Summoning his full range of rhetorical flourishes, Stephen Fry is holding forth on the subject of wokery. It turns out, when you appoint one of Britain’s pre-eminent polymaths as president of the Marylebone Cricket Club, there is no debate quite as vigorous as that about the language of the game and how it evolves. And when I broach with him the hesitancy felt by some of cricket’s most ardent disciples, including many readers of this newspaper, at replacing “batsman” with “batter”, he truly barrels in off his long run.
“Let’s go back to bowlsman,” he says, sarcastically. “Oh no, we don’t call them bowlsmen, do we? Or bowlsladies. No, we just call them bowlers. I know, in a men’s game, you could say batsman if you wanted to. And in a women’s game you could say batswoman. But you can’t say batsman to refer to a woman. It’s just rude. ‘Ladies and … ladies who aren’t ladies’. Come on.
“Do you really want to go back to a left-armer’s wrong ’un what it used to be called?” For decades, the delivery was known as a Chinaman. “Or the shot that goes back and misses the stumps and scores runs – do you want that to be called the ‘Chinese cut’? No. Why would you? Would you still say the ‘n’ in the woodpile’? No, you can say a ‘spanner in the works’ or a ‘fly in the ointment’ instead. I’m not saying ‘batsman’ is steeped in the same. But it’s only our generation, the generation of readers who are upset by ‘batter’, who will hiccup when they hear it, and wish to hear the old term. But it will very quickly pass.”
Fry’s passion on this issue helps illuminate why he is such a fascinating choice as MCC president. On the surface he is, here in the newly appointed Compton Restaurant at Lord’s, a plausible pillar of the establishment in his grey suit and egg-and-bacon tie. Equally, he is a man of restlessly progressive instincts, which could, once he begins his 12-month tenure in October, be provocative for the more conservative constituency he needs to appease.
In his recent Cowdrey Lecture, in which he spoke of a “mephitic stink” arising from Azeem Rafiq’s allegations of racism at Yorkshire, Fry, 64, insisted that cricket’s “very flame” was at risk of being extinguished unless it drastically modernised. Part of this process, he argues, involves accepting a more politically correct lexicon, “batter” included. “In a few years’ time, people will be absolutely fine. I’m old enough to remember how people went around writing letters to The Telegraph along the lines of, “So, I suppose we have to call a manhole a personhole, do we?’
“That is early Seventies talk, when we started to say ‘chair’ instead of chairman. We’re all pretty used to ‘the chair’ now. ‘The throne’ and ‘the crown’: they’re both metonyms, or synecdoches if you prefer. ‘Batter’ seems perfectly logical. They call it that in baseball. This whole woke thing is, ‘You can’t say anything nowadays.’ It’s tempting to reply, ‘Well, tell me what it is you want to say. Did you want to say something rude and simply unpleasant?’”
Fry, a left-field choice to reinvigorate an institution that dates back to 1787, is strikingly preoccupied with this newspaper and its readership. Even in his warmly-received Cowdrey address, he could not resist a drive-by shot, portraying the rise of one-day cricket as a phenomenon where “white balls and black sightscreens threatened the sanity of Telegraph readers everywhere”.
He warms to this theme when I suggest there is plenty of quiet bewilderment at use of the label “men’s Ashes”, described by my colleague Simon Heffer as a “ludicrous” concoction. “I know, I know,” Fry says. “But look at how the women’s game is going. It’s really growing. Watching Nat Sciver and Alice Davidson-Richards has been thrilling for any lover of sport. ‘Did you see the Ashes?’ ‘Which one?’ ‘The women’s.’ Would you rather go through that business? The odd thing is that these complaints always come from people who value politeness. And that’s all it is. So, tell your readers
“Conservative voices might think they are an important minority and perhaps they are. But not everyone is Simon Heffer. And that’s with deep respect for Simon, with whom I share a passion for Norfolk churches and many other things. I do have an old-fashioned side to me and I understand deeply.”
