We’re floating in space

On Friday I watched almost the entire first ODI between England and Australia. With about an hour to go, I realized something: there hadn’t been any commercials. Not a single one. And then I thought: maybe this is why I love cricket? Or, at least, maybe this is why one reason why I love cricket.

My whole life I have, like most people, abhorred commercial breaks. The blasting, insulting wall of noise that assaults us every five minutes or so. But unlike a lot of people who see the ads as just part of the nature of entertainment, I actively avoided anything with advertising breaks. I chose movies over television (not really the case any longer, thanks to streaming services), I never listened to commercial radio (aside from Twins games, which I still have difficulty with), and I avoided the most ad heavy sports like American football, which continues to find new and inventive ways to jam more commercials in.

And while I love baseball, I still have a hard time watching it on TV. And of course soccer is a first love because of its luxurious 45 minutes of ad-less half, but I am worried that the water break is going to become an ad break, and then the slippery slope has begun.

But cricket, at least yesterday, was something else entirely. I watched the match from around 10 in the morning on my watch until late into the afternoon, and there was not a single commercial. The game just hummed a long, with quiet pauses between overs, no breaks, just one long take of cricket.

Of course, this is not always the case with the game. I have watched T20s where there were ads jammed in over the feed between every single over. And in some cases it was the same exact ad over and over and over again until you start to question whether you even exist any more, or if you are simply a vessel in which the ad enters the cosmos. And even when it’s not that bad, there are still, usually, ads when wickets are taken, and during innings breaks of course. But yesterday as the match seamlessly persisted in some sort of beautiful never ending horizon, I realized that more often than not, there are no ads. Especially in Test matches, but also occasionally in one day games. It’s a treat when it happens, a real treat. It’s almost as if you are at the ground. And in a time like now, when no one can be at the ground, it’s even more special.

It’s also a reminder that while there are breaks hardwired into the game’s format and rules — water breaks, innings breaks — for the most part the game is seamless. And the breaks that do form — the pauses, the spaces — are low lying flood plains soon to be filled in with summer rains. It’s in the pauses where the potential is, the magic, the soon to be, the anticipation. Tossing ads in that mix ruin those moments, removes part of the soul of the game. But yesterday they were restored, and cricket was once again a year divided into seasons, sunsets, sunrises; not into hours, seconds, weeks.

**

This is the time of year when I usually write about the end of summer: the melancholy, the brown lawns, the early dark, the change inherent on the wind which all of a sudden has a bite of chill. But this year was not, and is not, a normal year. And neither was the summer. I had a good summer, despite everything. The weather was pleasant, it stretched on far and long like the summers of youth. We spent a lot of time out doors in the sun with wine in empty parks on blankets. Baseball came back. Cricket came back. If you ignored the world outside as best you could, summer was okay. Despite it all. I am one of the lucky ones, the very lucky in a year like this. But after 20 years of watching summer pass me by, this year it didn’t.

In a couple days England and Australia will play the last cricket of the English summer, such as it was, and that will be that on those shores until next year. A year that might see a vaccine, that might see a full Edgbaston on a Saturday afternoon. And 2020, as awful as it is, could — and might — be slowly forgotten. A speedbump for those of us privileged enough to not be personally touched by the pandemic. But also maybe it won’t, because of how nice the summer was, a summer of cicadas and afternoons on a blanket under blue skies with a thermos of white wine and a book as thick as the day is long.

Summer is ending, I can see it out my window as a I type, the brown leaves on the spindly tree, but unlike so many other summers, it at least was here for a little while first. This morning the cricket is on, later it will be sunny and warm. Let’s get the hammocks out, it’s not over yet.

There are blessings everywhere.

The long summer stretching forward and back in time is like cricket without ads: endless and seamless; the breaks are hardwired but organic; like long slow breathing. It’s not meant to be broken up with trivial matters like other summers are, with the things that we thought used to define our summers, it’s about being outside, letting time drift along to bird song, then a late night storm, dried up before noon by the heat of the day. All one long day, all one long summer, without hesitation or pause. Which of course is how life is: seamless, without end; summer into fall sans melancholy, because fall is just what happens next.

