In the blink of an eye

“I played against Ross Taylor in the first World Cup I played, in 2007, and now, in the blink of an eye, I am playing him at Lord’s.” – Liam Plunkett, 15 July 2019

On April 3, 2007, I quit smoking. After smoking almost two packs of Marlboro Reds a day for 13 years, I crumpled up the pack I had in my pocket while sitting at my cube at the toy company in downtown Minneapolis and tossed it into the wastebasket and never looked back. I haven’t smoked a cigarette since.

That was 12 years ago.

A few days after quitting, I somehow stumbled onto the sport of cricket. Looking back, it was probably via a thread. All I remember is following the World Cup via the BBC and Cricinfo and feeling like I had found the world’s perfect game. I didn’t smoke. I followed cricket. And it was wonderful.

You probably remember that tournament. It was a farce. From beginning to end. If you bring the 2007 World Cup up around any cricket fan, they will roll their eyes and scoff. But all I remember is joy.

And the final.

Two days before, my wife, Niki, called Brit’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis to make sure they would be showing the game. They would be. And so on that Saturday we drove down and parked nearby and walked into the bar and they were showing the game in the main bar area and the host tried to seat us there, but then I saw the game was on in the Long Room and we went in there and the game was on a big projection screen and the room was packed with cricket fans.

It was the first live cricket match I would ever watch.

I was in heaven. I’d found my home.

We found stools along the wall with a shelf and we ordered beers and watched the game. If you have ever quit smoking — or quit anything, really, anything terrible for you — you know the exhilaration of those first few weeks. The knowledge that you are squashing a demon is a powerful drug in its own right. And as my wife had also quit smoking when I did we were both flying. Having this wonderful, perfect day. A little tipsy, taking in the cricket match, Niki asking questions about the rules. We made pals with the guy standing next to us. The match was at the gorgeous Kensington Oval in Bridgetown. After rain the sun came out. It was the last vestiges of those great Australian teams — Gilchrist and McGrath — against Sri Lanka who featured players of supreme joy, Malinga, Dilshan, Sangakkara.

You remember it from there, probably. After early rain the match was reduced to 38 overs a side. Ponting won the toss and chose to bat. Gilchrist put a squash ball in his glove and batted forever. Sri Lanka tried to chase it down but wickets kept falling. And then the farcical ending. The players were brought off due to poor light. Then the overs were reduced again. Then they played the final overs in almost complete darkness, with Australia agreeing to only bowl spin.

Australia won by 53 runs, winning their third straight World Cup.

A few days before the match, my wife had a drawn up a new budget, allotting a certain amount to spend on the weekends. When we got the bill that day at Brit’s we had blown over the budget on the very first weekend of the new budget. I was a jerk. She was upset. We fought. We left without saying goodbye to our new friend, without seeing the trophy presentation. It was a beautiful day outside, despite being only April. We fought in the sun on the walk to the car. Later, though, we were okay. We went to a friend’s house and sat in their backyard. The fight forgotten. We could always do that. Find a way to be okay. It was what made us great. What made us work.

Four years later we went to England for the first time. Neither of us had ever been overseas before. We packed up and flew to London and took the train to the city center and checked into our hotel and fell in love with the city. In a bar in Covent Garden we were having pints in the afternoon and ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ came on and we started quietly crying to ourselves, overwhelmed with how far we had come, where we were, and where we had been. This was near the end of February. And so the World Cup was happening in India. The games were on in various bars. We’d look up and there would be the cricket. It was almost surreal. Like we were on another planet. For cricket to just be right there. We left for home on March 1. On March 2 I watched via a stream Kevin O’Brien hit 113 off of 63 to beat England in one of the most bonkers bits of cricket I have ever seen.

A few weeks later I watched the final, staying up half the night as India beat Sri Lanka to lift the trophy on home soil. I remember you could feel the whole of India willing MS Dhoni along. Literally feel it. It was this energy put out into the either that filled the whole world. At the end of the match one in every five televisions in India was tuned to the game. After the match the Indian team carried Sachin Tendulkar on their shoulders in a victory lap around the stadium.

The 2015 version of the World Cup was in Australia. I paid very little attention to it. The US stream was expensive and I can be a bit of a miser. And the matches were on in the middle of the night and I was working a new job and couldn’t stay up all hours like I could in 2011. This was a grand time for my wife and I. After so many years of hating my job I had one I liked and paid well. We bought a new car. We started talking about going back to London again. Something we never thought we would do. Life was quiet and happy and calm. There wasn’t much to it. But that was fine. We were okay. Like we always were.

