batting when I'm back here at The Oval on Saturday, having scored no runs." She'll be on the selection panel by Christmas.

In a time of economic recession, the news for cricket is encouraging, from the confirmation that a team is more likely to win when led by a man who is good at captaincy to the England women's inspiring victory in this year's World Cup, and from the literary success of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, set among cricketers in New York, to rising participation figures exemplified by the discovery last week that my old village club, which struggled 30 years ago to put out three teams on a Saturday and one on a Sunday, now has five flourishing age-group sides playing in leagues from under-nine to under-17, drawn from a colts division more than 70 strong.

And by showing that victory over the old enemy can be achieved amid a slightly less frenetic atmosphere than the one surrounding the series four years ago, the 2009 Ashes reaffirmed not cricket's place in the national life but its idiosyncratic role as a force for good. Lily Allen, watching all that and identifying the good bits, is on to something.

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