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Notes by the Editor

Cricket was never less important than in 2020 - and never more

Lawrence Booth
Updated on 14-Apr-2021
Jason Holder and Joe Root fist-bump each other, England v West Indies, 2nd Test, Emirates Old Trafford, 5th day, July 20, 2020

Jason Holder and Joe Root fist-bump each other  •  Gareth Copley/ECB/Getty Images

Cricket has never been less important than in 2020 - and never more. As coronavirus spread, it seemed frivolous to wonder when the season might start, or whether anyone would be there to watch; months later, with the UK's death toll into six figures, even writing about runs and wickets felt wrong. But this is a sports book, so let us start with what we know best. Cricket, like everything else, had its heart ripped out, and its soul very nearly crushed (for once, soul struck the right note). It lost family and friends. It made compromises in order to survive, and may take years to recover. The story is far from over.
The pace of events was dizzying, shocking. David Hodgkiss was the Lancashire chairman when Wisden 2020 was printing; by publication, he had died. And the obituaries this year include at least 15 others linked to Covid-19. They were all ages, and from every corner of the game. Lee Nurse was just 43, and had played for Berkshire. Riaz Sheikh, a former leg-spinner who was 51, once dismissed Inzamam-ul-Haq. Phil Wright, aged 60, was Leicestershire's popular dressing-room attendant. The 73-year-old Chetan Chauhan will always be four decades younger, dragged by Sunil Gavaskar towards the pavilion after an lbw decision in a Test at Melbourne. Ken Merchant, a member of The Cricket Society, died at the age of 81, on the same day as his wife, in the same Southend hospital ward. Peter Edrich, cousin of Bill and John, was 93.
How did cricket go on? The trite answer is it had to; those above would have had it no other way. And in the game's continuance came a kind of salvation. From the abyss In early 2019, the ECB's annual report identified two threats to cricket beyond their control: terrorism, and national mourning. A year later, shortly after the World Health Organisation declared a "public health emergency of international concern", the ECB added a third: communicable disease. This coincided with the first confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK, though it was still regarded, more or less, as a problem for China. Within days, cricket was facing its greatest disruption since the Second World War.
The ECB rose to the challenge. Swift measures taken by chief executive Tom Harrison spared the English game the worst of the financial damage. The biosecure bubble organised by director of events Steve Elworthy proved unburstable, allowing England's men to fulfil all 18 home internationals in the space of ten strange weeks. With the domestic fixture list looking like a ghost town, the counties squeezed in two competitions. It was faintly miraculous. The board might have done one thing differently. They had allowed their reserves to dwindle from £73m in 2015-16 to £17m four years later, which suggested they had been paying lip service to the possibility of bombs disrupting a money-spinning visit by India, or the death of the monarch. It's also true that their obsession with The Hundred - delayed by 12 months because of the pandemic, and missed by few - had cost them more than planned. But, as Boris Johnson bragged about shaking hands in hospitals, then dithered over a start date for cricket while snooker fans were allowed inside the Crucible, there was more decisive governance coming from Lord's than the Commons.
The price was still huge. The women's game, it was made clear, was expendable, and spared a wipeout only by the decision of West Indies to visit Derby in September. Funding was cut further down the ladder, and may not return. The ECB slashed 20% of their workforce. After initial fears cricket might lose £380m, a shortfall of around £110m was almost a triumph. But it was sobering, even so. That, though, was only one way of looking at it - the modern way, with its gaze never far from the bottom line. There was another, too. Cricket's absence in April, May and June had left everyone bereft, for reasons that took a while to sink in. We could all agree we missed the matches, the drama, the ebb and flow. But there was a more profound silence: gone was the reassuring buzz of an English summer, a sense that, somewhere, there was a game going on, a tale in the making, honey still for tea. For cricket lovers, checking the score is a comforting ritual; its loss was impossible to measure.
