Parting Has Been Such Sweet Sorrow

We have a pulse.

We’ve not written much during lockdown, and while I can’t speak for the others, in my own case it’s really because I haven’t had anything to say.  Other matters have been vastly more important, whether in health terms or concerns over income.  Sure, it would have been easy enough to write a series of Ten Best articles, but I didn’t especially care and couldn’t be bothered.  The lockdown was in more ways than one, and for someone like me, working in the travel and tourism sector, the existential crisis of an entire industry has been on my mind throughout.

Set against the reality of no income for several months, the issues around cricket didn’t particularly push me to want to write about them.  Or to put it bluntly, I didn’t really give a shit.  That’s not to take issue for a second with those who did, or those who were vocal throughout, for everyone had their own specific urgent needs and continue to do so, but it is to explain a general lack of interest in those subjects that mattered to some more than others.  It’s true right across the board, and I’m sufficiently self-aware to perfectly understand that the disaster facing my own work environment is of minimal interest to the vast majority – they have their own concerns.

But cricket is back, both recreational and in Test terms.  It’s not ideal, there are limitations, but that it is back at all is the most important thing.  There was never any prospect of a sudden return to normality, so the baby steps are essential in that road of return.  From Wednesday, we will have the start of the England – West Indies Test series, and recognition should be made of the willingness of the visitors this summer, the West Indies and Pakistan, to come to England and play.  Right now it might seem routine enough, particularly when something like the Premier League is being played, but at the time the decision to come was made, that wasn’t at all the case.  The ECB has been a long way from being a supportive partner of the less financially stable cricketing nations, and there is no excuse now should they fail to improve over the coming years.  I remain highly sceptical they will be anything other than the self-interested, venal organisation they have been for quite some time.  But we shall see.

For the clubs, the ability to offer at least some portion of a season was vital.  Amateur cricket has been in dire straits for many years, not helped by the patronising discourse from above that tends to assume the recreational game is run by clueless fools who sit and wait for largesse from on high and are unaware of grassroots challenges, but the loss of players who would have moved on to other activities would have been crippling to a level that was unsustainable.  The sport faces immense challenges anyway, this additional one will undoubtedly have pushed many over the edge, reflecting the wider societal and industrial crisis to come.  But at least it will save many – the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

It is for that reason that the restrictions on players in the Tests matter so little to me.  Saliva on the ball, being unable to celebrate a wicket properly, the absence of spectators – it just isn’t important.  What is, is getting a game on at all, the normality and routine of being able to have the sport played in any kind of way.  Sure, objectively and in isolation, it all matters, especially the lack of spectators, whether that be cricket or football.  Taking the latter, it’s been said often enough in recent weeks that football is nothing without fans, and it’s nearly true.  But football without fans is the only football anyone is going to get right now.  Cricket without fans is the only cricket anyone is going to get.  And ultimately it comes down to that choice, whether to have it played and rail against the limitations that creates, or not have it at all.  Personally, I’ll go with it.

It is also behind the odd, but entirely understandable focus on team selection, conditions and the outcome of the game itself.  Whether Jos Buttler is indeed the right wicketkeeper or whether the peculiarly disfavoured Ben Foakes ran over Ed Smith’s cat at any point in the last couple of years is a topic that can be debated at length and in detail.  It is a parallel world where we all try to convince ourselves that these things are of critical importance.  Journalists, often also without income over these last months, have fallen over themselves to produce copy about the minutiae of selection, the opposition, and anything tangentially related to the match, the tour and cricket itself.  I don’t blame them in any way, I thoroughly welcome it;  it is a blessed relief for all they are able to do so, and they have no choice anyway if they want to be able to put food on the table.

So I don’t care.  I don’t care about who is playing and who isn’t.  I don’t care about the fact the crowds aren’t there.  I don’t care about how the players will be able to shine the ball sufficiently or whether it will mean reverse swing is more or less of an issue.  I don’t care who wins, I don’t care who loses; who scores runs and who takes wickets.  It just doesn’t matter in the slightest.

I do care it’s back.  I do care that we are making tentative steps to getting back to normal.  And whatever happens, whoever succeeds or fails, I thoroughly welcome the return of the game of cricket.  Sport is the most important least important thing there is, and while the last few months have reminded us how unimportant it is, Wednesday morning will remind us that it still matters.