The Sharp End: A catering test at Lord's

As England fights for the Ashes, Oliver Bennett plays batman at the Nursery end.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

On the streets of St John's Wood, the scalpers are out: 'Tickets! Anyone got tickets?' The third day of the Ashes Test is a hot number, the chance to rectify decades of hurt: England hasn't won against Australia at Lord's since 1934. So the corporate hospitality suits should be out in force and, today, I'm to serve them. Once inside, I report to Ted Walker, Keith Prowse's marketing manager.

At Lord's, there are several corporate 'packages', all costing several hundred quid. I walk into the Players' Lounge. A brisk women called Gail greets me and surveys the room. A one-woman panoptic system, Gail is impressive. To the end of the day, as the punters roll around clutching complimentary bottles of VB Aussie beer, Gail remains a model of icy calm. New and trendy, the Players' Lounge has Perspex seats, lime-green pouffes and cute girls in blue polo shirts branded PCA - the Professional Cricketers' Association. Here, too, is the new corp hosp trend: players come in to field punters' questions from the massed bankers, insurers and lawyers. How they must love it.

I'm not to be deployed here. Instead, I'm sent to the Nursery Pavilion, the older, larger restaurant, a football pitch-sized tent. At the front is a phalanx of blonde hostesses in red suits, and generals in dark suits and walkie-talkies. Australian Andy (boo!) shows me the ropes. I don a brown shirt, black apron and clip-on tie, and I'm put on a team looking after five tables. 'They come at 12 for about 45 minutes,' says Andy. 'It's a bit frenetic.'

Like most Nursery staff, my team are well-brought-up young people. Don is going to college to study philosophy, Serena's back from Thailand before heading to Newcastle university, and Carrie is already at St Andrews. I follow her: 'Two forks here. Fork and spoon there. Wine glass in front of water glass.'

We lay up. At about 11.45, the several dozen staff head outside for a bacon buttie. I find out that Serena did a Christmas job at Fortnum & Mason with my 19-year-old daughter, and feel old. 'Mecco (the catering company at Lord's) is a lovely place to work,' she says. 'Most of us have been back again and again.' It's a bit of a club; indeed, it feels like a dating agency for debutantes.

It's time to put the starters on the table or - as Andy puts it - to 'carpet the room'. We queue up to pick up two plates each: carpaccio of beef. The punters walk in: 80% male, Thomas Pink-shirt types. They're a reasonable bunch. Sure, there's guffawing, perhaps a little braying. Carrie and I walk around the tables, pouring wine: 'You ask: red or white? Then you pour.' She puts her hand behind her back, sommelier-style, and I follow suit.

They dine. We stand. I talk to a couple of colleagues off my watch. He's on about £6.50 an hour, through an agency, while she's on £7, as she's employed direct. The team leaders are a shade older. Jo is a French teacher at a south London public school. 'Why? Done it for years, extra money.' Janine is an artist and dancer. 'It's good work for artists.'

No-one seems unhappy. They won't do this all their lives, and it's extremely unlikely that they'll be Western Union-ing the cash to the southern hemisphere to keep their families alive.

The starters are finished. We pick up two dirty plates each and ferry them to the 'wash-up' outside, a series of soapy tubs into which we drop each utensil. Incredibly, the dirty dishes are driven up to the Prowse depot in Banbury. In a circular manoeuvre, we file around to the kitchen, where the mains - partly pre-cooked in, yes, Banbury - are being laid out. We grab the square plates of salmon, spud and salad, and take them out. The punters are engrossed in the speech: a back-slapping fest featuring ex-stars Gladstone Small, Jeff Thompson and Graham Gooch. Thommo makes gags about stingy Yorkshiremen. The crowd loves it.

Play resumes, and I catch up with Keith Prowse's Ted. With all that free booze, does it get messy? 'If rain stops play, you can get a feeding frenzy.' It's downtime, so I watch the game. At tea-time, I wend my way to the Players' Lounge. I help colleagues Brad and Bianca, two charming South Africans, to carve the jamon. 'To the top and down in a diagonal,' says Bianca. Piece of piss.

After the evening's cricket, it's back to the Players' Lounge. Gladstone and gang keep up the routine, while the Thomas Pink brigade are filing back the worse for wear, but still tame. Gimlet Gail surveys her domain. Andrew Flintoff walks in, and about 200 pairs of male eyes move from the PCA girls' khaki-clad bottoms to 'the big unit', as he is known. Another day is over.

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