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Corona Diaries: the gap that only cricket can fill

June 23, 2020
Sibling rivalry, Wales, Summer 1963

With apologies in advance to those of you who don’t follow the game, what I’ve missed more than anything else in the latter weeks of lockdown is cricket.

Much as I look forward to seeing Liverpool win the English Premiership football title under the incomparable Jurgen Klopp, the lack of cricket has been a gap in the English summer that is not easily filled, for me at least.

I don’t just miss the big set-piece events that I can watch for days on TV. I want to see cricketers battling it out in the park just down the road from my house, and in the evening, boys and girls honing their skills between plastic wickets, swatting soft balls over the grass and shrieking with delight at a big hit or a fallen wicket.

Even though the short forms of the game are often cacophonous affairs, the longer forms are not so suffused with adrenaline until they reach a climax, or even several climaxes as the pendulum swings back and forth. For much of the time, they’re a stage for quiet appreciation, where the action doesn’t demand constant attention, and where everyone around you has an opinion, but rarely expressed with tribal passion.

They’re events where you can disappear for lunch, have a few beers without finding yourself in the centre of a riot, fall asleep in the sun or, as I did when I was a kid, keep meticulous score, noting every run, every ball and every boundary. And if you think score-keeping is an activity confined to juvenile obsessives, you will still often find men in their sixties or seventies doing exactly the same thing.

It would be wrong to describe cricket as a gentle game. In times gone by contests between neighbouring villages would be extremely violent affairs. Strong men hurling thunderbolts at frightening speed towards myopic batsmen whose occupation of the crease was largely a matter of luck rather than talent. Blacksmiths, built like the shire horses they shod, sending the ball screaming over the boundary and often into the nearby car park. Teenagers drafted in at the last moment, keen to make a name for themselves. Umpires in long white coats, former cricketers perhaps, and often pillars of local society – the vicar or the pub landlord. And old men slowly plodding round the boundary ropes remembering W G Grace, Len Hutton and perhaps their own stellar moments.

When I speak about cricket in masculine terms, that’s not to suggest that it isn’t a game for women too, just not so much when I was growing up. Though one of my earliest memories was of playing a peculiar variant of the game at our holiday home in Wales. It was called French cricket, and it usually involved recruiting an unfortunate au-pair, whose role was to stand with a bat protecting her legs while my siblings and I pelted her with tennis balls. If the au-pair wasn’t available, our grandmother was an adequate substitute.

Rumour has it that once our masters declare a one-metre separation to be OK, cricket will return, though the professional game, like football, will play out to empty stadia. That’s not a problem, because when the England team tours the outposts of the game, five-day matches are often played in front of empty seats. In countries like Sri Lanka and India, the locals prefer the shorter forms of the game.

But as far as I’m concerned, summer won’t come alive until small grounds around the country are filled with accountants, vicars, blacksmiths and builders, doing their utmost to smash the windows of nearby houses, while a smattering of friends and passers-by sit on blankets and deckchairs watching the action with pints of real ale and tea in Thermos flasks on hand.

These days the game stretches beyond the outdated, and largely white, male stereotype I’ve just described. Women are no longer there just to pour the tea and make cucumber sandwiches. They’re fierce combatants, like their male counterparts. And if you visit a local ground you might find gay teams, Muslim teams and even teams of actors and authors, in one of which my favourite historian, Tom Holland, plays (he claims) a leading role.

The beauty of cricket is also that it’s a common language. It unites people from many different ethnic and social backgrounds. Just as you can talk football in most parts of the world if you see someone wearing a Liverpool or Manchester United shirt, I could take a ride in Riyadh with a taxi driver from Peshawar, and we could swap stories of Imran Khan, Virat Kohli and Ian Botham, or just shout out their names to bring a smile of common understanding.

If the game was once confined to the countries of the British Commonwealth, that’s less the case today. Cricket in Ireland, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan and even the Netherlands is thriving.

One of the worthwhile aspects of nationality is not so much that we’re proud of our countries, but that we all have our cherished cultural idiosyncrasies that have not yet been erased by globalisation.

For me, cricket, with all its quaint traditions, though we share the game with many other countries, is something without which England would not be England.

From → History, Social, Sport, UK

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