My poster boys
A little boy in a black tracksuit wailed to his dad: "They haven't looked like taking a wicket for a couple of overs."
Son, they've hardly looked like taking a wicket for a couple of years; they haven't looked like taking that many since before you were born.
Matthew Engel, the Guardian, 24 August 1993
Every home has its corner of shame. An attic space, a cellar or a cupboard, full of the stuff that will play no further part in your life, and that you can't bear to throw out: obsolete electricals, schoolbooks kept for sentimentality's sake, the lampshade that you'd repair if you just bought some damn superglue, the box files of family photos you never got round to putting in albums. In my parents' house it used to be the loft, but then they moved to a thatched cottage. The only things there's room for up in the thatch are some confused birds, a couple of nesting squirrels and the occasional rat that burrows noisily above everyone's heads for weeks before getting trapped and dying, pungently.
So now it's the basement. A cold, concreted space that frequently floods and smells almost as bad as a dead rat, packed floor to impossibly low ceiling with crates and boxes that are immovable, utterly unidentifiable, and guarded by ferocious spiders. It's like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom down there. The only person brave enough to venture to the basement is my dad, but even he has given up pretending to know what it contains, or why. Last summer my sister and I were visiting one weekend and he emerged from the basement dragging something huge and dusty behind him.
"Look what I found down there!"
Two gigantic sheets of cardboard, hinged together in imitation of an artist's portfolio, sealed at the edges with parcel tape and bulging pregnantly from its contents. I knew what they were. I'd made the cardboard folder, just like I'd made everything it contained.
"Oh god," my sister groaned. "Is that what I think it is?"
We slit the tape and opened it up on the floor. Dozens of sheets of coloured card spilled out, each covered in cuttings from the sports pages and photographs cut out of magazines. Neatly arranged and mounted, the newsprint had been laminated with the fastidious care of a Blue-Peter-watching Girl Guide. Little dry balls of Blu-tack, some with flakes of white paint and wallpaper still clinging to them, dotted their obverse sides.
"Oh, it's your cricket posters!" said mum. "You used to sit up in your room for hours making those!" she sighed nostalgically. "You were such an industrious teenager."
"She was such a nerd," snorted my sister.
From the floor, Angus Fraser looked up at me with a typically hangdog expression. He seemed resigned, as if spending the last 15 years wedged in between two pieces of cardboard, in a forgotten corner of a mouldering basement, was no less than he'd expected. Above him was a banner headline: "England lose again".
The posters, if they deserved the name, were the outworkings of four seasons of fanaticism. It started at 14 when, in the joyous aftermath of the 1993 Oval Test, I had bought every broadsheet so I could read about England's victory four times over. Some latent scrapbooking gene had stirred, and suddenly the reports were cut out and stuck up on my wall (having first been mounted on card: I wasn't a savage) where I could enjoy the words "England win, at last!" even as I fell asleep.
My little project turned into a habit, and soon my collages had become my primary expression of devotion to the England team's cause. While my school friends were decorating their rooms with the glowering faces of the Gallagher brothers, I was gluing the back of Graeme Hick's head to a piece of A1. Tour previews, Test reports, interviews with my favourite players - once, for reasons I cannot remember, a profile of Alan Mullally - all made it under the preservative skin of sticky-back plastic.
My parents were blithely tolerant of my behaviour, something they must have regretted as my bedroom walls disappeared under the posters (when there was no more space, I moved onto the ceiling). It probably seemed a harmless enough pursuit (even if it did blunt my mum's best pair of kitchen scissors): after all, I couldn't afford illicit booze if all my pocket money was going to WHSmith's. It was only when I'd packed up for college, and my paper shrine remained baldly behind, that my pastime suddenly smacked of Kathy Bates in Misery.
Still, the posters had cost far too much effort for me to bear throwing them out. And so the makeshift cardboard folder, which bore the large insignia "Emma's Cricket Posters", remained, along with what I'd clearly thought were witty annotations:
44 x Michael Atherton
35 x Angus Fraser
12 x Alec Stewart
1 x Very Angry Illingworth (Ray, not Richard)
Caution: this pack includes 3 Brian Laras. Strictly no wayward bowling.
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.
As we spread the posters out to get a better look, their confectionery colours transforming the floor into a giant jigsaw puzzle, I noticed for the first time what bizarre images I'd lived in such close proximity to during my teens. Grim-faced men wearing striped blue pyjamas that did nothing for their dignity and even less for their figures; blazered men on crutches, waiting for a flight home; a fancy-dress Christmas party that included Phil DeFreitas dressed as Batman.
My sister looked over my shoulder, and captured the mood with her usual pith.
"You really were a loser."
A few months after the discovery, I am at home in London. England are in India, at the start of their winter tour. The first Test is taking place, somewhere. I'm not sure where exactly, as the build-up's passed me by. I wake up, reach a sleepy arm out to the radio. Garry Richardson tells me that India have scored over 500 and someone called Pujara has got a double-century. I switch over to longwave. There's a distant thonk, the sound of Nick Compton losing his bails four thousand miles away.
