The April issue of The Cricketer arrived last week. Folded within was the annual wallchart presenting the fixtures for a season which will begin three months late at best. By September that multicoloured graphic is normally frail as medieval parchment; I doubt it will be treated so roughly this summer. And this morning the postman delivered the Second XI Annual, another companion on a six-month odyssey which normally sees me tarry in Taunton, Cheltenham, Hove.
But until July at the earliest, I doubt my travels will take me outside Southport. The only first-class cricket ground visited will be Trafalgar Road, where Paul Parker and his helpers were due to be putting up the outdoor nets next weekend. That happy ritual had already been postponed by Thursday evening, when the whole club was closed until a date only a loon would predict.
And quite right, too. The innings we should applaud at the moment are being played over 24 or 48 hours by people whose personal protective equipment is not made by Kookaburra or Gray-Nicolls. The shot I liked most this past week was produced by the young lad who followed his mother's instruction to grab a supermarket's last two packets of pasta but then placed them in the trolley of the elderly shopper who had arrived just too late. The notion we might play sport at such a time is glaringly obscene and bloody dangerous.
All of which is not to say that cricket does not matter, even in these perilous days. As my colleague, Sambit Bal, explained so eloquently, sport is one of humanity's most glorious enterprises. It is an outlet for skill, courage and endeavour; it is revelatory of character; it has endowed the lives of many men and women with vital purpose. It has been a profitable business for many and a glorious escape for many more. It has even inspired a few half-decent writers. And for perhaps the majority of those who visit this website cricket remains the incomparable game. It charmed us before we knew it and the attachment has only deepened with the years.
But for the moment we must find other outlets for our unspoilt love and should only make use of even those channels when we have dealt with our new priorities. Over less than a fortnight our lives have changed utterly. In seven days the smart paradox that we should stick together even while we keep our distance became something of a cliché. We have gradually become more of a community even as we have grown anxious about our own livelihoods. When I have cancelled hotel bookings owners have wished me well and exhorted me to "stay safe", the words' gentle sibilance never disguising the anxious imperative. It is time to press the sleep button on a cricket season that has not begun and to resolve that when it awakens - as it will - the counties and clubs we treasure will all be there to celebrate the moment. The cricket fields of England remain the countries of my heart.
All the same we must deal with difficult months before that day arrives and some have compared the present struggle against this accursed virus to the Second World War. That is both dangerous and useful. Only the other day Andrew Carney, the excellent chairman of Southport and Birkdale CC, expressed the hope that he and I might meet for a "two-metre coffee" quite soon. It is a grand idea and I was tempted to reply that perhaps we could have a takeaway snook fishcake as well. Yet you combat fascism by arguing against it, ridiculing it, defying it and, if necessary, engaging in physical combat with it. We will deal with coronavirus by doing our very best to ensure we are not infected by it and by waiting for a vaccine to be developed.
The two battles - if we must employ a military lexis - are quite different yet the qualities they require may still be compared to the last global conflict. That point was made with particular acuity by the always excellent Bagehot in The Economist: "Britain's greatest resource is the character of ordinary people rather than the genius of élites; and…character is reflected in the way you go about your daily business - keeping calm and carrying on; resisting the temptation to hoard or shirk - as well as in war heroics." One might only add that such qualities are, thank heavens, not a British preserve. One thinks of Lombardy, of Madrid, of New York State. Compared to the situation in Bergamo and Brescia, the absence of cricket in England this spring does not amount to Rick Blaine's hill of beans.
But in our quiet moments we can still think about our game, read about it and yes, write about it. We cannot follow the example of Squadron Leader Les Ames and Sergeant Keith Miller, who were among the many professional cricketers to seize opportunities to play cricket during the Second World War. But we can recall memorable games and relish afresh the players we have watched.
Such an exercise is immeasurably enriched by a familiarity with the work of Alan Ross, who spent most of the Second World War in the Royal Navy, a time he describes in Blindfold Games the first volume of his autobiography. In the sequel, Coastwise Lights, he remembers how his beloved Sussex soothed him, even when he was thousands of miles away from the county. "During my sea-time I used to dream of Sussex; not so much a specific Sussex as a generalised, romantic image conjured out of memory and hope. Sussex cricket played a large part in it, to the extent that I had only to see the word Sussex written down, in whatever context, for a shiver to run down my spine."
For Ross it was the county of Hugh Bartlett and George Cox; for others it may be the cover drives of Ian Bell and the many skills of Jeetan Patel; for others again it may be the bowling of Ryan Sidebottom on a cloudy Leeds morning or the batting of James Hildreth on a summer Saturday at Taunton. And yes, it has just this moment struck me that it may also be "Shantry's Match". Please take your pick from cricket's glorious treasure house. And be assured that when they have all discharged their daily obligations, others will be comforted by similar thoughts. The rich memories will sustain us and the firm hope will warm our days. Stay safe.