People play cricket. People watch cricket. People read about cricket and people write about cricket.
But this is rarely all there is to people’s relationships with the game. Simply doing these things is not enough; cricket compels you to live it, to feel it and to think about it in ways most games don’t. No other sport provokes the same range of emotional resonances.
In 2016, blogs, in their range of styles and moods, reflected the responses to cricket of people with backgrounds and experiences of the game as diverse as the design and content of those blogs.
From Pembrokeshire, on the wild western fringes of the British game, Rick Walton’s blog (cricketmanwales.com), reflects, in an urgent and compelling style that is one part Christian Ryan to three parts Simon Barnes, on his experiences as a coach for Cricket Wales and the game’s role as a catalyst for personal development. Walton began 2016 captivated by England’s performance at Newlands and what it said about the intrinsic value of Test cricket, before, as the year wore on, deconstructing the essence of the retiring Brendon McCullum, revelling in the World T20 and the denouement of the County Championship, and outlining the transformative power of the discovery of cricket on the life of a west Walian boy called Dylan.
On McCullum, Walton had this to say:
‘When Brendon connects, things fly. Our spirits have, the ball has. Though he has not gone, we should hoist him shoulder high; he’s special, we needed him, he enriched us all. Whenever games get dull, or challenges remain unmet, or situations bleak, let’s remember him, eh?’.
Patrick Medhurst-Feeney’s blog The Crippled Cricketer (thecrippledcricketer.wordpress.com) testifies to the redemptive power of cricket. Medhurst-Feeney plays most of his cricket for a Devon village club called Yelverton Bohemians, but his time away from the game is spent confronting the physical and psychological demons that are the legacy of time spent as a serving soldier in Afghanistan. Medhurst-Feeney’s long posts reflect the difficulties faced by many ex-service personnel throughout the world. In his case though, exposure to cricket and its ways is helping to ease the pain. This is cricket as salvation.
As Walton and Medhurst-Feeney illustrate, cricket can be fun, cricket can be inspiring, cricket can be enriching and cricket can change lives. Those of us who have followed the game since our childhood know this. But for others there is joy to be drawn from the loss of connection with cricket and its rediscovery.
Nick Brown, at Notes from a Cricket Novice (notesfromacricketnovice.wordpress.com), spent the summer of 2016 reacquainting himself with cricket, although he had never watched the game live before, only on television in the distant days when it was broadcast by the BBC. The result was a richly observant travelogue of his journey through county cricket; mostly the sights and sounds of Old Trafford as Lancashire strove to stay in Division One, but also sleet at Edgbaston, rain at Lord’s and blazing sun at Colwyn Bay, with side orders of football and punk rock. Before the year was out, Brown was at the WACA in Perth as Australia succumbed to South Africa; a reminder of how, when cricket gets to you, it really gets to you.
Further evidence of this was provided by Nick Slough (newcrimsonrambler.wordpress.com), who filled his boots with East Midlands cricket and commented on it with a ripe seam of ironic observation. From early season crowds at Trent Bridge (‘cricket crowds are hardy organisms who, like lichen, can thrive in apparently inhospitable terrain’) to a late season visit to Grace Road by an ECB delegation, via the rise of Ben Duckett and the glorious autumn of Marcus Trescothick’s career, to read Slough is to experience the perpetually threatened world of county cricket in all its understated glory.
Subash Jayaraman declared the innings of his innovative Couch Talk podcast closed in 2016, but his chief contribution to the dialogue of the blogosphere lay in exposing the plagiarism of Ed Smith, one of whose columns for ESPN Cricinfo bore a strong resemblance to one previously published in The Economist. This served to illustrate the way in which amateur observers, with sufficient confidence and determination, can boldly go where those in the mainstream – for reasons of loyalty, friendship and employment – may fear to tread.
As this demonstrates, the main strength of blogs remains the opportunity they offer to anyone to write whatever they want, without the need to bow to an editor, a newspaper proprietor, or the commercial exigencies of a changing media environment. In the context of cricket they offer a platform to all kinds of people, with all kinds of relationships with the game and all kinds of things to say.
The majority, though, are not people who know what it is to earn their living through the game, or to feel the ability to do so slipping through their fingers. The nature of blogging – time-consuming and invariably unpaid – means that bloggers regularly fall by the wayside, but as the 2017 English season begins, most of the writers featured here will be doing what they have always done because they choose to, and nobody has the power to stop them.
For players, things are different. In 2016, Alex Gidman, a cricketer with a long and distinguished career with Gloucestershire behind him, posted a series of raw and searingly honest extracts from a contemporaneous diary of the 2015 season at A Sportsman’s Transition (sportingtransition.co.uk). Having left his original county for Worcestershire, Gidman found his career unravelling in the face of injuries and declining form. By the end of the season, at 34, his time in the game was up, but for all that Gidman knows what it is to leave first-class fields with applause ringing in his ears, the world of the ghosted autobiography deal was never going to be within his grasp. Blogging gave him the chance to tell his story.
As Gidman’s tale shows, there is always sadness and regret in cricket’s emotional landscape. In 2016, the saddest story of all was the premature retirement of James Taylor, because of a heart condition. As Chris Smith (chrispscricket.wordpress.com) wrote, Taylor ‘will now be deprived of the heightened experience of cricket played at its most intense: duelling with fast bowlers, challenging fielders with aggressive running and steeling himself not to flinch when crouched close at short-leg’. The way in which Taylor coped with this was as moving as it was inspirational.
The depth of people’s relationships with cricket has always given rise to great writing. The work of the greats, from Cardus to Ross to Haigh and beyond, owes itself to this. The Web – sometimes for good, often for ill – has democratised the dissemination and distribution of opinion, and this has been vital in the growth of writing about cricket by people who are not employed to do so. The changing nature of media consumption has opened up space in cricket’s global chatroom for writing that touches on wider themes; of atmosphere, of technique, of the politics of selection, of discovery and of loss.
Writing about cricket is a way of making sense of a complex and infatuating game; the world’s bloggers continue to do this very well.
Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, 2017