There is no doubt that, beneath Fry’s ruffling of traditionalists’ feathers, he feels a profound affinity with cricket’s most cherished customs. When he recalls his school days at Uppingham, it is, he acknowledges, “quite hard not to be sentimental and Telegraphy about it”. While his time at Cambridge was spent more in the Footlights than at Fenner’s, he recalls how cricket would shape the rhythm of his year.
“Ernie, it’s April,” he says, wistfully replaying the old Morecambe and Wise sketch. “The sound of leather on Brian Close.”
In many ways, Fry, with his encyclopaedic cricket knowledge, his extemporised speeches, and his international profile as an actor, broadcaster, writer and comedian, is the perfect figure to proselytise the MCC’s message. One of his immediate priorities, he explains, is to expand opportunities for young cricketers beyond a select cadre of top private schools.
“It’s not a woke question, it’s about making cricket better. It’s a little like Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard: ‘Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen / And waste its sweetness on the desert air.’ There are a lot of those who are blushing unseen, who have an amazing eye and a brilliant cricket mind, but who have not been encouraged. That’s one thing I am very keen to help with, around the world.”
We meet the morning after what could be the last Eton versus Harrow match at Lord’s, after the MCC decided that replacing it with the finals of national boys’ and girls’ schools competitions would be more inclusive. Even though Henry Blofeld, Old Etonian and erstwhile eccentric of Test Match Special, lambasted the decision “nasty and underhand”, it is not a move that brings Fry any sorrow.
'It's worth giving Lord's finals to people who have really earned them'
“I refer you to the front page of The Telegraph today,” he says, alluding to a photograph of Etonians in blazers chanting: “We’ve got more Prime Ministers than you.” “It seems to me that if you’re a confident institution, as the MCC is now, then you make traditions, as well as maintaining others and letting some go. You don’t only cling to them – that’s a sign of a lack of confidence. If you’re going to give out finals at Lord’s, it’s worth giving them to people who have really earned them. You don’t earn them by simply sending your son to one of two schools.”
Here at Lord’s, Fry has been known to regale his audience with the tale of EW Swanton, formerly of this parish, emerging from the committee room to announce, with astonishment: “There’s a woman in there.” When it was gently pointed out to Swanton, “Jim, it’s the Saturday of the Lord’s Test – it’s the Queen, it’s her usual visit,” he still reputedly huffed, after a long pause, ‘Nevertheless…’”
Fry, to his credit, quickly stressed that Swanton – a man who was captured by the Japanese in 1942, and spent three years in POW camps along the Burma-Siam Railway – was not a man to be casually disparaged. It is one illustration of the dilemma that he will confront when he dons his presidential robes at the MCC. On the one hand, he is determined to push through his aspirations for change. But on the other, he needs to tread carefully if old-school purists are not to feel alienated or, worse still, mocked.
“I love this place,” he says, surveying the glorious Lord’s outfield. “I love going to the Long Room, I don’t want to see it turned into plastic and neon. I don’t want to see cricket cheapened. It’s not easy to carry people with you. You only need to read the letters page in the Telegraph in 1961 to see the outrage at the end of the Gentlemen versus Players match. That was a match where you were referred to as ‘Mr’ if you were an amateur and ‘Trueman, FS’ if you were a professional. People were saying ‘That’s the final nail in cricket’s coffin – here’s my tie, I’m leaving.’
“But we all know that was the right step to take. And similar changes happen. It’s not about taking cricket back. This is a river that is constantly flowing, sometimes with and sometimes against society. And sometimes as an oxbow lake that is marooned, needing to be rejoined to the river.”
And in his diversions of this river’s course, Fry will, you suspect, come hell or high water, have his way with the word “batter”. “The young generation find it easy,” he smiles. “I promise you, if you come back here in 10 years’ time, this question will absolutely have disappeared.”