**

I have been thinking a lot about writing about my divorce. It’s been well over two years now. I have written about it a lot of course, but kind of in an askance way. Glancing blows. There are moments that stand out that I cannot shake, that level me, that bring to my knees, that can sill two years later bring my mind, my day, my week, to a grinding halt. I have tried so hard to leave it all in the past, a forgotten time, events that exist on a different plane. But doing that is ramming a commercial between overs. It’s creating fake breaks in time.

Our lives are the seasons. Flowing from one moment to the next. A long day in Manchester under first bright and then dark skies. The pauses are the valleys between eras, and those matter as much as the eras themselves. I need to connect the now of the okay to the times before. Heal the timeline. Remove the ads. I am a different person than I was two years ago, and while I recognize that I don’t recognize the events that shaped the me that is writing this right now.

There are moments that stand out. They are not part of a different timeline. They are my timeline, as there is only one, for all of us. Cricket is one long day, summer is just a space of light and heat, and our lives move through them, without border, without interruption. The sun doesn’t set, it’s just the world spinning. And if I write about the moments that hurt the most, maybe my timeline will no longer be the choppy, brokendown mess it is now. The events instead will become just one ripple in the river; a pebble; a water break; leaning on a bat in the long shadows, waiting for your new partner to pad up, before it all starts up again.

There is yesterday. There is tomorrow. There is now. But there are no barriers. We are a cricket match with only the breaks that were designed to be there.

The Clarendon Dry Pile

I have been able to watch a lot of cricket as of late.

On Friday afternoon I was working but set the second laptop up on the kitchen table and put the first England-Australia T20 on. It looked of course at first like Australia was going to run away with it, but the hosts held their nerve under the lights and slowly choked Australia into submission. It was fun to watch. I was a little sad at how much more fun it would have been if there had been a full Friday night crowd at the stadium — T20, more than any other format, really misses the crowds — but I guess you take what you can get these days.

Then on Sunday after a long bike ride I took coffee into the living room and watched the second England-Australia T20, as the morning hazy late summer sun hit the leaves of the still green trees outside my apartment window; cool, a hint of fall, but still summer. In England clouds marched across the sky like an army off to war, with small breaks of blue and sun. Again, England held their nerve, and saw off Australia, only with the bat instead of the ball this time, there in Southampton, at the bottom of the country at the top of the world. A long holiday weekend, lots of cricket to come, and a day off work to follow. The coffee’s hot; settle in.

Both matches were lots of fun. And both reminded me simply of how much I love watching cricket. All cricket. Men’s cricket, women’s cricket, T20, Test, Championship, CPL, IPL. It doesn’t matter. It’s a great game. It’s all good, it’s all worth at least a little time. This is blasphemy to many of my readers, but as I was watching the game yesterday, I thought to myself: The Hundred won’t be so bad, at least it’s still cricket.

There’s just something about the game. I am not even sure what it really is that draws me in, but something does. The pace of it, the sounds, the spaces in between. Even the shorter formats, which require a bit more of one’s attention, allow the spectator time to drift in thought in those spaces between deliveries, between overs, between batsmen. There’s a break in play, a long shot of the crowd, the hills of southern England in the distance, a bank of cloud. Then a run up and we do it again. Each ball a chance for something special to happen: a wicket, a cover drive; and a long, slow build of momentum until the conclusion which is always somehow in doubt, even when you know in your heart it’s not.

On Sunday I thought about how I didn’t miss the crowd as much. The cadence and atmosphere reminded me of a Monday final day of a Championship match drooping toward a quiet draw, where the only noise is the shout of the players, the murmur of a small dedicated crowd. The silence made it better. Noise would have been a distraction, taken us out of the moment we were in. Made us think of tomorrow, or the day before.

