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Quick single: Harmison draws Ponting’s blood

The opening session of the opening day of the 2005 Ashes. Steve Harmison, bowling from the Pavilion End at Lord’s, hit Justin Langer on the elbow with the second ball of the day. A few overs later, Matthew Hayden tried to pull Harmison, missed the ball which continued its upward course to strike him on the helmet. Hayden fell shortly afterwards to Hoggard, bringing Ricky Ponting to the middle.

Harmison was bowling rapidly and with good rhythm. Into his sixth over, another pull shot attempted and missed. Ponting took a blow on the grill. For the second time that morning, the Australian physio was out in the middle, this time to staunch blood and patch-up the skipper’s face. Ponting batted on and in Harmison’s next over, drove at a ball outside off-stump and edged to be caught in the slips.

At the fall of each wicket that morning, and three more came before lunch, the crowd roared, rose to feet, arms up or fists pumped. The crowd’s response to each of the blows sustained by the Australian top three was just as unrestrained. Often, there’s a sense on the first morning of a Test, that the crowd needs to settle in, adjust to the pulse of a match due to last five days. That morning, though, there was a stronger alertness and anticipation. It was going to be a contest, closely fought, for the first time in years.

By batting first, Australia enabled England to lead off with their strong suit: four fast bowlers, varied in style and method. There was an anxiety, a yearning that England would, figuratively, draw first blood. The Lord’s crowd had sat and admired Australian batsmanship and rued hapless England bowling for years. This crowd on this morning wanted something different.

Alongside the anticipation for the game, there was a tension peculiar to this match. Cricket followers in England are cossetted, compared to their peers in some other countries, from the threat and experience of violence. Two weeks earlier, though, London had been struck by four suicide bombers. The city was on high alert and rumours rumbled like thunder. Bag and body searches were, if not introduced that year at Lord’s’ gates, stiffened. Sitting at Lord’s, watching Test cricket might feel defiant, or indulgent, but it also felt like being a juicy target for a terrorist intent on striking at western decadence.

Failed bomb attacks occurred that day in West London. On the second day of the Test, as Australia built a health second innings lead, police shot dead a mis-identified suspect in South London. This unsettling news swirled around the Lord’s crowd.

The hunger for England to finally knock over these Australians was the principal cause of the roars that greeted the blows to Langer, Hayden and, in particular, Ponting, that morning. The pent-up excitement at seeing England dictate terms, bursting out into shouts and displays of approval of violence. There was also a tension in the air, a mistrust and discomfort that may have infected the crowd’s response.

Ten years and almost twenty days of attending international cricket later, the first day of the 2005 Ashes series has imprinted the strongest impressions on my memory. The chain of incident of Ponting being struck, the crowd’s (and my) reaction, his removal of his helmet to find a trickle of blood, connects me closer to that intense morning than anything else.

Quick single: Family friendly cricket

IMG_1101

Just like the Birmingham Bears, I was delayed by the traffic.

“Ten minutes and we’re leaving,” I announced on returning to the family home.

“Why can’t I have a phone?” demanded the 1&only daughter.

“By tram. No. Why can’t we go in the car?” complained no. 1 son.

“Can I have a coke?” nagged no. 2 son.

Were Chopra and Brown’s team as moany and discontented as Mrs DG’s and my lot?

A sprinkling of rain fell as we got off the tram at Old Trafford.

“How much longer until they call if off?” queried no.1 son gloomily.

Finding dry seats in C stand, we heard the announcement that the game would start 30 minutes late owing to traffic delays on Daddy’s commute home (or similar).

“Now, we’ve got to sit here for 40 minutes,” muttered no.1 son, who in another Manchester sporting venue is anxious if we aren’t at our seats that length of time before kick-off.

Time well-invested back at the concourse behind the pavilion, buying treats. An ice cream to distract the 1&onlyD from the ignominy of being a year 6 pupil without a mobile phone; and another chosen in a split-second defection from coke by no. 2 son.

I try to explain to Mrs DG the prominence of Brendon McCullum in world cricket. I feel emotional as I summarise how his significance goes beyond New Zealand and can be credited with invigorating the English game this summer.

“So he’s the best T20 player in the world?” questions no.1 son, comfortable with definitive judgements, not the weighing of strengths and weaknesses, the application of context to performance and the sheer ambiguity of the game. “Is he good?” he asks as each new bowler is brought into the attack – frequently, as Lancashire bowl most of the innings in one over spells.

McCullum doesn’t live up to my encomium – although that’s been true of his whole trip to the UK as a batsman. The Bears’ captain, Chopra, and their other international captain, Porterfield, accumulate, but the innings doesn’t ignite.

