And so cricket is back. After more than four months of no international cricket — the longest period without international cricket since World War 2 — England played the West Indies in Southampton. And, as if they wanted to remind their fans of what the normal, pre-COVID world was like, England capitulated in both the first and second innings, losing yet another first Test match in a series.
That’s not to say that the West Indies didn’t deserve the victory. They mostly certainly did. They dug in and got the runs and wickets they needed, and while England were guilty of poor play at times, a great deal of that was down to the pressure put on them by the West Indies’ batters and bowlers. It was a great Test match, and I think one that we all sorely needed.
I will admit that I didn’t watch a great deal of it. Work is super busy and my mornings just kept getting away from me. But on Sunday I was able to belly up to Willow TV and take it all in. I had a coffee, and the match streaming on the big TV in the living room. It was sunny but cool outside, and the windows were open to the world. And the match quietly paced itself out in front of me, lulling me into perfect contentment. More than once I thought to myself: :”holy macaroni do I love this game.”
For the most part, I was able to nearly forget all about about the pandemic. Sure, the stands were empty, but cricket of all games probably suffers the least from the empty stadiums. I mean, we’ve all watched some great cricket matches in some very empty arenas. The one moment of incongruity was when a wicket was taken, and the only roar heard was that from the players on the field. There wasn’t a peep from the galleries. It was a stark reminder of the world we all now live in.
But other than that, it felt like old times. Times that a few weeks ago I thought were gone forever.
I have watched other sports in the last few weeks. Primarily soccer. But there is something a little more dystopian about that. Something about the juxtaposition of the piped in crowd noise against the empty stadium. It feels like watching a video game. And in soccer the stands are shown all the time, just because of the location of the cameras and the movement of the game. But in cricket, the stands are more or less never shown during the game play — especially in a Test match where sixes are more of a rare commodity.
Maybe I am being a bit over dramatic. But there was something yesterday in those few hours I was able to spend watching cricket that made me like everything was going to be okay. If there can something so almost unbearably normal in this oh-so-abnormal world, something so utterly familiar, something like a Test match, then maybe there really is another side to this. Where life goes on. And there are concerts and movies and full stadiums cheering wickets.
When I turned off the TV, the moment was gone. I put on my mask and packed hand sanitizer and biked to a friend’s house where we sat socially distanced in his back yard and watched Arsenal lose to Tottenham and, of course, talked about the pandemic: grocery shopping and politics and getting tested. It was nice to hang out, but it still felt so different.
And that seems to be the case with most with most everything else that’s coming back from the “before times:” to entertain and distract us. It all feels so dystopian. The empty soccer stadiums. The NBA and their bubble, where the talk is not about sports but about how the virus is raging in Florida. The restaurants with quickly converted patios and the servers in gloves and masks. The live streamed concerts in empty venues. All of it is fine, but none of it takes you far enough away from the virus to where things feel even slightly normal again.
But cricket was different. At least, yesterday was different. It felt normal. Virus-free. A relic from a recent past now long gone, but a relic without rust, that maintained its shine.
A few days ago I humbugged the idea of the importance of sport. That it needs to come back in order for our world to heal. A load of nonsense is what I thought of that. They are just games. If it’s not safe, then we shouldn’t do it. But after yesterday I am not entirely sure. The cricket and the breeze through the windows and the iced coffee and the drone of the commentators and the sound of the run up and the chatter of the fielders all felt so normal that I couldn’t help but be comforted by it. The virus never completely left my brain, of course, but the taste of normalcy gave me some hope that there is another side of this.
Right now, we don’t know what that other side will look like, nor when this will be over. It’s going to be months and months, and it’s going to be a slow unwinding with stops and starts and two steps forward and three steps back and that can be so distressing and upsetting, all that time and hardship yet to come. But yesterday I was reminded that, one day, this will end. And that while it will be different, it will still be the same, the world that we used to know. It was a comfort that so far nothing else in this big broken world has been able to provide me.
I don’t think this means that we should have sports at all costs, but maybe it is a reminder of the importance of even a hint of normalcy. We should not pretend that nothing is wrong, we need to stay vigilant, but we also need to remember the rewards of the maintained vigilance: cricket, on a Sunday morning, with the windows open, and the crowd rising as one in celebration of a wicket well earned.