Hugh Grant has a theory: cricket is an aphrodisiac. “Women do love a cricketer,” he says. “It’s one of those things. It’s like Aston Martins. They just love it.”
To some women, cricket may conjure up images of dreary summer Sundays spent on the boundary, the aroma of Ralgex seeping out of the dressing room, the urns of stewed tea and plates of sweating pork pies.
But that is not how Hugh Grant sees it. “I think they like the whites,” he says, as he prepares for some light practice ahead of a charity cricket match. “They like the bit of red from the ball that’s rubbed off on the groin area.”
Later the celebrated actor heads out to the stumps for a warm-up session at the tree-lined pitch in London admiring the dimpled grip on the bat handle, a feature which he jokes has been designed to yield “maximum pleasure”.
Cricket and sex: who could blame Grant for making the link? After all, his former long-term partner Elizabeth Hurley is involved in what the tabloids call “a tumultuous on-off relationship” with Shane Warne, the Australian spin bowling legend. Another former partner, Jemima Khan, was married to ex-Pakistan captain Imran Khan.
But Hugh Grant has no pretensions to cricketing glory: “I’ve always been crap,” he says. “But I’ve always loved it. I’ve always had nice equipment, if you’ll excuse the expression.” With him decked out in classic cricket sweater, cream-coloured whites and wielding a huge slab of English willow, who would disagree?
But you’d expect Hugh Grant to say he’s “crap”, wouldn’t you? Self-deprecation is his stock in trade. Nevertheless, it soon becomes clear in the training nets that the 50-year-old actor is a more-than-decent player, deploying classical forward defensive shots and drives and sending down some accurate off-spin bowling.
His love for the game is profound, albeit locked in something of a time warp. He has no time for the newfangled 20-20 version of cricket – all coloured clothing, pounding rock tracks and cheerleaders – preferring the ancient rhythms of the game played out over five days. (Yes, American readers, that is five days – and it can still end in a draw.)
Grant sees cricket as “civilised and civilising”. He says wistfully: “My aunt used to say it’s impossible to dislike a man who likes cricket and I think that’s almost true – if you leave out wicketkeepers.” What’s wrong with the padded custodians of the stumps? “Weird, chippy, lippy,” he says.
He grew up in an era when solid English batsmen like John Edrich and Geoff Boycott would grind out the runs, almost taking root in the dusty soil as they scrapped and prodded their way to big scores. Didn’t he find all that a bit boring? “No, I rather liked that,” he sighs.
As a youth at Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith he played for the first team, although – this being Grant – he dismisses the idea that this meant he was any good. “I did play a few times for the first XI at school, but I disgraced the side,” he says. “I pretended to bat but couldn’t. I dropped catches – that was my speciality.
“I watched my brother lose all his teeth fielding at gully and that made me scared of the ball,” he adds. Growing up watching speed merchant bowlers like Jeff Thomson, Dennis Lillee and the West Indian pace attack reinforced this entirely rational fear.
He would slope off to Lords – cricket’s most hallowed ground – to watch county and test matches, but also for “smoking purposes”. It was here that, in a cricketing career pock-marked with disaster, he suffered his worst humiliation. “Boys used to jump over the fence and throw the ball back when it went to the boundary,” he says. “I jumped over the fence to throw it back, but my release mechanism failed and it went up into the upper tier. It was actually deserted that day – closed off. They had to send the stewards to get the ball.”
Today Grant is warming up for the Friday June 24 Flannels for Heroes charity match at Burton Court in Chelsea, a fund-raiser for those wounded in action and featuring a team comprised of players who have recently completed a tour of duty in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Grant’s father and grandfather fought in Highland regiments and he clearly feels an affinity for the cause. Did he consider joining the army? “It never really came up, but in many ways I wish it did,” he said. “My father didn’t really want his boys to go into the army.”
Now wearing full batting protection, Grant bats fluently against a number of useful bowlers including Jaco van Gass, a 25-year-old paratrooper who lost his lower arm in a rocket-propelled grenade attack while serving in Helmand. But the actor becomes a bit cocky when confronted by my own looping dolly drops.
“You say you’re a batsman, George?” Grant taunts from the other end of the nets, as he slams another woeful delivery into the netting. Then – having been lulled into what should have been an entirely justified sense of security – he advances down the wicket and inexplicably misses the ball, which bumbles straight on to his middle stump.
As he prepares to take a turn at bowling, Grant says that cricket takes an increasing toll on his body these days and that golf and “girly Pilates” are consuming more of his time. As for acting, he says he has “basically retired”, although he still does some odd turns for friends. “I’ve not gone in front of a camera for two years and I’m not burning to,” he says. He likes to lead film producers “up the garden path”, pulling out of projects at the last minute: “Yes, that’s my favourite.”
He has also become a campaigner for privacy – a subject in which he has personal expertise – but right now he does not want to think about that. He wants to get revenge with the ball as I take my turn to bat. But before that can happen, he manfully sticks his hand inside his trousers and pulls out what sportswear manufacturers like to call “an abdominal guard” and cricketers call a “box”. To the dismay of Charlie – our photographer and proud owner of the opaque plastic lozenge – I shove the guard inside my whites, as I prepare to fend off the worst that Grant can chuck in my direction.
Charlie snaps away as I defend my wicket, but I can tell that the transfer of the box has somehow distressed him. “That was going straight on eBay,” he mutters. “At least it was until you put it on.”
George Parker is the FT’s political editor
Flannels 4 Heroes takes place on Friday June 24 at Burton Court, London. For tickets see http://flannels4heroes.co.uk