It’s 29 years since I saw England lose – in the flesh.
I estimate that I have seen 70 days of Test cricket, all involving England and the vast majority at Lord’s. I have seen England construct dominant positions. I have seen England struggle to keep their opponents in sight. Occasionally, I have sat tense through days of tight cricket as the teams wrestled for a telling advantage.
My dearth of victories and defeats is because I attend some combination of days one, two or three of Test matches. I immerse myself in these games, spending ten or eleven hours a day in and around the ground. But then I leave and head home with the game’s fate, perhaps not in the balance, but unresolved.
Over two decades ago, revelling in the enigmatic culture of our new, but temporary, home of Japan, my friend Bruce told me about Noh – Japanese opera. The performances were lengthy and so spectators bought tickets by the hour. As we savoured this further example of Japanese exceptionalism, the analogy to our own consumption of Test cricket dawned on us.
Test cricket spectators are not unique amongst people attending live sports in having an experience of the contest that is neither comprehensive nor holistic. Spectators at golf tournaments see either a lot of a few golfers or a lot of golfers playing a few holes. Many tournaments last days – tennis, athletics – and an individual will only see a portion. But each provides a neat package of discrete contests that make up the larger tournament. Test cricket doesn’t parcel itself up conveniently. Last May I saw the final ball of the West Indies innings – last man Gabriel dismissed to the first delivery of the day – and England take a 26 run lead with three wickets down at the end of that second day.
Consuming live Test cricket ‘by the day’ influences the experience and the memory. The focus is on the passage of play and the individual performance. I remember the first Test of the 2005 Ashes series most for England’s rousing first morning, where even in the ‘posh end’ fists were pumped for each of the five wickets that fell before lunch and, shamefully, for Harmison hitting Ponting on the helmet. Australia won by 239 runs.
The match at the same venue four years earlier stays in my memory only for Mark Waugh driving, deflecting and flicking his way to the most easeful of hundreds. He seemed to draw the ball delivered by the bowlers to his pads from where he could direct it around and between the legside field. Australia won by eight wickets.
Back in 1984 I was thrilled to see England go toe-to-toe with the mighty West Indies on day three, establishing and then building on a first innings lead. Greenidge’s day five brilliance won the match comfortably, but I was back at school by then.
2000 was the year that Lord’s hosted a match that I could have eaten whole. England won in the evening of the third day, having bowled the West Indies out for 54 in 26 overs on day two. But I was honeymooning in Corsica at the time.
Next week my spell of runs and wickets without seeing a match reach its conclusion could come to an end. I have tickets for day four of the second Test at Old Trafford. Will I see England retain the Ashes, Australia pull themselves back into the series, or merely the match teed up for a different crowd of spectators to see the outcome on day five?