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ENG v PAK (W) (1)

My year of watching and covering the game

2021 featured lots of early starts, memorable conversations, a new cricket format - and a fair bit of golf

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Joe Root during a sweltering training session before the 2nd Test vs Sri Lanka, Galle, 20 January 2021

Runs and ruins: Joe Root was wearing a permanent grimace by the end of a horror year for England  •  ECB

London, England
5am, January 15, 2021

The kettle boils and Joe Root sweeps. The tea brews and Joe Root cuts. The toaster pops and Joe Root drives. The England captain is on his way to 228 in Galle, a place that may as well have been on another planet from the dank winter morning at home in London. I tuck in and so does Root. Jonny Bairstow plays nicely for 47, Dan Lawrence - strong through the leg side and cock-of-the-walk - puts together 73. Sri Lanka aren't very good. England end up winning by seven wickets.
Around about this time, India beat Australia in Brisbane - unheard of - and win the series. Blimey. Without Virat Kohli, Jasprit Bumrah and others who are household names and commercial giants back home. It's the Shubman Gills, Washington Sundars and Mohammed Sirajs who pull off this heist. What a coup. One of the great series wins in history and a valuable promo for the Test match game.
5am, January 24
These early mornings are tough. Root is run out for 186. I move the dial on the underfloor heating to 22 degrees. England win by six wickets. Root says the Sri Lankans are a good side and difficult to beat at home. Really? Whatever - his batting is sublime. Work done during the days of lockdown to eradicate the faults that creep into a busy man's game has paid off handsomely.
Oh, to have been in Galle among the Sangakkaras and the Jayawardenes; to have wandered the narrow, bustling lanes, lingered at the markets, and had the senses heightened by exotic spices and brightly coloured frangipani.
I ring Ted Dexter, who wrote to Joe about the downturn in his technique and gave it to him pretty straight. Joe was a bit put out by the tone but since has brightly acknowledged the immense help that email gave him. Ted is thrilled watching now and particularly marvels at the range of sweep shots. This call prompts a fortnightly Zoom meet with Ted, who was my sporting hero. He's not so well physically but full of chat and opinion.
2.30am, February 5
The sound of the alarm truly shocks me. Shower, shave, dress and go. A car whisks me to the Times building, which is situated between Borough Market and the Shard. The night is bitterly cold. Bang on 3.30am London time, Root wins Kohli's toss of the coin, announces that England will bat and is soon walking to the wicket where he makes another double-hundred. So this is what Australians felt like when Bradman carried all before him. In Chennai, with the stadium empty, Root plays an innings of such complexity, such mastery, that it seems almost transformational. Indeed, England go on to win by 227 runs - a barely believable margin against a team as good as India.
At the Talksport studio in Borough, we call this on radio, ball-by-all, as if it is a mirage. The pictures come down the line from the local broadcaster on huge monitors and we eulogise them from our little Covid-secure Perspex cubicles. Coffee and bacon rolls are devoured before the sun comes up. One morning we send out for sushi, another for curry: both were later deemed failed experiments. Outside, snow falls on the rooftops and the market beneath us.
Darren Gough, ever the enthusiast and as good a pro as I've worked with in 26 years of covering the game, suggests that India fell foul of complacency and the empty stadium.
At the same field but on a very different pitch, the Indians are a very different team a few days later. One Test match apiece then in Chennai. Followed by England scores of 112, 81, 205 and 135 across the next two Tests in Ahmedabad. In short, England are spun to disaster and lose the series 3-1. Even Root runs out of puff.
What next? The IPL, of course.
April 2
