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Ashes to Ashes - Cricket Then and Now

It's the playing not the winning, and sport plays a natural role in cultural relations - the values of sport, at their best, help build trust and engagement between people worldwide. I consider myself so fortunate to be able to fulfil so many people's dreams and step through the Grace Gates and into the Pavilion.

When I joined the British Council in summer 2011 as director of arts (in charge of our arts programme in some 110 countries), I little expected that one of my first surprises would be about cricket.

But it's a measure of the history and diversity of the organisation that that turned out to be the case - a fantastic archive of old short documentaries, made between the mid 30s and mid 50s, to be screened around the globe to inform viewers of the culture, life and times of Britain and the British.

There are some fantastic gems in the British Council Film Collection (now online and available to all, thanks to a partnership with Google) - a film about the police, the National Health Service, and even about the reproductive life of rabbits, for some obscure reason.

As a MCC member for more than 40 years, naturally my favourite film is Cricket, released in 1950 around the Lord's Ashes Test of 1948 which saw Bradman's last tour of England.

The England team, led by Yardley, featured some true greats such as Len Hutton, Bill Edrich, Alec Bedser and Denis Compton.

The film takes the viewer back unerringly to a different era of the game, a different ground, a different public, a different style of television, at once authoritative (sometimes patronising), but lyrical, affectionate and poetic. How could it be other, narrated by the patrician voice of Ralph Richardson, together with the unsurpassed John Arlott, for me as I grew up the unarguable voice of cricket. It certainly struck a chord with me - not least that Australia won comprehensively and later took the Ashes, such a frequent occurrence in my younger days. But, as the film reminds us, it's the playing not the winning that is important... so very British!

The film in fact is very innovative for 1950, and features a master-class on spin bowling on the Nursery ground.

Bert Rhodes of Derbyshire is filmed in slow motion sending down off spin and a leg-break that pitches outside leg and passes the off stump in a manner that Warne would be proud of.

However, it does highlight how far we've come in 63 years, with HD Super-Slo-Mo, Hawkeye, 'Snicko', the Hot Spot, all technology that fans may assume to be standard. When I began watching televised cricket there were only cameras at one end and the wisdom of Jim Laker and Denis Compton to guide and advise the viewer on the grainy action we were privileged to view below.

With the limitations of sport broadcasting, the imperative was of course to get to the match itself.

I was born not much more than a mile from Lord's - in Little Venice, and once my father took me to Lord's for the first time (I think it was in 1959: we sat in the old Mound Stand), I gradually became hooked on it, spending most of my school holidays with a packed lunch, sitting in the Q Stand (my father being a Middlesex member) watching the Middlesex side of that era - Russell and Gale, Parfitt, Murray, Titmus, Price, onto the sides led by Brearley and with Clive Radley.

I saw Radley's fine innings against the South Africans in 1965, and also the wonderful test against the West Indies in 1963, when Cowdrey broke his arm. I was there for the first Gillette Cup final, and more: I don't think Boycott ever scored a faster hundred than his one in an early final.

My own cricket career was exceptionally modest, but I did manage to captain the 3rd XI at Tonbridge School, school for all the Cowdreys. We had a somewhat less pressured time in the 3rd XI. I was captain, good (so I thought) at strategy and field placing, but less good at execution. My hero then was Mike Brearley! I opened the batting at Boycottian pace, and bowled some very occasional slow left arm rubbish. But I loved it.

So many memories and so much change. As I look at the film again, I can hardly recognise the ground, apart from the Pavilion, the Grace Gates and Father Time.

And now the committee has an ambitious and visionary plan for further change to carry the club forward into the next decade. Given my job in arts, it is pleasing to see so much care being taken over the new architecture of the stands, in order to retain that special character and the intimacy.

Sport is still part of the British Council's cultural relations work. But rather than projecting the pinnacle of our international contests around the world, today we our country's rich sporting heritage, exemplified by Lord's, to build sport partnerships with education and community networks in 23 countries, working across a range of sports including football, rugby, cricket and a wide variety of indigenous sports.

As Richardson states in the film, it's the playing not the winning, and sport plays a natural role in cultural relations - the values of sport, at their best, help build trust and engagement between people worldwide.

I consider myself so fortunate to be able to fulfil so many people's dreams and step through the Grace Gates and into the Pavilion, in my case accompanied by a carefully created packed lunch, a decent bottle of Meursault (usually), broached not long after midday, and some gentle reading, should the action prove less than compelling.

It's hard to imagine I have been a member for over 40 years - and still so young! But in those days you could be put up for membership at around 16, and I became a full member by the time I was 19.

I struggle with Twenty20, though it undoubtedly has its energy: but to me it flattens out so much of the subtlety and intrigue, the bowling and batting skills too. Still, it has its moments, but none to compare with the five day version of the game, which I hope is never superseded.

I'll be there at 9.00am on that first Ashes day: nothing could keep me away.

The British Council creates international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and builds trust between them worldwide. The British council is a Royal Charter charity, established as the UK's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. For more information visit:

The British Council Film Collection is an archive of over 120 short documentary films made during the 1940s designed to show the world how Britain lived, worked and played. For more information click here. is the digital home of MCC and Lord's Cricket Ground.

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