February 9, 2014

Cricket's not a lost cause yet

Sackings, revamps, and poor crowds are dispiriting to witness, but your faith in the game is restored when you get thrashed by U-17s while being cheered on by sympathetic schoolchildren

The future isn't completely bleak © Getty Images

The most gifted England batsman of my lifetime has gone, sacked in circumstances too opaque to make any kind of closure possible - which, inevitably, has sent Twitter into one of its periodic festivals of ill-informed self-righteousness. The ICC has adopted a new structure that I don't really understand but that seems likely to mean endless series between England, Australia and India with nobody else really getting a look in. A fascinating and unpredictable Test match unfolds in Auckland, watched by approximately a dozen people. There have been few weeks when my love of cricket has been so tested, when the whole sport has seemed so doomed. It feels as though there's a conspiracy of administrators and fans to sap anything resembling glee or hope from the game.

And then I think back to the week before last and a school near Kandy. On the Authors CC tour to Sri Lanka, we played at Test grounds in Kandy and Colombo - there are few things more incongruous for a player of my limited ability than seeing your name written on the scoreboard; few things more galling than watching the scorers then add a "3" next to it. We won a game against a team of planters on a gorgeous ground surrounded by hills covered in tea trees and we were soundly thrashed by a team featuring a Test player and the brilliant 16-year-old Pathum Nissanka, but by far the most memorable episode was what happened at Thalathuoya Central.

In a sense, it was a bit of an ambush. Seven of us popped along to donate kit and a matting pitch with the suggestion we should play a five-over game against pupils. We assumed it would be gentle, a thrash against some kids. We didn't go in whites, and took only two sets of pads and gloves. Rapidly, it turned out we had severely underestimated the challenge. The game was upgraded to ten overs a side, and it turned out we were playing their Under-17 team, bolstered by two U-19s.

After the first two overs we bowled had disappeared for 50-odd - admittedly in part because of the very short square boundaries - it became pretty clear they were far, far better than us. When their coach admitted their opening bowler had been clocked at over 80mph, we knew we were in for a battering.

But it didn't matter. On three sides the pitch was surrounded by schoolchildren, hundreds of them. After some early cooing at the sixes flashing into the long grass, they took pity on us and began chanting in support. There was some slippage in translation and "Authors! Authors!" came out as "Old dust! Old dust!" but still, the thought was there. Even better, when one of our batsmen, Richard Beard, was struck on the temple by a bouncer - no helmet, of course - but batted on, a purple lump swelling by his eye, they began chanting his name: "Rich Beard! Rich Beard! Rich Beard!"

In the end we lost by 40-odd runs - respectable enough given how badly it could have gone, but still a hammering in the context of a ten-over game, but it didn't matter. My own contribution was a second-ball duck, bowled middle stump by a yorker as I attempted a wild slog down the ground, but that didn't matter either. Far more important was the thrill of playing in front of such a large and delighted crowd, and the profound sense of connection that engendered.

I've mentioned this before, but this seems to me fundamental to what sport is and why it matters. In one sense, of course, two people hitting a ball with lumps of wood while others chase it is ridiculous, but if that generates conversation, if that gives us an activity in common, if that constructs a bridge between people of wildly divergent ages and cultures, then it becomes something very important indeed.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't get angry at the administrators who seem intent in sacrificing the game on the altar of commerce, and it doesn't mean we shouldn't try to get to the bottom of the Pietersen affair, and it doesn't mean we shouldn't lament the lack of supporters at Eden Park. But what it does mean is that somewhere, beyond all the spin and the self-interest, the game goes on, still bringing people together.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here