Growing up, I probably couldn’t have cared less about cricket. I knew names- Alec Stewart, Phil Tuffnell, Nasser Hussain- but the sport itself remained an unintriguing mystery. The then brand-new Channel Five did its best to kindle some sort of curiosity in me, but questioning my mother about this alien pastime was always met with dismissal- “it’s dull,” she told me, and I believed her.
Doing the maths, it was almost certainly 1997, making me just five years old- my father came by a spare ticket to a cricket match at Old Trafford, and was away for the weekend. When he came back, I asked if England had won, which he found very amusing. “It’s not finished yet,” he told me with a smile, evidently hoping to provoke curiosity. However, I was just too bamboozled, so much so that the moment would linger with me into adulthood. It was utterly inconceivable to methat a game could be played for days without even threatening to reach a conclusion.
Football, at that time, was the centre of my world. Football, so determined to reach a conclusion that it had penalty shoot-outs, golden goals and sudden death. Cricket, in light of that, made absolutely no sense.
I remained contentedly uninterested in cricket for the next eight years, until the summer of 2005. The famous summer of 2005, which to an England cricket fan means as much as 1966 does to a football fan. We all know what happened- The Ashes. The most famous and viciously contested prize in all of cricket, unusual in that only Australia and England compete.
Every 18 and 30 months, a touring team goes out with the hope of embarrassing their respective antipodean rivals. Since 1989, Australia had been the ones doing all the embarrassing. But in 2005, something changed.
The Australians went into the 2005 series boastfully predicting a 5-0 series whitewash, and indeed came away with the first Test. However, the second test was a different story. England won the match by just two runs, the smallest margin in Ashes history. Far from being the drubbing the Australians had predicted, the 2005 Ashes was that most glorious of things- a competition.
When the third test was drawn thanks to standard English weather, it looked like the 2005 Ashes series was due to go down to the wire. The nation was wracked by “Ashes fever”; I remained unmoved. Unfortunately, the story of how I came to love cricket does not have a happy beginning at all. My second cousins and I were due to go on holiday when my dad’s cousin, their father and uncle, died. As you might expect, this rather muted our summer break, where we would usually have been chatting and playing games, we found we had little to talk about.
On went the radio. I suppose my grandmother, or my uncle, must have been interested, but I think it was very much a way of masking our quiet, unexpressed, childish grief. The Fourth Test at Trent Bridge became the background to what would end up being the last holiday we took together as children. So many of the tests that summer are talked about with hushed tones; if it hadn’t been plying third fiddle to the Edgebaston and Lord’s tests, Trent Bridge would have been a real jewel.
The way I remember the fourth test is by the way of snippets of the final day’s play, snatched as I sporadically came into the house from the garden. England had been left just 129 to chase, and it was the first sense that the Ashes could actually be won. When Trescothick started ferociously, England dared to dream.
This of course, nearly killed the dream. Wickets started to fall quickly; the English believe so patriotically in their own continual failures that winning chances unsettle them. I remember it was sort of excruciating, hoping we could chalk up a few more runs before crumbling, and finally, we did so.
England were 2-1 up, and could not lose the series. The rest is indeed history.
I still proceeded not to care about cricket, only this time, with a niggling undercurrent of wishing I cared about cricket. The following Ashes series “down under” had been lost catastrophically 5-0, and it all seemed a bit like business-as-usual. England were crap again.
In the summer of 2009, however, I had a soul-sucking job in a grey-walled office, and remembering the glorious summer of 2005, I plugged in my headphones and listened to the institution that is Test Match Special. It’s got an English schoolboy charm, with Aggers, Tuffers, Blowers etc. telling you about pretty much everything but the cricket. It was a diversion from the monotony of sitting at my desk 9-to-5. If I hadn’t had cricket that summer, I would have spent my weeks drinking endless cups of tea and going to the toilet just for something to do.
I listened to the whimsical chatter as they spent a good 20 minutes describing cake on the radio, a delightful quirk of the format. Cake, being silent, delicious and frequently ornamental, is not suitable for radio, and yet the Test Match Special team have been devoting themselves to describing cake for 35 years.
Finally, after years of trying, I understood cricket. Yes, I liked to keep track of who fielded where, run rates, batting averages and other delightfully detailed statistics. But cricket isn’t something that can be explained away by a series of numbers. There’s a reason it goes on for so long- it isn’t supposed to settle a score, it’s to pass the time. It’s about long, lazy summers, a cold drink and excellent company, watching white-clad figures work their art on a crisp green canvas.
I don’t think I’ve explained why I love cricket very well. I don’t think I ever could. There’s just something about it that captures the spirit of summer, keeps it crystalline and pure, and when faced with the horrors of modernity, I think I need it sometimes.
Long live cricket.