I bought the discounted streaming package so I could watch the final. Hosts Australia versus co-hosts New Zealand. With all apologies to my Australian readers, I was pulling for New Zealand with all my heart. I went and bought MOA beer from the liquor store. And I set up my laptop to watch the match in the kitchen, the spot I would describe to my wife quite often as my most favorite spot in all the world. My seat looked out over our big beautiful expanse of backyard and it’s where I would write, and read, and eat dinner with my wife, celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, or just sharing a quiet moment, her with her puzzle, me with my book, our dog on his bed in the corner.

As the game was on so late my time, I sat up and watched all the pre-game build up, the commentators whipping themselves into a frenzy over how the whole match was on a knife’s edge. Everyone was picking Australia, but no one was counting out New Zealand. The Kiwis had won all six of their group stage matches (including against Australia), demolished the West Indies in the quarterfinals (Martin Guptil scored 237 of their runs all by himself), and squeaked by South Africa in the semi-finals. But Australia were Australia. They had won the whole thing four times. And they would be at home in the expansive MCG.

But I had hope. I closed my eyes and saw Brendon McCullum scoring 300 and Australia getting bowled out. Instead, though, Mitchell Starc bowled McCullum with the fifth ball of the first over and New Zealand were all out for just 183. Australia chased it down with ease, despite losing Aaron Finch in the second over, and won the game by seven wickets. I watched halfheartedly. Drinking beer until I heard bird song and then going to bed. My wife got up at dawn and let the dog out. It was a unseasonable warm Sunday. And the sun came out. And melted away the last of winter.

This past Sunday I watched the World Cup alone. I woke up in my little apartment overlooking a bakery and watched the first few overs on my laptop on the porch in the heat of the morning. All the other World Cup finals I had watched had been in late spring. A time of beginning anew. Sunday’s final was in the height of summer. Everything was still and hot and quiet. My ex-wife was sleeping in our old bedroom 10 miles away. There was a pit in my stomach, the same one that had been there for a year.

At 9 a.m. I walked into Brit’s Pub to watch the remainder of the match. There was a smattering of people there, but the crowd grew. The Long Room where Niki and I had watched the 2007 final was closed for a private event, so we all watched in the main bar area. I sat at a stool and ordered a beer and watched the greatest ODI the world has ever seen. You know the story. Stokes, Buttler, Archer, Williamson, Neesham, Ferguson. The Super Over and the controversy and Buttler knocking the bails off and dancing into the night in the long shadows at Lord’s.

The match was pure joy and pure heartbreak. I couldn’t take my eyes away from it. But my mind drifted. I didn’t think about four years ago, or four years from now, as I usually do during World Cups. Instead I thought about 12 years ago. And that sunny day and the fight and the squash ball in Gilchrist’s glove and how we always found a way to be okay until we couldn’t and then I was alone.

I have always found World Cups to be a gift. Moments to mark time by. Every four years. A chance to look behind, and to look ahead. To live the examined life. To think about where we were four years ago, and where we will be four years from now. Usually, it’s a joyful practice. We can see how far we have come, and how, somehow, everything was worth it. On Sunday, though, for the first time, I looked back four years and saw only mistakes and regret. I looked ahead four years and saw nothing. A blank page. And I just kept going back to 12 years ago, in the same bar, just a few steps from where I was sitting on Sunday, my wife and I — my ex-wife and I — laughing, talking, being okay. And now I am never okay. I am lost. And all I wanted to do was go back. Shake myself. Make myself see how great it all really was. 

After the trophy presentation I slipped out into the sun and the heat and the haze of a downtown July day. All pavement and shimmer and bare skin. Summer in the north is like nothing else in the world. I caught the train home. 12 years ago we were somehow okay. On Sunday I was not. Four years from now no one knows. But no one knew four years ago either. And that’s the part about all of this. About time. We say that the past is behind us, that the future is ahead. But that is not the case at all. The future is behind us, as we cannot see it. All we can see is the past, it’s right in front of us, staring us down. The present is Ben Stokes batting England back into the game. The past is ahead. The future is behind.  And so no one knows what the 2023 World Cup final will bring. The final will be on March 26. Five days after the first day of spring. We all might watch New Zealand’s redemption, or India’s coronation. And we will all look back to Sunday. And think about where we were. And wonder if it was all worth it. Right now, I am still thinking about 12 years ago. And wondering how it all went wrong, and how I can put it all back together again. Reach forward into the past, make it all okay, like it once was.

And that’s the real magic of the World Cup. A chance to not just pause and reflect, but a chance to see what brought us to that bar stool alone on a Sunday afternoon, and what we can do differently so that four years from now I am better, we are all better. In other words: hope. That’s the lesson here. “There’s always next year” is an old baseball saying. For the World Cup, there’s always four years from now. For New Zealand. For India. For all of us.

12 years. A lifetime. All in the blink of an eye. Time passing like falling leaves until the tree is bare.

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