In my local barbers. a tiny shed of a place next to a juice bar, tucked inside a mini mall carved out of an old shoe shop. “Cricket” is on the radio as the barber – a quiet Asian guy who massages my head at the end by knocking it about a bit – buzzes over with the number 2 clippers and my head re-emerges one haircut more lined. The one day world championship roars in the background. The commentary and the crowd are both raucous urging the big hitters to hit big under intense time pressure. Everything rushed, exciting and frenetic. A game that imposes its action not one that draws you in. All over and wrapped up in no time. As I got up I nodded at the radio and said “not the same game as a test match is it?”
In the summer of 1975 I was employed to pick fruit on a farm some miles south of York. It was hot and boring and a couple of other workers brought portable radios to lighten our load with Radio 1’s summer playlist; consisting as it did primarily of the Bay City Rollers and “Woah! I’m going to Barbados” by Typically Tropical played several times an hour.
After a while, around 11 in the morning, someone turned their dial across to Radio 3 to catch the Ashes Test between England and Australia and landed in the middle of an arcane discussion between two of the commentators about the science of swinging a ball in moist conditions; occasioned by a letter from a professor at Cambridge arguing that it was contrary to the laws of physics to do so, even though all fast bowlers did it. This was a different and more intriguing world than anything that could be offered by David Hamilton or Dave Lee Travis.
After a while, others switch over and there is nothing in the wind louder than the snick of leather on willow, Brian Johnstone’s plummy voice rhapsodising over someone’s kind gift of a chocolate cake for afternoon tea and the then youthful Henry Blofeld* name checking the occasional passing bus and flock of pigeons; and the sense of an extraordinary spaciousness in the game…”and there is no run…”
Knowing that we were settled in for a five day ritual, played outside, during an English summer in which infinitely minute changes in the weather – the light, the wind, the moisture in the air, the dampness or dryness of the field or the wicket – could and did affect how the game was played; and even whether it could be played at all. Commentary about an approaching bank of cloud was pertinent factor that we knew the players were taking into account in their multi layered calculations of where they were and what they needed to do.
Each ball in each 6 ball over was a tight battle of wits between bowler and batsmen. For the bowler. whether to bowl over or around the wicket, which length to pitch at, what speed to bowl at, whether there were any spin or bounce in the wicket, how old the ball was, where to place the fielders, how to tempt a batsman into a rash shot. For the batsman, the need to calculate whether a ball needed to be hit, had to be hit and which could be flicked through a gap – all the while taking account of his own score, with the approach to centuries and half centuries especially being a nervous time, the precariousness or safety of the innings and the time left to find the runs they needed. At times a spell of assured bowling would stall the runs and a succession of maiden overs (with no runs scored) would put all the pressure on the batsmen.
The tension of this, and the release of it one way or another when the tiredness of a bowler or a slight shift in the weather allows a batsman to knock a boundary or two and suddenly the field is having to change to hold off the fours and the batsmen can start sneaking singles; or a frustrated batsman takes a risk on a ball he should have left and is snaffled up by the slips – meaning a new batsman has to come in and take time to find his eye and rhythm.
The long periods of apparent stasis punctuated by sudden euphoric shifts in fortune are all hedged around with a poetic language of field placings as reassuring and obscure as the shipping forecast and sounding a bit like long lost country villages- the gully – the slips – deep mid wicket- silly mid off – long leg; and arcane rituals worthy of Gormenghast – like the tradition of the Umpire standing on one leg whenever the score reached 111; considered very unlucky because it looks like a wicket with the bales knocked off, and known as a “Nelson” because at the end of his life Admiral Nelson supposedly had one arm, one eye and one ball.
Even during the days when play was stopped for rain, no one switched back to Radio 1. We listened to the endless stream of anecdotes and speculation as though we were cramming the lore of the game to make up for all the lost time we’d wasted while we were ignoring it.
CLR James – in Beyond a Boundary – argued that cricket was an attempt by an unpoetic people to encapsulate and codify the infinite. A one day match has its moments, but does not begin to approach this.
Post script. Having listened to the end of the ODI world cup final all I can say is that although this version of the game does not have eternity, it definitely has its moments.
*The commentators were, almost to a man, almost cartoon like public school, dyed in the wool Conservatives; often having a moan that England couldn’t play test matches against Apartheid South Africa because of “politics” and so completely absorbed in their own world that it was hard to think they could imagine any others. Even Fred Trueman’s turn from 1974 onwards as permanently grumpy working class Yorkshireman – in more recent years reprised by Geoffrey Boycott as a sort of continuity tribute act – was absorbed and tolerated for its backward looking disgust at the declining standards of English cricket – taken as a metaphor for the declining status of the country. John Arlott was an exception, a man of broad human sympathies, whose commentary was as poetic as it was informative.