Review by Michael Montgomery

Penguins were far from undergraduate Harry Thompson’s (future creator of Have I Got News For You) mind when he formed the Captain Scott’s XI from a bunch of fanatical cricket novices, named in anticipation of a permanent role as gallant losers and with Oates’ last words pithily rendered on their caps as MODO EGREDIOR (“I’m just on my way out”).

Most of their defeats, honourable and not so honourable, came at the hands of Oxford colleges and villages, until many seasons later he was commissioned to retrace his hero’s footsteps in Antarctica. Globally-warmed sea ice cut short the last leg, but compensation came in the shape of a cricket ball produced by one of the resident scientists – until interrupted by a pitch invasion by thousands of penguins excited by the prospect of a game.

The team’s performance was bolstered by the inclusion of a number of Commonwealth immigrants and occasional weekends against ex-pats in France, until one of the new recruits volunteered to organise a fully-fledged tour of India. More time was spent escaping the clutches of the guide from Meet-U Enterprises and her syndicated souvenir shops than on the field, but after the novelty of being confronted by a current Test player, a matching crowd and a ball-by-ball live commentary the tour was deemed an overall success, rupture of several relationships (of both sexes) beyond repair notwithstanding.

Others followed even further afield to Malaysia and South Africa, until Thompson was coerced by his team mates into the ultimate logic of a world tour, encompassing the two Americas, Australia, Asia and back again to South Africa. That he was able to keep ten of them to their commitment speaks volumes for the strength of his personality and the depth of his pocket, despite too the best attempts of British Airways to frustrate him and the endless visa problems experienced by his two Afrikaner stars.

After a ten-wicket annihilation by the North Stars of Barbados, the depressing effects of jet-lag and conversely increasing intakes of alcohol mysteriously combined to produce a dramatic improvement, culminating in a last-over victory over the champions of Singapore after similarly nail-biting defeats in Perth and Capetown. Events off the field were no less diverting, ranging from the amorous advances of military wives in Buenos Aires to a re-acquaintance with penguins on Simonstown beach.

It had been, they all agreed, a triumph, but tragedy was not far behind. Four months later one of the team’s stalwarts suffered a fatal collapse at the crease with his score on 89, and four months later again Thomson himself fell to terminal cancer. Fortunately for all he had just been able to complete this wonderfully entertaining book, which will serve as worthy an epitaph as any of those already gracing the library at Lord’s.

— Michael Montgomery


Penguins Stopped Play: Eleven Village Cricketers Take on the World, John Murray, 2006, is available from


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