The pandemic had more serious repercussions than the cancellation of sport. Yet it doesn't diminish personal tragedy to point out the cruelty of the timing. The previous summer had left optimism in the air: England were world champions, Ben Stokes the Colossus of Leeds. There was hope cricket might overcome the disadvantage of the TV paywall. In early 2020, Stokes was at it again, inspiring a series victory in South Africa. England headed for Sri Lanka in March, and the new season could not start quickly enough. Instead, cricket again shrank in the national mind. Until now, the lack of a satellite dish hadn't necessarily left the game out of reach: fans could always buy a ticket, assuming they could afford one. But playing behind closed doors removed that option, and so - initially - cricket's relationship with its TV paymasters became more pliant than ever. The game was happening for one reason alone: broadcasting contracts. Sky's coverage remained peerless, but when pundits were analysing Rory Burns's front-foot technique in an empty stadium, sport's eternal balance between importance and irrelevance was too fine for comfort.
And yet cricket has always adapted: not for the first time, it came back from the brink. With precious little else going on, even empty grounds began to resemble hives of activity. Fans found ways of staying in touch. During the 2019 World Cup, Test Match Special received 11.3m "online listening requests"; last summer, it was 14.5m, despite the Test opponents being neither Australia nor India. The increasingly slick live-streaming offered by the counties was lapped up by millions and, when Sky Sports broadcast the final of the Bob Willis Trophy on their YouTube channel, 967,000 logged on. There has always been an audience. Obliged to find different ways of reaching it, cricket actually looked ahead of the game.
There was also a glimpse of humanity. Players raised money for various charities and the NHS. Some used lockdown to study for online degrees, connecting with a world beyond county contracts. Others spent time with their young families. Everyone took pay cuts, many willingly. Administrators, too, could take stock. There were still fixtures to fulfil, and TV deals to honour, but the new ICC chairman, New Zealand's Greg Barclay, reached a conclusion that had proved beyond his predecessors: the schedule was "unsustainable". The ECB evidently agreed, reacting to the prospect of 17 England Tests in 2021, plus a T20 World Cup, by getting serious about rest and rotation. That meant fans could not watch the best players all the time, but most understood that Covid was changing expectations.
The ECB's policy was also a humane response to the nightmare of life in a bubble. West Indies took 54 hours to fly to New Zealand, spent a fortnight in quarantine (and were told off for socialising in hotel corridors), then lost almost every game. Towards the end of the IPL, Jofra Archer said he was "counting down the days". South Africa's Kagiso Rabada spoke of a "luxury prison". Australia's Steve Smith said he hadn't slept in his own bed for five months. Worryingly, the Professional Cricketers' Association reported a big increase in the number of players seeking help for mental health issues - and a lack of funds to provide it. After the pandemic subsides, this cannot go on.
Naturally, there were other problems. When Archer popped home to Hove in between bubbles, he was told he had only gone and jeopardised the entire financial wellbeing of English cricket. Counties who had heeded the advice to spruce up their grounds, and host concerts and conferences, were harder hit than those who relied on their ECB handout, which seemed no sort of reward. But the return of crowds in Australia and New Zealand, where the virus had been kept in check, acted as world cricket's vaccine jab. And an all-time classic between Australia and India was pure adrenalin. By the time England had won 2-0 on their return to Sri Lanka in January, we had another reminder - of the capacity of Test cricket to carry us along, to enthral and absorb us and, perhaps most importantly, to distract us. Boris Johnson had described the cricket ball as a "natural vector of disease". He was missing the point: last year, it carried more hope than threat. There was sadness in 2020, but that was only part of the story.
Inequality street
Jason Holder's West Indians were among the summer's heroes, swapping the calm of the Caribbean for the claustrophobia of UK hotel life, with its cordoned-off dining areas and endless bottles of hand sanitiser. Had it not been for their courage, Ireland, Pakistan and Australia, as well as the West Indian women, might have stayed away, and the ECB's finances would have been in tatters, not merely frayed. Yet Holder and Co offered more than philanthropy (more, in a bit, of his contribution to Black Lives Matter). At the tour's end, he spoke passionately about inequality in the game, and demolished one of the early platitudes about the virus's spread - that it was indiscriminate, affecting pauper and prince alike. The figures proved this was not the case, and so did cricket.
