Many people who love cricket hope to see something in the season's final match that they can take with them into winter. If nothing substantial or obvious is available they will pick a single stroke, a fine catch or even the sight of the players leaving the field on a long-shadowed evening. Such romanticism may be mocked by more cynical folk but they are just as vulnerable. To examine a scorecard is to read a short story; to scan career averages in a county yearbook is to see a record of both fulfilled promise and dashed dreams. "My God, he was some batsman! Do you recall that century against Surrey? Whatever went wrong...?"
Fortunately those of us privileged to watch last week's Bob Willis Trophy Final at Lord's will not need to ransack our minds for sustaining images. Here is Eddie Byrom straight-driving Sam Cook on the first day; there is Tom Lammonby easing James Porter through midwicket on the fourth; and what about the close catching of Craig Overton, the eight wickets of Lewis Gregory, the steel-hearted resilience of Ryan ten Doeschate?
Above all, though, above even the unpriced bravery of youth, there was an opening batsman who had already shown us all his shots many times but then, on Friday, played them again, only this time with renewed grace and fresh poise. "Do you ever remember seeing him bat so fluently before?" one journalist asked his colleagues, all of them with a few hundred Tests on their clocks. And on the instant, as though to answer the query, Alastair Cook threaded another cover drive to the Grand Stand boundary. It was as though one's accountant had burst into popular song.
Even the statisticians had their little jest, pointing out that only Worcestershire's eleven batsmen had taken more runs off Somerset's tight-fisted bowlers in an innings than Cook managed in his 172 at Lord's. All that was missing from the day was the supporters from Chelmsford and Colchester who had to be content with their live stream. The rows of empty seats in the pavilion reminded us that one of the innings of the season was being played in a year like no other. The newly-built stands honouring Denis Compton and Bill Edrich loomed like the players' reputations over the Nursery Ground and one wondered when they would be filled.
The historians and collectors of oddities will probably have sport with these months. They will ask at which of Lancashire's grounds was their home game against Leicestershire staged. (Answer: New Road, Worcester) They will query why Derbyshire and Hampshire didn't play first-class games at their headquarters in 2020. The pandemic will be a prism through which the season will always be viewed. Biosecurity, self-isolation and bubbles have entered the cricket's language, too. Wisden's style council has already decreed that the virus is to be known as Covid-19. Thank God that's been sorted out.
Optimism is a dangerous intoxicant at such times. We await a vaccine and confident prediction about the course of this crisis is the hallmark of the halfwit. The game of cricket is only one among many sports, and sport itself is only one aspect of social life which has yet to return to anything approximating to its usual condition. And yet when club games resumed in July and when the Bob Willis Trophy began in August, all cricketers of whatever stamp reclaimed something precious to them, even if it was not yet the game they knew.
In March, when we were certain of even less than we are now, I wrote this:
"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."
The words were a fusion of hope and belief. Yet after we had locked ourselves down, reordered our libraries, redecorated our spare bedroom, turned our gardens into passable imitations of Hidcote Manor and labelled our cassettes - ask your parents - the counties and clubs were indeed all there, ready to resume the incomparable game. Social media featured photographs and home-cooked videos of matches at beautiful cricket grounds, a large number of them, so it appeared, in Devon. Across in Oxfordshire, the captain of Middleton Stoney played the last game of his career in his club's President's Day on Sunday and was given a guard of honour by both teams. A parochial matter? Not really, no. Life is composed of such social pleasantries. They are among the things we missed.
And youth was given its chance in both recreational and professional cricket. Much has been written about the wonderful fact that 30 cricketers made their first-class debuts in the Bob Willis Trophy. Many clearly have fine careers ahead. But thanks to the diligence of the ACS's Mike Goulder we also know that 29 other county players, who had made fewer than five first-class appearances prior to this summer, also got another chance in 2020. Necessity has rarely garnered so rich a harvest. Tom Lammonby would probably agree.
And the season is not quite done. There are seven matches in the Vitality Blast yet to be played: four quarter-finals on Thursday and Finals Day on Saturday. So much was clear to anyone lucky enough to visit Hove this warm Monday and watch the Sussex players preparing for their game against Lancashire. When I wrote about England's cricket fields during the darkest spring most of us have known, Hove was among a few that appeared unbidden in my mind's eye. I wondered when I would next see the ground.
Yet memories of this autumn afternoon in Sussex will now sustain me through the winter. For others it may be a President's Day in Oxfordshire, a cricket ground in the West Country or a club match in Lancashire. And for some, it may even be the sight of England's former captain playing a cover drive on a Friday evening at Lord's as one of the last suns of the season set behind the pavilion and the old ground shone in its light.