For years Dennis Skinner MP has been one of the most combative individuals in British politics. Nicknamed the Beast of Bolsover, he’s legendary for his fiery nature. Down the pits from 16, involved in politics since 1960 and a Labour MP since 1970, he talks to Phil Walker about class in cricket, James Anderson’s progress and inadvertently attending Denis Compton’s memorial service.
So Dennis, what was your involvement with cricket as a kid?
I went down the pit when I was 16 and I’d have been playing for the youth cricket team then, which is where we had most of our successes. I was more of a footballer and an athlete, cross-country champion and all that jazz. I had tremendous stamina. One of the things I found about cricket was that there was too much waiting about but I remember in the youth team we were really successful, we once got one team out for 14 twice.
Were you a bowler or a batsman?
Bowler. I was reasonably fast and if you didn’t get a serious injury down the pits – which lots of people sadly did – you were exceptionally fit. A lot of good, fast bowlers in Derbyshire came from the pits – Les Jackson, Bill Copson, Cliff Gladwin.
Did you find that cricket had a working-class heritage attached to it?
Without a doubt, because there were 700 pits when I went to work in 1948 and I would estimate that there were 750 teams. We had tremendous stamina as a result of digging down a hole 800 yards below the surface of the earth for eight hours. As I said there were a lot of people who didn’t come out unscathed like me. Les Jackson played a few times for England and he ended up driving paraplegic vans and looking after miners that had suffered accidents.
And it was the same story in neighbouring counties?
There were lots of pits in Lancashire and Bradford – which had probably one of the best leagues. They used to do a collection around the boundary in the Bradford League for someone who got five wickets or scored a half-century, there were that many people there!
Despite that, most people’s perception of cricket is of a middle-class, genteel sport. Is that fair?
I would say today most people connected to cricket are Tories! When I did The View From The Boundary (Skinner appeared on Test Match Special in 2000) I think I was the only one from that side of the fence!
How did your appearance on there come about?
It’s a funny story actually. I was walking up from parliament, to do a bit of shopping, when suddenly, as I approached Westminster Abbey, I could see crowds and crowds of people. Many of them were very good-looking women indeed in big, Ascot-type hats and I’m thinking, ‘What’s going off here?’ Whereupon a fella says, ‘Thank God there’s another socialist here!’ By that time I’d realised it was Denis Compton’s memorial at Westminster Abbey. I saw the women and I thought ‘Yeah, the Brylcreem boy…’
Do you have memories of Compton as a player?
I do, when I was outside this service I was thinking back to 1947 because I think it was the year he got about 18 centuries and Bill Edrich got 12. I saw one of Compton’s centuries that year and I had marvelled at the fella. All of a sudden the man who originally grabbed me said, ‘We’re going in’ and I thought, ‘What am I doing here now?’ And then someone said, ‘Tickets?’ A woman in a great, big, Westminster-type gown that seemed to reach the floor said, ‘He doesn’t need one’ – she knew me. I proceeded into Westminster Abbey and I got sat next to Henry Blofeld!
A man cut from slightly different cloth than yourself!
I think he was quite taken aback because he said, ‘Dennis, Dennis Skinner? Are you a cricket fan?’ So I explained about how I’d seen Compton score one of his 18 centuries and how I’d played a bit in Derbyshire and how I’d always followed it. He looked at me as if to say, ‘You’re not who I thought you were!’ He asked me what I really thought about Denis Compton and I said, ‘He was the cavalier of cricket. He was also everything that Geoffrey Boycott isn’t!’ And he loved the line. Then after I came out of the Abbey quite a number of cricket people came around me and I was just repeating my cavalier of cricket line.
So then he asked you to appear on The View From The Boundary?
Yes, it was the year that we finally defeated the West Indies in a Test series here. They did want me to sit with John Major at a proper dinner but I said I would rather sit upstairs in the press box and eat a couple of sandwiches. One thing that I did discover was that up there, looking through those windows, I could see the ball swing. I also wondered whether they were kidding me on the radio, and it swung a foot. I’d never been in that position before but you could see it!
Do you still get to Test matches?
I’m a television man really. I’ve been to Lord’s and The Oval, but we have a TV here in the office. I’ve watched the Tests ever since they have been on TV, I would say.
Is it important for politicians to have interests away from work?
I don’t think people in politics can operate without a hinterland. I don’t believe you should be just politicians. When I worked in the pit and I was elected as one of the Union reps, believe me they didn’t elect me just because they knew I could deal with the manager, I had a great memory or I could run rings around him or whatever. In the pit you had to talk about cricket, you had to talk about football, you had to talk about horse racing, and I had this wonderful memory – I would study a race card and then they would fire questions at me about which jockey was riding which horse while we ate our coal-covered sandwiches in the dark. If you weren’t like the rest of them you couldn’t converse with their politics. You had to talk in the language of the people around you and sport fulfilled that role for me.
Are you still able to get lost in a sporting encounter or does it wear thin?
Wear thin? I’m competitive to my toenails! You better believe it.
Modern-day sport has changed a lot, there is a lot more focus on advertising and money. Would you say that is regrettable?
Sport has definitely lost a bit of its romance, the Olympics has as well. When I was a kid it was amateur!
So what about the current England side, which player most excites you?
A player I like currently, without a doubt, is James Anderson. I think he’s improved over the last two or three years. I think he’s swinging the ball better, he now seems to have the ability to swing it both ways where the conditions are suitable. I just think that over this last two or three years he has gone up a notch or two, and he was on a decent rung of the ladder to begin with. He’s the one who, in my opinion, has got the technique and everything else and he’s still improving with age. The one that’s surprised me, let’s put it this way, because I didn’t think he would be a star in the way that he, is the fella Cook. I just saw this tall, thin lad but just look at the success he is having now.
Click here to read an interview with Alastair Campbell on depression, his love of cricket and meeting Boycott