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.