A few years ago my friend Stephen got invited to the Lord’s Test. Sri Lanka were the opposition, I seem to recall – he wouldn’t. Stephen isn’t interested in cricket. His main interest is birdwatching, which is largely how I know him. But the offer of a free ticket for in a hospitality box in the Mound Stand – who’d say no to that?
It turned out to be a red-letter day for him. The landmarks of that day’s play, if there had been any, passed him by. But he was keen, eager even, to share one memory with me afterwards. He’d been looking up at the sky. And while in the Test Match Special commentary box Blowers would have been cataloguing every low-flying pigeon, Stephen had seen something much more significant. High above the Home of Cricket: a large bird of prey: that soaring-swerving flight; the unmistakable forked tail… a red kite! Never seen one that far east before, and never over London. A result.
I know when you go to the cricket you’re supposed to watch the cricket. But I’m with Stephen. There’s so much else to see at cricket matches, and particularly up in the sky. A couple of seasons ago I saw a red kite too: Middlesex v Notts at Uxbridge. More the red kite’s manor, in its inexorable drift eastwards from where it was reintroduced in the Chilterns – but still a great sight to see above a largely urban ground with traffic thundering down one side. It livened up a somewhat soporific day’s play on a very flat wicket.
It’s why I always take my binoculars to county cricket nowadays: good for identifying which umpire’s standing at which end, or whether the spinner’s pitching on a good length – but also for looking up, not straight ahead. This summer the Australian tourists began their tour at Canterbury against Kent: on a beautiful, sunny Saturday in early July the St Lawrence Ground was packed and abuzz. Mitchell Johnson, there; Michael Clarke – just there. I think I was one of the very first to see that day that Ryan Harris was hobbling, and worried for his fitness for the forthcoming Tests. But also, that afternoon, zipping and zooming around the cloudless blue sky above, I saw a hobby, a beautiful little bird of prey with its slender, boomerang wings: I even thought I could just make out that pretty rufous patch underneath.
But it need not be only living things aloft. Back in the eighties at the Oval, around 5 o’clock every weekday – the best view to be had from the Peter May stand near the old Cricketers pub – Concorde would come over, on its approach to Heathrow. Everyone would lift their eyes from the play and watch its graceful passage till it had gone, every single time. More than once at Kent grounds like Canterbury and Tunbridge Wells I’ve heard a characteristic liquid clatter and known exactly what I was looking up to see: a Spitfire.
The other day saw the last ever flight of the last flying example of the mighty delta-wing Vulcan bomber, a “giant manta ray, wallowing around the sky”, as it was once memorably evoked for me by a man who had actually bought one for himself (it’s now marooned at Southend Airport). But for one of the most remarkable Vulcan sights of all you’ll need an old VHS player like mine, and a copy of the best cricket video ever produced: Clive Lloyd’s Finest Hour – the story of the first ever Cricket World Cup in 1975. Yes, there’s that wonderful match at Edgbaston where the last-wicket partnership of Deryck Murray and Andy Roberts snatched victory for the West Indies from the jaws of defeat against Pakistan, and yes, there’s that magnificent century Clive Lloyd blazed in the final at Lord’s. But: if you watch the group match between West Indies and Australia at the Oval (where, later that day, Alvin Kallicharan would smash Dennis Lillee to all points of the ground), the Australians are struggling at 61-3 just before lunch against the fast bowling of Roberts and Boyce, when the camera picks up a formation in the sky heading south-west over Archbishop Tenison’s school. “It was a very nice gesture of them to send those planes over for the Australians hitting their first boundary of the morning,” muses Richie Benaud. The camera cuts to track them in close-up. Outridden by five what look like Phantoms, and riding their drifting con-trails, are no fewer than three Vulcans. The sky today never sees sights like that, never mind the sky above cricket grounds.