‘To the sounds of cricket bows’

In three days time, there will be international cricket again.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that it seemed almost a sure thing that something would cause the administrators to cancel the match, or even the series. But England is marching on, despite all the health warnings to the contrary, and unless it has been kept a deep, dark secret, no players or coaches or staff have tested positive for COVID from either side. In fact, there is little talk of the virus at all in the build up to the games. The talk on the back pages is mostly squad selection and the like. No mention of the lockdown, or the virus that has killed nearly 45,000 people in the United Kingdom.

(For comparison’ sake, the Rose Bowl which will host the first Test has a capacity of 15,000. So the number deaths is equivalent to a packed Rose Bowl three times over. Chilling.)

No matter what the toll, though, the band is playing on, and it looks like we will have meaningful cricket again come Wednesday. Meaningful cricket, but cricket played under the most extraordinary circumstances. A global pandemic that has sickened 11 million and killed over 500,000. (Everyone single of those numbers represents a person with a family, please bear that mind before tweeting any “the virus is a hoax” nonsense.) And on top of the pandemic there is the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. And on top of that, a worldwide call for racial justice, with protests erupting in nearly ever corner of the globe following the murder of George Floyd not 15 minutes from my house.

But. This will be the 285th Test match between England and The West Indies, dating all the way back to 1928. And so the two teams have played each other under extraordinary circumstances before. Maybe not quite as extraordinary, but it would be hubris to say that our times were the only interesting times.

They played 14 times in the 1930s, for instance. When the Great Depression was raging all over the world. Included in those 14 games was a match in Kingston in 1933, just seven months after the 1932 Bahamas hurricane, one of only a handful of category five storms to hit the region. And those 14 included a match at the Oval in August of 1939, the last England cricket match before the second World War, just a year and a month before the Blitz would begin.

And then the two teams wouldn’t play each other again until January of 1948 in Bridgetown. Nearly a decade. If that is not an extraordinary circumstance, I don’t know what is. The two teams meeting again on that little island after years of war and death and darkness. What does that look like? Probably about the same as it looked before the war, maybe just a little quieter, a little sadder, a little more melancholy, but also tinged with relief, a relief that the cricket is back. And then when the game started, I bet the war was all but forgotten, at least for a moment or two. Which is of course what we all hope will happen next week in Southampton.

Even after that catastrophic event in global history, the two teams met under cirucmstances far from ordinary. There was the wave of independence in the Carribean following the War, as country after country freed itself from the bonds of English imperialism. Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago in 1962. The Bahamas in 1966. Grenada in 1974. Dominica in 1976. St. Lucia and St. Vincent in 1979. Antigua & Barbuda in 1981. St. Kitts & Nevis in 1983. The West Indies and England played 40+ Test matches over the course of those years of independence, and surely there was at least a hint of difference and change and shadow cast over the grounds as the games were played.

The two teams have been playing Test cricket against each other for nearly a century. A century that has seen monumental amounts change. The enormity of that change is impossible to quantify. To say the world was different in 1928 than it is now is one of the most profound understatements one could make. The two worlds are unrecognizable to each other. So much has happened in the last 92 years that 1928 feels like it must have happened on another planet. A World War. Independence. Revolutions. Hurricanes. Famine. Freedom. To put it in some sort of perspective, the West Indian cricketers that day in 1928 at Lord’s were only 94 years removed from the end of slavery in their home nations, which is only two years longer than we in 2020 are removed from that Test match.

All of this is to say that these two teams have always, in one way or another, played under extraordinary circumstances. In 1928, West Indian cricketers had great-grandparents who were slaves. In 2020, a pandemic is burning through the world. Nothing has changed, everything has changed. But there is still cricket. And the first ball on Wednesday will be bizarre, sad and melancholy. After an over or two, though, as the game settles into itself, we will forget about how the world is on fire, and we will only know the cricket. And I think that is just fine. Cricket has proven itself over and over since 1877 that it is a survivor, that it soldiers on, that it has known extraordinary circumstances, and ordinary circumstances, and it is still here, still entertaining, still making us forget about life, if just for a while.

I am not a huge believer in the “IMPORTANCE OF SPORT” that you have probably read in articles over the last few months. That sport needs to come back to heal our nations, our societies. I think it would have been okay to wait until next year, and that would have been safer and fine. There was no reason to rush it back. We will heal with or without these little games. What sport does do, however, is show our resliliency, our ability to adapt to new conditions, and just do what we’ve always done. And games like cricket — with long, international histories — are better than other games at doing so. Time is vast and wide, and cricket has seen so much of it, and yet it continues, and looks more or less the same.

1928 and 2020 are worlds apart. But they both saw England play the West Indies in a few games of cricket. No amount of extraordinary shifting change can take that away from us. And it’s a reminder that everything will, probably, be okay.


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