Fifteen minutes later, England are 30 for 3, needing 322 to avoid the follow-on. And I feel… nothing. For possibly the first time in my life, I am completely blasé about the result of an England game.
And I wonder: what has happened to me?
It was my mother who introduced me to cricket. She'd grown up the second youngest in a family of four brothers, so as well as loving sport, she fiercely defended her opinions on it. She and my dad met playing hockey - they were as competitive as each other - but Dad's never had much time for spectator sports unless they involve motor oil and Ferraris. Mum loved to watch football and rugby, but cricket was her favourite. She used to commandeer the television during England's matches by doing the ironing. If she saved up enough laundry she could hold the living room hostage for a full five-day Test.
Botham, Gatting, Gower and Gooch. My mother's heroes read like the opening credits of Trumpton, although the names meant nothing to my sister and me; we merely resented the interruption to our usual programming. From the '81 Ashes to the Tiger Moth incident, not to mention both Blackwashes, Mum could remember where she'd been for them all. Although, to be fair, she'd mostly been ironing.
I showed no interest until the Ashes summer of '93. I didn't even mean to then. I was just transfixed by the little box in the corner of the screen in which two tiny people dashed up and down; and Mum's explanation of it raised more questions than it answered. Wasn't it unfair that two of them had to play against 11 other people? Why didn't the guy in the white coat have to run too? What was a wicket? By the fourth Test, we'd moved onto the lbw law. By the fifth, I was hooked.
I still understood little of cricket, and knew next to nothing about the England team. But I picked up, from my mother's sighs, that we were not very good. By the Edgbaston Test, we had already lost the Ashes, and our captain had resigned. (Our captain! I'd been inculcated quicker than a Scientology convert.) And now there was a new man, and he was young, but looked even younger, and he lost his first game in charge, but then he went and won the very next one, and everyone said it's a miracle, and really, what's a 14-year-old girl to think, except that he's her hero?
Thus I fell in love with cricket at a time of profound, and utterly misplaced, optimism. My coming-of-age Test was one in which David defeated Goliath, and a 25-year-old baby-faced captain prevailed against a mustachioed veteran leading our most ancient enemy. I was an impressionable teenager with no other allegiances (being an utter swot, Britpop and body piercings had passed me by). My relationship with England was forged in the purest flames of adolescent hope. And like most teenage romances, it was doomed.
Do you remember the West Indies tour that followed up that Ashes summer? England were taking Devon Malcolm, a quick to rival Ambrose and Walsh; Atherton and Stewart were opening the batting. It felt that anything was possible. And it was. In the third Test at Trinidad, 2-0 down in the series, England needed only 194 to win. Instead they achieved something even more unlikely; they got themselves out for a record low of 46.
I had an entire poster devoted to that result. "PORT OF PAIN" was the headline given top billing on its moody magenta background. I also included "Requiem for Atherton's Army" which probably captured my own elegiac mood at the time - although looking back, it's pretty creepy - and underneath ran a colour photograph of the England team lined up at the post-match ceremony, arms uniformly folded, staring at the ground like chastised schoolboys.
Even at 20 years' remove, I can look at that picture and feel it all. The adrenaline shock at the lbw yell on Atherton's first ball, and knowing from that sound alone - as it travelled tremulously through my radio set - that he was out. The nausea that accompanied Ramprakash's run-out, just a few minutes later. The dawning horror, as batsmen hurried each other back to the pavilion, that no one was coming to save the day. I remember falling asleep with an empathic ache for my fallen soldiers, and the gut-deep dread of knowing that Chris Lewis was all that stood between England and their worst-ever score.
My bedroom was a museum, a mausoleum really. A historical record of England's doldrums; Wisden writ large, in Pritt Stick and pastels. "Thorpe and Emburey postpone defeat." "In the still of the nightmare." "The point of no return." "From Bad to Worse" - this one accompanied by a picture of Ray Illingworth and Mike Atherton looking sulkily at each other across a patchy bit of wicket.
It's odd to think I spent all that time, painstakingly recording defeat and disaster. Why didn't I edit out the worst moments - who bothers with the humiliations? Why not just capture the happy times, the one-off victories, the home series wins against the Kiwis, the glorious rain-affected draws in South Africa? Perhaps my gloomy room was an adolescent outpouring, a cry of angst and self-indulgent misery. But I wasn't a particularly mopey teen. I didn't own any Sylvia Plath, and I had plenty of constructive thoughts on how to strengthen England's middle order.
After all, I didn't know any better. My mum could compare Atherton's England unfavourably to the Brearley years, or bemoan the loss of Boycott's bloody-mindedness, but I didn't have that luxury. I celebrated England's Pyrrhic victories like they were the real thing. Andy Caddick smiling. Phil Tufnell taking a catch. Angus Fraser routing West Indians on greentops, that funny little flannel flapping at his crotch as he ran down the wicket, finger wagging at the sky.
