This summer has for some time been looked forward to as a make-or-break moment for English cricket. With England and Wales hosting the World Cup and an Ashes series starting here in August, it should be the perfect opportunity to make cricket part of the national conversation again; to try and halt the decline in enthusiasm for, and participation in, England’s traditional summer sport.
Cricket breaks out all over at this time of year. Bell Common, a generous village green set against a backcloth of ancient trees in their dark summer foliage, dotted with men in whites, is as bucolic a scene as you’ll find anywhere in England. The grass, turning a little pale after a long stretch of hot sunny days, is a shade greener on the woodland edge. Sometimes it can be boggy over there, a reminder of natural conditions, as Peter Day, the groundsman and a former captain, told me on Saturday. One of his sons was playing, the third generation of the family with links to the club. His father was a founding member of Epping Foresters when they set up in 1947, mostly ex-servicemen who began as a wandering team. Two years later they were granted a licence by the Conservators of Epping Forest to use Mill Plain, off Bell Common, as their ground.
‘Just wait till next year’ is the perennial cry of the disappointed sports fan, particularly in the US, where all the big sporting events – bar the Olympics – are annual ones. In the major American sports there’s no relegation or promotion, so year on year the same contests recur, and next time really could be different. It’s the glory – and the horror – of international sport that it doesn’t operate to that comforting rhythm. If you blow a World Cup, it will be at least four years till you get another chance. If you lose an Ashes series before we even get to Christmas, it won’t be next year’s Christmas present to have them returned.
‘First we are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.’ That was how Colin Powell described the battle plan he and his generals came up with for the war they were about to wage against Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991, and that is, more or less, what happened. After the US A-10 tank-buster bombers known as Warthogs had finished off the Iraqi armoured brigades on the Basra Road, Harold Pinter, disgusted by the gratuitous carnage, wrote a poem called ‘American Football’. He sent it to several publications, including the London Review of Books, where I then worked. He had it faxed to the paper's office on Tavistock Square. None of the editors much liked the poem, but because it was by Pinter there was some further deliberation, and as the afternoon ended we thought we'd defer the decision to the following morning.
Ossie Gooding was a fast bowler from Barbados who played cricket for the army and for Hampshire's second eleven in the 1960s. Then he played club cricket for Ashford, and, until he died in 2002, for Harold Pinter's team, the Gaieties. He worked for the Home Office and when they moved his job to Newcastle, Pinter bought Gooding's train tickets to London so he could play as often as possible. For many years, a Pinter XI took on the Guardian at a ground at Gunnersbury in West London. At the 1981 match, a Guardian batsman disparaged Gooding and his bowling. What he said, exactly, Gooding never let on, but it must have been bad: Gooding wasn't vengeful or quick tempered but his next ball to that batsman was a bouncer which hit his cheek. Teeth and jaw were broken, there was a lot of blood on the pitch, the batsman went off to hospital – 'retired hurt' entered into the score book.
‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ The Sri Lankan cricketer Kumar Sangakkara, giving the Spirit of Cricket lecture at Lords a few days ago, answered this question – first posed by C.L.R. James in Beyond the Boundary half a century ago – at length and in some detail. It was a virtuoso performance that linked cricket to the history and politics of the island. It was witty, intelligent and, above all, courageous. Sangakkara’s assault on the cricketing establishment (the Ministry of Sport) of his own country is a model for others to follow. Listening to the speech I wondered whether there was any other practising cricketer in the world today who could have made it.
The mood in Pakistan is bitter, angry and vengeful. Effigies of Salman Butt have been burned, his name has been painted on donkeys and the no-ball bowlers are being violently abused all over the country. Demands that the corrupt cricketers be hanged in public are gaining ground. Among younger members of the elite there is shock that Butt (educated at a posh school) has let the side down. Mohammad Amir they could understand since he’s from a poor family. The blindness of this cocooned layer of young Pakistanis is hardly a surprise, but popular anger should not be underestimated. The no-ballers and their captain will need round-the-clock security when they return. Much better to take a long holiday abroad (surely they can afford it) and let tempers cool. There is enough evidence already for them to be suspended, if not by the neck.
Cricket bats were once distinguished only by the makers' names; now they sound like tools superheroes might use in computer games or cartoons. These are some of the names given to bats by the leading manufacturers: Beast, Fiery Beast, Angry Beast, Wild Beast, Blade Runner, Blade Strike, Ice Sub 10, Big Kahuna, Biggest Kahuna, Kahuna Chaos, Kahuna Carnage, Kahuna Twins, Kahuna Mayhem, Catalyst, Hero, Icon, Purist, Blazer, Genius, Wizard, B52, Navarone, Samurai, Uzi, Zeus, Air Blade, Don, V389, Hard Drive, Alpha, Beta, Mega Bit, Satellite, Fusion, Ignite, Nitro, Powerbow, Predator, Viper, Xiphos. Xiphos is the ancient Greek word for a single-hand double-edged sword. Cricket bats are held with both hands, and have a single face.
Just when you thought that international test match cricket couldn't get more gloomy – there's too much dreary test cricket – here is Graham Collier, the director of the England and Wales Cricket Board, explaining to the BBC why a test match had to be played so early in the English cricket season: We had broadcasting contracts in place. And I think it would have been wrong not to have tests prior to us playing in an Ashes series.