British Airways flight 54 to Chennai, where the Covid cases are rising fast. I check in at the Taj Coromandel and am taken to my nice room and told that the front desk will keep the key. This, then, is one week of quarantine proper. Good fun too. Lots of music - Springsteen and Dylan, yes, the Beatles, of course, and a raft of contemporary stuff introduced to me by my 15-year-old daughter whose crush on Harry Styles does not prevent her from exploring other avenues. Olivia Rodrigo, Paolo Nutini and Lana Del Rey are very good. All by my lonely self I've discovered a band called Wolf Alice, for whom I have developed my own crush. Two mates email me the task of picking 70 favourite songs to join hands with theirs and become a playlist for anyone interested. So I go to work. In breaks between guitar solos, I read Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre and The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne - both compelling and rather brilliant - and set up a circuit-gym thing, which I stick to for an hour each day.
Honestly, don't know how to fit it all in. Then a man comes back with the key. That was quick, and off I go for a swim in the thick Chennai air.
Bubble life is a bore because it revolves around a list of restrictions that are applied as if we are schoolchildren. Outside the ground-floor lift there is a roped-off walkway to the breakfast room. This doesn't stop anyone walking past us, but it does stop a heavyweight walking into you. In short, we can't do this and we can't do that. For example, we can use the pool and/or gym during two given two-hour session times, the second of which is the early evening, when we are invariably working on a match. But the tournament wouldn't go ahead without the various bubbles, so there you have it - you want in or you want out? In? Put up or shut up.
April 21
Less than three weeks later I have left the country. As the number Covid cases went through the roof, India was placed on the UK's "red list" for incoming travel. That, and a personal issue that needed urgent assistance, saw me home few days before the tournament was suspended indefinitely. In the rush to beat the red-list deadline, I leave my phone in a Chennai cab. That's the phone with flight details, e-tickets, essential Covid documents, etc. Don't ask. I make it home 22 hours before the UK's ten-day-airport-hotel quarantine isolation rules kick in.
6pm, May 8
Another Zoom call with Dexter, who is looking less well at an alarming rate. For the first time he sounds croaky too and is reluctant to have his usual large whisky. I don't give up my gin. He changes his mind on the scotch. We have introduced mystery guests to these fortnightly frolics, among whom have been the Michaels Atherton and Vaughan (Ted says Vaughan is his favourite England captain ever) and Sir Tim Rice. On one of these calls Ted doubts that county cricket can survive as is and that the damage done to batting techniques by the attention given to the short formats of the game will, soon enough, cost England dear. Not bad for an 86-year-old, huh.
We come up with the idea of eight first-class teams travelling the country for clearly defined periods of the summer each year, ideally when the England players are available. Less is more, he says, and from fewer teams will come a higher standard of cricket and larger crowds. He thinks that a strong 50-over competition and the T20 Blast could sustain the counties but that everything else will have to be paid for by private investment. We agree on that too. He likes the Hundred, as do I.
June 19
Hampshire have given me two tickets for the second day of the World Test Championship final and I zip down to the Ageas Bowl in great excitement to be a spectator at a Test match for the first time in 35 years. The last occasion was on England's 1986-87 tour of Australia, when I watched the whole of the fifth Test from the Brewongle Stand at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Now I'm in temporary seats behind the bowler at the Hilton-Hotel end of the Ageas. It's bloody cold but me and a mate have the best time. Rohit, Shubman, Kohli, Southee, Boult et al, plus a beef sandwich and a pale ale. Wonderful.
In a tight, low-scoring match, New Zealand become worthy and popular champions, having previously won English hearts with their reaction to defeat "by the barest of margins" in the 2019 World Cup final. What's not to like about Kane Williamson?
July 23
The Hundred begins and I'm chairman of Southern Brave. We lose the first two games. In the third, the first at home, James Vince makes 60 from 38 balls - thereby outwitting Liam Livingstone's 68 from 44 - and we beat Birmingham Phoenix with three balls to spare. Then we sneak a win from nowhere at Lord's and proceed to remain unbeaten to the end, when Vince lifts the trophy to the delight of surprisingly engaged fans.
I have done very little except to appoint the coaches and suggest directions of travel. Mahela and Charlotte Edwards were the real deal, and Charlotte deserved more than to see her terrific team lose only their second game in the final. What a double that would have been!
