A requiem for cricket elegies

In the summer of 2009, the great sports writer Duncan Hamilton toured a variety of cricket grounds around the country so that he could pay witness to what he feared was an endangered pastime. Like an anthropologist rushing to record field notes on the rites and rituals of a vanishing tribe, he observed the sport’s patricians at Test venues like Lord’s and Edgbaston, artisans in the Thwaites Lancashire League at Acre Bottom and laborers in the Southern Electric League Division Two at Ridge Meadow, the cradle of English cricket.

The result was A Last English Summer, a beautifully wrought love letter to cricket’s roots and rhythms, its quirks and characters. But, as the title suggests, the book is infused with a sense of despondency. Hamilton was concerned that central contracts would usurp the County Championship and technology would undermine the authority of umpires. Most of all he fretted that the birth of Twenty20 would alter “the contours of the whole summer” and that “the traditional weave of the game [was] being unpicked and rearranged for the modern global age”.

A similar ball of pessimism was hanging over cricket at the start of the season just ended. England had won only one of their previous 17 Tests. They had been humiliated four-nil in the Ashes and further humbled in the West Indies. The management team was dismissed, Joe Root stood down as captain and Sir Andrew Strauss was commissioned to write up yet another high performance review for the ECB to figure out what ails the red-ball version of the sport in this country so.

Some how we managed to finish the summer back where we began. Strauss published his review of him and the rancour resurfaced. The counties are up in arms about the possibility of playing one or two fewer four-day games a season. The Hundred, despite helping the sport reach new fans and providing women’s cricket with much-needed oxygen, is threatening to burst an already overstuffed calendar. There’s growing concern top players will become traveling troubadours performing for which ever global franchise happens to have set up its big tent that week. Perhaps the DNA of all cricket supporters is, as an author once described that of parents, constructed from a double helix of love and worry.

Perhaps it has always been like this. One of the stops on Hamilton’s 2009 cricketing odyssey was the Cheltenham Festival where he came across a second-hand book stall selling old issues of cricketing magazines. Some of these had been published in 1969 when Lord’s launched the 40-over Sunday Players’ League. In their editorials and letters pages the new format is sneeringly described as “pop age cricket” and “biff-bang”, which will “grievously harm the health and wellbeing of sacred Tests and the foundation of the County Championship”.

Hamilton is easily self-aware enough to spot the echoes. He realizes the inability of critics in the 1960s to appreciate the merits of limited-overs cricket, which inculcated his own infatuation with the game, “exactly reflects my own opinion of Twenty20 as the devil incarnate”. In reality the 40-overs game “no more killed cricket than the typewriter killed the fountain pen”. “So perhaps I am wrong too,” considers Hamilton, to his immense credit from him, before adding: “It’s proof, though, that we are always waiting for the worst to happen.”

This summer the worst didn’t happen. In fact, quite the contrary. England won six of their seven Test matches, a feat they hadn’t achieved since 2004. And they didn’t just triumph, they did so with panache and a sense of fun. It was exciting, exhilarating and, above all, entertaining. We got pyrotechnics from Jonny Bairstow and age-defying wizardry from Jimmy Anderson. We got theatrics from Stuart Broad, artistry from Joe Root and Stakhanovite heroics from Ben Stokes. There were subtler plotlines too; the struggles and eventual redemption of Zak Crawley, coming-of-age tales for the two Ollies: Pope and Robinson.

It was Test cricket – but not as we knew it. The bore-draw had to be placed on the endangered species list. Run rates went through the roof. The fifth day of a Test became redundant. One half expected to see Stokes throwing his bat into the crowd at some point and roaring: “Are you not entertained?!” Yes, New Zealand, the ruling Test world champions, were past their best, India were undercooked, and South Africa brought one of their weakest-ever batting lineups to England. But all three sides had formidable bowling threats and needed to be beaten. They were crushed.

And now England are double world champions having added the T20 trophy to their ODI title with Stokes scoring his first ever international T20 fifty and the winning runs in the final at the MCG because of course he did. They don’t make a lot of whatever that boy’s got. But, while England’s well documented white ball renaissance dates back seven years to when Eoin Morgan took charge of the team, the red ball rejuvenation appears to have taken roughly seven minutes. The new coach Brendon McCullum took more or less the same bunch of players and transformed them into a totally different team. How?

McCullum’s gospel has been christened “Bazball” and characterized (or caricatured) as a hyper-aggressive style of play. It might better be viewed as a change in attitude. To misquote Bill Shankly, some people were in danger of thinking cricket was a matter of life and death; McCullum appears to have reminded the England players that it is much less serious than that. He pointed out that cricket is only a game and therefore should be fun to play and entertaining to watch. Which isn’t to say it’s not important, nor that success and failure don’t weigh heavy on the protagonists, just that – maybe – a sense of perspective wouldn’t go amiss.