As each bowler starts their mini-spell, I confirm to no.1 son that, “Yes”, they are good – as well as providing some context. The exception is Steven Croft, about whom for the sake of variety rather than a genuine assessment, I state, “No.” Despite me, Croft bowls well, as do the other spinners, Parry and Lilley, which suggests why the Birmingham innings falters. No.1 son and I comment on the variation in pace and flight of the slow bowlers, but most respect is accorded James Faulkner.

His run-up is pitched like a man trying to progress into the teeth of a gale. But what we appreciate is the accuracy of his back-of-the hand slower ball. He uses it as his default, rather than surprise, delivery and lands it on a length on off-stump repeatedly.

Before the game began, asked how many sixes we would see, I plumped for eleven. The first comes in the Bears’ twentieth over, when Gordon, who the big screen tells us has zero T20 career runs, hoists his first ball over the mid-wicket boundary. If my prediction is to come true, the Lancashire reply will be short and successful.

Mrs DG pronounces it ridiculous that a county is playing a city. I think about asking her views of a team known as ‘England’ playing another titled, ‘West Indies’.

She also detects flatulence innuendo: the Blast, which starts with a Blast-Off and the flaming jets and hot air expelled in front of C stand that signal boundary hits. I enter into the spirit with a plate of lamb rogan-josh, pint of ale and bag of Bombay mix.

We move upstairs for the Lancashire reply. The rows of seats are steeply inclined. No.2 son asks us to sit still as he is anxious about toppling off. The view of the ground, its hinterland and the setting sun is uplifting.

A couple of early sixes shorten odds on my pre-match prediction. But in back garden cricket fashion, each is followed by an out. Mostly Lancashire batsmen mistime the ball or middle it straight at boundary fielders, to no.1 son’s frustration and increasing disdain. Don’t worry, Faulkner’s coming, I reassure.

Mrs DG and the 1&onlyD are focused on the big screen. Tracking the required rate? Checking career records? Studying the umpire referrals of two run out decisions? No. Waiting to see if their selfie tweeted with #summerlive makes the cut. It doesn’t and they feel short-changed. Note to county grounds: make sure you display every photo submitted.

Faulkner does come and some of the time does strike the ball a bit more cleanly than his teammates, but keeps taking singles to bring Jordan Clark or Alex Davies to face – the latter plays a short innings comprising, almost exclusively, attempted ramps. When Faulkner does connect well the ball whistles to the upper tier of the stand at mid-wicket. The chase is on! Then off again when the expected rattle of boundaries doesn’t come and he falls to a good low catch at long-off.

Faulkner is replaced by Liam Livingstone, a cricketer in the odd situation of being more famous for an exploit at club level than in the professional game. Could he alter that tonight? 17 runs to win off the final over would do it.

A straight drive hit so hard that Brendon McCullum at long-on can’t even get close enough to essay a dive, raises hopes. Livingstone runs hard, losing and regaining the strike with byes run to the keeper. Nine needed from the final two balls and the Nantwich player swings Hannon-Dalby into the legside and just over the boundary.

It has come down to the final ball: family friendly cricket. Excitement more memorable than an ice cream and flake, a ride on a busy tram and fear of tumbling from a high stand; and at least on a par with seeing flames shot into the air in front of you. Whether it matches the thrill of seeing your photo on the big screen, we’ll have to wait for another visit to find out.

Quick single: 700 runs in the day

700 runs in the day

McCullum: coiled and ready to spring, but again not quite launching. Receiving more plaudits from a local crowd than anyone visiting here since a young Brian Lara. Admired for what he’s done for New Zealand and now drawing out of England.

Guptill: drumming everything over-pitched back past the bowler. The same clean, straight swing lifting the ball aimed at his pads high over the legside.

Williamson: Speed of hands and control of angle produce crisp, neat shots around the wicket. Working the scoreboard harder than he seems to work himself. No hint of a preference of where to score, until Stokes over-pitches and an off-drive of perfect shape and proportion, and just a little flourish, sends the ball skittering away. Three times.

Taylor: beginning, I sense, to revel in the shade of his teammates’ growing reputations. Feeding singles to keep Williamson stretching England all around the ground. The stoop and bottom hand controlled drive convinces me there’s a resemblance to a player I never saw bat: Cowdrey.

Elliott: out of touch, dot balls, a thrashed six and a few singles, putting first 400, then 350 out of reach. Transferring pressure to Williamson, who finally plays and pays for a couple of inelegant shots. Elliott stays put and at last applying muscle and a good eye kicks the innings back on track.

Santner: edging and bunting the ball as the innings comes towards its close would serve his team best back in the shed. Rashid returns and bowls a ball from the front of his hand to the left-handed Santner who detonates with the first of five middled shots in the over. Huge, flat-batted sixes over the long leg-side boundary, bring 350 back into view.

