Tuesday, October 26News That Matters

Wisden editor Lawrence Booth reflects on the year cricket battled back from the brink

Cricket has never been less important than in 2020 — and never more. As coronavirus spread, it seemed frivolous to wonder when the season might start, or whether anyone would be there to watch. Months later, with the UK’s death toll into six figures, even writing about runs and wickets felt wrong.

But cricket, like everything else, had its heart ripped out, and its soul very nearly crushed. It lost family and friends. It made compromises to survive and may take years to recover. 

The story is far from over. The pace of events was dizzying, shocking. David Hodgkiss was the Lancashire chairman when Wisden 2020 was printing; by publication, he had died. And the obituaries this year include at least 15 others linked to Covid-19.

David Hodgkiss (right) was one of the cricketing family who passed away in a brutal year

David Hodgkiss (right) was one of the cricketing family who passed away in a brutal year

David Hodgkiss (right) was one of the cricketing family who passed away in a brutal year

They were all ages and from every corner of the game. Lee Nurse was just 43, and had played for Berkshire. Riaz Sheikh, a former leg-spinner who was 51, once dismissed Inzamam-ul-Haq.

Phil Wright, aged 60, was Leicestershire’s popular dressing-room attendant. The 73-year-old Chetan Chauhan will always be four decades younger, dragged by Sunil Gavaskar towards the pavilion after an lbw decision in a Test at Melbourne. Ken Merchant, a member of the Cricket Society, died at the age of 81, on the same day as his wife, in the same Southend hospital ward. Peter Edrich, cousin of Bill and John, was 93.

How did cricket go on? The trite answer is it had to. those above would have had it no other way. And in the game’s continuance came a kind of salvation.

From the abyss

In early 2019, the ECB’s annual report identified two threats to cricket beyond their control: terrorism and national mourning. A year later, shortly after the World Health Organisation declared a ‘public health emergency of international concern’, the ECB added a third: communicable disease.

This coincided with the first confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK, though it was still regarded, more or less, as a problem for China. Within days, cricket was facing its greatest disruption since the Second World War. The ECB rose to the challenge. Swift measures taken by chief executive Tom Harrison spared the English game the worst of the financial damage.

The biosecure bubble organised by director of events Steve Elworthy proved unburstable, allowing England’s men to fulfil all 18 home internationals in 10 strange weeks. With the domestic fixture list looking like a ghost town, the counties squeezed in two competitions. It was faintly miraculous.

The board might have done one thing differently. They had allowed their reserves to dwindle from £73million in 2015-16 to £17m four years later, which suggested they had been paying lip service to the possibility of bombs disrupting a money-spinning visit by India, or the death of the monarch.

The women’s game, it was made clear, was expendable but was saved by the decision of the West Indies to visit Derby in September

The women’s game, it was made clear, was expendable but was saved by the decision of the West Indies to visit Derby in September

The women’s game, it was made clear, was expendable but was saved by the decision of the West Indies to visit Derby in September 

It’s also true that their obsession with the Hundred — delayed by 12 months because of the pandemic, and missed by few — had cost them more than planned.

But, as Boris Johnson bragged about shaking hands in hospitals, then dithered over a start date for cricket while snooker fans were allowed inside the Crucible, there was more decisive governance from Lord’s than the Commons.

The price was still huge. The women’s game, it was made clear, was expendable, and spared a wipeout only by the decision of West Indies to visit Derby in September. Funding was cut further down the ladder, and may not return. The ECB slashed 20 per cent of their workforce. After fears cricket might lose £380m, a shortfall of around £110m was almost a triumph. But it was sobering.

Cricket’s absence in April, May and June had left everyone bereft. We all missed the matches, the drama, the ebb and flow. But there was a more profound silence: gone was the reassuring buzz of an English summer, a sense that, somewhere, there was a game going on, a tale in the making, honey still for tea. For cricket lovers, checking the score is a comforting ritual. Its loss was impossible to measure.

The previous summer had left optimism in the air. England were world champions, Ben Stokes the Colossus of Leeds. There was hope cricket might overcome the disadvantage of the TV paywall. In early 2020, Stokes was at it again, inspiring a series victory in South Africa. England headed for Sri Lanka in March, and the new season could not start quickly enough. Instead, cricket again shrank in the national mind.