In 2019, a decade after what he had billed as the last English summer, Hamilton hit the road again. This time his travels and writing by him resulted in One long and beautiful summer, which was subtitled “a short elegy for red-ball cricket”. Twenty20 had proliferated but now the coming threat was the Hundred, which its critics deemed a wholly unnecessary format, just 40 deliveries shorter than a T20 match. Again the writing is utterly sumptuous but again the title is almost comically inappropriate. How else can you explain the paradox of chapter five? In it, Hamilton tells of how he managed to buy a last-minute ticket for the fourth day of the Third Ashes Test at Headingley, which “may or may not be the greatest ever staged anywhere”. The author had once again set out to record red-ball cricket’s terminal decline and instead witnessed something approaching its apotheosis.

We are forever checking cricket’s pulse and have at times called for a priest to administer the last rites. In 1971, John Arlott wrote: “It may be true that English cricket as we know it is dying.” Perhaps. But really that portentous statement contains no more foresight than a hedged prophecy by a hackneyed fairground fortune-teller; it could just as easily be applied to almost any human endeavor at any time. Nothing that is cast in aspic can survive outside of a museum. It is entirely natural, as Hamilton writes, that we are “always measuring today against yesterday”. Yet doing so won’t prevent tomorrow from dawning.

While there is ample cause for concern about the lack of cricket on terrestrial television, the health of the County Championship and too many formats and competitions crowding each other out, perhaps we should give the red-ball game a little more credit. It survived the advent of limited-overs cricket, it has survived the proliferation of T20. If you don’t like the Hundred, just wait. Formats come and go. Test cricket endures.

It does so because it is capable of evolving. Speaking after the last domestic match of the summer at the Oval, Joe Root talked about how the Hundred had been pitched as a way to get new fans into the game. “Well, there’s no reason why Test cricket can’t do that,” he argued. “You turn up and watch Ollie Pope trying to reverse sweep a 6ft 8in bowler to win a match. I’d like to think people will want to tune in and watch that.”

Root was too polite to mention that Pope only succeeded in cannoning the ball from South African beanpole Marco Jansen into his own face. In doing so, he was attempting to follow the lead of Root, who generated slack-jawed astonishment by reverse scooping Kiwi bowler Neil Wagner for six at Trent Bridge earlier in the summer. Root later talked about rewriting the coaching manual. His reverse scoop – marrying preternatural talent, innovation and risk management – ​​deserves its own chapter. If ever a shot spoke of a team’s revitalized philosophy and the ability of sport to reinvent itself, here it was in all its outrageous glory.

No-one in the England set up was quicker to embrace that Bazball revolution than Root’s successor as Test captain, Ben Stokes, perhaps because no one already had a greater appreciation of the need for perspective. The new skipper was named man of the match for the Old Trafford Test against South Africa after scoring a hundred and then bowling a 14-over spell with the old ball that all but secured the game. The following day his documentary Phoenix from the Ashes was released on Amazon Prime.

The highs and lows of Stokes’s career and personal life have charted the mother-of-all sine curves through the years. There is a moment in the film which combines the zenith (that 2019 Ashes innings at Headingley which Hamilton witnessed) with the nadir (the death of his father Gerard). It is an extraordinary bit of filmmaking. We watch Stokes side on from the covers. The murmur of the crowd is muffled as if we’re being invited inside the head of a player who is ignoring all irrelevant stimuli in order to focus wholly on the ball being flung at him.

Against the muted background burble, Ged provides the voiceover: “He can do it when he needs to. Thats the difference between good and great.” The slo-mo images then show his son smearing a rank long hop from Pat Cummins through the covers for four to win the Test. Into the moment between the realization of what he has done appearing in Ben’s eyes and the Western Stand erupting in a pyrotechnic spray of lager and unbridled euphoria, Ged speaks again: “That will be the proudest moment of my life.”

It’s so elegantly done that it takes you a moment to notice the odd tense. Why did Ged say “will be” and not “was”? Perhaps because he had terminal brain cancer, he was anticipating the end and knew there was no time left for anything to eclipse that extraordinary 135 not out in the Yorkshire sunshine. There will be better knocks. Everything is eventually surpassed. The new wonders may even be performed by his son di lui. But Ged Stokes won’t witness them. Because that’s the reality, isn’t it? It’s not cricket that’s dying; it’s us.

Send not to know for whom Father Time removes the bails. We live our lives in real time. But, viewed with a little perspective, we are more like fixed waypoints than part of the current. And, truth be told, our opinions and proclivities tend to fossilize long before our bones. We need to ask, therefore, whether, when we rage against the changes that cricket must inevitably make, we are, on some level, actually raging against the dying of the light.

To move on, cricket must alter from the exact form it took at that liminal moment when we first fell in love with the sport. That’s how it will, hopefully along with as many of our other loves as possible, survive us. There is, of course, a sadness in this realization but also, if you’re open to it, some measure of comfort.

Ben Wright is a co-host of the Telegraph’s Vaughany & Tuffers Cricket Club podcast

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