Here is a copy of the sermon preached by the Reverend Mike Vockins – County secretary-chief executive for 30 years – at the Service of Thanksgiving to mark the 150th Anniversary of Worcestershire County Cricket Club at Worcester Cathedral.
Readings: Deuteronomy 8:11-18 and Romans 12:3-16
“Gifts From God” Text “Another fine mess you’ve got me into!” (Biblical provenance unknown!)
“Another fine mess ….” was perhaps not a thought that troubled their lordships and the clergy and gentlemen of the city and county at that historic meeting at Star Hotel on 3rd March 1865, but did anyone there really envisage the remarkable journey the Club would take?
"And, thirty years on, it is doubtful if such thoughts concerned the Club’s Secretary, Paul Foley, when – having set up the Minor Counties Championship in 1895, and seen Worcestershire win it in each of next four seasons – he won for Worcestershire a place in the County Championship in 1899.
"Mind you, “another fine mess ….” might well have crossed the mind of even that genius of a Head Groundsman, Fred Hunt, when he came from Aldworth on the Berkshire Downs charged by Foley to transform three river-side hayfields, part of Chapter Meadows leased from the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral, into a county cricket ground and create the city’s world-renowned and greatly-loved new cricket cathedral alongside its great spiritual cathedral.
"No such thoughts would have entered the minds of the folk flocking across New Road bridge in May 1899 to see the County’s first Championship game when they gave the mighty Yorkshire a fright; rather everyone would have been excited by the rightness of the step, and by the alluring prospect stretching seasons ahead.
"But, then, thoughts of ‘another fine mess’ might quite reasonably have surfaced in 1914 when things were so dire financially that there was a move made, in mid-season, to wind-up the Club. And again in 1919, too, in that first summer after First World War when County cricket so happily resumed, and yet Worcestershire was too ill-equipped to take part. Or on into the Twenties when things were so difficult.
"Often there were very few professionals so that for some matches the opening bowling attack was Fred Root and Percy Tarbox and first change was Tarbox and Root (they simply changed ends!), and the Club was kept going almost solely through drive and determination – and, one has to say, the personal funding – of Major Maurice Jewell.
"Even with his undented enthusiasm there was sometimes a brighter glimmer of hope and he once told of going home after a better day’s play and, at dinner, saying to his wife: 'By Jove, I think we might be able to declare in the morning!'
"With Worcestershire never out of the bottom four in the Championship for the whole decade that would have been a rare moment of optimism. Such was the determined enthusiasm of all involved that the County survived, and grew in stature to continue competing at cricket’s highest level where, today, Worcestershire rightly is renowned for ‘punching well above its weight’.
"So, the vision that so many have shared, from that first meeting, through the Cobhams and the Coventrys, through Paul Foley – who was so ably supported by a like-minded spirit in HK Foster – and many others: splendid players – great players!; selfless administrators, officers and committee members; loyal and able staff and volunteers; and dedicated supporters down through the ages to the present day.
"Without them, without their vision and ideals, we would not be here today, rejoicing, celebrating, and giving thanks to God for our Club and for all it has achieved. Cricket, at its best, has always had a touch of the God-given about it, and long enjoyed a warm association with the church.
"This is especially true here, of course, where we have been blessed by a happily long and harmonious partnership with this Cathedral and its successive Deans and Chapters who – until 1976 when (in Dean Tom Baker’s time) they graciously allowed us to acquire the freehold of the Ground – were our benevolent landlords and neighbours.
"How lucky we were; how lucky we are! Clubs and communities, like individuals, prosper best when they are loved, retaining the commitment of those who support them and of those engaged by them, with that loyalty which so often engenders real affection and creates heroes.
"How loyally we have been served, and what wonderful heroes this Club has produced, in every age – the Fosters, Bowley and Arnold; Walters and Root; Perks, Howarth and Gibbons; Kenyon and Graveney, Gifford and D’Oliveira, Turner and Holder; Neale, Hick, Botham and Dilley; Curtis, Rhodes, Illingworth and Newport; to our present splendid Captain, Daryl Mitchell, alongside Moeen Ali and our marvellously talented young side of today– and so, so many more.
