Cricket and coronavirus

Duncan Hamilton

At various stages during spring and summer, particularly before the season's first ball was bowled, I found myself fretting about the welfare of a stranger.

I had come across him the previous September. He was sitting beside the sightscreen at Grace Road. Leicestershire against Northamptonshire was no one's idea of a marquee occasion. It was such a murky, dank morning that the floodlights were soon ablaze. And there were so few people that I could have shaken hands with all of them in less than 15 minutes. This man, however, was conspicuous, to say the least.

Having checked my notes, I have to confess my inadequacies as a news reporter. I'm afraid I can't tell you his name or age (older than me, for certain), or give much of a physical description ("greyish hair" and "thick sweater" is all I scribbled down). I offer a feeble excuse: I was taken aback by what I saw.

He was punctiliously recording every ball. And he was relying on old technology: pens, pencils, pencil sharpener, rubber, scorebook pages clipped to a pale brown board. It was like being whisked back into that bygone era, quaintly antiquarian now, when you rubbed linseed oil on your bat, and Blanco on your pads, and F. S. Trueman was a summariser on Test Match Special.

I admired his discipline and commitment, both of which demonstrated the seminal role cricket surely plays in his life. I may be hopelessly wide of the stumps here - projecting my own addict's devotion on to someone else - but I am guessing he possesses no ordinary love for it.

I am guessing the fixtures, published each winter, are the route map through all his summers. I am also guessing that, as one season ends, he is already hankering after the next. Snap.

When lockdown was announced, the first round of the County Championship was three weeks away. At this juncture, I have to stop, and then stress that every lovely violin lament for the matches we lost demands perspective. Next to the suffering elsewhere, the local difficulties cricket experienced shrink into insignificance.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when it was difficult to absorb the shock of everything, I didn't care whether Essex would retain their title, and I didn't dwell on who might triumph in the War of the Roses at Scarborough. I turned back to cricket only when I couldn't take any more of the present, which made the past the safest place to be. By then, we had become accustomed to that austerely Orwellian term "the new normal". Along with "self-isolation" and "furlough", it had slipped so easily into usage that we seemed to have been saying it for years, and enduring it almost for ever. I longed for the old normal, which is why I took refuge in old books and old matches, scavenged from YouTube.

You'll remember that Mother Nature was absolutely no help. She mocked us from early April until late May, providing unbroken weeks of immaculate sunshine that would have guaranteed hard pitches, big scores, and blisters for any bowler. Like Browning, I've never wanted to be anywhere other than in England during those months, but the fabulous skies and the white blossom only reminded me of what I was missing, and where I ought to have been: Trent Bridge, the sun on my face.

I knew others would be feeling what I felt: an ache that was not unlike homesickness. It made me think of the man at Grace Road. How was he bearing up? How had he filled in the blank weeks so far? Several scenarios crossed my mind. When it seemed distinctly possible that no matches would be played at all, some found unlikely solace in Subbuteo Table Cricket.

You would hardly credit the three-figure sums paid on eBay for a game which, devised back in the 1950s, has no graphics or sound effects, and in which nothing gets blown up or shot down. Perhaps he'd been one of the bidders who had beaten me in the auction.

One thing common among cricket obsessives is that we covet ephemera. Perhaps he was sorting out his own collection, box by buff-coloured box, as I was mine. Or perhaps he was reliving games through his meticulous scorecards? Hopefully, one day, I'll find out.

I flung myself into full nerd mode: I put together a scrapbook - partly for something to do, partly to preserve the swirl of events, and partly, given the bleak circumstances, as a sort of therapy. The friends I confided in were impeccably polite, but I read their minds: I had gone benignly doolally. I like to think the man at Grace Road, bless him, would have understood my motivation immediately.

The scrapbook was the best work I did during the chaos. Ludicrous as it may sound, the simple task of cutting out newsprint and pasting it into an A3 hardback made me feel closer to cricket - especially when the season was stuck in limbo, and I feared it might not escape. For one reason or another, every summer is crucial for our game, which is always on a tightrope between relative prosperity and relative penury. Last season would have been no different, except in one vital regard: it was full of possibility.

We were travelling optimistically, certain 2020 was about to make the most of the inheritance 2019 had bequeathed. We had won the World Cup, the high drama of the final so defying rational belief that it seems hallucinatory even now. We had relished the Ashes, which rose to sublimity at Headingley, and was so watchable throughout that our gallant failure to snatch the urn didn't take the shine off the series. We had poster boys - Stokes and Archer - and we would have paid a premium rate just to see them in the nets.