Ben Stokes inspired a series victory over South Africa which lifted the spirits

Ben Stokes inspired a series victory over South Africa which lifted the spirits

Ben Stokes inspired a series victory over South Africa which lifted the spirits 

Until now, the lack of a satellite dish had not necessarily left the game out of reach. Fans could always buy a ticket, assuming they could afford one. But playing behind closed doors removed that option, and so — initially — cricket’s relationship with its TV paymasters became more pliant than ever. 

The game was happening for one reason: broadcasting contracts. Sky’s coverage remained peerless, but when pundits were analysing Rory Burns’s front-foot technique in an empty stadium, sport’s eternal balance between importance and irrelevance was too fine for comfort.

And yet cricket has always adapted. Not for the first time, it came back from the brink. With little else going on, even empty grounds began to resemble hives of activity. Fans found ways of staying in touch.

During the 2019 World Cup, Test Match Special received 11.3m ‘online listening requests’; last summer, it was 14.5m, despite the Test opponents being neither Australia nor India. The increasingly slick live-streaming offered by the counties was lapped up by millions and, when Sky Sports broadcast the final of the Bob Willis Trophy on YouTube, 967,000 logged on. There has always been an audience. Obliged to find different ways of reaching it, cricket looked ahead of the game.

There was also a glimpse of humanity. Players raised money for charities and the NHS. Some used lockdown to study for online degrees, others spent time with their young families. Everyone took pay cuts, many willingly.

Almost a million people logged on to watch the Bob Willis Trophy final last September

Almost a million people logged on to watch the Bob Willis Trophy final last September

Almost a million people logged on to watch the Bob Willis Trophy final last September

There were fixtures to fulfil and TV deals to honour, but the new ICC chairman, New Zealand’s Greg Barclay, reached a conclusion that had proved beyond his predecessors: the schedule was ‘unsustainable’. The ECB evidently agreed, reacting to the prospect of 17 England Tests in 2021, plus a T20 World Cup, by getting serious about rest and rotation.

The policy was also a humane response to life in a bubble. West Indies took 54 hours to fly to New Zealand, spent a fortnight in quarantine (and were told off for socialising in hotel corridors), then lost almost every game.

Towards the end of the IPL, Jofra Archer said he was ‘counting down the days’. South Africa’s Kagiso Rabada spoke of a ‘luxury prison’. Australia’s Steve Smith said he hadn’t slept in his own bed for five months. The Professional Cricketers’ Association reported a big increase in the number of players seeking help for mental health issues — and a lack of funds to provide it. After the pandemic subsides, this cannot go on.

Jofra Archer (right) admitted finding life in the bio-secure bubble extremely difficult

Jofra Archer (right) admitted finding life in the bio-secure bubble extremely difficult

Jofra Archer (right) admitted finding life in the bio-secure bubble extremely difficult 

There were other problems. When Archer popped home to Hove in between bubbles, he was told he had only gone and jeopardised the entire financial wellbeing of English cricket.

Counties who had heeded the advice to spruce up their grounds, and host concerts and conferences, were harder hit than those who relied on their ECB handout, which seemed no sort of reward.

But the return of crowds in Australia and New Zealand acted as world cricket’s vaccine jab. And an all-time classic between Australia and India was pure adrenalin. By the time England had won 2–0 on their return to Sri Lanka in January, we had another reminder — of the capacity of Test cricket to carry us along, to enthrall and absorb us and, perhaps most importantly, to distract us.

There was sadness in 2020, but that was only part of the story. 

Root returns in style  

For too long, Joe Root had been going the way of all England Test captains.

Energised at first by the job (he averaged 50 in 2017, his first year in charge), he began to look careworn. The next two years brought averages of 41 and 37: not a disaster, but no triumph. In 2020, for the first time since his debut eight years earlier, he failed to score a Test ton.

England were winning, but the electricity had gone from their sparkiest batsman. Root disappeared to recharge. He analysed his tendency to get out between 50 and 100, and learned from the remorseless Kiwi Kane Williamson.

He vowed to become more selfish, reasoning that —unless you’re Mike Brearley — leadership is best done by example. And when he reached South Asia in 2021, he swept — and swept and swept: 228 and 186 at Galle, then 218 at Chennai. In a little over three weeks, his Test average went from just under 48 to more than 50 and his tally past Geoff Boycott, Kevin Pietersen, David Gower and Alec Stewart.

Of that quartet, perhaps only Gower made it look as simple.

