'How's the Test going?'
A couple of months ago, agreeing with the theory Martin Kelner sets out in Sit Down and Cheer that football began to supplant cricket as the prime sport in the English national consciousness as a result of the 1953 FA Cup final, I cited Alfred Hitchcock's 1938 film The Lady Vanishes. In it, the two comic characters on the train, Charters and Caldicott, ask every English person they meet how the Test is going. The modern equivalent, Kelner suggested, would be, "What was the United score?"
At the time I thought he was right, and in terms of his general point I still do, but over the past couple of weeks I've begun to reconsider. I'm in Argentina at the moment and, during the Lord's Test, I found myself regularly discussing with people how the Test was going. The tense, of course, is the significant issue. There are only two hours in which a football match is going, after which it has gone. That doesn't stop discussion, of course, but it does take some of the urgency out of the conversation.
This is one of cricket's great beauties, one it shares with cycling's grand tours and perhaps nothing else: for all the people who go to a game, or sit and watch it avidly on television, there are many thousands more for whom it goes on in the background. The nature of the game lends itself to that: you don't need to know what happened in each of the 540 balls of a day's play. You don't need to know every cut or drive, much less every defensive shot, merely that Joe Root played watchfully before tea and then opened out on his way to 178 not out by the close. His dismissal to a ramp shot the following morning probably will be remembered - for what it said about his selflessness, the modernity or his play and his fearlessness - but it is rare in that; cricket is essentially a game of summaries and statistics, and that makes it ideal for idle discussion when you're away from home and haven't actually seen any of it.
Argentina were early adopters of cricket - they claim, in fact, to have played an international against Chile before England played Australia for the first time, expats carrying their kit over the Andes by donkey - and there remain a handful of small but beautiful grounds in Buenos Aires. The majority of Argentinians, though, are bewildered by the whole notion.
Just after Christmas in 2010 I took my mam up to Iguazu to see the waterfalls that lie on the border with Brazil. The wi-fi in the hotel was appalling but after about half an hour of fiddling around in the bar, I got sufficient signal to discover England had reached 444 for 5 at the end of the second day, a lead of 346.
I think I probably let out a chortle of glee; at any rate, I was clearly happy enough for a pair of nearby Australians to grunt, "Cricket? How bad is it?" I told them the score, at which an Argentinian sitting nearby asked what that meant. "So England have won?" he asked. "Well, no, but…" Of course, there's nowhere simple to go from there. I have no idea how to begin to explain cricket to somebody who hasn't grown up with it: so many complications immediately arise.
I was still in London for the Adelaide Test of 2010-11, but was chatting via Google to an Argentinian as play started. "Hang on. He's run out! Katich is run out! For 0. In the first over. That's hilarious."
"Is that good?" she asked.
"Yes. Don't worry about it. Just accept it's a good thing."
Two minutes later. "Ha! Ponting's gone first ball. They're 0-2."
"It's just very good. I can't remember it ever being this good."
Seven minutes later. "Clarke's out as well! Exactly the same as Ponting. This is amazing. 2-3."
"It's three-two, now? So it's closer than before?"
"No. No. Don't worry: just accept this is the best thing that's ever happened in any sport involving England in 20 years."
"Have they won, then?"
"Well, no. Not yet."
"But they will?"
"Well, it's a great start, but there's a long way to go."
"Well, conceivably 29 hours and 50 minutes of playing time over five days, but it probably won't go all the way."
Recently I took a Norwegian to The Oval to see Surrey v Middlesex in a T20. He, to his enormous credit, had read Simon Hughes' book to try to at least get a grasp of the basics. Everything seemed to be going well. He correctly identified a player being out lbw. He seemed to accept that even though Ricky Ponting was "a former Australia captain, one of the best players ever", he could still be comfortably outscored by Jason Roy. I think he even grasped the notion of the Powerplay. And then he asked, "What's that number next to 'DL' on the scoreboard?"
My attempt to fob him off by saying, "It's really not important when the weather's like this," only piqued his curiosity.
A local journalist here asked what I'd done last Sunday. When I told him I'd watched the golf on TV while listening to the cricket online (no illegal streams for me, Giles Clarke will be relieved to hear), he tried to humour me and asked what had happened. I explained England had beaten Australia by the biggest margin ever at home. Foolishly, I then corrected myself and explained I meant in terms of a runs victory, so not by an innings or by wickets. Understandably, he was soon hopelessly confused.
But in a sense that's half the fun. Cricket may be a bewildering ritual but it's our bewildering ritual. Discussing it in South America is a welcome link to home, a link that is strengthened by the way its complex and at times counter-intuitive nature excludes others. In the summer of 2011, I covered the World Under-20 football tournament in Colombia. The day after England had been eliminated in the second round by Nigeria, the circus moved on and I was left as the only guest at a finca on the edge of the city of Armenia. For most of the day, I sat on the terrace in a rocking chair, looking out over fields of cows and coffee, tidying some notes but mainly listening online to Alastair Cook scoring unfeasible numbers of runs against India at Edgbaston knowing none of the staff had a clue what I was listening to. I think it's the most relaxed I've ever been.
Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here