Roy: ten balls and still on nought. I can’t look to see what it’s doing to the required run rate. Roy decides it’s time to advance and crunches a four and lofts a six. The tailwind from Hales, pulls him smoothly through the powerplay. Roy’s tactic is to charge. Henry drops it short and Roy batters it through mid-wicket, like you know who, but without kicking up his right foot behind him. Another skip forward next ball and Roy buries it in Williamson, just 20 metres away. Fortunately, given the damage it would have caused, finding his hands.

Hales: unlike his partner, he hangs back in the crease, pulling and hooking over and past the fielders behind square. The culmination of his powerplay assault is ball lifted from his pads with a full swing from the shoulders that soars into the deep midwicket stand.

Root: just like Wiliamson earlier in the day, he takes runs with ease wherever they come, at a pace that suits him. Scorching straight drives and a cover drive, with right knee on the turf, adorn deflections to third man, and straighter balls punched out of reach of the legside fielders. There are cuts that send the ball screaming square and glances too fine for the boundary rider to reach. Not a single shot played that I’d caution a young cricketer not to imitate.

Morgan: still, even serene, at the crease. UnMorgan like as the bowler approaches and in his run-scoring too. Barely a paddle or reverse. Straight driving with high elbow and strong top hand. Backfoot defence equally orthodox. McCullum leaves long-off empty for almost the whole of Morgan’s innings. He saves a fielder neck ache as Morgan lofts sixes over that vacant channel. Before the half-way point, in partnership with Root, Morgan brings the required rate below one run per ball, and that’s the rate of progress for a few overs. But Morgan won’t win it the risk-free way and makes room to pan the ball off-side. When he returns to hitting high and straight, Henry claws at his own head after a full delivery is driven in a shallow parabola and into the long-off stands. A few balls later and a towering hit to our stand at mid-wicket takes Morgan beyond 100.

700 runs in the day

Quick single: Who’s winning?

“Well..” I start to answer.

No.2 son, who’s posed the question, has tracked me down to a quiet corner of the house. I’m hunched over my iPad, watching the early stages of a Test match. In my head, I’m turning over possible answers. Responses that convey complexity and unpredictability, that don’t rely on formulations like, “you can’t tell what a good score is until both sides have batted.”

“Oh, 180-5. That’s a good score, isn’t it?”

“Well..” This one’s easier, I could remind him that a batsman once scored 400 in a Test match. Yet, on a tricky wicket, it could still be a ‘good score’.

“Is that bowler good?”

“Well..” It’s clear he’s a marginal international cricketer, although I shouldn’t decry someone who’s succeeded at every other level and will have a far more fulfilling playing career than I could ever have dreamed of. But he has just wasted three overs with the new ball.

“Do you like Alastair Cook?”

“Well..” Should I respond about the batsman, the captain, the straightforward man, the guileless interviewee that I’ve mocked on this channel?

“Will you play football later?”

“Well..” and no.2 son has gone. His father’s inability to answer a string of straightforward questions left hanging in the air. I sink back into the game on the screen. A game that defies easy answers, that offers many suggestions of meaning, lots of false trails and rebuttals of hasty conclusions.

The ambiguity of a Test match in progress qualifies and limits its appeal to the young who are accustomed to contests being settled by celebrity judges, phone-in votes or penalty shoot-outs. If I am left feeling hesitant and inarticulate by my failure to give clear strong answers, I have evenings of cricket like today’s at Headingley as justification for equivocation.

England 215-1 New Zealand 350.

“Who’s winning?”

“Well.. Ballance hasn’t looked very secure recently.. Lyth may find it hard to keep his concentration all the way to the close of play after the elation of a maiden ton.. the weather could close in to help the bowlers.. Root is in good form, but nobody succeeds in every innings.. the new ball is due.. but England do look set for 600.”

Quick single: Trott’s trot – shuffle, exit

One of the features of Jonathan Trott’s admirable England career has been his mobility at the crease. Nine times out of ten, that has been a couple of short, quick steps in front of his stumps against seam bowlers, welcoming the ball towards his pads or thigh, from where a confident punch, push or glance sends the ball into the legside for safe, reassuring runs.

Trott used his confidence moving along the crease against slow bowlers. On turning pitches, some of his England colleagues have looked stranded on leg-stump, pushing forward and back, as if the game was played in two dimensions. Trott’s lateral movement brought in new angles and ways to divert the turning ball into gaps in the field.

Trott has been enterprising, creating scoring opportunities from good deliveries, unsettling bowlers’ lines of attack. I was very fortunate to see in the flesh an innings when Trott went beyond enterprise, firmly into courage, in how he adjusted his stance. At Lord’s in 2010, Mohammed Amir was delivering a thrilling spell of quick swing bowling. Three of Trott’s batting partners fell. His response, to negate the swing, was to take guard at least five feet out of his crease. Against a bowler sustaining speeds of 90mph, it was brave and tremendously effective.