Of course, The Hundred was also floating towards us on a cloud of hype. For the sake of purists like me, who can't say its name without choking, I won't linger on the matter. Instead, I'll plagiarise Donald Bradman who, during the Centenary Test at Melbourne, used curt diplomacy to avoid confronting the ghosts of Bodyline: "I will pass over [it]."

You can extrapolate to your heart's content about what might have happened to cricket if Covid-19 hadn't sent the world askew. What did happen was this: affection for the game grew abundantly, surprising us all. This isn't a romantic view. The evidence is among the headlines in my scrapbook. Here's what I learned.

Cliche´s survive as a convenient, brisk shorthand. The headline writers reached for the hoariest of them: the "scent of cut grass"; the "sound of leather on willow"; the cry of "Howzat!", trailing its fat exclamation mark behind it. The cliche´s evoked what a much plainer headline more memorably described as "Our Beautiful Game".

The appreciation of just how beautiful it is, and where it sits in our summer, spread steadily, until few disputed the claim. The absence of cricket made us more aware of the part it plays culturally and socially, and (though more modestly) in shaping our heritage, our character, our national identity. The return of cricket was so welcome and so consoling that even many of those with a scant or tangential interest in the game forged a connection to it.

Neville Cardus was instrumental in that, almost half a century after his death. He considered himself a slacker, which is hard to comprehend when you tot up the copy he shifted. His work counts as a bespoke product churned out on an industrial scale. I calculate that every season during his Golden Age, which spanned the interwar years, he wrote around 12,000 words a week for The Manchester Guardian and a battalion of magazines, illustrious and obscure. In 2020, his entire oeuvre, comprising several million words, was reduced to ten.

Would the old boy have minded? I don't think so. Like Oscar Wilde, he regarded not being talked about as purgatory. You'll know what's coming next. If it hasn't been done already, I suspect we're about to find this sentence emblazoned on T-shirts, tea-towels, coffee mugs and assorted kitsch. There can be no summer in this land without cricket.

Nothing summed up so succinctly what cricket lovers believed. For a while, as every fresh hope of starting the season led to another dead end, the phrase became so poignant that you winced while reading it. It was lemon juice in a cut. Everyone used Cardus's line until we were all reciting it verbatim, and in our sleep. Even The New Yorker, most of whose readership couldn't identify W. G. Grace in a two-man parade, used the quote to explain to baffled Americans what the loss of cricket meant to us Limeys.

Cardus said it came to him in an epiphany while he was staring across a shadowed outfield and contemplating the melancholic end of another season. This may or may not be accurate, but who cares about the literal truth when the emotional truth is so resonant? Repetition sank that sentence deep into public consciousness, establishing it as the most important he ever wrote.

In newspapers, on TV and across social media, Cardus was supported by sumptuous illustrations pulled from library archives. We saw a gallery of small-town grounds and village greens gorgeous enough to adorn tins of Christmas biscuits. We got lush outfields, splendid brick and wood pavilions, and white picket fences, a thatched pub close by, a church tower poking above a row of bushy yews. A favourite was photogenic Bamburgh in Northumberland, where the pitch sits spectacularly beneath the pockmarked ramparts of the castle.

Sometimes we're guilty of taking the everyday for granted. We ignore what's around us once it becomes as familiar as the living-room furniture. We see it properly again only if fundamental change occurs. Imagine Salisbury Cathedral without its spire… Prince Albert uprooted from his memorial at Kensington Gardens… the Major Oak chopped down to a twig. You wouldn't be able to stop looking. With cricket, the images harking back to elegiac summers showed us the indispensable place it holds in our landscape.

Even the sceptical, who assumed Cardus had been exaggerating, cottoned on. Cricket is not some great triviality, but integral to the fabric of the country: a summer without it is only half-dressed. Cardus can't take all the credit.

Cricket and cricketers seldom made a song and dance out of the crisis. The posture adopted by those governing the game and those playing it was near perfect. In the initial weeks after Covid-19 struck, when everything seemed suspended in unreality, Premier League football found cover in the biosecure bubble of its colossal ego. It indulged in wishy-washy prevarication, and appeared intransigent, self-serving and rapacious, hoarding money the way the rest of us were hoarding loo roll.

Cricket was different, but then you could argue it has an unfair advantage: unlike football, it still lives on the same planet as those who pay to watch it. This helped cricket understand from the off what the situation demanded: everyone had to muck in, and compromise. Even the England players took pay cuts.

MCC annually invite some luminary to Lord's to give a lecture on The Spirit of Cricket. That spirit means different things to different people; it is too nebulous to pin down. But how cricket reacted last summer expressed what we've been trying, but failing, to articulate through language alone. If you or I had won a World Cup, we'd have hired bodyguards to protect the shirt we wore. Jos Buttler auctioned his, raising more than £65,000 to treat patients with the virus. Graham Gooch ferried food to hospitals in Essex. Heather Knight signed up for the NHS's volunteer scheme. Sam Billings, also on behalf of the NHS, shaved his head to inspire donations; he was dashing around supermarket aisles too, shopping for anyone in Canterbury unable to leave the house.

