Congratulations to Notts on winning the T20 Blast. Playing cricket in October feels weird, I must admit, but at least we had a reasonable climax to the season. Here’s new writer Adam Foster with his thoughts on a strange summer … but one that was gratefully received.
Cricket is the quintessence of summer. It’s the summer game, played in towns and villages, parks and playground, across England’s green and pleasant land. For me, summer isn’t summer without the familiar sound of Test Match Special; Aggers’ dulcet tones vying for attention with barking dogs and lawn mowers in back gardens.
Summer isn’t summer if I’m not toggling to and from the ball-by-by coverage on the BBC Sports website on a half-open browser at work, lamenting its bright yellow graphics for undermining the clandestine operation. In short, summer isn’t summer without cricket. In a year in which all the familiar markers of the seasons have been obscured at best, absent at worst, the absence of cricket in May and June threatened to cancel summer as we know it. And then it was here …
In July, eight weeks later than scheduled, the England Men’s International Cricket Team played a Test Match against West Indies at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton. It was the first match in what would turn out to be one of the more noteworthy summers of English cricket. If not quite as remarkable as the one it followed, it was, surely, more gratefully received.
There were six Test matches, all in all, three against the West Indies and three against Pakistan. Then some white ball stuff; three T20s against Pakistan, three ODIs in a week against Ireland and a combination of the two against Ashes rivals Australia. All the matches were played in oddly empty stadiums in bio-secure bubbles, but broadcast live, to healthy cricket-thirsty audiences around the world. It didn’t disappoint, even if it took a bit of getting used to.
Gone was the hum we’re so used to hearing underscoring the day’s play, a hum which so often swells to a raucous racket as the beers flow in the late afternoon. The first Test was played in more or less complete silence; wickets and landmarks marked by a smattering of polite applause from the ground staff, a handful of journalists and the coaching staff of each team. For the second Test, Sky Sports underlaid a pre-recorded hum, probably to drown out any erroneous bad language from the players as much as anything else.
Players were also prohibited from shining the ball using saliva, for obvious reasons, but they could use sweat. This, as it turned out, was easier said than done on some of the colder mornings we saw this summer. We quickly learnt who the sweatiest member of each team was, the ball being thrown their way in the early overs of the day to utilise any lower back sweat they may have accumulated.
Another quirk of the summer was the fact that no one other than the players and the umpires was allowed to touch the match ball. Which, for the most part, was all well and good. That was until the powerful batsman in the shorter form of the game started bludgeoning the ball to all corners of the ground. After a particularly big six, several fielders would have to scurry around the empty stands like school children looking in earnest for their missing ball. Perhaps the bowler should’ve been made to fetch it himself. That would teach him for bowling too short and too wide.
We had no reason to expect anything much from this most sterile of settings, but the action was often absorbing. I treasured every ball. The cricket became a thread which ran through pandemic life this summer, providing narrative, meaning and context in a time when it was often severely lacking.
I remember being in Margate, drifting in and out of sleep on the beach, listening to TMS as thirteen wickets fell in two frantic sessions of play on Day 3 of the second Test of the summer. Pakistan veered from being in a winning position to being severely rattled at the close of play.
The next day, on the train back to London, I listened as a snorter from Shaheen Afridi ended Ollie Pope’s innings as England slumped to 117 for five, still needing another 160 runs for an unlikely win on a pitch full of more demons than a Ghostbusters story.
Pope’s wicket brought the Brummie Bradman, Chris Woakes, to the crease, who, alongside Jos Buttler, played with a counterintuitive freedom that belied the perilous situation. As my train trudged closer and closer to London, the runs accumulated, the partnership flourished, the target diminished. By the time the train pulled into Victoria the target was less than 50 runs way, with the two set batsman still at the crease.
I scampered to try and find somewhere to watch the conclusion, only to see Buttler trudging off through the window of a sports bar I’d found opposite the station. Thankfully, his sixth-wicket partnership with Woakes would still turn out to a be a match-winning one. Woakes was still there at the end, hitting the winning runs as England sealed a stunning victory in a game that looked all but lost when I’d left Margate a couple of hours beforehand.
A few weeks later I was on another train, from London to Wokingham this time, to celebrate my sister’s birthday. It was 4.15pm. The skies were grey. Both out the window of the train and in Southampton, where a result was looking increasingly unlikely in the sixth and final test Test match of the summer.
It must have been tempting, surely, just to call the whole thing off. Not least for poor old Mark Wood, the England fast bowler who hadn’t been selected for this match, and who faced a six hour drive up to his home in Durham. Both sets of players had been locked in the biosecure bubbles for weeks, waking every morning to the desolate sight of an empty cricket ground. You could hardly blame them for wanting to leave a few hours early.
That was never going to happen though because Jimmy Anderson – England’s greatest bowler of modern times – was stuck, gallingly, on 599 Test wickets. With England not knowing where or when they’d be playing their next Test, shaking hands on a stalemate just yet was out of the question.
A monumental storm overnight had left the outfield sopping wet for much of the day, but the state of the art drainage system at the Ageas Bowl worked its magic, the outfield finally cleared and the two Pakistani batsman arrived belatedly at the crease, finally giving Anderson a chance to bring up his six hundredth Test wicket.
As my train crossed the river through Staines, the Pakistani batsmen crossed too, bringing captain Azhar Ali on strike. Anderson bowled one on a good length, outside off, as is his wont, and it took the edge of Azhar’s bat and flew quickly towards Joe Root at first slip. The England captain clung on and I let out a little yelp as my train pulled into Egham.
I was in a pub a few weeks later watching the second ODI against Australia with the commentary turned down. With the Aussies cruising at 144-2, chasing what looked like a below par total of 232, one member of our socially distanced party stood to leave.
“Where are you going?” we asked him, admonishing him for his lack of faith.
“This one’s all but over boys.”
It turned out to be anything but. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer induced a collapse of four wickets for three runs in 21 balls. From there, England somehow contrived to win with room to spare, by 24 runs, in a game they’d snatched from the jaws of defeat. We texted our friend soon after:
“You were saying?”
His silence was telling.
This summer, the cricket felt like a glorious oasis in a barren desert of not very much else. After the featurelessness of lockdown there was something uniquely comforting about the familiarity of cricket’s custom and routine. In a time of such incessant uncertainty, there was something intrinsically satisfying about being able to structure my days around known times and events; the toss at half past ten, the start of play at eleven, tea at four.
I’ve come to realise that without cricket – or live sport in general, really – there would be a huge hole in my life. Cricket can induce intense moments of feeling just like the ones you get through reading or through drama or through art.
It is also, I think, unparalleled escapism, allowing us to forget the grim realities of pandemic life and to indulge in the perennial arguments about how bad light can possibly stop play when they’ve got state-of-the-art floodlights firing full beam overhead.
As unlikely as it once seemed, in this strangest of years, we got a cricketing summer after all.
And for that, I am truly grateful.