Nearly five years and a couple of comebacks later, that shuffle across the crease is likely to be associated with Trott’s exit from the international game. It’s brought not calm, reassurring leg-side runs, but cramped, aerial shovel shots, diagonal-bat defensive prods and pads caught in front of stumps.

The issue may be one of technique. From a distance, though, it does feel, by bringing Trott back into the team as an opener, the England management does not know its man. If that is the case, both player and management bear responsibility.

Age 11, at the 1979 Prudential World Cup Final

World Cup 79 ticketMy Dad helped me find my seat in the Compton Upper, hung around until play was about to start, had a word with the steward and said, “See you at lunchtime”. I sat alone to watch the West Indies bat first against England. Through some circumstance, that neither of us can now remember, Dad had two tickets for the World Cup Final, in different parts of Lord’s.

Being alone didn’t particularly bother me, as I sat hunched watching the play in a bubble of concentration. I recorded each delivery on a lined A4 sheet, each over a new row. The innings progressing vertically down the sheet, with special notations for appeals, bouncers and extras. That summer, captivated by Bill Frindall’s published scorecards of the 1978/79 Ashes series, I had progressed from scorebook to scoring system.

“We want the West Indies to win the toss and bat,” Dad had explained on the drive into London. He had come to watch the world’s best cricket team and didn’t want to be shortchanged by England batting first and setting a low total. England had made only 165 and 221 batting first in their final group match and semi-final. I, despite the objectivity of my scoring obsession, wanted England to win, unlikely as I understood that to be. Dad had his way: Greenidge and Haynes opened the batting. But England, thrillingly, provided an early highlight as the West Indies openers, soon to become famous for their running between the wickets, took on England’s scruffy, slouching square leg, Randall, who threw down the stumps.

Of Richards’ century, I have no distinct memory, other than that his presence in the middle was double-edged. While he stayed,  England’s victory chances diminished; if he were to fall, particularly on a morning when the rest of the West Indies top-order were dismissed cheaply, I wouldn’t see the game of cricket that my Dad said we had come to view. On that day, Richards was out-batted by Collis King. I do remember King swinging England’s fifth bowler (Boycott-Gooch-Larkins) high to the legside. Sixes, even in limited overs matches, were rare – a sudden instinctive reaction of the batsman, not the practiced tactical objective of the current game.

I know, at some point late in the innings, I blurted out, “Old can’t bowl. He’s finished his overs.” My neighbour pointed to the numbers at the foot of the Tavern scoreboard which demonstrated that Brearley’s management of his bowlers was more reliable than my scoring system.

As the West Indies accelerated at the end of their innings, a top edge headed high towards the Tavern. Brearley, with short, fast steps and grey-hair tipped backwards, pursued the ball down the slope like an uncle chasing a frisbee at a family picnic. He took the running catch giving me my first live example of a cricket incident that is so much more satisfying viewed from the stands than on TV. The eye can assimilate the trajectory of the ball and the fielder’s burst of motion much better than a single camera.

England’s openers, Boycott and Brearley started slowly, before continuing at the same pace. More amble than run chase. I learnt a new word during their partnership. Sitting on the row behind me was a local with an American acquaintance. Boycott and Bearley are now “expendable” the local explained, willing some aggression from England’s openers, bent on building a platform. I was uncomfortable that the American was getting his first taste of cricket at the World Cup Final. Shouldn’t he have to serve an apprenticeship: the fifth day of a drawn Test? Sunday afternoon viewing of a televised John Player League fixture, interrupted by athletics from Crystal Palace?

At some point during the afternoon, my Dad found a seat nearby. Several rows back, a group of West Indies supporters, confident at the match’s outcome, were laughing and trading quips. As England’s wickets started to fall, their target still distant, the exchanges behind us became more passionate. “One of them has put a bet on Holding taking five wickets,” my Dad whispered. But it was not Holding, but Joel Garner’s yorkers, released above the Pavilion sightscreen, that England’s middle order could not repel, let alone attack and lift the scoring rate. The long, steady opening partnership had come with the promise of a flourish from England’s long batting order, but only produced an anti-climax.

No one was more vocal in their disappointment at the outcome than the man who had backed Michael Holding. While we followed the celebrating West Indies fans out of the stand towards the outfield, he continued to chunter, more aggrieved than a fan of the reigning World Champions should be. And I, at 11 a witness to a World Cup Final, fully recorded in my scoring ledger, was the more content. 

You couldn’t script it

Subtitle: And we wouldn’t watch it if you did.

Renegades Stars

The Melbourne Big Bash derby goes to the final ball, needing the third umpire to scrutinise five different camera angles on a scrambled single before awarding the match to the batting team.