A predictable theme emerged. England had been grateful for the visits of others, then left South Africa in a hurry, even after two positive Covid-19 tests in their own camp proved false. Australia snubbed Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, West Indies and Afghanistan - but travelled to England, and moved heaven and earth to accommodate India (who had already cancelled series against Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka). At the last minute, the Australians then called off a Test tour of South Africa, who had bowed to numerous demands. The Sri Lankans - who did visit South Africa - insisted on strict quarantine rules for Bangladesh, who stayed at home, but relaxed them for England. Ireland were left with almost nothing, and hoped to play their next Test in December, two and a half years after their last. (Crazily, this is saving them money.) Zimbabwe had three Tests in 2020, Bangladesh two, Afghanistan none. New Zealand went top of the rankings, despite only eight overseas Tests since October 2016. As for the West Indians who helped prop up England, they took a 50% pay cut.
Behind the widespread relief that the sport stayed on the tracks, dangers lurk. The IPL now openly dictates the calendar, with inevitable consequences for international cricket: excluding the two eras worst affected by world wars, the 2010s were the first decade to contain fewer Tests than the previous one (despite the existence of more teams than ever). The BCCI, after a period of enforced introspection, were throwing their weight around again, and cosying up to India's politicians. Money, more than ever, is the name of the game. Had England not rearranged their tour of Sri Lanka, or shoehorned in another two Test series at home to New Zealand, all their Tests in 2021 would have been against India or Australia. We always knew the playing field wasn't level, but cricket seems happy to ram home the point.
Enough of the excuses
On July 8, at a near-deserted Rose Bowl, the West Indian and England teams took a knee. They were paying tribute to George Floyd, who had died at the hands of Minneapolis police a few weeks earlier, and to the Black Lives Matter message. The West Indians also wore a black glove on a raised fist, just as the American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos had at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. It was quiet, dignified and powerful - and one of the images of the year.
Also that morning, Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent gave moving accounts on Sky Sports of their own experiences of racism. It was a moment to pause, and reflect. Players past and present had already begun telling stories of prejudice; the trickle became a torrent. The rule of thumb was simple, and brutal: if you weren't white, you had suffered. For a while, cricket said and did the right things. The ECB admitted they had let things slip, and promised action. And when Ireland visited for three one-day internationals, players on both sides took a knee once more.
The idea of Colin Kaepernick, an American footballer with the San Francisco 49ers who was protesting against police violence, it is a simple gesture, conveying a simple sentiment. But cricket isn't fond of radicalism (unless there is money to be made). Predictably, it lost its nerve. By the time Pakistan arrived, taking a knee had been quietly dropped, amid supposed concerns about the politicisation of BLM. The notion that sport and politics shouldn't mix has always been odd; 50 years after the Stop the Seventy Tour protests, when anti-apartheid demonstrators kyboshed South Africa's trip to England, it was odder still. And it encouraged the thought that cricket would do the right thing as long as the right thing didn't upset a vocal minority. When the Australians touched down, both they and England made earnest noises about placing education above protest, as if they couldn't coexist. From two countries with mainly white teams and a dubious history of race relations, the optics were terrible.
Meanwhile, Premier League footballers continued to take a knee, without dire repercussions for the nation's morals. Cricket has been here before: a sympathetic ear, a pat on the shoulder, a promise that things will change. They never do, but this time they must. In case illusions remained about the scale of the problem, a PCA survey in January 2021 revealed that, of the 173 county cricketers who responded, 23 had encountered racism in the game - in 45% of cases, from another player. To drop a visible show of solidarity was, at best, careless and self-defeating. By not taking a knee, cricket raised a finger.
What's in a name?
