Paradise (Not Quite) Regained – By Maxie Allen

I’ll get straight to it. Full disclosure. I’ve stopped hating England. I no longer support their opponents. Over the course of this summer, I even found myself wanting them to win, and was glad when they did.

At the grave risk of sounding self-regarding, I’ll quickly remind you of the backstory. I wrote a piece for this site a couple of years ago explaining my contempt for the England cricket team and why I both exulted in their defeats and cheered on their opposition. That was the position I’d found myself in after three decades of loyal support. It was because of Things That Happened in 2014 – which left me angry, alienated, and betrayed.

And then all of a sudden, early this summer, and after five years of that alienation, I began to feel differently. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Nor was it because of a specific performance, or player, or passage of play. It was before any of 2019’s standout stories unfolded. There was no fairy-tale epiphany after watching Stokes or Archer. It crept up on me. It was something I noticed and then realised must have been there for a while, like hair-loss or a suspicious lump.

What I do know is it began with the World Cup, even though I’ve never been wildly interested in white-ball cricket. But it wasn’t because of England winning the world cup. Success, in itself, didn’t win me round and never has done. No, it was because of England trying to win the World Cup. The distinction is important. England had lost three times in the final but never won the tournament. They were at home. They were favourites. Would they fulfil their elusive destiny? It was a good story. And that story slowly but inexorably reeled me in.

The thing I’ve always loved most about cricket is its narrative arcs. The twists and turns. The sub-plots. The drama with an unwritten script. And England’s World Cup campaign crafted itself into a narrative I found too seductive to quite resist. They started brightly, messed up, bounced back, and, well, you know the rest, but the point is, I began to sense I had personal equity in the outcome.

I found myself going out of my way to watch the final group games against India and New Zealand. I was on a family holiday abroad, but managed to get an iPad to hook up to Sky Go by the pool. I couldn’t face missing the games. What startled me – maybe even disappointed me – was that I realised I wanted England to win. I feared them losing. A feeling I hadn’t experienced for five years.

It was an unsavoury sensation, and hard to come to terms with. I didn’t want to want England to win, because I’d hated them so much, and for good reason. But there it was. And then came the final, with one of the greatest narratives of all, and when Buttler broke the stumps from Roy’s throw and I could see Guptill hadn’t made his ground, I yelled and screamed and leapt around the room. Which I almost felt ashamed of doing.

I suppose I’d never felt quite as much contempt for England’s white-ball side as their Test counterparts. They felt vaguely like a separate entity and less tarnished by what happened five years ago. So the ODI team were the soft underbelly of my enmity, a gateway drug which led me into the hard stuff. Because when the Ashes began a fortnight or so later, I still found myself not hating England. Found myself sucked into the narratives of the Edgbaston test. Found myself at the mercy of their fluctuating fortunes and having to admit to myself that I wanted them, not Australia, to prevail.

This persisted and consolidated itself through the course of the series. I was disappointed by their setbacks, pleased at their comebacks. Again, it was unconscious, and again, it wasn’t because of individual flashpoints. I didn’t warm to England because of good things the team did, because it wasn’t bad things the team itself had ever done which had put me off them in the first place. I had spent thirty years watching England lose and that had never made any difference then.

I categorically did not return to England because of Stokes and Headingley. But that match did have a significance. I spent the Saturday afternoon on parental duties at a splash park, but found myself compulsively checking my phone to monitor the Root-Denly partnership. I slipped back into my superstitious habits of old, such as deliberately not watching or checking for fear of triggering an England wicket.

When Stokes got England within fifty, I stopped looking at the score, for that specific reason, and just hoped my phone wouldn’t buzz with the dreaded wicket notification. When I caved in, checked, and saw just eight were needed, only then did I actually start watching again. Those reawakened neuroses, once more. A year ago I would have been enraged by England stealing an outrageous victory. But there I was, feeling the exact opposite. And at that moment, I knew that this was the way things were going to be. I had to give up the fight and accept that I wanted England to win again.

All of which is a bit like a Celtic fan waking up and thinking “You know what, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Rangers”. It was the reluctant acceptance of something I didn’t want and felt uncomfortable with. But the only alternative would be to force myself to hate England and pretend I still wanted them to lose, which even for me seemed a bit silly.

So what happened? I’ve already mentioned the stories, and the power of those. When the Tests began, the fact it was an Ashes series played a part. The history and heritage – the unique magic of the urn – proved seductive. More broadly, the sheer heft of my previous life as an England supporter exerted its gravitational pull. Perhaps it was inevitable that in the fullness of time that thirty years of good things would outweigh one year of very bad things.

The biggest factor, though, is that Alastair Cook has gone. That may sound petty and vindictive and bitter, but I don’t care. I would always hate England when he was in the side, captain or not. With Strauss also departed – for tragic reasons of course, but the fact remains that he left – virtually none of the culprits survive apart from Graves. The absence of Anderson also helped. Here was a new and relatively blameless generation.

Some things will never be as they once were. I can’t imagine supporting England in a patriotic way, if that makes sense. Supporting England purely because they’re England and I’m English and the other side happen to be from abroad. I still think of England as ‘they’ or ‘them’, not ‘we’ and ‘us’, and I doubt that will change.

I’ll never be remotely jingoistic about England, as I was before, or take pleasure in mocking and taunting their opponents, as I once did. Neither will I revel in an opponent’s failure or humiliation, or begrudge them success when deserved. I won’t hope that an opposition player will fail or embarrass themselves just for the sake of it. The last few years have taught me how ridiculous those attitudes really are. This summer, I enjoyed watching Josh Hazlewood bowl and admired Steve Smith for his achievements. In the past I would have loathed both those things.

I will never forget or accept what happened in 2014, because nothing has changed, or forgive those responsible, because they have no desire to be forgiven. That includes not just the administrators but also the large number of England supporters who displayed such ingratitude, ignorance and bigotry – and it was those “fans” who alienated me almost as much as anything else.

What I have done is something all my friends have told me to do for years, which is to suspend disbelief and separate, by a few degrees at least, the cricketers on the field from the governing body in whose name they play. Many splendid cricketing things have happened in England this year, and not one of them happened because of the ECB and how they operate. Whatever is good about English cricket is good despite them, not because of them.

And this is how I reconcile myself with a softening attitude to England. For five years I thought supporting England meant supporting the ECB. I saw it as an act of capitulation. I was wrong. It’s an act of defiance. I hated England because they’re the ECB’s team. I was wrong again. The ECB only claim it’s their team and to play along is to give them what they most want: ownership. And validation of their proprietorial sense of entitlement. They can degrade professional cricket, trash the fixture list, bully supporters, and lock cricket behind a paywall, but one thing they cannot do, however much the ECB crave it, is to steal the team or steal the game. They belong to everyone.

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