I sit in self-isolation. The sun streams through the window, the first iris has flowered in the garden and a blackbird sings cheerfully from a neighbour’s elder tree. And I think, is this now to be my summer, locked up? A summer without country walks, without the early sight of bluebells in the woods? A summer without lazy evenings in a pub garden? A summer without cricket?
Today I might have been watching an early game at my local club, catching up with the winter’s news. But, apart from a few out-of-work builders replacing the pavilion bar, the ground is empty, as it will be for weeks to come. There won’t be “someone running up to bowl” when a modern-day Philip Larkin flashes past on the train. There won’t be the distant cry of “Owzatt!” when they unload the ambulances in the adjoining hospital.
I might have been on my computer, catching the live stream from Somerset’s match at Taunton, keeping up with all the scores, hoping to see the first flowering of a new talent. In years gone by, I would have been getting out my whites, looking forward to renewing the company of old friends, dreaming of scaling new peaks of achievement. To play cricket is to know the rhythm of the summer—from those days of fresh hope in spring through the long afternoons when the year’s harvest becomes clear, on to the falling of the leaves and the last packing of kitbags.
It is a game with its roots in a pre-industrial England. A game best enjoyed with a warm sun on the back, yet reflecting an English character shaped in a cooler, more changeable climate. A game full of ritual that generates a philosophical outlook and a self-deprecating humour. A game with a magical rhythm, a slow-moving ebb and flow in which the quiet passages can be every bit as intense as the moments of action. As the Scandinavian girlfriend of a teammate once observed, “I sense, beneath all this English calm, there beats a great passion.”
“Complete the following quotation by George Mikes,” Jeremy Paxman asked on University Challenge. “Continental people have a sex life, the English have . . . what?” It was a hot-water bottle, but the first contestant on the buzzer had a different idea. “Cricket?” she suggested.
Cricket does not have the hold on our national imagination that it had when I was a boy. It is a long time since I heard anybody use the phrase “That’s not cricket” when they thought something unfair. In our faster-moving, more commercialised society, it has struggled to compete with the brasher, more cynical appeal of football. Yet cricket is still there, still a key reference point in our sense of the English summer. “There can be no summer in this land without cricket,” the arch-romantic Neville Cardus once wrote.
When Britain declared war in early August 1914, cricket carried on for a while. Then news of the first deaths came across the Channel, and the mood changed. “BE MEN,” W.G. Grace thundered in a leaflet. “Drop your playthings. Drill with rifles.”
In the Second World War cricket was seen as a force for maintaining public morale. Large crowds attended charity matches, and off-duty servicemen were encouraged to play. Bill Edrich, the great England batsman, flew low-level bombing raids over Germany and, on one occasion, returned from action to an afternoon’s cricket at Norfolk’s Massingham Hall. “Every now and then would come the old, accustomed cry—‘OWZATT?’—and one’s mind would flicker off to joking with a pal and one saw again his machine cartwheeling down, flaming from nose to tail. Then a ball would roll fast along the green English turf, and in the distance the village clock would strike and the mellow echoes would ring through the lazy air of that perfect summer afternoon.”
This was the England he was fighting for, the same England that the writer E.W. Swanton was dreaming of in Thailand. A prisoner of the Japanese, he held tight to his battered 1939 edition of Wisden, the cricketers’ bible, organising talks and quizzes in the few moments of rest.
We live in a different England now, an England in which the greatest passion for cricket can be found among those whose families have come here from the Indian sub-continent. Our sense of ourselves is changing, as are the landmarks of our summer. No longer the Wakes Weeks at crowded seaside resorts but the Glastonbury Festival and the Notting Hill Carnival.
Yet cricket is still a part of our national identity, reflecting some of the better elements of our self-image: calm in a crisis, believing in fair play, able to cope philosophically with the vicissitudes of life. It is only one aspect of our identity, perhaps a declining one, but it retains a deep resonance for many. Played by more women and girls than ever, you will find well over half a million people on cricket grounds every weekend in summer—playing, umpiring, making tea, spectating. And there are many more following the game at home.
A summer without cricket? In the seasons after the last war the crowds flocked into the grounds, deprived for too long of their national game. I am already starting to know how they felt.
This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.