SB Tang captures the excitement of viewers

Further away, Backwatersman calmly muses

A day later and the broadcaster is trying to drum up interest in the upcoming three-way ODI series, asking its viewers, “What can we expect from the Aussies?” Matt Webber can imagine:

I identify with all three statements. These are the views of cricket purists, knowledgeable and protective of the game. We want matches that stretch the imagination more than any writer would dare. But we want no artificial ingredients that add non-organic spice to our sport – although many less exacting followers of the game would settle for that. And we deride formulaic play that tends to emerge when cricket is boxed in by limits on time.

Cricket, left to the forces of nature may be pure, but it isn’t necessarily of a high quality or exciting. It involves far too much uncertainty. Even in the circumscribed arena of T20, uncertainty rules. The compelling drama of the conclusion to the Melbourne derby must coexist with the game three days later (Renegades v Heat) decided in 31 overs, with the outcome hardly in doubt after the initial five overs.

Overt scripting is not an option for cricket’s administrators. Instead, searching for a format that, more often than not, will delight its audience, they concoct playing regulations that promote preferred narratives. They place constraints on action and tactics that encourage bowlers to aim for the batsman’s hitting zone and batsman to aim for boundaries. The players surge or struggle with these biases, like actors required to improvise to music.

But recognising the limits of their tweaking, that some games will fall flat, there’s a secondary tactic: distraction. Son et lumière, celebrities and hyperbolic pundits.

For a small number of people around cricket, the desire to shape the outcome of the contest remains strong, the rewards plentiful. Scripting cricket could even be a euphemism for fixing. Sticking to a script doesn’t come naturally to many players, however, so close observation has revealed instances of players taking cues from shady playwrights. We don’t know, though, if some players are very good actors and pull it off under our noses. We speculate and agonise, but for the time being, remain tragically committed.

Quite separately, there is a wholly innocent practice of scripting cricket. It is the work of individuals who are not trying to influence the outcome on the field, but create an experience in the theatre of the mind. Fiction writers theoretically have no limits to what they write about sport, but story-tellers in the realist mode are constrained. Their tales must have a solid core of the familiar to earn the audience’s trust, which is balanced with the daring, shocking or imaginative elements that make the work distinctive.

Scripted, fictional cricket is different from the real thing. Fictional cricket has a moral, a message or an agenda. A dropped catch, a bowling change aren’t just part of the accumulation of incident that goes towards a match’s unfurling, but must have significance. In my own sole and short effort at fictional cricket – The final delivery of the 2015 World Cup – I wanted to tease out the possibility of a bowler banned for an illegal action, then rehabilitated, reverting to the illegal action at the moment of greatest tension. What would happen? Does cricket have the wherewithal to cope with a transgression at such a key moment? And seeking the reader’s acceptance of the familiar, I cloaked this speculation in the format of a (pre)view of the tournament.

The post found its warmest reception amongst Pakistan fans, which suggests to me that, despite my agenda, readers found their own pleasure in the piece. I was no more successful with my fiction, than Hansie Cronje and Salman Butt with their script-writing.

There was no agenda or authorial message behind the final over of the Stars versus Renegades encounter. You couldn’t script it, but if you tried, it might appear something like this.

——————————————————-

The best end to a cricket match – EVER!

EXT: THE MELBOURNE CRICKET GROUND – EVENING (UNDER LIGHTS)

The Stars need six runs from the last over to defeat local rivals, the Renegades, skippered by FINCHY, who has expert death bowler, RIMMO at his disposal.

     FINCHY (Renegades skipper, T20 giant)
RIMMO, mate, a couple of dots here and they’ll be twitching. Good areas. The best ones.

RIMMO (Calm, expert death bowler)
Slow bouncer, FINCHY?

FINCHY:
It’d be your last, mate. Get that yorker working.

Ball 1: TRIFF on strike. Ball sliced past point. 2 runs taken.

     FINCHY:
Straighten up, mate. No room to swing his arms. Make it happen RIMMO.

RIMMO:
Slow bouncer?

FINCHY:
Yeah, and I’ll pull your beard out, hair by hair.

Ball 2: Full and at the batsman’s feet. No run.

     FINCHY:
That’s a beauty, RIMMO. Just like I said, there’s no-one better.

(To the batsman)
Twinkle, twinkle little stars. Can’t move your feet?

Ball 3: Full, straight ball, edged away for a single.

     FINCHY: (To KEATHY)
This isn’t a star, it’s a constellation. It’s Taurus, the bull.

(To RIMMO)
We’ve got three runs; three runs to play with. He’s gonna swing. Tie him down, RIMMO. You can suffocate them. I’m backing you, mate.

RIMMO:
Slow bou..

FINCHY:
Get outta here!

Ball 4: KEATHY on strike. Low full toss swung to midwicket.

     FINCHY: (to the fielder)
They’re turning STOKESIE, hammer it in

STOKESIE misses the ball. Batsmen turn for the third and winning run.

     FINCHY:
Dozy Limey-Kiwi-Limey, fruit salad!