Mahela is hugely impressed with Vince's captaincy and remains quite taken aback that England cannot see him as a batter of the highest class in all formats. In a world of sliding doors, perhaps Vince would be England captain, Root his second lieutenant, and the two most elegant batters in the land would be making life easier for supporters of English cricket. I know Vincey had his chances, but believe me, he's different gravy when encouraged to be exactly that.
We are also surprised by sales of merchandise. At the home games every cap and shirt is sold out within 15 minutes of the break between innings. The more stock we order, the more we sell. And we were thrilled by the support given to the women - some 6000 people at the last two home games, who much enjoyed their exciting brand of cricket.
I thought the whole thing a triumph. Obviously it overcrowds the calendar, but in the right hands, it could become a game-changer for the quality, structure and balance sheet of first-class cricket in England. This is a view that leaves further explanation and illustration for another day but this onlooker is convinced. One thing to add: the players loved it.
August 15
I am a guest of the MCC chairman for the second England-India Test. The chairman's hospitality box at Lord's is alongside the president's. The president is, of course, Kumar Sangakkara, whose ground-breaking appointment was met with tremendous excitement. We have a jolly day and it's interesting to watch from side-on rather than down the barrel from on high in the commentary box. The game appears faster, harder, slicker, and the players leaner, quicker, stronger. Later that week I have dinner with Kumar. He likes the eight-team, four-day cricket idea too.
We are asked back for the next day: the potentially tense final day. England are in the box seat but blow it. I stay only till lunch, whereupon I hurry to the Ageas Bowl on the South Coast to see the Southern Brave women and men win in style. I'm loving being back "on the other side" and interacting with the players and coaches. It is a privilege.
At Lord's I left Mike Brearley, Mike Gatting and Ed Smith debating Root's tactics as the Indian tail wagged ferociously. Smith was removed from his position as national selector at the start of the summer, a mistake in my view. Chris Silverwood was given a supremo's responsibilities. Another mistake, I feared. I can't fathom coach and national selector being the same person, not in cricket.
The morning's favourites are slam-dunked by Siraj and company: either side of tea England are dismissed for 120 in 51 overs and five balls to lose by 151 runs.
August 25
Ted Dexter has died. You had to have seen this guy to understand how good he was and how charismatic. At least he didn't suffer for too long. My heart goes out to his wife, Susan, who asks me to speak at the funeral. It is a polymath of a sort that I talk about, for Ted greeted Wes Hall's bouncers with the same sense of adventure that he applied to his love of racing - cars, bikes, dogs and horses - golf, flying, music and marriage. I miss him already.
September 20
Atherton calls me to say that, in the name of Covid security, England have just cancelled their two-match T20 tour to Pakistan. This is shameful, especially because Pakistan supported England with a six-week visit in the first, horror, year of Covid. Ramiz Raja, the newly appointed CEO of the Pakistan board, fires every bullet in his gun and is greeted with wild applause. England were wrong to have pulled out of South Africa late in 2020 too. Who is behind this stuff? In the Times, Athers, the paper's cricket correspondent, goes flying in, every bit as critical as Ramiz. Soon after, the chairman of the ECB, Ian Watmore, resigns.
September 30
The Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland, an annual golf extravaganza for which an invitation is the moment of the year. Phew, I've got one. Each amateur plays with a European tour professional golfer for three days and the top 20 teams of two make the cut and play on the final day. My pro is a splendid Salford lad, Marcus Armitage, and a damn good player. He makes the cut in the pro event; he and I miss it in the amateur event. (Who could possibly be to blame for that?) On the first day at St Andrews we play in a four-ball group with Ian Botham - that's Lord Botham of Ravensworth, trade envoy to Australia. Next day at Carnoustie with Vaughan, and then on the third day with Shane Warne at Kingsbarns. It is such fun.