When Indian Test batsman Cheteshwar Pujara revealed in 2018 that his Yorkshire team-mates had christened him "Steve", the news came and went. Apparently, they found his first name hard to pronounce; Pujara was too polite to complain. Then it turned out he hadn't been the only Steve at Headingley. As Yorkshire investigated allegations of racism from their former all-rounder Azeem Rafiq, one ex-employee - Taj Butt - said the name was routinely given to "every person of colour".
In December, with Pujara batting in the First Test at Adelaide, Shane Warne chuckled about the nickname on Australian TV. It was tone-deaf commentary, and not just because Butt's evidence had only recently made the headlines. Two years earlier, Warne's fellow commentator Kerry O'Keeffe had got into a tangle over the names of Pujara and team-mate Ravindra Jadeja, before asking: "Why would you call your kid Cheteshwar Jadeja?" The ensuing uproar forced him to apologise.
But the Rafiq case has confirmed that self-examination does not always come easily to cricket. When he first spoke out, during an interview with Wisden.com, Yorkshire declined to comment. They stayed quiet, too, after he was interviewed by the Cricket Badger podcast. Only when ESPNcricinfo got involved did Yorkshire take the matter seriously. If cricket's response to racism is one of expedience rather than repudiation, everyone loses.
Embarrassment of riches
When Stuart Broad passed 500 Test wickets, and Jimmy Anderson ticked off 600, English cricket rejoiced, then reverted to type: it began to fret about whether both could take the field at the Gabba this winter, when Broad will be 35 and Anderson 39. The Ashes has always dominated the discourse, but this was ridiculous, not least because there were still nine Tests to play against India. Instead of celebrating two of England's greatest, some were wondering how to pension them off.
Part of their longevity, it's true, can be put down to an acute survival instinct. Dropped from the First Test against West Indies, Broad let rip in Sky's Player Zone, where a Big Brother-style booth helped turn an interview into a confessional. Catharsis achieved, he took 29 wickets in the next five Tests at 13 apiece. Anderson also used the media to his advantage, arguing for a chance to put right an iffy performance against Pakistan. Hey presto: the next two games brought ten wickets at 16, including his 600th. But could they still do it abroad?
In January came another riposte. For the two Galle Tests, they were treated as if a single entity, Branderson maybe - one, but not both, would play in each. In the First, Broad had match figures of 26-14-34-3. In the Second, Anderson did even better: 31-13-46-6. Soon after, at Chennai, he managed 27.5-9-63-5. They weren't just taking wickets: they were barely conceding a run. A revolutionary thought occurred: pick them at the same time. And keep doing it until they really are too old.
Flicking a switch
A bit of a breather was all it took. For too long, Joe Root had been going the way of all England Test captains. Energised at first by the job (he averaged 50 in 2017, his first year in charge), he began to look careworn. The next two years brought averages of 41 and 37: not a disaster, but no triumph either. In 2020, for the first time since his debut eight years earlier, he failed to score a Test century. England were winning, but the electricity had gone from their sparkiest batsman.
Root disappeared, to recharge his batteries. He analysed his tendency to get out between 50 and 100, and learned from the remorselessness of New Zealand's Kane Williamson. He vowed to become more selfish, reasoning that - unless you're Mike Brearley - leadership is best done by example. And when he reached South Asia early in 2021, he swept - and swept, and swept: 228 and 186 (freakishly run out) at Galle, then 218 at Chennai. In a little over three weeks, his Test average went from just under 48 to over 50, and his tally past Geoff Boycott, Kevin Pietersen, David Gower and Alec Stewart. Of that quartet, perhaps only Gower made it look as simple.
The new masters?
On dark mornings in the bleak midwinter came sunshine from a distant land: Australia v India, now reliably the most gripping Test series of the lot. Australia had once avoided the fixture: not until more than 15 years after India's maiden Test, at Lord's in 1932, did Don Bradman's side deign to play them. But recent clashes have been a battle of empires: the game's historical superpower against a team with the potential to oust them. In the other-worldly light of a southern summer, anything seemed possible.
