The value of sport

Graham Gooch bats Claire Mackintosh / © PA Photos

The older I get, the more I realise sport isn't just about sport. What happens on the pitch gives us a reason to go somewhere and congregate, be that the stadium or a conveniently located television, but when it comes to recalling events the action jostles alongside other memories. What makes sport memorable is often less the action itself than the way in which we consumed it.

It's notable, for instance, that when Liverpool fans who went to the 2005 Champions League final recall the game, they quickly move away from the famous comeback from 3-0 down to beat AC Milan on penalties to talking about the craziness of Istanbul that night as a city overwhelmed by fans ground to a halt. On a related note, a former girlfriend pointed out with devastating acuity that my apparently profound verdicts on whether I liked a city or not depended almost entirely on whether I'd eaten a good meal in the first 48 hours I'd spent there. There is an overwhelming subjectiveness to these things and that shapes the experience and the memory.

It's something that occurs to me every time somebody mentions Graham Gooch's 154 not out at Headingley in 1991. I recognise it as almost certainly the greatest innings by an Englishman in my lifetime. I'm aware of having been in awe of it at the time. And yet I can't recall a single ball of it - perhaps almost because he seemed so preposterously in control, you relaxed when he was on strike; the battle was lost and won at the other end. Obviously I could go on YouTube and watch highlights and so create a sort of artificial memory, but that's not quite the same.

What I remember most clearly about that game are two moments. The first came on the Sunday afternoon. I was sitting in the living room at home, watching on TV, and Gooch and Derek Pringle had taken the score from certain defeat to a possibility of victory towards a probability of victory - a check of the scorecard shows England were 124 for 6 when they came together, a lead of 149, and Pringle was finally out with the total on 222. My mam walked through just as a no-ball was bowled and asked how things were getting on. "They might just have enough," I said, inwardly celebrating the extra run. It sounds absurd to celebrate a no-ball and yet, in the context of the game, it felt crucial.

The second memory comes from school the following day. West Indies were chasing 278, a total that seemed wholly implausible given the conditions. They'd been 11 for 1 overnight but Desmond Haynes and Richie Richardson put on 60 for the second wicket. For England fans of my age, raised on the devastating defeats of 1984 and 1988, it was enough to get twitchy, particularly given the sense we had of having been robbed on the 1989-90 tour of the Caribbean.

Wickets had then fallen at a steady clatter but clouds had rolled in at lunch, threatening the sort of deluge that could have ended the game with England agonisingly close. I have a recollection, although I can't work out how, of having seen the weather at lunchtime. Had somebody turned on the TV in Room 8, as they'd done the previous year when Thatcher had resigned? Or was I just projecting from a filthy sky seen out of the window in Newcastle, 100 miles to the north? Anyway, it was gloomy enough for there to be a real fear England would be denied again, as they had been in Trinidad 15 months previously. And worst of all, it would all be played out during double history.

These days, I suppose, kids would just have their smartphones on the desk and watch the game on mute, but we had to hide a transistor radio somewhere it could still get reception and then pass earphone cables up our sleeves, listening with head propped on hand on desk. A decision was taken that if a few of us did it we would almost certainly be caught, so on our side of the classroom, Patrick Trueman volunteered to listen. His dad worked for Vickers, the tank manufacturers, and he was semi-posh, all crisp vowels and a mass of floppy hair that it was obvious would fall out by the time he was 25. I haven't seen him in 18 years and I remember almost nothing else about him.

"There is a scene in Shadowlands, the biopic of CS Lewis, in which after years of pondering the question, he concludes that literature matters because it teaches us we are not alone. Sport seems to fulfil a similar function"

The eighth wicket had gone down at 139, but Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh stayed together for an irritatingly long time. There was no prospect they would win, but every chance they would stay together till the weather broke. And then suddenly came the hissed news: Ambrose has gone. Mr Edwards, the teacher, must have heard the suppressed cheer but he ignored it. A couple of minutes later Devon Malcolm had Walsh caught at slip and it was over. This time Mr Edwards did react.

"Trueman?" he asked wearily.

"Sir, England have won their first Test at home against the West Indies in 22 years."

We waited for an explosion but Mr Edwards just sighed and got on with the lesson. Maybe he even made some vague teacherly joke about being that precise with dates in his essays.

Is there some wider point to be drawn? Maybe not, but it seems to me this is the value of sport. There is a scene in Shadowlands, the biopic of CS Lewis, in which after years of pondering the question, he concludes that literature matters because it teaches us we are not alone. Sport seems to fulfil a similar function: it provides a currency in which the exchanges of social interaction can be conducted. Others will have memories of that Test, of mundane moments from other epic games, of following games illicitly at school or at work. It gives us something to talk about. If I ever bump into Patrick Trueman again, I suspect the first thing I'll mention is the Headingley Test of 1991. In fact, Patrick, if by any chance you're reading this, could you tweet me and let me at least know if you have gone bald?