RIMMO: (to the fielder)
Bowler’s end! Speed of light. I’ve got him!

The return is to RIMMO’s right. He collects the ball crouching and swings his arms to his left and collapses the stumps.

     RIMMO: (to the UMPIRE)
How is that!!

FINCHY:
Out! Out! You got him, RIMMO. These Stars are falling. Unbelievable. You’ve got the golden touch today, mate.

(To TRIFF)
Stars? You couldn’t even light up a Christmas tree.

Ball 5: One run to win. The ball is bowled full and straight. RIMMO falls in his delivery stride and finds the firmly driven ball in his hands. RIMMO’s up and back to the stumps to run out the non-striker.

     FINCHY:
RIMMO, it’s written in the stars. This is your moment, mate. You’re going to win this on your own. You’re taking wickets when you can’t stand up. Squeeze the life out of them.

(To TRIFF)
You lot aren’t Stars, you’re black holes.

RIMMO:
Okay, okay. I’m calm. We’re nearly there. I’m bringing us home.

Ball 6: One run to win. Another full ball to TRIFF, who stabs it to the right of the fielder, FERG, stationed close to the non-striker. FERG dives and still sprawling, back-flicks the ball at the stumps. RIMMO has fallen again after delivering the ball, but is up and smartly back to the stumps, fractionally before FERG’s throw; itself marginally before TRIFF’s dive to complete the winning run.

     FINCHY:
Golden arm, RIMMO. You’ve won it! Incredible! Defying the laws of gravity.

As the Renegades players throng to celebrate their achievement, one Renegade drifts away.

RIMMO looks at his arm, lauded by his skipper, his teammates and the fans. It’s the arm that has cost his team the game.

Lord’s, day three (at the Test with a teen)

 

Embed from Getty Images

Father and son, a day trip from Manchester to the Lord’s Test. So long anticipated. I’m excited, but all too aware what a risky business it is inducting these modern kids into the sweet, deep, almost shameful habit of watching a day’s cricket. There’s the hope he might want to accompany me for years ahead; the fear he’ll be bored or repelled by the kind of people who do this. And this day is an event: it’s not just me and mine, but my Dad, who first brought me to Lord’s 36 years ago, will be sitting with us in the Grandstand. I bet he wears a jacket and tie.

Potentially tricky situations with children are best managed (I know, because I’ve got it wrong with three of them) with food. Just let the usual rules lapse, don’t insist on token fruit or the presence of a pure protein. Say ‘yes’, much more often than ‘no’. Duck the battles, sway away from the arguments like we hope to see Kohli later having to deal with Broad.

But no.1 son has started the day feeling nauseous. Stuffed with pizza and two bottles of coke from his friend’s 13th birthday party on Friday evening. He turns down breakfast, which means we’re away to Piccadilly promptly, but accepts a croissant, although nothing to drink, at the station. It’s wet as our early train leaves town and it stays wet for most of the journey.

“A coke. Can I have a coke?” gasps the boy as we arrive in Euston. I buy myself an apple. “Fancy one?” I check. But it’s the sugar and the fizz he needs and gulps in the taxi to the ground.

‘What will he think of Lord’s?’ I wonder of this place I cherish visiting. Will its atmosphere, its confidence sweep him away? We queue at the North Gate. Tickets, bag search, body frisk and into the bright light of Lord’s flashing off white awnings, stands and media centre. “Is that where the commentators sit?” he asks of its blank, arced rear.

I steer him to the nursery sightscreen, to make his first sight of the 200 year old ground, the iconic view of the Pavilion presiding over the wide open outfield. “It’s not at all as I imagined,” he offers inscrutably. And, just as he has done when I take him to see his side at the Eastlands/Etihad Stadium, “Can we go straight to our seats?” I concur, although I want to stride around, spot players, ex-players, maybe even old pals.

Into the Grandstand and no.1 son spots Grandad, standing guarding our seats. He’s wearing a suit and tie. There’s warm welcomes, as befits an event: “Your first visit to Lord’s. Lovely, fantastic.”

Play is only 15 minutes away, so I dip back under the Grandstand to get coffee, tea and, for no.1 son, a packet of ready salted crisps, while he recaps his season so far. His first season where he has shone more as batsman than bowler.

Back upstairs for the start of play and I realise it’s not just bright, it’s hot. Some men a row behind us are taking off their shirts, looking sweaty as though they’ve joined in the Indian team’s fielding warm-ups. It turns out some hospitality box dwellers had tapped their yellow and red sun shade, sending last night’s rain smacking onto the £90 per ticket hoi polloi below. That remains a threat to the lower Grandstand for the rest of the morning. Them upstairs also shoot champagne corks, but these clear us and reach the outfield, where they sit looking like objects, sometimes seen on cricket grounds in public parks, that should be picked up and disposed of in plastic bags.