And maybe that’s what the something is that cricket has that maybe other sports don’t, at least not for a mind like mine: it just is. It’s cricket. The game soaks in its own history, and it worries about it’s future, but when it’s the middle of an innings and the coffee is hot and the cricket is on all that matters is each run up, each delivery, and the spaces in between.

It grabs you, and doesn’t let go.

**

Two days ago, Ian Bell announced his retirement from professional cricket. He was last of the Class of 2005 to go. The world moves on, and cricket moves one step further away from what it was. With each member of a generation to retire, the game loses something, and when an entire team goes, something further is lost forever. The loss is painful until we remember the gains. We lose Ian Bell, but we gain the gaggle of young, talented cricketers we saw play these last few days.

But rather than losses or gains to the game, what I thought about when I read Bell’s announcement on Instagram was that he was just like me, just like all of us: the game grabbed him, and didn’t let go.

It was no different than a retirement announcement from any sport, at least on it’s surface, but the melancholy surging with pride, as well as the sincere, earnest love of the game, made it stand out for me. And all of that with an unassuming, almost aggressively humble outlook on what he was able to accomplish on the field.

The last sentence is what brought it all home for me: ‘I’m looking forward to chatting and meeting you all as a fellow fan of the sport we love.’

I am probably reading far too much into all of this, but I read that and I think: he knows. He gets it. There is something about cricket, and something about the people who love it, and because of that he knows how lucky he was to be one of the few who played it at the highest level possible. 22 years is a very long time, no matter the profession, but 22 years doing what you love, for this special game, is like a moonshot. And Ian Bell seems to get that. What matters is growing up a Bears fan, winning trophies with the Bears, being in the dressing rooms with the people he loved playing cricket with, all over the world. It’s a love for a game and a moment and a time that I think we can all, as cricket fans, relate to.

One of the items I read about cricketers a long time ago was how they look like us. Other athletes look like test tube raised supermen, but cricketers — at least up until a decade or two ago — looked like us: graying at the temples, a little slouched, crooked smiles, hair flattened from a hat in the sun, necks pink with sunburn. And maybe that’s true still, from a fandom perspective. It doesn’t take a long leap to think that the cricketers we watch have a similar relationship to the game that we have. I can’t see saying that for other sports.

Yesterday on the couch as the day opened up and I was reminded of times gone by in ways that were not unpleasant; you know those feelings, where you notice the passage of time, but you don’t mind it. Autumn in the air, but still summer. Delivery, no ball, do it again, take the single, come back for two, a long shot of the ground, bring your mind back to the now. I sipped coffee and thought how Ian Bell might be doing the same thing, might have the same warm thoughts of love for the game that I was having, that he might not miss the crowd either, that he might enjoy the quiet space to think. He’s just a fan. And we’re all fans. And it’s all cricket. And it’s all great.

**

Alongside his announcement on Instagram, Bell posted two other photos: one of him in his England whites, helmet off, looking up at the sky, the way cricketers do, as they soak in a moment. The look of gratitude on his face in unmistakable, and familiar, as we see it all over the world from cricketers as they take in the moments they were so lucky to be a part of.

And there was a picture of four of his caps, two England and two Warwickshire. Rumpled and game worn. A part of his past that he obviously holds close, to his heart, in his mind.

He is a fan of the game, he was lucky enough to play it, and we were lucky enough to watch, but we are all still fans. Still people. Take in all the moments, for they are all fleeting, I think that’s what he was trying to say with the final two photos, and maybe that’s what cricket is always trying to teach us. Each ball a universe in and of itself; don’t miss it, magic can happen. A delivery is a blink of an eye, but so is 22 years, let the game stretch out and time will slow down and it’s Sunday morning of a long holiday weekend and here you are and you are alive and the cricket is on and it’s perfect. Tomorrow is tomorrow. But what matters is the now, and he we all are.

Ian Bell set to retire from professional cricket at the end of domestic  season | Sports News,The Indian Express