In this part of the world, and for a certain category of person, April is a special time. The arrival of spring in itself can warm the soul as well the skin; the profusion of life, the sound of birdsong and the explosion of colour signifies new beginnings. Yet for some, a small collective, it suggests something rather more.
Across the world, the dates may change, and the climate may be very different, but the principle is identical, and the approach of the cricket season brings out the same mentality and activity wherever it may be. For those who care start to get ready. That might include players, who went to indoor nets in January and February, but it also includes all those who do the legwork, who prepare the fixture lists, who seed the grass on the ground, who put up the outdoor nets, who re-wire the pavilion or remove the mildew from the showers. Those who spend the first part of the month repainting the picket fence outside the pavilion, or who have silently spent the winter ensure the square is ready – year in, year out. Who go on courses to learn how to do it better, who wince every time the ball bounces badly.
When April itself arrives the same group of people then plan the coaching evenings for the kids, in full awareness that many parents regard this as free babysitting, and they do so on the off chance that one in twenty of the children who turn up may fall in love with the game and therefore could go on to be a playing member for the next thirty years. They do this even though if that player becomes exceptionally good, they will leave and go somewhere else to play a higher standard. Possibly and potentially, that might include the county programmes, meaning that all their hard work goes not to their club, but to the wider game. They will joke that what they really want is a good young player who isn’t very bright, who won’t go to university and who will stay in the area. But they know they will, and they know they will lose them. But they pay it forward, in the hope their club will benefit from the hard work someone else put in somewhere else. The circle of mutual support is a wide one.
And then there are those who have had their cricketing career, who captain the Sunday 2nd XI, batting at number nine and standing at slip, not enjoying their lack of contribution, frustrated at their waning powers, but deeply aware it was done for them in their youth. They get little thanks for it, and may well be dead before the 40 year old they introduced to the sport thirty years earlier fully realises what he did for them, who then laments that they never told him quite how important to their life he was. It was a he, mostly, but in decades to come it will be many a she too. It already is.
Or there are those who despite their full awareness of the affectionate contempt in which the players hold them still volunteer to do the scoring, a thankless, dull task at the best of times, hated by most, loved by a very few. They may have no cricketing ability at all, but choose to be involved and choose to help out. Perhaps instead they go on an umpiring course, to give up their weekends to annoy players by being human and getting a decision wrong. Come September those same people will compile the annual reports, with statistics, averages and club records.
A further subset go and watch a county match, aware of their small band of fellow travellers with whom they are often on first name terms, despite little in common but a shared passion for a game that passes most of the public by. They go when the weather is cold and grey, and they go – and are joined by a few others – when it is warm and sunny and the appeal of a cold pint with appropriate on field background entertainment is available – the crack of ball on bat, the cries of fielders as they appeal for a decision to another who has given up a substantial proportion of their life to give back to the game they were brought up with, and who are able to make a modest living from doing so.
For five and a bit months across the country, this pattern prevails. Some make the teas, traditionally they are tea ladies, more recently not so much. Many will have little interest or concern, but will drive past a village green filled with cricketers and know that a traditional element of their national character is being played out in front of them. Like Morris Dancing, they may not wish to be part of it themselves, they may even sneer at those who do it, but it is a precious part of national consciousness. John Major was laughed at for his references to it, but as definitions of a desired national character go, there are many worse that could be chosen.
Each week the same group, always a small number of people in any club, go through the same process. They prepare, they work, they give up their time for no other reason than a deep seated love for a sport. Even within their own organisation there aren’t enough of them, they do several jobs not just one. Sometimes they may get frustrated at the lack of respect they get for the contribution they make, but they do so not for fame or fortune and not for recognition, but because it needs to be done and if they don’t do it, then who will?
The rarefied atmosphere of the highest level of any sport is a world away from the day to day that makes up virtually all of the game. Yet professional sport relies on the amateur to a far greater extent than the other way around, even though they both need the other for it to flourish. But take away professional cricket, and the game would survive. Take away amateur cricket and there is simply no game at all, which is why the dismissive behaviour towards it remains one of the more despicable attitudes pervading the corridors of power. They deny it, but all involved know it is there – the ECB won’t even give the “recreational game” as they put it, elected representation to their organisation. That is the reason this band of brothers and sisters quietly get on with things, with little help, and less interest from above.
These people do it all. They are the backbone without whom nothing, nothing at all, would exist. They are a minority within a minority, they provide everything and in return get little except perhaps personal satisfaction for making a contribution to society. They are denied the right to even see their chosen sport at the top level without paying again for the privilege, they are belittled and even laughed at. Decisions are taken that make their lives just that little bit harder, and their response is to give even more time, and make even greater efforts, for no reason other than they feel it is the right thing to do, and that it matters.
Cricket is a sport first and foremost. It isn’t a business, and it isn’t the opportunity to make vast amounts of money. That may be a by product for a chosen few, but it is not the driver, it is not the raison d’etre, and those who behave as though it is should be ashamed. Those who allow it to happen should be even more ashamed, for they could speak up yet do not do so. They betray the work done across the country, across the world, to provide a background for all those who care little for their efforts to exploit.
These are the obsessives. The fanatics who move heaven and earth to ensure there is something for successive generations to complain about. They do it in many different ways, from the park in the city centre to the village Common. They support, morally and financially, all rungs of the game, and they provide the base interest that in turn creates the next level, be it County Championship, T20 or 50 over.
Yes, Mr Harrison, they are obsessives. Every single one of them. And you should get down on your knees and thank them for their very existence. And so should we all.