Penguins Stopped Play – Harry Thompson

Harry Thompson was the original producer for the hit BBC TV show ‘Have I Got News For You’ and ran it for the first five series, he was also involved in several other TV programmes, there are a few short references to his TV career in the book, most notably when he managed to get people such as comic actor Hugh Dennis to turn out for his cricket team but this is not really an autobiography.It is instead a history of the cricket team he started and captained for over twenty five years. Now village cricket is not a high level sport and The Captain Scott XI, named after a person who famously came second, struggled to reach even this low bar. Initially this was deliberate on the part of several members of the team who simply wanted to lark about and had no intention of winning a game, gradually however this complete disregard for sporting etiquette meant that it became harder and harder for Thompson to find teams willing to play them. Gradually the team split into two camps and eventually into two separate teams one which continued to just lark about and the other, led by Thompson, determined to win a few games for a change.

The book starts however with a rapidly abandoned game on an Antarctic ice shelf which ironically doesn’t feature the Captain Scott XI at all but is instead an impromptu match thought up by passengers on an Antarctic cruise (including Thompson) who discover that due to excess ice they were going to be unable to get to Shackleton’s and Scott’s huts after all. Using oars from the ship as bats and a real cricket ball packed by a New Zealand passenger just in case it would be useful they start a game but presumably the echoes in the water underneath the ice shelf attracted the penguins which soon swarmed over the ‘pitch’ making play impossible leading to the oddest reason for stopping a game and the title of this book.

Before the original Captain Scott XI fell apart someone came up with the bright idea to go as a team to India to play a few matches in the hope that this would bring the increasingly fractious players together.

It sounded like a great idea; and also like a terrible mistake. It turned out to be both

The ‘tour’ started in Hong Kong as one of the ex members of the Captain Scott XI had been posted there by the bank he worked for and promised to arrange a couple of games, they would then fly back via India for a few more games before heading home a more united team. Almost none of this went to plan. As stated at the beginning English village cricket is just about as low level as you can get and still play, this standard doesn’t seem to be understood by any other country so they kept coming up against far better teams and losing spectacularly even without the sabotage several of the players indulged in. They did however play some games and get back without actually killing each other and this ‘success’ inspired Thompson to try again, this time heading for South Africa, the home country of a couple of the regular players for the team. Not only was the Captain Scott XI destined to be beaten again by much better teams who simply didn’t believe that another cricket team could be this bad but the travelling arrangements were almost impossible to make. This was the tour that finally split the team completely and ‘the layabouts’ as Thompson refers to them went off and formed a separate team.

Freed from the players that were ‘holding them back’ and flushed with the success of almost winning a couple of games Thompson came up with a clearly crazy plan, the Captain Scott XI would tour the world, and it is this trip that makes up the second half of the book. The cricket definitely gets better and they had managed another quick tour before then, just a week with only two matches in Malaysia because two of the team were half Malay which included them actually winning against the Malaysian national team, although a severely depleted version by playing on a week day when half the team would be working. Touring Barbados, Buenos Aires, Australia, Singapore and South Africa one after another on eleven round the world tickets when the British Airways system ‘gets confused’ if there is more than nine people in a group was an amazingly chaotic experience. Several times BA assured them that there were no flights from one destination to another leaving them flying thousands of miles in the wrong direction when they boarded next to a direct flight going exactly where they wanted to go, wasting time and adding to increasingly bad jet lag. Tickets kept getting refused, players arrested for having the wrong paperwork (normally whilst transiting America) and one thing they could almost always guarantee was torrential rain on arrival. It was to be the last international tour of the Captain Scott XI under Harry Thompson and the stories he tells are hilarious.

Sadly Thompson died from lung cancer aged just 45 despite never having smoked in his life, he had time to go over the final notes for this book in his last few days. This therefore becomes the third book I’ve read in as many months where the author didn’t live to see it come out after Barry Letts and Elisabeth Sladen. You don’t need to be a cricket fan, although I am, to enjoy this book, the often disastrous travel stories are what makes it a great read and you fume along with Harry at the magnificent incompetence of the British Airways flight booking service.

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