It is a basic human need to seek something to hold on to in times of flux, times of change or times of crisis. As the end of this century’s second decade approaches, ever more people appear to be looking for ways to insulate themselves against the temptation to think too deeply about the way the world is going. When considering the role which cricket plays in this, it is as well not to overstate its value; it is, after all, just a sport, and one which has often been invested with a little too much moral virtue for its own good. But the fact remains that for its millions of devotees, the act of following the game, whether as player or observer, is something which can act as a conduit for many emotions, feelings and desires. A sense of belonging, of possession, of nostalgia, increasingly of loss, as cricket’s headlong evolution leads it to mutate in ways which many of its disciples don’t like.
There are many different ways of meeting these challenges, and of writing about them.
In 2017 pure nostalgia was provided by Peter Hoare’s recreation of Kent’s 1967 season fifty years on. With his montage of references to cricket and the news of the day, Hoare immersed himself and his readers in a pivotal time in his personal history and that of Kent County Cricket Club. 1967 was the year Hoare first owned a Wisden and visited Lord’s, and it also marked the start of a golden era for Kent cricket. In his post The First of the Great Days (mylifeincricketscorecards.blogspot.co.uk), he evoked the atmosphere of the St. Lawrence Ground during the Gillette Cup semi-final between Kent and Sussex in July 1967, a day which was the start of a special period both for him and his county. For one, it paved the way for eleven trophies in twelve years, for the other it was the gateway to a lifetime’s intoxication with cricket. Not all counties have such times; all true believers in the game do.
Cricket’s rich history also offers ballast against the vicissitudes of modern life. This was illustrated well by the brief return to the blogosphere of one of its finest writers, Jon Hotten, The Old Batsman (theoldbatsman.blogspot.co.uk). Hotten’s series of pieces on the psychogeography of cricket evocatively recounted the legendary exploits of David Harris, Silver Billy Beldham and Lord Frederick Beauclerk on the grounds of east Hampshire and west Surrey where he himself learned the game. Hotten both chronicled the game’s history and charted his own small place in it. In uncertain times, these things matter.
Of course, cricket cannot continue to exist in a bubble of history and nostalgia, and there is, in England anyway, an increasing awareness of the need to develop new followers. At least two regular bloggers – Chris Smith, who coaches the juniors at Sale CC in Greater Manchester, and Rick Walton, an ECB award-winning community coach in Pembrokeshire – were involved in the ECB’s latest attempt to do this, All Stars Cricket. Smith (chrispscricket,wordpress.com) pointed ironically to the ambivalence which it is possible for a devoted fan to feel, while at the same time knowing that the game he loves needs to expand its reach far beyond its increasingly exclusive confines:
‘Its ambition is substantial. It aims to make cricket the popular choice of young children and their families. And if it succeeds, cricket will be popular and my slightly eccentric obsession will be ordinary. I will be part of the mainstream’.
A central element of any devotee’s love of the game are the sights and sounds of the form of cricket with which they feel most at home. For the ever wry Nick Slough (newcrimsonrambler.wordpress.com), it is Championship cricket at Grace Road, where a bouncer flies ‘as far over Lewis Hill’s head as a lecture on Hegel…’, but the comfort of the familiar is rarely without a strong sense of wistfulness and incipient loss:
‘It has sometimes occurred to me that the ideal reader of this blog has not yet been born. This is not because, like Friedrich Nietzsche or Martin Peters, I imagine myself to be ahead of my time, but because, I hope, it may serve as a record of a way of life that, I suspect, will have long since ceased to exist.’
For Hector Cappelletti (yahooovercowcorner.wordpress.com) it is largely the game below first-class level that sustains him against the harsh winds of change. During 2017, his blog was enriched by a series of posts which paid tribute to a section of English cricket which rarely receives its due, but which those of us who know it well keep coming back to as you might to an old friend or a familiar place in times of doubt. In response to an article in The Guardian by Matthew Engel which encapsulated his disillusionment with modern cricket, Cappelletti enumerated the many virtues of Minor Counties cricket:
‘The culture of the umpire’s decision being final? No problem as there are no television cameras or DRS…the first innings is restricted to 90 overs…pitches are not rolled within an inch of their life, spin bowlers are hugely valuable assets and regularly bowl the lion’s share of overs, whilst centuries are still a reasonably rare commodity and a landmark achievement’.
However, bloggers should not retreat too meekly into the warm embrace of nostalgia and familiarity. It is possible, as Being Outside Cricket (beingoutsidecricket.com) frequently illustrates, to feel deeply uneasy about the way the game is going and to come out swinging. This was best encapsulated by the unwaveringly angry Dmitri Old’s coruscating dissection of the experience of watching a T20 Blast match at The Oval, but Chris Crampton’s wisdom and elegance, as illustrated by Community Service and his truly exceptional Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, offered a refreshing contrast to Old’s more confrontational approach. The first of these posts lauded the contribution to cricket at all levels of a certain sort of person – ‘this band of brothers and sisters’ – who ‘are the backbone without whom nothing, nothing at all, would exist’, and concludes with an appeal to ECB Chief Executive Tom Harrison to ‘thank them for their very existence’. The second touched movingly on the people, usually only appreciated with the type of lucid retrospect which middle age confers, who introduce young cricketers to the game’s ethical values, ending with an entreaty to ‘express to them what they did for you. Tell them how important they were, thank them for being who they were and what they did. Before it’s too late. Before you fervently wish you had taken just a moment to do so’.
Like life itself, cricket constantly changes. When Hector Cappelletti visited The Parks in Oxford to see the university play Surrey in late March, he watched Dominic Sibley and Zafar Ansari bat together. Before the end of the season, both had moved on: Sibley to Warwickshire, Ansari, at 25, to a new life outside the professional game.
The desire to cling to what you know is natural and understandable, but it should not be overplayed, for there is always much to admire in the way the game evolves. The wider world is a more complex and concerning place though, and a love of sport has always been an effective method of insulation against events over which there can be no control. Cricket can be a powerful antidote to madness, and while playing and watching it are central to this, as cricket’s independent writers continue to show, the value of the pen and the keyboard should never be underestimated.
Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, 2018