India's 2-1 victory rubbed shoulders with other epic Test series: Australia v West Indies in 1960-61, India v Australia in 2000-01, the Ashes in 2005. Those, though, were all won by the hosts. This was won by a team battling on many fronts: quarantine, Virat Kohli's paternity leave, an injury list that required a second side of A4, crass sledging, and racial abuse from the crowd. Any of these alone might derail a touring side; that India overcame all five made it the most astonishing fightback in Test history.
The transformation was a thing of wonder. At Adelaide, they had been bowled out for 36, and immediately condemned by pundits to a whitewash. By the Fourth Test at Brisbane, where Australia hadn't lost since Bob Hawke was prime minister, India were missing so many bowlers that their attack had over 1,000 Test wickets fewer than their opponents'. To cap it all, they chased down 328. It shouldn't have been a contest, yet India's strength in depth became the story of the tour, quite possibly of the sport. It was as if they had achieved the ultimate piece of cricketing alchemy, turning the base metals of a huge population and an unrivalled love of the game into gold. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama argued that Western liberal democracy had finally won politics. At the Gabba, it was tempting to imagine India had finally won cricket.
Play the man, not the bauble
Since its creation for the 1963 England-West Indies series, the Wisden Trophy has never been namechecked by the players as often as last summer. The lure of retaining it with a drawn series might even have encouraged Jason Holder to protect his lead: twice bowling first at Old Trafford looked defensive. And then, just like that, one of international cricket's oldest bilateral baubles was gone. In its place would be the Richards-Botham Trophy, after Mike Atherton argued cricket could "do better".
Richards and Botham are names to conjure with. But one was already attached to a Test series: South Africa and West Indies have contested the Sir Vivian Richards Trophy for 20 years. And the other is now attached to one of the few series he never bent to his will: in 20 Tests against West Indies, Ian Botham averaged 21 with the bat and 35 with the ball. In the era of the Windrush scandal and the toppling of statues connected to the slave trade, the explanation that their friendship symbolised the link between the Caribbean and Britain was simplistic.
If change really was necessary, there was a more elegant solution. The two men behind the Wisden Trophy were Ken Medlock (whose obituary appears in these pages) and Learie Constantine, the trailblazing Trinidadian all-rounder who rose above racial hostility to settle in Lancashire, and became the UK's first black peer. He was a giant who straddled both cultures, and instinctively grasped the complexity of Anglo-Caribbean relations. The Learie Constantine Trophy would have been perfect.
Parent power
The headline from the women's T20 World Cup final at Melbourne in March was an attendance of 86,174 - the perfect answer to those who say no one watches women's sport. Almost as refreshing was the identity of one of the spectators: fast bowler Mitchell Starc had been given permission to leave Australia's one-day series in South Africa to watch his wife, Alyssa Healy, open the batting. Good decision: she scored a match-winning 75 from 39 balls.
Not long ago, Starc would have been mocked. But cricket is waking up to domestic responsibility. Last summer, Joe Root missed the First Test against West Indies to attend the birth of his second child. Over the winter, Kane Williamson followed suit, skipping New Zealand's Second Test against West Indies for the birth of his daughter. India captain Virat Kohli went even further, flying home to prepare for fatherhood after the first of the four Tests in Australia. As recently as 2003, this Almanack published a piece entitled "Don't marry a cricketer". These days, we might not be so proscriptive.
Hello, old friend
And then there was none. When Ian Bell signed off from first-class cricket with 50 and 90 for Warwickshire at Cardiff in September, it meant every player from the 2005 Ashes had retired. This went beyond nostalgia: among current England cricketers, only James Anderson - who has been an international cricketer since 2002-03, but missed that series - had played a Test on free-to-air television. The gods of TV scheduling woke up: in February 2021, Channel 4 - forever linked with the summer of '05 - acquired the rights to England's Test series in India. Providing punditry from a hurriedly assembled studio in London was Alastair Cook, whose entire Test career - 161 games and 12,472 runs - had taken place behind the paywall.
