Cricket was my first love – but we’ve drifted apart since the kids were born. Can this year’s ‘once-in-a-lifetime summer’ bring the feeling back again?
I WAS ELEVEN, breathlessly waiting for it all to start.
England versus Australia. Summer 1977. Our living room sofa. I sat, cross legged and leaning slightly forward, with a cheap paper-backed scorebook open on my lap; orange squash and a biscuit by my side.
Shaggy-haired Bob Willis charged in and bowled the first ball of the day – as I remember it, the first ball of the entire Test – to Rick McCosker.
McCosker, tall and thin, hit it for a four and, suppressing a slight feeling of deflation at England’s poor start, I crossed off the runs on the Total column of my scorebook with my satisfyingly sharp pencil. Then I added 4 to both Willis and McCosker’s analyses, checked that I’d done everything correctly, and readied myself for the next ball.
Almost two hours later I was still there, rapt. There were lots of mistakes and discrepancies in my scoring, but I had followed the whole thing without a break, until the BBC interrupted the transmission just before lunch for The News, or something equally trivial.
The little completist in me was outraged that he would not be able to finish his self-imposed labour.
But when I think back to that day now, I am struck by how deeply happy I was. How excited at the prospect of a fresh new day of sport, and being witness to the contest. These days we would say I was completely in the moment.
In the years that followed, cricket did a lot more for me. I wasn’t particularly good at football but I could bat and bowl, and I made vice-captain of the school team.
I met a lot of friends though the game, played in some idyllic parts of England, while the hundreds and Michelles* that I achieved are, even now, still among the proudest moments of a somewhat achievement-lite life.
As a kid, I would spend hours throwing a tennis ball up against a wall with my right hand then, quickly replacing it on my bat handle, play shots all around the garden. I also read voraciously about how legends like Bradman honed their own games with lonely practice.
But I was a kid then, and after that, a young man with few responsibilities and an excess of spare time.
When I became a working man, a husband, and a Dad, spending so many hours playing the game would not just have been difficult, it would have been selfish in the extreme.
I did try to keep playing, but a duck on your only match of the week is somehow much more deflating than a Blob when there was an innings on Saturday, Sunday and in midweek if I wanted it.
And having made a duck, spending three to four hours of the weekend just fielding suddenly seemed an indefensible waste of time when I might ordinarily have just one kid-free, work-free hour a day.
The year my daughter was born, I was scoring hundreds. The year after, I was retired.
But if I turned away from the game, at the same time, the game was turning away from me.
In 1999, the year before my daughter was born, English cricket ended nearly 70 years of the BBC TV coverage that I had come to adore and sold the rights to Channel Four.
But at least it was still Free-To-Air TV and, in 2005, England won the Ashes in a thrilling series climax that drew 8.4 million viewers.
The very next year, English Test cricket was transferred to Sky, locked in behind a paywall, and audiences slumped to the hundreds of thousands.
At a stroke, millions of working class and lower-middle class kids were deprived of the chance to learn our national game by osmosis, as I had.
My wife and I weren’t poor, but you have to cut your cloth in life and we just didn’t think it was responsible to shell out hundreds of pounds a year for a Sky subscription.
So I listened to TMS and, sometimes, I grumpily watched the Wham-Bam-Thank-You-Man! Highlights on Channel Five, a fast-forward stream of biffs and skittled stumps which gave little indication of the underlying flow or tensions of the game’s best form.
Meanwhile, my kids didn’t watch or listen at all.
In 2015, when my son was the same age as I had been in 1977, just 467,000 viewers saw England clinch the Ashes on Sky.
At the same time as Joe Root took the winning catch, The Guardian noted, almost as many people were watching a re-run of a 1974 episode of Columbo on ITV3.
As I write this, cricket administrators are desperately trying to revive the game’s prostrate form by flogging the rights to their new tournament, The Hundred, back to the Free-To-Air broadcasters they have shunned for a decade and a half.
Faced with plummeting participation levels – in 2016 it was revealed that 10 times more people were playing football than cricket in the UK, and that the number of amateur cricketers had fallen by 40,000 since the switch to Sky – the powers that be had finally woken up to the crisis.
They are also crossing their fingers that events this summer –a 50-over World Cup hosted by a Number 1-ranked England side, followed by another Ashes series – capture the public imagination like the win in 2005 and breathe life back into the game.
Jonathan Agnew, the BBC Cricket Correspondent, describes 2019 as a “once in a lifetime summer” and, as the days get longer and warmer and the kids need less and less of me, I confess that my thoughts are returning ever-more frequently to the cricket field.
For the past couple of years, I have managed to take in one or two sessions of county cricket and, most days now, I find myself looking at the cricket fixtures and wondering if I can possibly sneak away for a day at Lord’s or The Oval.
I think it’s probably too late for a playing comeback – at 53, the eyes just aren’t what they were for batting and I’ve lost my bowling action completely.
But at least I can afford to buy a Now TV pass for the summer months, so I can be front row for the World Cup if I want to.
And maybe I should invest in another scorebook and try and bring the old magic back? It’s got to be better value than a Mindfulness class.
*Michelle = Michelle Pfeiffer, or ‘Five-for’. A Five-for is the cricketing term for an individual bowler taking five wickets or more in an innings.