You can’t handle the truth

England’s performance in Asia this tour has ultimately been one that smacks of disappointment. It started off well, but then careened off course since the first test in India.

But still. This is a pretty good England team. I don’t think anyone can really doubt that. They won the World Cup 18 months ago. They are ranked fourth in the Test rankings which is not great but also not terrible by any stretch, and they are ranked number one in the T20 rankings.

They also have some once or twice in a generation talents standing out there most matches, and a little more than a smattering of talented and fun to watch young players. This team is pretty good, and the future looks positive. At least from my chair. Your mileage might — and probably does — vary. But no matter what your opinion, I think we can all agree that the English team we are watching this month is a country mile better than some of the English teams of the past.

The 1980s are seen by most as the dark ages for England cricket. Particularly the last half of that decade, as (saving newly promoted Sri Lanka) they didn’t win a home Test between September of 1985 and July of 1990. Sure, they won the Ashes in 1987. And had a couple nice victories here and there, but they were for the most part poor, and unsettled, especially after the rebel tours which saw players such as Graham Gooch suspended.

As always, the numbers don’t lie. Between 1980 and 1989, they played 104 Test matches and only won 20 of them. Like Kevin Bacon said in that movie from the 90s: “these are the facts, and they are indisputable.” England were poor in the 80s, and that is a fact that is almost impossible to argue, because quite simply the numbers, the data, the stats back it up. You can’t look at that period of English cricket subjectively, because the numbers are far too objective.

Numbers are cricket’s backbone. They are what tell the story. Despite all the witticisms, all the poetry, all the flowery language, the game is defined by wickets and runs, wins and losses. And because of the strength of this backbone, it is very difficult to look at bygone eras for poor teams with any sort of rose tinted glasses. You can’t talk your way out of what the stats say when it comes to cricket. They are too hardboiled into the very marrow of the game itself. The stats say England were poor in the 1980s, and so England were poor in the 1980s. Full stop. One does not look back at the Micky Stewart era and say something like, “Maybe it wasn’t so bad. In fact, I kind of miss those days.”

Life of course isn’t so black or white. We are complex machines of memory and time and regret. We can miss anything, us humans. Bygone eras become utopias in our mind. We look back and without the assistance of math and logic and data, we bend the truth around the negative, and feel our way through to the positive, which is where we choose to stay. “I am glad those days are over” is something people say, sure, but only when those days included the most dire of circumstances. Most times, the vast majority of times, we look back at days gone by and see them as simpler, easier, better. It’s how our brains work. I am not sure why we do it, but we all do it.

What I about to say is not meant to discount the real suffering of so many this past year, but the above can be proven by the simple fact that most of us — yes, most of us — will miss these pandemic times when, god willing, they are finally over. We will look back wistfully at working from home, learning to cook, spending time with our kids, all of it. We will look back and think: “That really wasn’t so bad.” Even though we have the data and the numbers to refute that claim — 2.57 million dead and counting — our brains can’t grasp that number the way we can cricket’s net run rate or runs per over. It’s too big, to abstract, and so we go back to the stories we tell ourselves, to the poetry, to the flowery language, the devices that cricket’s stories have learned to bypass.

My life has been, like most lives, a series of different phases. An episodic novel like Huck Finn. My brain looks for patterns in the wallpaper and divides my life up into chunks. There was the period before my dad died. The period after. College. Work. Marriage. Divorce. Growing old. I look back on all of those phases fondly, despite the fact that some of them were truly awful. High school, for me, was horror show. But I miss it. College was lonely and sad and boring. But I miss it. My marriage was flawed beyond doubt — which is proven by the fact that I left it — but I still miss that life, I still glorify that life. Despite the fact that I can remember the fighting and the yelling and the name calling and the days of silence following each storm. I remember that suffering, but I also don’t. I remember the pain of the years after I left, and that causes me to lift the life I abandoned into places of happiness and contentment that maybe it doesn’t deserve.

I don’t like this about myself. I don’t like it at all. I abhor that my brain exists in a constant series of regrets. “If only I could go back to the times before when I didn’t feel this way” ignores the truth that I felt worse before. But that truth doesn’t exist for me. At least not really. Not in any way that I can grab onto. And in this way I am jealous of cricket. Its ability to look back and see how things really were. Thanks to simple addition and division, the story of a season is told, and it’s a picture painted that cannot be undone. Of course, the joy of being human is that we are not reliant on data to decide how we feel about something. And so instead of wanting my memory to be more like cricket’s, maybe instead, again, I can learn something from its aggressive objectivism.

Or maybe I can’t. Maybe there isn’t a lesson here. Maybe I can’t overlay this old game on to my life and take something away from the result. Maybe all of the lessons that I thought the game was teaching me are useless and moot. But I don’t think so. I think some of the lessons have been accurate and helpful, just not this one. Cricket cannot help your brain understand the truth of its past. We look back the only way we know how. There are no numbers to help us write the story. All we have is the opposite of data: memory; flawed, human memory. Cricket’s only job in the evaluation of bygone days is to count. Count the days, count the overs, count the seasons. Show us that time has passed, that eras have passed, that history has been erased, rewritten and erased again. We can look back and think we were happier, and cricket will count the years and remind us how long ago those times really were, and then it will just continue to count. Time marches on. In one direction only. We can look back and think we were happy, and we can try to counter that with memories of hard days, but all that matters, really, is that the overs tick over, the seasons change, and time refreshes us, provides memories and leaves it up to us to interpret them.

England’s cricket team in the 1980s was not great. Today it is better. Maybe that’s all the lesson we need here. Time passes, and takes us with it.