Over in Chennai, his successor as England captain, Joe Root, lived up to the occasion, uniquely marking his 100th Test with a double-century, and a memorable win. Channel 4 were spoiling their viewers all over again. The station's last-minute re-entry into the big time was low on frills, but high on significance. Despite little time to plan their broadcast or spread the word to fans who had almost forgotten watching an England Test on free-to-air telly, they secured a peak first-day audience of 1.1m - more than twice what Sky managed during England's tour of Sri Lanka. By day three, the figure had risen to 1.7m. In all, nearly 6m tuned in. Meanwhile, 44% of viewers were said to come from homes without a Sky subscription.
However you spun the numbers - and there were one or two hoping Channel 4 would fall flat on their face - live Test cricket was now more accessible. And with the rights fee going to the BCCI, no one could say the move had cost English cricket anything. There was concern that the viewership was skewed towards the over-35s, (as if teenagers were going to crawl out of bed at four in the morning). But the understandable clamour for youth has obscured a wider point: cricket is our national summer sport, and over-35s should be able to watch it too. For an older audience, sheltering at home, and less likely than other generations to watch subscription channels, the coverage must have been especially welcome. Defenders of the paywall regularly employ a straw man argument: English cricket would be nowhere without Sky's money. Yet few argue for a wholesale return to the old times - just a bit more balance. In Channel 4's heyday, Sky would exclusively broadcast one of the home Tests. Why not return the favour?
Anyone up there?
If an England prospect scores a century in front of an empty press box at Grace Road or Riverside, was it ever really scored at all? Journalists are not known for understating their influence, but a decision by the ECB to cut their County Reporters' Network from 18 to six threatened to have more serious consequences for the domestic game than they appeared to realise. The network itself was an imperfect solution to an intractable problem: with newspapers losing interest in county cricket, the board stepped in to finance the reporting. That fostered a perception that journalists were no longer fully independent, but it was probably a price worth paying. Now, the cost-cutting triggered by Covid-19 has led to an inexorable conclusion - and the possibility that some Championship games in 2021 will not be covered in person at all.
At the time of writing, some counties were planning to fill the holes by paying reporters themselves, which raises more questions about independence. If the people who run the game are less accountable, and the reporting less vivid, the readers will soon lose interest. As for the players, who among them with international ambitions will want to play for a county that lacks media attention? There is already a gap between the haves and the have-nots of the domestic game. It must not become a chasm.
Say Grace
The bronze statue of W. G. Grace at Lord's is not to be sniffed at, but cricket might have missed a trick last summer after a statue of a slave trader, Edward Colston, was torn down by protestors and tossed into Bristol Harbour. As the former Times cricket writer Richard Hobson tweeted, the plinth might easily have been filled instead by one of the city's most famous residents. Not Banksy or Cary Grant, but WG, one of Victorian England's biggest celebrities, yet still a peripheral figure in the place he called home.
Better late than never
A year ago, we urged the ICC to reconsider the status of England's five games in 1970 against the Rest of the World, and treat them like Tests - just as those who played in them did. The ICC's position is that the matches were not sanctioned as Tests - only marketed as such by the English authorities, in the hope they would pass muster. But sentimentality, it turns out, is not dead. Fifty years to the day after he made what he thought was his Test debut, Glamorgan's Alan Jones - who didn't play for England again - was surprised on Zoom by a phalanx of ECB officials and old team-mates, and presented with a navy blue cap. He was now, officially, England's 696th Test cricketer. His speechlessness spoke volumes.
It went that way…
An unexpected side-effect of the pandemic was to remind the world's best players how it all began. Was any sight more democratic than Joe Root or Ben Stokes ferreting around in the stands to look for the ball, just as countless village players do every weekend in the shrubbery? As for playing in front of no one, join the club. Our star cricketers can seem remote, but there were moments last year when they were as reassuringly unglamorous as the rest of us.