Antidote to Madness

This piece was written after the Lord’s Test of July 2014.  On cricket grounds – and this , in my experience, is more true at Lord’s than anywhere else – there is always the sense that you are existing outside the world and its concerns.  Nowhere else can possibly be as perfect.  And, these days, the world seems to have as many concerns as it has ever had.

When people make definitive statements about places, or about books, or about people, there is always room for doubt, for contrary opinion.

Some you take, others you leave.  Some you agree with, others you dismiss.

When people, as people often do, say that Lord’s is ‘the greatest cricket ground in the world’, I tend to agree (Although that other familiar cliché ‘the Home of Cricket’ I’m less sure about.  The Home of Cricket these days surely lies, literally or metaphorically, somewhere in India.).

I’ve been going to Lord’s since the summer when Sunny Gavaskar batted through sixty overs for 36 not out.  Today the ground, and the game, and the Indian cricket psyche, are very different.  But they still fascinate and compel.

Friday 18th July 2014 is the hottest day of the British year.  The mercury is in the low thirties – Lord’s is a Fahrenheit sort of place, you feel, but these 21st century days Celsius is king – and, in the early afternoon, with the sky a deep and bottomless shade of blue, the fading vapour trails left by soaring aircraft traverse the sky.  They, and the outside world they represent, seem abstract and separate, as they always do when cricket, even slow Test cricket, captures the attention.

The game is an antidote to the madness of the world.

Late the previous afternoon the news comes via Twitter that a civil airliner has been blown out of the sky over the Ukraine, probably by a ground-to-air missile.  Then there is Gaza, where defenceless people are killed on a daily basis.  Syria, where much the same thing has been happening for more than three years, has been temporarily relegated from the front pages, but it will, as surely as night follows day, return.  These are examples of the lunatic chaos of a world in which millions of people have more important things on their mind – simple survival will do – than the outcome of a bat and ball game.

At Lord’s, though, things are different, especially in the old Victorian pavilion and the adjacent Warner Stand.  The talk is of the lives of sons, of daughters, of former pupils, of the price of London property, which, it seems, is rising faster than the shade temperature.  In certain conversations there are deaths and serious, painful injuries, but these are the result of leisure time accidents, suffered while hiking, or skiing, or playing rugby; not of unavoidable exposure to terrorism or war.

During the hour before lunch in the Warner Stand the incessant chatter is punctuated by the sound of corks being forcibly expelled from champagne bottles.  Such is their velocity, many of these end up on the beautifully manicured turf, which can often look more like a carpet than something composed of living, growing, grass.  And, on a Sunday, when the pavilion fills with a younger class of member, with their pristine yellow passes and their sharp dress sense, the prevailing sensation for the older member is that of a friendless outsider at a public school reunion.

Lord’s, with its hotchpotch of ancient and modern buildings, is a very different place from virtually any other cricket ground in the world.  And, despite the heat, for the Indian players, brought up on the parched dustbowls of Uttar Pradesh or the cramped suburban fields of Greater Mumbai, that difference must seem especially pronounced.

But it is also welcome and inspirational.  At different points in a match which remains even and compellingly contested until lunch on the last day, we are treated to the beautiful yet combative neatness of the Mumbaikar Ajinkya Rahane, and the versatility of Uttar Pradesh’s Bhuvneshwar Kumar, a man who knows he can bowl but is finding out at international level that he also has an unsuspected gift for batting.  Ishant Sharma, a man who has always looked to have the potential to take on the world but has rarely hinted at consistency, supplies the coup de grâce.

On the English side there are only poignancies and uncertainties and regrets.  As the match hurtles to its conclusion on Monday afternoon, Matt Prior and Joe Root are both dismissed pulling the ball to deep fielders placed specifically for such errant shots.  It is a kind of collective madness, based on the confidence deficit which repeated failure to win brings, and the uncertainty of the confused mind, brought low by injury and defeat.

As he leaves the field and walks slowly through the Long Room, Prior holds his head high.  Although he surely knows, as we do, that not only has he played a poor shot but that it may be the last thing he ever does in an England shirt, he shows little remorse.  He is the old warrior leaving the stage.  Root, by contrast, can barely drag himself off the field, such is his obvious regret.  For all his runs, Root is still a young pro who has yet to learn to guard his emotions.  He wears his heart on his sleeve.

A short while later, with the game over and Alastair Cook, a drowning man clinging desperately to a sinking ship, answering Michael Atherton’s questions with the same bland assurances we have heard so often before, the eye turns to Paul Downton, standing on his own, close to the pavilion gate.  He looks around him with unfeigned seriousness, but you sense that he isn’t seeing or hearing much.

He is wondering what on earth he has got himself into.

Different Shades of Green, 22nd July 2014