Harry Thompson’s dry, sardonic, typically British sense of humour and ‘unputdownable’ style makes sure that Penguins Stopped Play is a page-turner.
Harry Thompson’s dry, sardonic, typically British sense of humour and unputdownable style makes sure that Penguins Stopped Play is a page-turner.

Harry Thompson had decided to take on the world with a band of amateur village cricketers. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a mind-boggling saga of real-life experiences of a man who had decided to play cricket in every continent.

Harry William Thompson was a radio and television producer, a comedian, a novelist, and a biographer. His work Tintin: Hergé and his Creation is a widely acclaimed one, often considered as one of the best works on the iconic character. What few people know, however, is the fact that he was also an enthusiastic cricketer.

We have all been enthusiastic cricketers at some point of time or the other. Thompson was perhaps a bit less capable than most of us. In his own words, “I made the deeply humiliating personal discovery that my own cricketing ability roughly approximated to that of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.”

Along with Marcus Berkmann (yes, the famous one) and someone who was christened Terence at Oxford he formed the Captain Scott Invitation XI — mostly because none of them managed to make it to the Oxford team. As things turned out, they could only form a Captain Scott Invitation III, which meant that a minimum of eight players was required.

So they put an advertisement on the classifieds, to which mostly insurance agents responded. The team they built in the process soon earned a reputation as the worst team in Oxfordshire.

But why the name? Because they came second in every match they played in a way similar to Captain Robert Scott coming second to Roald Amundsen in their famous race to the South Pole.

Penguins Stopped Play

What makes Thompson unique among terrible team-organisers (the adjective is for the team; not for the organiser) is the fact that he had a mission in his mind. Though it sounded quite simple in theory it was an extremely difficult task to carry out given the logistics and the budget, not to speak of finding 11 people willing to tour and find an opposition willing to play: he decided to play cricket in every continent.

Thompson did something else as well. He kept a journal of the tour, and his memoirs were published in Penguins Stopped Play: Eleven Village Cricketers Take on the World. There are also references of journey in Berkmann’s Rain Men and Zimmer Men. Unfortunately, Thompson and Berkmann split up midway through their journey.

After being mauled by a team of Pakistanis in France and a team of Australians in Spain the Captain Scott Invitation XI had left for Kowloon, where they played a very close match. In Delhi they came against a team of 10 lawyers and, well, Surinder Khanna (the real one). After that came a tour to Pietermaritzburg, following which they managed to beat a whole country (Malaysia), albeit on a Tuesday.

It was around this time that playing cricket in every continent crossed Thompson’s mind. He quickly drew up an itinerary. With the itinerary also came their unofficial motto Jou Ma Buk Vir Renoster — an Afrikaans phrase which literally translates to, well, “your mother bends to take it from a rhinoceros”.

He encountered multiple ‘incidents’ when he tried to fly to Cuba and Barbados. They were warned multiple times by the locals at Bridgetown about “getting some licks” by the North Star Club — a prophecy that came more than true. Oh, and I did I mention the encounter against the Bajan drug-dealers?

Then followed possibly the most surreal match of them all — at Buenos Aires, the continent that has been least explored by the greatest of all sports. The hosts’ fast bowler, Shaggy, was greeted by completely non-cricketing cries of “Vamos, Shaggy!” and “Hola, Shaggy-baby!” and “Go, Shags!”and went on to rout Captain Scott Invitation XI.

The next fixture was in Perth, where they ran into another Shaggy (“Let’s go, Shaggy!” and “C’mon, Shaggy-baby!” and “Go, Shags!”) where, irrespective of what happened on the field of cricket, they won the boat-race. After a brief encounter with the “champions of Singapore” they made a trip to Cape Town.

There happened to be an inexplicable mix-up of sorts with a worrying outcome Instead of the scheduled opponents, the Rygersdal 3rds, the Captain Scott Invitation XI were made to face the Rygersdal 1sts. The hosts apologised profusely as two of their main players were not available for the match as they were playing a day-nighter at Newlands. They were, er, Charl Willoughby and Herschelle Gibbs.

Of course, that left Antarctica. Captain Scott Invitation XI did not get an opposition worthy of them — but here comes the twist: Thompson had himself played cricket (“trust a Kiwi to pack a cricket ball in his luggage on a trip to Antarctica”). They play on, with oars as bats, till a group of Adélie Penguins decided to invade pitch and stop play.

Thompson’s dry, sardonic, typically British sense of humour and unputdownable style makes sure that Penguins Stopped Play is a page-turner. The travelogue-cum-cricket memoir makes you smile and laugh along — until, until you’re left with a lump in the throat at the end.

Penguins Stopped Play remains a classic about a nondescript cricketer setting out on an unrealistic mission with a band of village cricketers. It turned out to be a cult classic, and was turned into a serial on BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week in April 2006 — about five months after Thompson’s early demise.

What happened to the team?

As for the Captain Scott Invitation XI, they took on an Amundsen XI in a Twenty20 match just outside Oslo on January 17, 2012 — to commemorate a 100 years of Scott reaching the South Pole, albeit five weeks after Amundsen. The match was a part of the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation.

January in Oslo had to be bitter-cold (the temperature had dropped to -7°C), but teams named after Amundsen and Scott were not to be put away by such trivialities. In a contest played with everyone wrapped in multiple layers of woollens (under the whites, of course) the Norse were bowled out for 156. The “Scotties” got there with seven wickets and 36 balls in hand.

The Norse wanted a rematch — this time at Oxford’s Christ Church Sports Ground. This time Captain Scott Invitation XI scored 205 in the stipulated 20 overs. In response the Norwegians scored five for two in two overs when rain washed the rest of the match.

Amundsen’s conquest of the South Pole was avenged after a 100 years of the twin expeditions. Scott’s soul finally rests in peace.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)