I could go on listing charitable deeds, each motivated by a willingness to put someone else first, but even Wisden can't accommodate the number of pages required to do them all justice. The story I liked best dug into the grassroots. Angus Fraser picked up a brush and went off to paint the pavilion at Stanmore, the 167-year-old club where he auditioned for his professional career. In the photograph, Fraser seemed to have as much paint on himself as on the walls. He said of Stanmore: "The least I can do now is support it, give something back."

The decency you routinely find in cricket shone through the simplicity of the sentiment. In moments like that, the game stacked up a lot of credit - perhaps more than it realises - just by being itself.

In recent seasons, I have punched away at the ECB, who behave as though the County Championship is one of those products they bought expensively on a whim, and would now like to return to the shop, and swap for something else. But you'd have to be pernickety to find fault in how resourcefully they got the show back on the road, then crammed so much into so few weeks. The ECB were even nobly stoic after Boris Johnson claimed the ball was "a natural vector of disease". Aware as he spoke, apparently off the cuff, that his claim might not be entirely accurate, our prime minister hastily added "potentially", an inadequate get-out clause.

The damage was already done. He'd made a £30 Dukes Select sound as dangerous as an M67 grenade. No wonder we were so gloomy. No wonder our relief was so blissful when England and West Indies came on to the field at the Rose Bowl. The sight was solemn, but uplifting and magnificent enough to melt your eyes. You shut out, if only fleetingly, the Lowry-grey sky and the banks of empty seating. The first day of that First Test was too brief a treat: less than an hour and a half's play before the rain squalls turned nasty. We were glad of anything, grateful for the glimpse.

We gave the Test due deference because its symbolic nature was obvious. A cricket match - something so reassuringly ordinary - was exactly what we needed. It brought a semblance of order and stability to the summer.

Cricket has always had more support than can be adequately measured. There are fans in absentia, scarcely perceptible, who follow what's going on but seldom declare their interest publicly by walking through the gate. This is only a hunch, which I'd be prepared nonetheless to back with a minor wager: the game accumulated a lot more of them after the attitude it adopted, the sacrifices it made, and the publicity it got.

Helpfully, cricket stepped out from the semi-darkness of the paywall. A Twenty20 international against Pakistan, shown live on BBC, hit a satisfying peak of 2.8m viewers. Who could possibly have forecast that allowing licence-fee payers to sample cricket again would increase awareness of the game? Even if we had to mute the sound to save our ears from the monotonous, bee-like hum of the artificial crowd noise, we couldn't resist the nostalgia of the opening titles. The marimba solo of "Soul Limbo" was suddenly the sweetest music imaginable.

For me, the season's supreme irony was that the truncated Championship, rebranded the Bob Willis Trophy, commanded more media coverage than I can remember since the late 1980s. Perish the thought, but some counties have often given the impression that the rank-and-file stalwart membership, who generally prefer the red ball to the white, are a nagging pain to be tolerated, like mild myalgia. Many members were still unswervingly loyal, donating their subscriptions rather than asking for them back.

While newspapers cranked out endless colour pieces about the novelty of playing matches without them, the members (and, later, all of us) were sitting at home enjoying the brilliant online streaming that brought the action directly to laptop or phone.

Again, it broadened cricket's audience, recruiting the previously unconverted. Some of those who logged on had never been to a four-day game. In fact, if everyone watching had actually been inside the ground at the same time, rather than parked on their sofa, attendances would have been high enough by Championship standards to count as startling. I was even among the 1,500 who caught the climax of the village final at Lord's.

Amid all that good news, and despite all the goodwill cricket generated, I can't pretend the game is about to sweep into a period of renaissance. Far from it. A real struggle lies ahead to repair the rip in its finances, which runs from the top tier to the foundations. I've never noticed a magic money tree in the Harris Garden.

Eventually, history's long gaze will settle on last summer, and reach conclusions we are unable to comprehend now, because it is still too close. The picture we have is in bits, so jumbled it resembles an abstract portrait by Picasso in which the nose is where the mouth ought to be.

But there's one thing we don't have to wait for historians to tell us. What 2020 proved was how much cricket matters, how much we need it, and how dearly we have to protect it. If you still don't believe me, there's a spot you should visit beside the sightscreen at Grace Road. Ask the man you'll find there what he thinks. You'll pick him out quite easily. He'll have a pencil in his hand, and a scoresheet across his lap.

Duncan Hamilton has won the Wisden Book of the Year award three times.

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