Root recharged his batteries and has come back a better player for it over the past year

Root recharged his batteries and has come back a better player for it over the past year

Root recharged his batteries and has come back a better player for it over the past year 

Better late than never

A year ago, we urged the ICC to reconsider the status of England’s five games in 1970 against the Rest of the World, and treat them like Tests — just as those who played in them did. 

The ICC’s position is that the matches were not sanctioned as Tests — only marketed as such by the English authorities, in the hope they would pass muster. But sentimentality, it turns out, is not dead. 

Fifty years to the day after he made what he thought was his Test debut, Glamorgan’s Ian Jones — who didn’t play for England again — was surprised on Zoom by a phalanx of ECB officials and old team-mates, and presented with a navy blue cap. He was now, officially, England’s 696th Test cricketer. His speechlessness spoke volumes.

It went that way, Ben…

An unexpected side-effect of the pandemic was to remind the world’s best how it all began.

Was any sight more democratic than Joe Root or Ben Stokes ferreting around in the stands to look for the ball, just as countless village players do every weekend in the shrubbery?

As for playing in front of no one, join the club. Our star cricketers can seem remote, but there were moments last year when they were as reassuringly unglamorous as the rest of us.

Moving with the times

The headline from the women’s T20 World Cup final at Melbourne in March was an attendance of 86,174 — the perfect answer to those who say no one watches women’s sport. 

Almost as refreshing was the identity of one of the spectators. Fast bowler Mitchell Starc had been given permission to leave Australia’s one-day series in South Africa to watch his wife, Alyssa Healy, open the batting. Good decision: she scored a match-winning 75 from 39 balls. 

Root was one of the top players to prioritise family over cricket over the last year

Root was one of the top players to prioritise family over cricket over the last year

Root was one of the top players to prioritise family over cricket over the last year

Not long ago, Starc would have been mocked. But cricket is waking up to domestic responsibility. Last summer, Joe Root missed the first Test against West Indies to attend the birth of his second child. Over the winter, Kane Williamson followed suit, skipping New Zealand’s second Test against West Indies for the birth of his daughter. 

India captain Virat Kohli flew home to prepare for fatherhood after the first of the four Tests in Australia. As recently as 2003, this Almanack published a piece entitled ‘Don’t marry a cricketer’. These days, we might not be so proscriptive.

What’s in a name?

When India batsman Cheteshwar Pujara revealed in 2018 that his Yorkshire team-mates had christened him ‘Steve’, the news came and went.

Apparently, they found his first name hard to pronounce; Pujara was too polite to complain. Then it turned out he hadn’t been the only Steve at Headingley. As Yorkshire investigated allegations of racism from former all-rounder Azeem Rafiq, one ex-employee — Taj Butt — said the name was routinely given to ‘every person of colour’.

In December, with Pujara batting in the first Test at Adelaide, Shane Warne chuckled about the nickname on Australian TV. It was tone-deaf, and not just because Butt’s evidence had only recently made the headlines. 

Two years earlier, Warne’s fellow commentator Kerry O’Keeffe had got into a tangle over the names of Pujara and team-mate Ravindra Jadeja, before asking: ‘Why would you call your kid Cheteshwar Jadeja?’ The uproar forced him to apologise.

Cheteshwar Pujara was too polite to complain when Yorkshire team-mates called him ‘Steve’

Cheteshwar Pujara was too polite to complain when Yorkshire team-mates called him ‘Steve’

Cheteshwar Pujara was too polite to complain when Yorkshire team-mates called him ‘Steve’

But the Rafiq case has confirmed that self-examination does not always come easily to cricket. When he first spoke out, during an interview with Wisden.com, Yorkshire declined to comment.

They stayed quiet, too, after he was interviewed by the Cricket Badger podcast. Only when ESPNcricinfo got involved did Yorkshire take the matter seriously.

If cricket’s response to racism is one of expedience rather than repudiation, everyone loses.

Say Grace

The bronze statue of WG Grace at Lord’s is not to be sniffed at, but cricket might have missed a trick last summer after a statue of a slave trader, Edward Colston, was torn down by protestors and tossed into Bristol Harbour.

As former Times cricket writer Richard Hobson tweeted, the plinth might easily have been filled instead by one of the city’s most famous residents. Not Banksy or Cary Grant, but WG, one of Victorian England’s biggest celebrities, yet still a peripheral figure in the place he called home.