Penguins Stopped Play by Harry Thompson

Contact Us

BBC Radio 7, 13-17 July 2009
Harry Thompson, the late lamented producer of Have I Got News for You, died in 2005 of cancer at the age of 45. In a crowded life, he not only became a major figure in television, but he established his own cricket team, the Captain Scott XI - which like most teams contained its fair share of characters, all united by a desire to play the game and uphold its best traditions of sportmanship and fair play.
Penguins Stopped Play chronicled a world tour by the team, in which they visited four continents. In South America they played a game in Buenos Aires at the local rowing club, a carbon copy of the Hurlingham Club in England with its wooden panels and honours board chronicling its members' achievements. However the opposition was far from being gentlemen; they included eight members of the national team. The Captain Scott XI bowled the Argentinians out for 120, but were reduced to 77-7 by a local quickie with the wonderful nickname of Shaggy. The tail wagged a little, but the British team were eventually bowled out for 113 to lose by seven runs.
While Thompson's story rather resembles an old-style public school narrative with its references to the team's jolly japes in local bars, the author nonetheless has a firm understanding of how cricket offers a source of support for players and officials alike, helping them through troubled times. As I listened to his account of the post-match festivities in Buenos Aires, with both teams gathering for a barbecue on the beautifully manicured outfield, I understood how much the game meant to him, as well as his team-mates.
The Captain Scott XI moved on to South Africa, where they played a local club side including several semi-professional players on the fringe of national selection. Once again the Britons acquitted themselves creditably; but what mattered more was the post-match celebrations which lasted until four o'clock in the morning.
The final part of the book proved the most poignant. In early 2004 the team returned to England, but before the new domestic season began, one of their players suddenly died of a heart attack. The Captain Scott XI played like men possessed for his sake, and went through the entire campaign without losing a game. Loyalty to the team took precedence over any individual's feelings.
A year later the author played the first game of the season in agony, as the cancer which eventually killed him spread across his body. Although clearly unfit to play, he gallantly stepped into the breach when only seven of his team-mates turned up for the beginning of a game. Like a soldier in battle, he refused to let the side down. This metaphor also governed his personal life, as he spent his last days in earth fighting against cancer, rather like a batsman engaged in a last-wicket stand.
Entertainingly read by Nicholas Boulton, Penguins Stopped Play demonstrated why cricket means so much to so many people, not only as a sport but as a means of forging team spirit both on and off the field.