At noon, Grandad hauls in the first beer of the day and sandwiches – cheese for no.1 son. “It’s got pickle all over it” he hisses at me at a volume just below his Grandfather’s sensory range, as though I have conspired to place preserves in the least acceptable locations. I offer to find a replacement, but the nausea of 7am, 200-odd miles north has returned.

By the afternoon, when weathermen warned of storms, the sky is wide and blue. I’m happily roasting under a straw hat, Grandad may be snoozing and no.1 son is getting bothered that the sweat may be showing on his back. He accepts the need for protection and wears my club cricket cap. His hunger is back and I take him to the Jamie Oliver food court for thick-cut chips. He holds the cardboard basket up and oscillates it while directing me to pump more and more ketchup on top. “Can I have some salt?” he knows to ask. “I’m not looking,” I know to answer on this day of dietary laxity.

Back in our seats and no.1 son is soon offering chips. That’s unusual. Maybe he isn’t feeling well, I wonder, until I see the skin of salt like the mucky froth along a harbour wall. He’s overdone the sodium chloride.

Into the evening session and although it’s late in the playing day it’s hours until I need to drive the car, so I resolve to have a third pint. A soft drink for my Dad and an order for hot chocolate for no.1 son. “Will it be too hot? How long will I need to wait?”

“After Anderson’s next over, give it a try.”

“Now?”

“No, Stokes is still bowling. You could try dipping your finger in.”

“Oww. Why didn’t you make me wait an over?”

Grandad has left and we make a trip to the Lord’s Shop. “Is it good?” he wants to know. I sway my head as I do with a high percentage of the closed questions my kids fire at me.

No.1 son ponders buying a ball with the Lord’s logo stamped on it, then we hear a sudden, sharp cheer, with many many voices layered on top. Looking up at the ‘live coverage’ on the TV screens in the shop and Plunkett is at the top of his run-up. But the wicket falls as we hear the crowd clap the Indian captain off the field. Kohli, the player no.1 son and I have discussed most, is taking his guard on the screen when there’s more abrupt roars. Those of us caught in the shop chuckle as we wait to see the moment of peak excitement that we’ve sacrificed for a bit of retail distraction. It’s a good one, as Kohli waves on a ball into the top corner of his off-stump. The hat-trick ball, umistakeably a dud from the lowing noises we hear, 30 seconds before we see a harmless ball sail wide of Kumar’s stumps.

Ten minutes before close of play, we stand and leave our seats. I, childlike, I suppose, try to watch a few more balls between the heads of the spectators sitting in the Compton Lower, as we follow the concourse around to the St John’s Wood Road. Gently, not wanting to provoke a pressured response, I ask no.1 son what he thinks of Lord’s. “There are too many gaps between the stands. It’s not like a stadium.” I nod. He’s right, it isn’t like a stadium.

At Euston, we head to Marks and Spencer, where we might find croissant. They’re sold out and wearily he explains we should go to one of the station pastry vendors. At some French sounding franchise, he makes a Kohli-like last second recalculation and orders a slice of pizza. Aboard the train, having removed grilled tomato and taking two bites, he declares it disgusting and sits ruing not selecting pastry’s forward-defensive: the croissant.

Two and a half hours later and we’re through the front door. No.1 son, keeps going straight through to the kitchen, bypassing his Mother calling out welcomes from the living room. He’s at the toaster, grabbing butter from the fridge, finding food that fits.

Although we spent 15 hours together, I can only really piece together what my son thought of the experience: good.. the bowling was fast.. a bit boring at times.. not like a stadium.

And I got to see somewhere I know well and hold dear through someone else’s eyes. And what I’ve learnt is that cricket grounds would be even better places if they served toast.

Little things

The size of the cricket field and its 360 degree sweep of action give the spectator a variety perspectives and with that arise different appreciations of play. At a club or county match, where the ground can be circled, you can experience at your own pace how the game changes with the angle of view.

At an international match, these biases emerge when friends meet during the intervals and discuss the play. Those seated square on will comment on the pace of the bowling, the carry of the ball or the footwork of the batsman playing spin. Seated straight on and the movement of the ball from seam, swing or turn is revealed.

A single incident carries multiple images. A boundary catch off a top-edged hook is marked from some vantage points by the sudden lift the bowler generated; other spectators will be positioned to track the trajectory of the ball, certain it had shot straight up, or convinced it would carry the boundary; those sitting behind the fielder would have the thrill of seeing the player strain to cover ground and keep balance enough to clasp the ball safely.

This is a week of a month of a year when big things demand our attention. Bigger things than the third Ashes clean-sweep in 136 years. The game that has muddled on for so long may be considering (if given any choice) bold, radical changes underwritten by motives that repel many cricket lovers. Mutton, Haigh, Mehta, Degnan, Bal, Kimber, and many others must be read.

