Fever Pitch

In About the Game by Bill Ricquier

My wife, Anita, has a theory about life during the wretched pandemic, which has now been with us for roughly a year. Her view is that, in spite, or more plausibly because of the restrictions imposed on what had previously been regarded as normal everyday activities, life is lived more intensely and intensively.

There is all sorts of evidence, actual and anecdotal, to support this intriguing view.

As many of you will realise there are few meaningful topics worthy of serious discussion where cricket, unlike most sports, does not provide a valuable practical or allegorical insight. COVID provides a good example.

Just over a year ago, a number of us here in Singapore were looking forward to flying to Sri Lanka to watch the Test against England at Galle: anyone who has watched cricket at this exceptional venue – and I have been there quite often – will understand why we were looking forward to it so much. The England tour was cancelled really at the last moment. Rather naïvely, it might be thought in retrospect, none of us had contemplated altering our arrangements until the tour was actually called off. It became very clear around that time, however, that the world had suddenly become an almost unrecognisably different place.

The cancellation of England’s tour of Sri Lanka was just the start. A couple of months later it seemed impossible to predict when we would see professional, or even recreational, sport again, with alarming financial and social consequences for so many people.

Cricket, however, and English cricket in particular, found a way out of the wilderness. Of course the fact that the pandemic hit hardest at the very beginning of the English cricket season put a heavier immediate burden on the officials of the England and Wales Cricket Board (“ECB”) than of those of other leading cricket nations – though those responsible for running the Indian Premier League (“IPL”) also had to act swiftly and decisively.

In fact the ECB had what can only be described as a magnificent summer, staging Test series against West Indies and Pakistan – cricket lovers everywhere but especially in Britain owe an incalculable debt to their players and administrators – and limited-overs series against Ireland and Australia. There were of course no spectators, but that really didn’t seem to matter.

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The organisational skills of the ECB, and particularly Steve Elworthy (who was also responsible for the 2019 World Cup) were shown to be truly remarkable. All the matches were played on two grounds – Old Trafford and The Ageas Bowl – where there were hotels. This really was a unique English summer. The hotels made it easier to maintain the integrity of the “bio-secure bubble”. Even so, you probably have to have been part of it fully to comprehend what life in the bubble is really like. Of course we all know the arguments and counter-arguments. COVID has brought tragedy, privation and, at the very least, massive inconvenience, to huge numbers of people across the globe. This group of elite sportsmen are able to do the thing they love – presumably – and get well paid for and, in return, are required to put up with lengthy separation from loved ones and being COVID- tested what must seem every ten minutes or so. Above all perhaps is the fact that you can’t get away; the batsman who gets a duck spends the evening gazing out of his hotel window at what we lawyers call the locus in quo.

The fact that England play in the English summer and then tour in the winter perhaps puts a special strain on their players. Australia, by contrast, for example, hardly seem to be playing at all. Of course if they had their way, India, Australia and England would be continually playing each other and nobody else would get a look-in, which is sort of starting to happen. But that is a topic for another day.

The demands of the schedule, and the stresses and strains of the bubble have led to some frankly weird selection outcomes for England in the winter just past (I write this on the morning of the third and deciding one-day international between India and England at Pune). The comings and goings of, in particular, Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali have been worthy of a Feydeau farce; Chris Woakes’ involvement was more reminiscent of Waiting For Godot. As various pundits have wondered, let’s see how much time the English participants in the IPL take off during that tournament, the final of which is scheduled to coincide with the start of England’s first Test against New Zealand.

Anyway, the real point is, hasn’t the cricket itself been fantastic? The quality seems mostly to have been exceptional. There were a few low points – the series between South Africa and Sri Lanka was decidedly underwhelming – but on the whole the players, notwithstanding the exceptional circumstances, have demonstrated tremendous levels of skill and determination.

This started of course in the last English summer, with England’s fightback after losing the first Test to West Indies, then the intriguing series against Pakistan, with the thrilling win at Old Trafford inspired by the partnership between Buttler and Woakes.

