James Wallace on the comfort of cricket – even when it’s not around. First published in The Nightwatchman.
There’s no one on the streets. The parks are empty. A Sunday calm. Is it Sunday? I can hear birds. And the breeze. Occasionally a lycra-clad figure can be glimpsed, passing the window in a blur of fluorescence, limbs moving swiftly, guiltily, as if they can feel the eyes on them. Another lone soul passes in the opposite direction, keeping a distance and clutching a canvas tote, an incongruous leopard-print scarf pulled high over his features. The solitary shopper makes me think of “Eleanor Rigby”.
My mind wanders. I think of the groundsman at The Oval. Scouring the seeds on the turf where no one will play. I don’t know his name. From my desk at work I’ve been watching him toil for the past six months. Struggling against the elements. Is he somewhere, struggling now?
I’m going through one of my Beatles phases. My friend Tom is too. We have time on our hands. There’s a comfort in it.
There’s comfort in distraction. Music is distraction. Sport is distraction.
I think about cricket, again.
I’m in a robust discussion with a bloke at a social gathering. Remember them? I think the guy is someone’s mate or date and they’ve wisely done a bunk and he is yet to twig. Even after some low-level Poirot-ing, everyone is still at a loss to know who he is. Rogue room meat. Orphan offal.
He’s belching word-guff into the mid-summer evening air. A few of us have started to refer to him as “Chernob-head” and are taking it in turns to tag-team conversation with him until he realises his lonesome fate and skulks off. It’s my turn. It has been for an hour.
He’s noisily opining about the summer being a dead loss as there’s no major football tournament taking place to tide him over until the new season, all of six weeks away. He’s getting misty-eyed talking about a fan park in Streatham.
I’m trying to reason with him as we both drink schnapps in the muggy heat of the back yard. The night is winding up and there is nothing else to drink. The air is thick and sweet, with resentment and fermented peaches. I ask him if he caught any of the cricket World Cup or was interested in the upcoming Ashes series? I despise him, he goads me. His face contorts into a sneering gurn and he hisses something unrepeatable into my ear. This is the last straw.
I think of cricket. Throughout my childhood and into my teenage years I would tune into the Ashes down under with a portable radio under my pillow. So I need hear only a couple of Jim Maxwell’s antipodean vowels before I get a clammy brow and my teeth begin to… itch. Listening to him describe humiliating batting collapses and abject bowling performances served only to make England’s later success all the more joyous. “If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain” and all that. Listening to Warne, Waugh and McGrath demolish England in the ’90s and early 2000s meant you needed to have some pretty tough emotional galoshes if you were an England cricket fan…
Graham Thorpe has dropped him and Matthew Elliot is boshing his way to 199. I’m having a nosebleed in the back of the family Renault Savanna. The runs for the Aussies gush like the red stuff from my nose. Test Match Special is crackling away woozily as we head to Brittany. England are heading for another thumping Ashes series defeat.
It’s another lazy summer. Mark Butcher is defiantly slapping his way to 173 not out in a thrilling Ashes run-chase at Headingley. A few hundred miles away my eldest brother tries to hurdle a tennis net for a cheap thrill and face-plants the asphalt. I watch Butcher wave his Slazenger V600 as we place ice packs and wrap bandages on my bro’s messed-up mush. The cheers from the crowd drown out his whimpers. The whiff of TCP will always make me think of Mark Butcher.
I’ve just polished off my AS levels and I’m revelling in the antics of Flintoff, Pietersen and Pratt. England are going to win the Ashes for the first time in my lifetime and I’ve nailed that history paper on the French Revolution. The great oppressors and ruling elites of Waugh, McGrath, Ponting, Gilchrist and Louis XVI are about to be toppled. I fantasise of the sunny uplands, debauched university life, and English cricket domination, then get back to my genre-busting UCAS statement.
England are well on their way to an Ashes whitewashing. It’s a dismal coda to the jubilance of 2005. I feel this loss painfully; I’m struggling to fit in at university, feeling homesick, mostly drunk and out of my depth. Much like England.
