At the height of Beatlemania, John Lennon re-discovered his relationship with cricket while filming a World War II black comedy in Southern Spain, writes Timothy Abraham in the 2022 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.
Wander through the colourful Plaza de las Flores in Almer ́ıa and you may stumble across a bronze statue of John Lennon strumming a guitar. It was during a six-week stay in the Andalusian city in 1966 that Lennon part-composed “Strawberry Fields Forever” and began wearing his Windsor glasses. Almer ́ıa was also where he briefly rekindled an interest in a sport he had not played since his youth.
Despite the appeal of Liverpool or Everton, it seems cricket rather than football stirred something in Lennon while growing up at his aunt Mimi Smith’s house in Woolton. Lennon’s half-sister, Julia Baird, says he was a “fast bowler and terrifying batsman”. She adds: “We played with a proper willow bat and a leather ball. It was uber-competitive. There were plenty of injuries.”
Whatever passion Lennon had for the game appeared to peter out during his rebellious teenage years at Quarry Bank High School – save for running a book on the outcomes of school matches with lifelong friend Pete Shotton. Quarry Bank did play Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute High School for Boys. But while McCartney also dabbled, the pair seemingly never crossed paths on the pitch. By his own admission, McCartney was not much of a player, and “happy when they stuck me in the outfield, where the ball hardly ever reached me, and I could just dawdle about”. Lennon had a bat of his own, though, which was in a glass case at a wine bar on Penny Lane, until it closed a few years ago.
In his early twenties, Lennon was still living in Mimi’s semi, when she welcomed Frank Duckworth (later of the Duckworth/Lewis/Stern method) as a lodger for three months in 1962. Duckworth was studying for a PhD in metallurgy at the University of Liverpool, while Lennon was playing gigs at the Cavern Club, but there were no discussions about the County Championship. “I exchanged words with him only once,” Duckworth remembered. “I said, ‘Hello John’, and he replied ‘Um’. I heard him playing a few chords in his bedroom occasionally.”
Four years later, with Beatlemania gripping the globe, the Fab Four took a holiday after an arduous worldwide tour. McCartney went to Africa, George Harrison to India, while Ringo Starr caught up with family. Lennon, though, spent part of the break filming his only non-musical acting role, as the fresh-faced, wise-cracking Private Gripweed in the black comedy How I Won the War, based on a Patrick Ryannovel. Though the arid landscape of Almer ́ıa is better known as the location for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood, Spain now passed as North Africa, with Michael Crawford in the lead role. Every day, Lennon was driven to the desert backdrop for filming in his black Rolls-Royce, where he kept his stash of drugs.
One of the early sequences depicts a game of cricket in England, in which Lennon quips to Crawford: “May I rub your ball, sir? It gives me great pleasure.” The action then switches to the Western Desert campaign, and a mission for Lennon, the bumbling Crawford and the rest of their regiment to schlep a roller and other equipment across the desert to create an “advanced area cricket pitch”. Lennon features in a farcical scene, fielding at mid-on, while Roy Kinnear bats and the visiting officers sneer – “what rotten bowling!” – despite the death toll racked up in establishing the pitch.
Austrian photographer Zdenko Hirschler took stills of several impromptu games during breaks in filming, with Lennon an eager participant (see page 50). Dressed in green military fatigues, he looks a little uncomfortable at the crease, but his grip is orthodox and he appears a predominantly front-foot player. Crawford recalled that “John became quite a good bowler” in Almer ́ıa. “The only time he had a little trouble was when I was batting. He couldn’t tell which were the wickets and which were my legs.” Even the American director Richard Lester joined in: “John bowled with such force he hit my leg and nearly broke it in two!”
In the film, Lennon’s character dies after being shot. Lennon, who initially refused to do the scene, told Lester he was haunted by visions of violent death. How I Won the War was released in 1967, and poorly received, though it did gain a cult following – and was praised for its anti-war message.
That was the end of Lennon’s relationship with cricket, though not Almer ́ıa’s. Nestled among the Cabrera mountains, just up the coast, is the Desert Springs Resort, where cricket has gained a foothold since 2008. English counties and schools have used the facilities for pre- season training, as did the England team for camps before the 2015 Ashes and 2017 Champions Trophy.
In 2021, it received ICC accreditation to hold one-day internationals, the only ground in mainland Europe (the Netherlands apart) to achieve such status. “With the warm temperatures here during the English winter, this is an all-year-round cricket venue,” says Nick Gaywood, the former Devon left-arm spinner overseeing cricket operations. “We have held ICC Associate tournaments, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t be used to stage high-profile ODI and T20 matches for Full Members in future.”