Warney plays great and makes the cut on the mark with Ryan Fox, the big-hitting Kiwi. Next day he plays even better, better than ever before in his life, and comes within a single shot of winning the whole damn thing. His score of two under par gross - off nine handicap, by the way - is utterly brilliant, and with Fox making plenty of birdies, their better ball score is 16 under par. Oh, how they deserved to win after that! He's a fine putter is that Shane Warne and a mighty competitor, just in case you hadn't noticed.
October 15
EK 006 to Dubai for the ICC T20 World Cup, which begins with another week of quarantine, but this time I've got a balcony, yay! Same rhythm - music, books, gym circuit - that includes an outside lap, of sorts. The Radisson is not the Taj, however, and its position alongside the freeway and a next-door building site makes for a thick layer of dust every day. Mind you, it's too hot to be outside for long, and anyway, that chap is suddenly back with the key and we are out, and in… to the bubble. Grr.
Salvation comes in the form of a move by everyone in the commentary team to the Al Habtoor polo resort, which gives acres of green grass and a pool. Will do nicely! How lucky we are.
Long breakfasts with Sunny Gavaskar and others are matched by a memorable dinner on the terrace - special dispensation granted - with Jeff Crowe, who is staying elsewhere, and Danny Morrison. We talk a lot about Martin - the talent, the demons, the long, slow burn of cancer that got him so young. Each of us loved him in our different ways.
Australia stole up to win the Cup, having looked like beginners at the format in their group match against England. In fairness, I should point out that before the toss in their first game, the captain, Aaron Finch, told me that they had the best all-round team and would win. Good on him. Pakistan were the best team. India looked knackered. England missed a beat in the semi and it cost them dear.
December 2
Raging Omicron threatens India's tour of South Africa, where I work for Supersport. BT call about the Ashes, which begins in six days, as they are planning to broadcast the first two Tests from the studio in London - off tube, as it's known - rather than take the Fox feed from Australia because Michael Vaughan is in it. They would like me on board. I can do the first Test but they don't call back. Then I hear the idea has been binned.
After which, India agree to go to South Africa but delay the first Test till Boxing Day. This means Christmas away from home for yours truly.
5am, December 8 onwards
There is a dreadful symmetry between now and the start of the year. In a cosy dressing gown, I'm on the early tea-and-toast run in order to watch England get hammered. It's bad enough in daylight but in pitch black, with sleet hitting the windows, it's appalling. Root is again holding the fort, this time alongside a gutsy Dawid Malan, who wasn't in India. Warne is trying to appraise England's mediocrity with a balanced eye but otherwise it's all in down under.
December 25
Well, here we go again. Have checked into the Hyde Park Southern Sun in Johannesburg and had a quiet Christmas dinner with Sunny G and Mike Haysman. Since South Africa's readmission to international cricket in late 1991, India has been faithfully at their side (England, note). Tomorrow Kohli will call from Dean Elgar's toss of the coin. In Calcutta 30 years ago, Clive Rice and Mohammad Azharuddin shook hands at the toss - neither of tomorrow's captains had reached their fifth birthday - and India went on to win a low scoring one-day international by three wickets.
After more than 20 years in isolation, and never having played against India before anyway, the otherwise hard-nosed Rice summed up the incredible emotion of the moment perfectly: "I now know how Neil Armstrong felt when he stood on the moon."
December 31
England have lost the Ashes in less than 12 days of completed cricket. All hell has been let loose. The front page of Sydney's Daily Telegraph has run a full-size shot of the victorious Australian team with a strap across it that reads, "Need a rapid test? Play the Poms!" Harsh but fair.
December 26
At Supersport Park in Centurion, about 35 minutes' drive from Johannesburg, Kohli wins the toss, and the match. The pitch is tricky and the Indians that bit better. Quinton de Kock announces his retirement from the Test match arena. Such a natural player and entertainer, he will be sorely missed.
Goodness knows what happens in 2022. Fewer swabs up the nose, I hope!

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator