In Praise of the Rain Delay

The recent sad passing of Bev Congdon caused the usual moment of reflection to note the loss of a cricketer who had graced the game in years past.  As is always the case, whether a player is familiar to the cricket follower depends on their age, and in my case I am too young to have remembered him playing.  And yet his is a name that’s familiar to me, from growing up and getting into the game of cricket.  Curiously, despite him being retired before I did so, I did see him play, but only through the medium of the series highlights played when it was raining.

Of course, in those days there was no internet, no immediate and obvious means of recognising what had happened in past series, and as much as anything else, the selection of a summer of cricket places on standby in case of rain, provided an education on the game and those who played it.  They tended to be from the 1970s, although occasionally they did go earlier, which I would initially object to, as it was transparently old to the intolerantly youthful.

To my young eyes, these were new players mostly – names introduced in small chunks across a particular Test series, and having no knowledge of the outcome, it was fascinating viewing.  Some elements were endlessly surprising, such as discovering that Dennis Lillee had been around for an awfully long time, some openly puzzling – Dale Hadlee can’t be Richard’s father surely? Oh, they’ve mentioned someone called Walter – ensuring much close attention to try and work out the strands of family relationships, or those who looked terribly young on these replays, and gnarled and grizzled in the live match currently suffering from wet weather.

Equally, some entire careers could be seen in fast forward, yet still without being able to place them in full context.  Graham Roope looked an exceptional cricketer to me in these highlight reels, and youthful confusion that no one ever talked about him wrestled with disappointment when his five minute long innings of about 70 would come to an end.

Occasionally, they went further back, and instead of 25 minute highlights of a given day, it would be the story of a series, invariably narrated by John Arlott – another mysterious name mentioned on occasion, but who I’d missed entirely.  From being grumpy at seeing black and white pictures, or film rather than video, those tones would draw me in.  Oblivious that it was a particular skill of his anyway, the storytelling of cricket was utterly beguiling, and the disappointment of an England defeat in a Test series long since finished was palpable.

If the highlights were memorable, so too were the studio discussions.  For the young nowadays, a David Gower or Ian Botham will be every much a part of the distant past to them as Jim Laker or Tom Graveney was to me – the longevity of Richie Benaud always placed him in a slightly different category – and the premature death of Laker in particular upset my young self significantly.  Those discussions around cricket, followed by a tape of some long forgotten Test match, meant that rain was only a mild irritation, certainly compared to the annoyance of my sister who was aghast at my fascination with watching someone called Edrich score runs from a decade earlier.

There is always the temptation to assign particularly fond childhood memories like this to nostalgia, but cricket does lend itself it to endless discussion more than some other sports; the long form of the game has its own cadences and rhythms that make even arcane enforced conversation feel a part of the process, rather than an interruption to the event.  And while the shift to pay TV has meant that satellite broadcasters either have no desire or no budget to buy in long gone highlights from 40 years ago, perhaps for this generation’s child watching the 2005 Ashes for the first time, the same emotions are stirred.

Certainly it isn’t purely a nostalgic thing anyway.  A few years ago in a series I can’t remember, between New Zealand and someone else, the morning rain inadvertently produced truly riveting late night television for the cricketing tragic.  If a line up in the studio of Charles Colville, Dominic Cork and Mark Butcher perhaps doesn’t press every button for many, then this would prove to be a joyful surprise.  Colville in particular is vastly better as a presenter than a commentator, with the rare and underappreciated skill of knowing when to shut up and let his guests talk.  And that’s what Cork and Butcher did – a wide ranging, sometimes serious and sometimes not debate on the game, memories and friends and colleagues.  As it went deep into the night, the viewing audience must have been miniscule, for Sky barely even bothered to go to an advertising break.  But for those who were watching and listening, it was a rare treat – two people chatting in depth about the game, with a skilled interviewer occasionally interjecting to ask a relevant question.  Want to know how wonderful that was?  The following night I tuned in, and was disappointed to learn the weather in New Zealand was sunny.

Equally, Sky now have a decent library of their Masterclass series, and it rarely gets dull to watch a special player demonstrate their skills – the skills of their minds as much as anything else; while listeners to TMS often actively look forward to hearing the rain fall given that radio is unsurpassed when it comes to the beauty of the unscheduled random conversation.

There can be few if any other sports where bad weather can prevent play, yet where aficionados are only mildly put out, taking the opportunity to drink in the game past and present.  It might even be said to be a formative experience, for it can sometimes most closely echo the experience of many a young cricketer sat listening to the old players in his (and now her) local club, absorbing everything that is said, and hoping they don’t notice him sat listening to every word.  They do of course, and they remember doing the same.

I can think of no other way I could have become so steeped in cricket history so quickly.  And the next generation have the same experience for those who to me were familiar.  It is a priceless introduction, and why above all else, cricket is a sport where sometimes it really doesn’t matter if the weather is bad.

Let it rain.

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