At the Lord's Test this week I will renew an annual ritual. Every year, before the start of play on the first morning, as the crowd swells and the players warm up, I walk to the middle of the pitch and look around.

Before the story, consider the stage. Since 1814 people have paid to watch cricket here; they have chosen to spend their time and money to celebrate the pleasure of cricket, to observe but also to engage. A match, a spectacle, a social event: each benefiting from the other two.

Last week I sat on Centre Court at Wimbledon watching ten glorious sets of tennis during the men's quarter-finals. First, Roger Federer recovered from two sets down to beat a sparkling Marin Cilic. Then Andy Murray warded off the ebullient Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. During breaks between games, I found myself naturally falling into conversation with my neighbours in the stands. Sport was the social glue that helped us find other common ground. We warmed into the experience collectively, and by the end of the Federer triumph, the sense of ecstatic communality was complete. It was like church without God.

The parallel is intended to be serious rather than sacrilegious. Modern sport is really an extension of Renaissance humanism. Sport invites us to visit social spaces, and there we watch and celebrate what human beings can do. That's why, as I drank in the mood on Centre Court, my mind returned to the most memorable birthday of my life, four years ago this week, when I sat drinking coffee in the piazza of the small Italian town Urbino, doing nothing in particular - a tourist, a stranger and yet totally at home.

Allow your sportswriter a brief architectural detour. Urbino was built mostly in the late 15th century as a new urban experiment - more comfortable, efficient and refined than anything that had come before. Urbino was the high point of a new concept of the "ideal city." That is also the title of my favourite painting, depicting city life as it ought to be - ordered and elegant but also progressive and practical - that still hangs in Urbino's Ducal Palace today.

Sport was at the centre of this new way of life. Renaissance courtiers perfected sprezzatura (the art of excellence allied with apparent effortlessness) while playing palla da maglio - literally "hammerball", but from old paintings it seems remarkably close to cricket.

Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier (1528), which is set on four different evenings at the court of Urbino, portrayed sporting aptitude as a central aspect of a life well lived. Sport, by training movement and poise, was bound up with civilised existence, just like conversation and music. Lorenzo de Medici, who took breaks from ruling Florence to play ball in the streets, introduced six balls into his coat of arms to underline the significance of games. The "whole mental attitude of the Renaissance was one of play", concluded the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. Play, we might add, allied to civility. A central departure from the Middle Ages was the beginnings of spectatorship, the enjoyment of watching sport as well as playing sport, the origins of recasting sport as a civic activity, a strand of civilised experience.

"We should remember a wider meaning of sport: the coming together of people with shared interests, in safe places, to watch and celebrate virtuosity, competition and, with luck, courtesy"

And that is what I felt on Centre Court, watching Federer and Cilic. We've built a handsome building as a stage for two protagonists to compete. Their behaviour, as friends and rivals, equalled their play; both were intensely engaged with their performance and yet open to the occasion. They let us in, and the crowd sensed it. For Cilic, this was especially admirable, as nearly everyone was supporting Federer. Instead of bridling at the injustice - for Cilic was equally superb - the Croatian embraced the atmosphere of celebration. He elevated the occasion but accepted its asymmetries.

How can the mood be summarised? No one came to watch one player lose or suffer. It was sport without a villain, without hatred, without resentment. Everyone had a favourite but no one denied that virtue and virtuosity lay on both sides of the net. There was nothing tribal about the allegiances.

The same description applies equally to the Test match I watched at Lord's a year ago between England and New Zealand. Brendon McCullum's team established the pattern of the series: bold, attacking cricket played with spirit but not rancour. Alastair Cook's men responded in kind, with expressiveness and openness, a habit they have retained ever since. An enduring Cook century underlined an established talent, a magical Ben Stokes hundred announced a new one. The game ended almost on the buzzer, so even time joined the chorus of cooperation. The crowd? Support was strong, appreciation stronger still.

The stuff that surrounds sport - the occasion, its ambience - can seem trivial. It is easy to satirise and mock this as social pretension. But we should remember a wider meaning of sport: the coming together of people with shared interests, in safe places, to watch and celebrate virtuosity, competition and, with luck, courtesy - the story of the ascent of man told in brief.

We are so used to it, so privileged in our access to sport, that we risk taking it for granted. Which takes me back to tennis and Italy for a final contrast. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio Bassani's fine novel set in the 1930s - and later an elegiac film by Vittorio di Sica - uses a tennis court inside a walled garden as a metaphor for lost freedoms in a time when fascism and religious intolerance swept across Italy. Play and sport, cosmopolitanism and free association, were shown to be all too fragile.

Our generation shouldn't forget its - as yet - unbroken good fortune, to play and to watch.