"What distinction the County has poured upon them – but what great distinction they have won for the County!
"In listing those Worcestershire names, one recognises there are, too, those from visiting Counties who have graced our ground: W G Grace himself, Hobbs and Hammond, Larwood and Voce, May, Cowdrey and Dexter, Statham and Trueman, and what about the touring teams who, for so many years, traditionally started their tours at Worcester: Victor Trumper, Bradman of course, Lindwall, Miller, Constantine, Worrell, Weekes and Walcott, the sublime Sobers.
"Wonderful names, each creating myriads of wonderful memories! As we look back at those things which have sustained us over the past 150 years we think of the loyalty of the Club’s Members and supporters and its Supporters’ Association. – whole generations of friendships and mutual encouragement and support, expressing that fellowship which is so part of our humanity and gives us all an anchor in life.
"Sharing the joys and successes and, yes, the frustrations and disappointments too (and we’ve had our share of those!) – that “weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice” – is part of a far deeper truth, that truth Paul wrote about in our second reading (Romans 12:3-16).
"Alongside vision and loyalty we must include excellence – that striving after the best. Top class sport, first-class cricket is played today with such amazing skills which seemed inconceivable 50 years ago, let alone 150 years ago.
"We have all been moved by players whose sublime skills and achievements – or perhaps their sportsmanship – has simply taken our breath away. That can be humbling, in a way that is good for us; as is being lifted by our admiration.
"It won’t surprise any of you that I firmly believe those talents and skills which we so admire – alongside the talents and gifts given to every one of us – are God-given. Yes, of course they need to be honed, but they begin as a gift from God.
"One recalls the great South African golfer, Gary Player, responding to a spectator who, at the end of a tournament, begrudgingly suggested Player had been very lucky. “It’s funny that”, responded Player,”the more I practise the luckier I get!”.
"Our Deuteronomy reading earlier (Deuteronomy 8:11-18) reminds us we are never to forget that it is God who both provides and guides.
"All these qualities: Vison, Loyalty, Excellence, and so many more of God’s gifts, have played essential roles in bringing this Club from that meeting in the Star Hotel 150 years ago to its admired and enduring place in the world of cricket, and in sport at large, today, and have played their part especially in the (5) Championship and (6) One-Day successes of more recent times, through those teams whose names you will be able to recite as well as I can (perhaps better!).
"These, and all those other influences for good, are the things for which, most certainly, we offer here real and boundless thanks to God.
"Sometime ago I was leaving a function in Birmingham, where I had been speaking and my host was showing me to my car. Around us was the chatter of others speaking about the evening.
“I didn’t think much of that Mike Vockins’ talk” I overheard someone say. I looked at my host, hoping he hadn’t heard this, and he was looking at me and thinking the same. We realised we had both heard the comment. With great presence of mind and huge diplomacy he said: “Don’t worry, Mike. The man is a complete fool – he just repeats what everyone else is saying”.
"You may well feel that is me who has been the fool, been foolish this afternoon – for omitting so much, so many wonderful names and heroes, so many stories, with so many marvellous achievements not recounted, no mention of Ladies Pavilion teas, no mention of floods. Please forgive me.
"When, a while back, the Dean kindly invited me to preach at this Service, and my mind began to range back over the past 150 years, a seed settled in my thoughts. It carried the words of Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary-General of the United Nations (1953-1961) who said: “For all that has been – thanks; for all that will be – yes!”
“Another fine mess ….” is a phrase we perhaps most often use when we are in trouble, but sometimes we use it – with a slight sense of irony and delight – when something is (or may be) rather fun.
"It is in that sense that I use it now, as here – rightly, readily, joyfully – we together give thanks to God for our Club’s illustrious past, and its fruitful progress to this present time, too. So too we offer a resounding “Yes” as we look forward with confidence, and with relish, to what the next 150 years holds.
"Let us hope and pray that whatever ”fine mess” we’ll be marking then will be equally worthy of celebration – and something for which – as now – we give hearty thanks to God. Thanks be to God, indeed."
Rev’d Prebendary Mike Vockins OBE