Roll on the Year to Come

The funny thing is that usually around this time, with a year of cricket behind us and winter tours either under way or yet to come, I write a faintly silly tale just before Christmas for those who read this blog avidly. Some would call that unreasonable and unfair punishment, but it amuses me, and there are occasionally one or two gags that make people smile. I haven’t done it this year, and in many ways that’s probably a reflection of where we are and the year we’ve all had one way or another. If there’s one thing all the group are agreed upon (and there’s not a lot, usually) it’s that we aren’t going to write stuff for the sake of it, and only when we feel like it. 2020 has been the kind of year where that motivation hasn’t been there for any of us, and not just because of the comparative lack of cricket, or even the comparative lack of cricketing controversy, it’s just that like everyone else, other, more pressing matters have been the priority.

Yet we’ve not gone away and don’t intend to either. With the arrival of a vaccine, and potentially several, there is at least hope that 2021 will be a better year, and perhaps by the time the summer season rolls around, we can go back to bickering about those things that seemed so very important this time last year.

Generating enthusiasm for the summer of cricket we did have was difficult, and that was no reflection whatever on the ECB, the teams or the players. The recent problems in South Africa have made it clear what an exceptional job the ECB did in not just putting on international cricket, but a domestic programme that managed to retain a fair degree of integrity as a competition. Friends raise eyebrows somewhat when I praise the ECB for that, but for criticism to mean anything it has to be balanced by recognition where due – and so here it is: The performance of the ECB in getting a relatively intact summer of cricket on was a truly outstanding effort from all involved, and perhaps we didn’t realise quite how exceptional that was at the time, appreciative as everyone may have been. Naturally, off the field they didn’t get everything right, and certainly those made redundant while senior staff made only a gesture of a temporary pay cut to their excessive salaries will feel annoyed at the financial priorities, but that’s par for the course for the organisation. Doing something supremely, superbly well isn’t.

The cricket too wasn’t bad, the Bob Willis Trophy (they even managed to name something to general approval and appreciation) operated well enough and had a suitably decent conclusion, while the two Test series against the West Indies and Pakistan offered up all that could possibly have been expected of them. The various T20 competitions have made it clear in the subsequent months that the stress put on the players stuck in a bubble (add that to the words and phrases we rarely used before this year – who knew we’d all have favourite epidemiologists for that matter?) is considerable. As time has gone on, that has understandably increased from those early days where perhaps the joy of playing at all managed to suspend the reality of their confinement. For as long as restrictions last, the welfare and management of the players takes on an even greater importance and urgency than has been the case before.

As for the fans, the various false starts concerning spectators allowed into the grounds in this country has lent a degree of envy and wonder in seeing it in Australia and New Zealand, but with a strong element of joy too, at seeing something we once considered so normal returning.

For the time being, disruption and difficulty is going to stay with us, but for various reasons revolving around sheer necessity, it will not last forever. It is something of an irony that the importance of bread and circuses has been shown to perhaps be less in straitened times than might have been supposed. Certainly having sport to watch is a welcome diversion, and the misery of nothing at all would be quite stark for many, but equally it doesn’t reach the heights of enjoyment in normal circumstances. Sport is needed, but sport really is nothing without fans, because they are the ones who provide the context.

It’s too much to hope that the various governing bodies will belatedly have recognised that importance, but it has answered the longstanding question about how sport would be if there weren’t any. And the answer is “not that good”. Broadcasters have felt the need to add fake crowd noise, although they too deserve credit for generally allowing the option with or without. That seems to be a perfect split – personally, I cannot stand the falseness of it, others may have different views. Have we got used to that silence? Perhaps.

And then there are the different attitudes and approaches of individuals – I cannot wait for a return to normality, to being allowed to be in a crowded bar or stadium. Others recoil at that prospect for the forseeable future – there are no right solutions, only those that feel so for the individual. But it is illustrative of the limitations we will have, that even in a perfect world, the emotions of those within it will vary.

England will, all things being equal, go to Sri Lanka and then India in the early months of next year. The chances are they too will be behind closed doors, and once again I will try to generate feelings of enthusiasm, and probably will not succeed again. I do welcome these matches and series, indeed I feel it is vitally important they happen. But I cannot, yet, get too invested in what happens to them. I have become truly outside the game of cricket looking in, and I hope that doesn’t last.

I will be writing more, as there is more to write, but that will do for now, for those who have stuck with us. Have as good a Christmas as you possibly can, and more than ever, I’d love a beer at a game with absolutely anyone who is up for it next year.