The jaunty notes of the BBC’s distinctive Test Match theme tune echoed in my head as I stepped into the cabaret lounge on board our ship. The dance floor had become an impromptu “crease” where an enthusiastic fan stood in readiness, gripping a miniature cricket bat, as former England fast bowler Devon Malcolm bore down to bowl him out with a screwed-up ball of paper. Next up was former England captain Mike Gatting, who used the same souvenir bat to fend off the fan’s amateur bowling advances while his friend captured this surreal sequence on his phone.
Not a typical on-board scenario, but then the lounge was full of cricket chatter, with a scrum of dedicated devotees gathered around their cricketing heroes posing for selfies, their miniature bats carrying the scrawl of fresh autographs.
They were among the 400 passengers, from a complement of 1,400, who had joined this five-night Cricketing Legends sailing aboard Cruise & Maritime Voyages’ (CMV) flagship Columbus to meet former Essex county players Ray East, John Lever and Graham Napier, plus ex-Kent and Sussex stalwart Alan Wells.
Most of CMV’s worldwide sailings depart the UK from Tilbury in Essex and, with the bulk of the line’s clientele drawn from that county, there was a strong feeling of allegiance among fans who recalled the players’ match appearances and loyally trooped along to the daily cricket-themed activities. The scene was set on the first day with a film compilation which traced the players’ careers – lows and highs.
When Gatting and Malcolm took to the stage in the main theatre, it was almost a full house. Compere and TV personality Nick Hancock engaged the pair with quips and questions, and the stars had the audience’s full attention as they chatted about some of the notorious headlines from the Eighties and Nineties.
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Talk of “square leg”, “third man” and “mid-off” left me a little stumped, but I too was absorbed by stories about, for example, the furious, finger-prodding stand-off between Gatting and Pakistani cricket umpire Shakoor Rana. The scene, depicted on front pages around the world, has been described as one of game’s most controversial moments.
Highlighting the provocation and misunderstandings that led to the infamous clash in what he called his “Pakistan adventure”, Gatting said simply: “I lost it.”
He recalled another India tour in 1984/85, when the England team’s arrival coincided with the assassination of Indira Gandhi, followed a short time later by the assassination of the UK’s deputy high commissioner and the tragic Bhopal gas disaster – all of which coincided with Gatting scoring his first Test century. Later, as the ship ploughed through a lumpy North Sea, there followed another in-conversation session with other former players, who talked about the modern game and made wry comments about how post-match beers have made way for protein shakes.
The final event was a fun, Question of Cricket quiz, chaired by Hancock in the irreverent style for which he was known as host of the popular TV panel show, They Think It’s All Over. There was much ribbing as Hancock revealed who had run up the highest bar bill on board and who had spent the previous evening in the ship’s Taverner’s Pub blasting out the Queen hit We Are the Champions on the karaoke.
It was fascinating to see how these former players, who were travelling with their partners, mixed with the passengers and relaxed into ship life.
But this voyage wasn’t all about the Gentleman’s Game. On the only sea day, guests could have a massage (from £38) and join classes – I tried a circus-skills session before pitting my wits against fellow cruisers in the morning quiz.
It also gave me a chance to enjoy being at sea. The ship was launched in 1988, as evidenced by dated décor in some areas, but the elegant purple, chrome and glass atrium and contemporary Waterfront restaurant scored top marks for style. Food was similarly impressive, especially in the two keenly priced speciality restaurants, one serving tasty Indian curries (£15pp) and the other succulent steaks (£25pp). The crew was charming.
Our three port calls showcased a trio of historic European cities. The morning-only stop in Amsterdam rather limited my sightseeing ambitions, although a full day in medieval Antwerp meant that I enjoyed a fun and interactive tour of the historic De Koninck Brewery, despite the fact I’m not a beer fan.
However, it was Hamburg and its musical heritage that struck the strongest chord, thanks to an excellent €28 walking tour of the infamous Reeperbahn where the Beatles and other luminaries began their musical careers in the Sixties.
Singer-songwriter and passionate Beatles fan Stefanie Hempel brought the tour alive with fascinating anecdotes, some gleaned from former friends and acquaintances of the Fab Four, and burst into Beatles songs while strumming her ukulele.
Stefanie’s enthusiasm and talent meant something that could so easily have become a corny interlude became an unforgettable highlight.
In cricketing terms, she played a blinder.