Someone tells me that England are all out for 191 in Ahmedabad. Twenty years ago, I would have sat in front of the TV, watching their innings dismantling on Ceefax. These days I'm a grown-up with my own Sky subscription. I can watch the game in bed on my laptop or on the bus on my mobile or, if I fix my face into an industrious frown, on the computer in the corner of my office while I'm allegedly working. I don't though. England's last wicket falls like a tree in the forest. Soundlessly.
What's the problem here? Am I sulking? England haven't had a great year, to be sure; you couldn't pay me to revisit the Tests against Pakistan in the UAE. The Pietersen texting debacle was depressing on such a profound level the ECB should have offered us all reintegrative counselling. And I've been missing Andrew Strauss' cheeky little face since the moment he left us.
I've grown accustomed to England winning, perhaps. Got lazy with it. This must be how Australians used to feel.
I don't know how old you were during the 1990s. Perhaps you were mature enough to put England's dismal years in context, to appreciate their place on the carousel of Test history. There are certainly easier things to be than a teenager who's obsessed with a team on their longest losing streak in history. "Such a weirdo," was the kindest epithet, and that came from my best friend Verity. Friends, boys, uncles who should have known better - they all taunted me with England's failings, not because any of them cared two hoots about cricket, but because they liked to watch me turn puce and start spluttering about Alec Stewart's average, or Ray Illingworth's selection policy.
That's how I spent my character-forming years: defending my corner, battling for my team, convincing myself, if no one else, that that they would, one day, be winners. Following England was an education in adulthood itself. Here's where I discovered pathos: pasting an adulatory piece from the Sun ("Thank Gough for Darren! Brave new hero has England grinning again") opposite a picture of the bowler being carried off by a physio. When did I first grasp irony? When I twinned the headline: "Aussies won't walk all over us again - Athers" with "Aussie twins blow apart Mike's hopes".
Most of all, though, it was a primer in perseverance. Atherton's 185 not out in Johannesburg may not have been the prettiest or most fascinating innings in history, but it was my totem: if the captain refused to give up, then so would I. (Some youths dream of success, independence and fame; I longed to be stoic in adversity.) My naive brand of enthusiasm may have driven my far more urbane friends to despair but it was an ideal characteristic for supporting England, a team which demanded a particularly imperishable sense of loyalty.
And what happens, in the fairy tales and the fables and the religious texts, to the young acolyte whose faith never wavers? That's right. They're rewarded with an epic win against the Australians.
When the umpires took the bails off on the final day of the 2005 Oval Test, confirming, in their silent way, that England had won the Ashes - the utterly anticlimactic end to the most significant moment of my cricket-watching career - it was, for me at least, the culmination of a cosmic life lesson. It was Cinderella slipping on the shoe, Prince Charming's kiss, Brer Rabbit's revenge. Emma, the gods seemed to intone, we have seen your sacrifice. It is pleasing.
Anyway, it was a significant moment, OK? It was a big deal. And when England went on to achieve even better things - barring the odd Flintoff-captained blip - it felt like they'd finally climbed the mountain. They were standing on the summit, looking at the meadow grasses and the goats and whatever else you get up there, and then they were marching on, finding new peaks to ascend. And my once-teenage self was wheezing behind at the back, possibly suffering from altitude sickness, and watching them leave.
I'd struggled to adulthood alongside a team that seemed to understand my experience of over-reaching, toiling to prove myself, of being, in my sister's words, a bit of a loser. I'd spent 20 years defining myself with individuals who kept promising as they failed - even when, together, they proved less than the sum of their parts. But now they were world-beaters. Did they even need me any more?
Alastair Cook is batting. And batting. And batting. He's standing at the crease, his jaw as rigid as a set square, and singlehandedly saving England from an innings defeat. I've put him on the TV, in the corner of the room. He's a calming, constant presence. He reminds me of someone I used to know.
My mind flits to a picture in that cardboard folder. Two batsmen crouch mid-pitch, a small, scruffy guy in a helmet leaning into the ear of a taller man. The taller man is propping himself up with his bat and he is grinning. It was my favourite picture of my favourite innings - Jack Russell barking encouragement in Jo'burg - and I far preferred it to the pictures of Atherton triumphant, arms raised, or running from the field, swamped by supporters. Somehow, it captured the captain in his element.
England can't save this Test, I know that. But they're trying. I watch, willing them to hold out, my stomach tensing in a manner which would make my pilates teacher proud. But it's not an unpleasant sensation. It's nostalgic. I welcome it as I would an old friend.
This piece was first published in The Nightwatchman, the Wisden Cricket Quarterly. Issue two features Gideon Haigh, Andy Zaltzman, Marcus Berkmann, Lawrence Booth and Jonathan Wilson. Free sampler here