In terms of twists and turns this was all exceeded, however, by India’s tour of Australia. Considered by many experts as being likely to lose four-nil, India seemed to be subsiding appropriately when they were bowled out for 36 in the first Test at Adelaide, particularly as their captain, Virat Kohli, was to be one of a number of players destined to take no further part in the series. In fact India won the series 2-1, playing cricket that was simultaneously resourceful, intelligent, determined, courageous, and, at times, absolutely thrilling. The more their experienced players fell by the wayside with injuries the better they seemed to get. It helps that you have hundreds of millions to choose from but, even so. The star of the show was surely the 23-year old wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant, who must surely be the International Player of The Pandemic.

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England’s (replacement) tour of Sri Lanka, comprising two Tests in Galle, and no spectators (or reporters) was a triumph for captain Joe Root, who carried on in the same vein in the first Test against India in Chennai. After that, however, it was India all the way, with one of the Ahmedabad Tests lasting only two days (talk about intensity). Pant, again, was crucial, as was the sublime but often under-achieving Rohit Sharma.

The T20I and ODI series, while producing no especially close games, have both been adrenalin- fuelled competitions. Kohli batted wonderfully well in the fourth T20I. I am not a natural fan of the format but it can work like a dream; I am not a believer in the Macdonalds versus haute cuisine theory. Years ago I was in Changi Airport waiting for a flight and in need of a book. I picked up something I had never heard of, a crime novel by John Burdett called Bangkok 8 (it’s fantastic by the way). The blurb, provided by the incomparable James Ellroy, persuaded me to buy it: “This is like an Indiana Jones story written by Evelyn Waugh”; that is T20 cricket at its best. In the second ODI the hitting of Bairstow, and, particularly, Ben Stokes, was simply breathtaking.

There was outstanding cricket elsewhere too. New Zealand earned their place in the World Test Championship final this coming English summer. Perhaps the most extraordinary Test of all was at Chittagong in February. Bangladesh, despite a pretty hopeless start in Test cricket, have been hard to beat at home in recent years. England will testify to that (Australia are more sensible: they just refuse to go). Anyway, West Indies won this series 2-0. They won the first Test by three wickets with 15 minutes to spare. The target was 395. Kyle Mayers, 28, made a not out double century in his first Test. That is very special indeed. Fellow debutant Nkruma Bonner made 86 in the run chase. He made a century in the recent draw against Sri Lanka in Antigua.

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Cricket has coped so well with COVID. We even saw crowds in New Zealand (the home Tests could be watched on Youtube), Australia, and sometimes India. (For two successive games at the magnificent new stadium in Ahmedabad there were apparently 65,000 spectators, with little apparent evidence of social distancing; for the next there were none, because, well well, there had been a spike in cases.) It was so sad to hear of the Pakistan Super League being suspended because of a virus outbreak: they didn’t deserve that.

Who can tell what’s coming next. A slightly gloomy indication is that the International Cricket Council, in consultation with the ECB, have decided that the inaugural World Test Championship, scheduled to take place in June between New Zealand and India, will be played not at Lord’s but at Southampton, because of The Ageas Bowl’s ability to create a bio-secure bubble. Whether there are any spectators allowed will depend on how the British government relaxes the COVID restrictions applicable in England.

Personally, I would always aim to attend at least one Lord’s Test – this year, ideally, the Test against India scheduled for August. I didn’t make it to the Ashes Test in 2019 because – ha! – I had ‘flu or something like it and didn’t fancy a 13-hour flight. The last live (professional) cricket I saw was the World Cup game between England and Sri Lanka at Headingley earlier in 2019. I haven’t left Singapore since December that year.

That doesn’t mean I’m rushing to book a flight for August. The pandemic has had the disconcerting effect of eliminating both spontaneity and long-term planning. Who can say what the position will be in August, in relation to the virus itself and attendant quarantine regulations. It’s not really even clear what difference getting vaccinated will make.

But I am confident that we will enjoy, somehow, some wonderful cricket.

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