Cricket has too often been felt to occupy a rarefied vantage point from which to observe the moral failings of the wider world; the romanticised arbiter of a kind of fair play which, if it ever existed at all, went out with the Ark.
The events of 2018 provided a salutary – if largely unnecessary – reminder that, regardless of its deep attachment to a nostalgia for something that never really existed, cricket can create and embrace controversy and grubby double dealing with the worst elements of the wider political and sporting universe.
When Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft wrote the latest chapter in the sport’s long history of rule bending, Jon Hotten (theoldbatsman.blogspot.com) harked back almost forty years to Dennis Lillee throwing his aluminium bat across the WACA, and contrasted the absence of disciplinary action with the sanctions imposed on the three Australians in 2018: ‘Imagine…Warner hurling his Kaboom forty yards across the field because it wouldn’t pass through the bat gauge. The thought that he might not be banned is actually an unthinkable one: he’d be more likely to face criminal charges. This is not simply a function of changing mores and morals. It’s clear, from the Ben Stokes case and now the Sandpaper Three (or four, if we count Darren Lehmann), that the essential substance of such issues are being affected by the surrounding culture, specifically social media. The shape of them, their actual outcomes, are distorted in and by real-time’. The rights and wrongs of the original incident and the punishments received by the players were endlessly debated across both the mainstream media and its social cousin during the weeks which followed, but few had the perceptiveness to examine the broader context of what happened in the way that Hotten did, while also segueing into a discussion of the ways in which Twitter has affected his desire and capacity to write about cricket at greater length than 280 characters.
In the United Kingdom, though, the Cape Town Three weren’t the biggest issue in town.
Throughout 2018, life in the British Isles was dominated by discussion of the fraught pathway leading to the UK’s departure from the European Union in the spring of 2019, and Brexit became a looking glass through which all kinds of moral, ethical and political issues were viewed. For both supporters and opponents of Brexit, most of the actions of Theresa May and her government were flawed to one extent or another. Not to be outdone by the dubious morals and poor judgement of politicians, the ECB (the England and Wales Cricket Board not the European Central Bank) blundered into this atmosphere of simmering discontent with typical clumsiness when it proposed a new form of the game and then insisted that it would go ahead in 2020, in spite of a level of opposition which appeared far more universal than to Brexit. Brexit continued to have many advocates, but the concept of The Hundred appeared to be hated by virtually everyone.
Peter Casterton (aka Tregaskis) at Drop In Pitch (dropinpitch.wordpress.com) slipped an oblique satirical reference to the birth of Augustine of Hippo into a forensic dissection of the way in which the ECB appeared to have conceived The Hundred with a minimum of logical thought and a contemptible lack of consultation with the people who, for all the talk of encouraging new crowds, would operate at the sharp end of the new format: the players. Casterton, as did Danny Frankland at Being Outside Cricket (beingoutsidecricket.com), also rightly took aim at the condescending sexism inherent in the embarrassing interview in which Andrew Strauss sought to defend the idea from the standpoint that it would be easier for women to understand than other forms of cricket. He also exemplified the widespread doubts among people who did already like cricket its various forms; ‘The 100-ball format does not exist anywhere else in the cricketing world, which is too interested in celebrating, marketing and profiting from the exponential success of T20. The ECB may have just invented the Betamax of cricket formats when VHS cricket has already captured the market’.
In another obvious parallel with Brexit, the debate around The Hundred necessarily revolved around things which might happen in the future, but about which nobody cold be certain. Brexit might give rise to a glorious future for the nation, while The Hundred may transform cricket in England for the better. Whatever people thought, nobody knew for sure.
Something people do know for sure is that Virat Kohli is a great batsman, while Alastair Cook was, in his quiet way, a phenomenon whose long career defined an era in English cricket. Gary Naylor, at 99.94 (nestaquin.wordpress.com) paid tribute to Kohli’s masterpiece at Edgbaston: ‘In these hours we would see greatness embraced, established, underlined as Kohli fought to get himself into a match that was sliding rapidly away from the grip of his iron will…it was never easy…but the application of skill, the control of temperament and the calling upon of immense reserves of concentration got him through’. The Test series between England and India was compelling, and Jon Hotten provided a memorable image from Lord’s. Writing about Cheteshwar Pujara, Hotten wrote that he was ‘radiating innocence in his usual way. He bears the look of someone whose dad still drives him to the game while the cool kids sit together on the coach’. Whatever his mode of transport, as his century at Southampton showed, he can really bat.
While, in the days either side of Cook’s Test retirement, the professional media overflowed with tributes which bordered on the hagiographic, the response of the blogosphere was more nuanced. At The Full Toss (thefulltoss.com), where Cook was always assured of a critical reception, James Morgan wrote a superly balanced, fair and moving appreciation. Elsewhere, while acknowledging many of Cook’s virtues and achievements, Tregaskis was a goo deal harsher, and the American Matt Becker, whose return to blogging at Limited Overs (limitedovers.wordpress.com) was one of the most welcome aspects of the year, wove his memories of Cook together with recollections of his own life in typically ambitious but eloquent fashion:
‘Through it all; Cook has been there. And later this year in Sri Lanka when England’s openers walk out in the heat and haze, it won’t be Alastair Cook. It will be someone else. And that thought makes me almost intolerably sad. For me, as a cricket fan, considering where it all started, England is Cook and Cook is England. But.Now. No more. For good or bad, that’s the new reality’.
A central element of the human condition, especially during periods of disillusionment, is the desire to recall better times. In 2018, this instinct was channelled by Stephen Hope at By the Sightscreen (bythesightscreen.com). While Hope asked pertinent questions about the contemporary game, his blog was at its best when recalling summer days past at a range of seaside grounds which are no longer graced by county cricket: Clarence Park, at Weston-super-Mare, the United Services Ground at Portsmouth and Bournemouth’s Dean Park. While Hope’s writing captured the essence of outground cricket, what really made it stand out were its sepia-toned photographs. From the days when The Hundred was simply a milestone passed by batsmen, here was Viv Richards, in all his muscular majesty, batting for Somerset against Hampshire at Weston in 1978, forcing the ball through the leg side with a stroke that exists in the memory as his leitmotif. Or his West Indian confrere, Gordon Greenidge, taking the applause of the Bournemouth crowd, a thrilling John Player League century to his name.
In a year when cricket’s internal dialogue often seemed to be trying to match the chaotic state of British politics, Hope’s evocations of more stable times were something to cling on to. The game and its environment are changing rapidly, and, while a yearning for the past cannot be a solution to the challenges of the world, it can provide welcome shelter from its many storms.
Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, 2019