On Sunday, July 19th, on a small ground set deep into the West Sussex countryside, I played a game of cricket. This would not usually be a big deal but the return of the recreational game almost four months after the impact of the pandemic had closed it down was good for the soul.
At the end of every over the ball had to be returned to the umpire, its guardian angel from the curse of the coronavirus. After every six overs that ball had to be wiped with antiseptic-soaked cloth, the players had to clean their hands with sanitiser, and none of this could happen between people standing less than two metres apart. There was to be no saliva imparted on the ball (oops) and you still couldn't pick the seam (shhh). At the tea break there was tea, self-served, with milk and sugar as required but no sandwich or cake. One spectator - and there were a few - had a bag full of cheese rolls, which were handed out like rations, which they were. By the time I caught on, they had gone. After play there were beers kept cold in a large container stacked high with ice. These were also self-served, opened and devoured.
This match, between Sir Tim Rice's Heartaches, of whom I have long been one, and Fernhurst's splendid Sunday side, was drawn. The locals, with tongues in cheek (sort of) whispered about a one-sided draw, or the moral victory, but us experts (hic!) knew better. A draw is a draw is a draw. Sir Tim declined to play (knee injury and Covid angst) but cheered on his men with vigour, wit and occasional panic. Some of these men moved a little like athletes, but others, well, they were there for the craic, and how!
In pursuit of 189, the Heartaches were breaking hearts at 12 for 4, 20 for 5 and 99 for 9, but, heroically, the last-wicket pair hung on and Tim handed out the beers (oops, no he didn't) like a manager whose team just nicked the FA Cup from underneath Liverpool's noses. His daughter Eva, the author and musician, hugged a few of her dad's lads in joy at the survival (oops, no she didn't), while the game-saving and unbeaten Alex Rice (nephew of Sir Tim) was pronounced all well and good after a thumping blow to the head from a fielder's shy at the stumps. We knew all was well with Al around the time he skulled his fifth beer.
I had been drafted in last minute by the writer of Jesus Christ Superstar and lyrics for The Lion King in the hope of filling the slot he had vacated. My feeling that I could barely fail in that task was initially supported by four wickets and a catch but ultimately mown down by an lbw dismissal third ball. Immediately I signalled for the DRS but Fernhurst had declined to pay for it, grumbling that it should be the responsibility of the governing body not a participant. Thus, I was neither Jesus nor a superstar nor the king but more Zazu, bossing people around to little effect.
But I/we had played cricket, and frankly that had not looked likely in the summer of 2020, not likely at all. This was the summer of living dangerously; the year of lockdown and hibernation, bad news and fake news, homeschooling, stock-market trauma, Amazon, Netflix, Zoom calls, podcasts, Deliveroo, and WhatsApp groups full of everything from medical analysis and advice to Donald Trump jokes.
In March, when the world was going into lockdown, none of us could have imagined we'd get to see Test cricket only four months later•Getty Images
By mid-February the stories from China were no longer fake. By the ides of March, those of us in a world not in lockdown were in a minority. After the England touring party was recalled from Sri Lanka the penny dropped: English cricket was in for trouble. Sensibly, the focus became the playing of the summer's international schedule in the hope of securing the revenue that could keep the game at all levels alive. Remarkably this was achieved, in full. If Tom Harrison, the CEO of England's governing body, is to have anything on his headstone, it must surely be a reference to the miracle of the summer of 2020 and the sense of community that came out of it. Yes, lives, jobs and money were lost as the pandemic hammered away, leaving very few untouched. Incredibly, cricket in the UK - threatened by the possible loss of more than £350 million - survived.
West Indies arrived under the thoughtful leadership of Jason Holder and knocked over England in the first Test. The players took a knee in the wake of BLM protests nationwide, while Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent moved all who watched and heard their emotional reflections live on television. For seven weeks the West Indian players were isolated within the grounds of the Ageas Bowl and Old Trafford, and did not grumble. Their spirit will become the stuff of legend. England bounced back to win the series 2-1, and also welcomed Pakistan, Ireland and Australia during weeks and months that seem unreal even now. Those two cricket grounds - equally well appointed in Covid-secure facilities, with hotels on site - shared the staging of the matches and the players reminded the watching world just how much the game of bat and ball meant to us.
Meantime, Nicholas was wishing he had invested in Zoom. Backache resulted from hours on calls to and from different parts of the world but new ideas captured the imagination and resulted in projects that took on a life of their own. First was 3 Team Cricket - 3TC - the brainchild of a South African friend and an exciting idea for schools and clubs not necessarily lucky enough to have the players and facilities required for the traditional 11-player, two-team formats that presently exist. 3TC is original in that the games are played concurrently not sequentially and therefore ask questions of players and captains that have not been considered before. Why do we need another format? We don't but cricket is about the contest between bat and ball. Don't worry about the format, rather find a version that nurtures and inspires. Outside of the subcontinent, the numbers are dwindling for cricket. The search is always on.
As a format, 3TC will appeal to organisers who don't always have the resources to arrange traditional bilateral 11-a-side games•AFP via Getty Images
Soon after, I was called by Ziyaad Desai, the former Gautenv player, who started the NPL - an IPL-style tournament for club and school cricketers - in South Africa. The NPL has been operational for a decade, with privately owned franchises running eight teams in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. Former players such as Gary Kirsten, Vernon Philander and JP Duminy are owners and delight in watching the kids "live the dream". It's lights, camera, auction for the senior players and a draft system for the kids - coloured clothes, white balls, live streaming, social media interaction, etc. They love it. The first competition outside South Africa is scheduled to launch in Australia next September with the Brisbane Premier League. The uptake in Queensland has been amazing: already more than 700 cricketers have registered for the auction and draft. Private ownership at club level, and in this format, has the potential to be a game changer for cricket in the community. Ask Ian Healy, who has bought a team and is on the board of the APL (Australian Premier League).
