I’ve spent quarantine reading books about war. For the most, in the normal times, I am a fiction reader through and through. But over the years I have collected several non-fiction books that cover famous conflicts or regiments or battles, from the US Civil War to the Russian invasion of Finland. I have found them to be a nice distraction right now. Sure, there might be a global pandemic, but at least I am not frostbitten and staring down a dozen Soviet tanks on a frozen lake somewhere above the arctic circle.
One of the books I read and enjoyed was Roy Adkins on the battle of Trafalgar, the great sea battle that was also, probably, England’s most famous maritime victory.
The battle took place in October of 1805 and lasted about five hours. The ships were wooden sailing ships, firing cannon. The sailors lived on weevil infested bread and were given rations of rum and beer because the water on board was undrinkable. The officers were men of class and distinction, mostly third or fourth sons of landowners who had no hope of a large inheritance. It was a battle from a different time, a different age, fought with weapons long since made obsolete. A time of pirates, and men climbing masts to seek out enemies, of blockades and hard, short lives.
When the news of the victory finally reached England — nine days after the last cannon was fired — Admiral Nelson, who was killed in the fighting, was hailed as the greatest English war hero ever known. No matter who you were, or what you believed, everyone mourned the loss of the great sea captain, and the loss tainted the great victory. Reading the pages of the reaction to the death of Nelson was the most extraordinary part of the book. The world has moved on from a time when we come together truly as one to celebrate one person. Those days are gone. We now live in a world where even pandemics are politicized.
When I would visit London, I would also stay in a quiet little hotel right off Trafalgar square. I knew it was in honor of a great British naval victory, but I never knew how great, how significant. Fought by men — and women — who lived on horrible salt pork for months and months, their teeth falling out from scurvy, their tall wooden ships taking broadsides of 40 enemy cannon not three feet from their decks, the wounded being dragged down for surgery, where limbs were amputated in a blood soaked cabin without anesthesia, the operating table lit by candles.
In every way possible, the battle of Trafalgar was the battle of an age long since lost from the earth. Centuries in the past. A world made of wood and bravery.
The last British survivor of Trafalgar to die was a man named Joseph Sutherland, who passed away in 1890.
The first Test cricket match was played in 1877, thirteen years before Joseph Sutherland’s death. And so a man — probably many men, and women — who fought at the now ancient battle of Trafalgar lived in the age of Test cricket. Test cricket, the same game we know now, in our modern age. A game, a format, which has seen an unbroken string of matches, reaching the benchmark of 2,000 Tests in July of 2011. 206 of years after Trafalgar. 121 years after the death of the last British survivor. And, yet, somehow, connected.
All things in life exist on one single timeline, including Test cricket. There are times in Test cricket’s history where it feels like the timeline was stopped, and the game moved to a new, different timeline. But that’s not the case. It is just one timeline, careening through the years. From Melbourne in 1877, to Lord’s in 2011, all connected via time to the years and events that existed before and after it. All of it, all of us, hurtling through space together. We look back at time stretched out behind us, and it’s not a tumbled mess of different roads, but one single road, leading us to where we are.
There are times in our own lives when our timeline felt like it was disrupted, wrecked, and we were moved to a different, sometimes darker, road. This is called mourning, this is called grief, this is called pain. And we get over that grief by connecting the time before the disruption to the time after, and come to understand that we have traveled, and continue to travel, on one single highway through this desert.
Right now, all of us are feeling as though our lives have been disrupted, irrevocably changed. And that is true, we cannot argue that. But they are still our lives, we are still moving forward, all we can do is live the best lives we can with the times given to us. This is our life, our timeline, and it is but one series of events, of years, of time. It is not several. We have not moved onto to a different existence, we are still who we were. Everything is connected. Life moves forward. From those wooden ships off the coast of Spain, to today, right now, it is a consistent, unchanged road of time. And Test cricket is the proof of this. 2,000 matches. Stretching back into a time where people who served on those ships still walked the earth. We put the game into different eras, marked by different times, but we put all 2,000 matches on the same plane of existence, the same timeline.
If we can afford ourselves the same kindness, then we will come out of this not to a different life, but to our same life, our same selves, mourning not a world lost, but days gone by, like we would do anyway.
There’s scene in the 90s film Dazed and Confused:
“All I’m saying is that I want to look back and say that I did I the best I could while I was stuck in this place.”
And that is all we can do. Our lives are just our lives. We just need to live them the best we can, no matter what the times we live in look like, because they are the only times we have, the only timeline given to us is the one we are on.
Joseph Sutherland fought on the HMS Beaulieu, in a time of muzzle loaded rifles and scurvy, but he also lived in a time of Test cricket, a game we all love and follow on smartphones. We lived in a time before COVID-19, and — god willing — we will live in a time after COVID-19. It will be the same world. We will be the same people. All we can do is the best we can, so we look back not on a wrecked timeline, but the same timeline, our same timeline, our same highway.
There are no disruptions to time. There is only time, and its passing.