As a cricket blogger, these machinations freeze my ink. I am happy to defer to those I have mentioned. They have political and economic nous and calm minds that unpick what we’ve been told and calculate a prognosis for the game.

One sentence read today, however, from Matt Becker’s piece ‘The Highway is Alive Tonight‘, unblocked me and inspired this post:

The magic in cricket is in the little things.

I have wanted to write about something that delights me about the experience of watching cricket in a large crowd at a major ground, but it always felt so slight that I struggled for a reason to describe it. That the magic is in the little things, releases it.

Watching, say, a Test match: in between overs, the sound of applause, distinct but feint through distance, will drift across the ground. There’s no action for the crowd to respond to and nobody around you is clapping. But some 150 metres away a fielder is jogging or walking away from the square, with hand raised, holding hat or cap, towards a section of the crowd. It’s the bowler whose over has just finished, perhaps having taken a wicket, or completed a spell, but definitely having impressed. And now that bowler is returning to his fielding position close to the boundary, close to a section of the crowd who, independent of allegiance, identify with the bowler and welcome him back.

On the other side of the ground, the noise feels like a reaction to an event already viewed and understood. Or simply an echo delayed by the reach of the ground. At a distance, the harshness of clapping is tempered, not hand smacking hand, but raindrops on a roof, hooves on soft ground; insistent and gentle. Above all it’s the warmth of cricket and its people.

Now is the time to find the balance: getting the big things right, so we can enjoy the beauty of the little things.

Memory Test

Old TraffordNo.1 son came with me to the Sunday of the Old Trafford Ashes Test. It was his first experience of live, professional cricket. It made me think about my first visit to a cricket ground. That, too, was for an Ashes Test: day one of the Oval Test in 1977.

My son saw four and half hours of lively cricket on Sunday. Thirty-six years earlier, my Dad and I had spent a wet morning at the ground before play was called off in the early afternoon. We went to visit my Nan in Carshalton before heading home. I don’t remember being particularly disappointed at seeing no play. The day had had its excitement, beginning with an early morning journey into and through London. I do remember watching the players arrive: the Aussies by coach; England players in sponsored cars. My Dad made much of the Australians not wearing blazer and tie. I recall him attributing their series defeat to this lack of discipline in attire.

I have a memory of the scorecard bought at the ground. The names were familiar to me because that was the summer I began my vigils in front of the TV, lasting from Peter West’s introduction to his closing reminder of the highlights programme late that evening. Beside the players’ names were their counties and more alluringly, states. Queens., W.Aus. NSW, Victoria were terms empty of context that I could conjure with and savour.

And that, until the next season, was my spectating experience of cricket. That’s the story I have told and believed. I was secure in my personal cricket narrative – beginning with a washout and then taking off the next year with runs for Gower and wickets for Botham.

I was taken aback when reading the Wisden match report of that Oval Test last week, and looking at the scorecard. Something else was familiar. It was the description of the end of England’s first innings:

In Saturday’s brief spell of play Willis and Hendrick added 33, taking England to a more respectable total of 214. … The tenth wicket pair hit seven of the sixteen boundaries in the innings.

I remembered Willis swiping at the ball and it arcing over his left shoulder – a shot I knew wasn’t conventional or intended. A man in the crowd said that Willis wanted Botham’s all-rounder spot – at the time I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic. These were the recovered memories of that Test. My Dad had taken me back on the Saturday. Looking at the scorecard, I then had a realisation, but I regret not a memory, that I had seen Thommo bowl. The world’s fastest bowler, with the action of a javelin thrower making one last effort for Olympic glory, had made no impression on me.

If these were the images that lodged in my memory, some buried deeper than others, I wonder what no.1 son will remember in years to come of his first visit to at Test match.

Will it be Prior and Broad’s boisterous partnership that took England past the follow-on mark and probably to Ashes retention? The dramatic pause while the third umpire and crowd looked again and again at Warner’s top-edged hook behind, that wasn’t – and England’s drama queen response? Steve Smith’s driven sixes, or his run out, where he nearly completed three, while his skipper was content with the single?

It might not be the game. It could be the antics of the crowd around us. The trumpeter, the large man singing falsetto, the Barmy Army chanting? All these things, along with the beer snake construction, seemed of more import to many in our stand. It might just be the squeeze on the tram that sticks in his memory.

Just possibly it will be the incident that, second to him thanking me for taking him and asking when we can go to a county game, gave me the greatest contentment. Queuing in the rain for the tram home, we stood beside four Somerset men who had travelled north for a day of Test cricket. For ten minutes we swapped cricketers’ names and grounds we had played on, comfortable that we were in company of mutual understanding. Could my son find space in his memory for five middle-aged men taxing their own memories to locate names and places, and keeping amateur cricket’s undramatic narrative rolling on?