A last word on South Africa and specifically the appointments of Graeme Smith and Quinton de Kock in 2020 as director of cricket and captain respectively. Two more different men you could not imagine but both are deeply passionate about the same land; a land that has given us so much amid such rancour. South Africa's place in the firmament is elemental. We hope for harmony and pray for progress in these complex issues as we urge on the Rabadas, the Markrams and the Maharajs.
Earlier in the year there was a brilliant home run by Australia in the women's T20 Word Cup. Katy Perry lit up the Melbourne Cricket Ground and its 86,000 spectators with her brand of catchy pop and then the Aussies bundled out the Indians. Job done, trophy won - Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!
In March, Australia won a record fifth T20 Women's World Cup title•Getty Images
Sunday, August 30th. Another game of cricket. In this one, Jemima Khan's team took on her brother's bunch of merry fellows in a thriller that was decided in favour of Imran Khan's former wife by a boundary off the very last ball of the day. Ben Goldsmith calls his XI the Cupcakes and it was with these sweet things that I undertook my second game in a summer for the first time since 1998. It was a memorable day, not least because Shane Warne turned out for Jemima's side, bowled five overs of mesmerising wristspin and made 40-odd with the bat. The immense pleasure this gave all those present reflected on Warne's generosity and sense of fun.
This was another day of Covid-regulated cricket but the new rules mattered not a jot. One of Imran's sons bowled zippy legbreaks, while the other, a speedster, nursed an injury. Spectators applauded decent shots and diving saves and Goldsmith's two boys bowled with canny precision - and one of them at good pace - if little luck. For the second time in less than six weeks I saw the game's magical powers at work, and as the deep yellow sun fell over the Cotswolds, stories were told in shadows that became longer by the minute - the shadows and the stories both: "The day I picked Warney's googly and …" Yeah, right.
News that the IPL would take place in the UAE from mid-September through early November had the juices running. It was to be my first - bar a fortnight in South Africa in 2009 - and the fact that it would take place behind closed doors in no way detracted from the sense of excitement.
A full season of the IPL was an unexpected bonus this year, but the winners, the Mumbai Indians, were hardly unexpected•Samuel Rajkumar/BCCI
Before then, I had one more game of cricket to play. Ye gods, these things too come in threes!
In an annual match for the Wellbeing of Women charity, played on a private ground in Oxfordshire, 11 former international cricketers mixed it with 11 high-flying business folk, who paid for the privilege of sharing the crease with Andrew Strauss, amongst many others. Sir Andrew was in good nick, pulling the odd short ball from Devon Malcolm with the venom he once reserved for Glenn McGrath. Again, there were no spectators but the charity's events team came up with original ways to make a few bob, and the tills closed a few days later with a staggering £150,000 transferred in the name of Wellbeing. And another thing: we had lunch in twos, at 20 small square tables that were set three metres apart, lining the boundary like sentries to the cause. Picnic baskets and bottles of hand sanitiser were delivered with gloved hands by good-natured charity folk dressed in face masks. There were 22 players and perhaps 20 others each with a role of their own - not least our hosts, Sir Victor and Lady Blank.
I landed in Dubai on the 14th of September and immediately embarked on a week of biosecure isolation. The duty manager dropped my bags at the door and took the key with him as he wished me well from the safety of the corridor. I came out twice, for Covid tests, and on the first occasion saw Sunil Gavaskar, masked up and skinny from months of lockdown diet discipline. He predicted that eight weeks of room service would reset the scales. I've written about life in the bubble before on these pages. Suffice to say, it went without a hitch to speak of and the camaraderie among the commentators and crew who shared this extraordinary experience will live in the memory.
The Mumbai Indians were the best team and duly proved as much. Mostly, the cricket sparkled, never more than over one Sunday when both matches played went to a Super Over - one of them to a double Super Over. Young Indian cricketers impressed with their talent and with performances of real substance. The BCCI pulled off some blinders, not least the dressing of the grounds and the curated ambient sound. It all felt real and much as one pined for the roar of the crowd, the contest between bat and ball held our attention from first to last.
From 36 all out to an eight-wicket win - Australia v India contests remain exceedingly watchable•Daniel Pockett/Cricket Australia/Getty Images
Then to South Africa again and England's decision to pull out after the three T20s. It is unwise to criticise decisions of such emotion and import but beneath the surface lingered a feeling that whatever the thrill of playing cricket at international level, the thrill of getting out of the bubble and home for Christmas outweighed it. Bubble life is here for a while yet and teams cannot hope to escape the occasional positive Covid test. A common plan in response needs to be agreed, so that nations such as South Africa do not feel used.
India's response is to be celebrated and they should pin a medal to Ajinkya Rahane's chest for that innings. It is damn difficult to win in Australia but a group of vibrant Indian cricketers have a chance again. Frankly, if you'd have asked me eight months ago, I wouldn't have thought they had a chance of even being there.
PS: And as for New Zealand's lofty ambition, guess who's third in the ICC's World Test Championship table, only a tad behind India, who are just a tad behind Australia. Them Kiwis.