England are going to win the Ashes on Aussie soil for the first time since 1987. I’m in the guts of my first proper heartbreak. Sobbing in the shower; shuffling about in crumb-flecked joggers; chain-making ever more sophisticated soup recipes; listening to The National on repeat. It’s that kind of heartbreak.
I still have cricket. I still have the Ashes. Thankfully I’ve witnessed every ball thanks to my insomni-grief. My nightly routine consists of drinking pots of tea, eating mounds of buttered toast (accompanied by the occasional bowl of heartbreak soup) and watching Cook grind the Aussies into the dirt. The only thing rising faster than Cook’s batting average is my cholesterol. Every run, wicket and victory nourishes me.
I am unhappy. Happiness. Being happy. I had this, I was this. I didn’t have to try hard at it or think about it. I just was. Happiness. It is a distant memory now, a forgotten plain that I cannot get back to. I am sad, and when I’m not sad I am numb, which is scary. Swamped by a blanket of depression and anxiety. Lost in my early 30s. Empty. Struggling to deal with the guilt that comes with feeling this way despite having a brilliant girlfriend, kind and supportive family and friends, and a respectable job. What is wrong with me? My mind is a snake pit from which I can’t escape. My fucking mind. If it was a cricket pitch (and why not?) it would be Sabina Park: unpredictable, hazardous, cracking up. Gatting’s obliterated face is an analogy for my mental health.
Cook is 46 not out at stumps on the third day at The Oval, his last Test innings. There’s a chance he will score a 33rd and final century. I bunk off work, shiftily emailing something about TOIL on the way to The Oval. I’ve been tanking my “career” into the ground for six months. I take my seat in the spindly shadow of the gasholder. The crowd is nervously expectant. I hadn’t expected to feel anything really. I’ve been feeling out of it, numb, and Cook’s last Test had barely registered among the constant drone. Something told me I should come here. Not to get all Field of Dreams about it.
Jasprit Bumrah throws the ball errantly and Cook reaches three figures. The crowd rise and roar as one. They keep on cheering. Wave after wave. Cook has to bashfully quieten them down with a tilt of his bat. Still it goes on. I’m stood with complete strangers. I know now why I needed to come. A shard of euphoria. In my head and in my chest. Pleasure. I’m wrenched out of my own stupor for a few precious hours. Warm tears down my cheeks, shoulders bobbing. For the first time in a while I feel hope. This moment, that innings, will stay with me.
I can’t sleep. My body is getting used to some new medication, my mind jutting, synapses twitching and flailing in the dead of night. Imagine Paul Adams being tasered while bowling. England are in Sri Lanka. Conveniently for my new body clock, the games start long before dawn and I’ve started to live-blog the cricket. I watch every ball and jot down some scrawl from my sleepless state on the sofa. Something about this self-imposed task of endurance and concentration gives me a sense of calm. An equilibrium. “Every ball” – “Just staying in the moment” – “Grinding it out”. Phrases I’ve heard players use when describing how to bat for long periods to rescue a game.
In my head I am emulating Atherton, my hero. This is my Jo’burg ’98, my own rear-guard innings. Trying to save myself, from myself. On a sofa-bed in south-west London. I’m blocking, keeping out the grey and terrifying fog of the real world. Focusing on something I know about and can rely upon. Ball after ball, minute after minute. Daylight dapples through the window of the living-room.
My girlfriend and I are taking a sabbatical. At least, that is what we’ve told people. In truth, I’m unemployable, still buckling with each tiny demand of everyday life. I’m feeling a particular kind of guilt about using the hard-earned money of dead elderly relatives to facilitate jacking in my job and running away. But it was worth it. I hope they’d understand. I still take medication, still get anxious and low and feel like shutting myself away from the world at times. But I have hope. I live, I love, and I try to enjoy the here and now. I can also look forward and not be too afraid.
We are due to return soon. England have reached the World Cup final. Over the last few weeks I’ve become distracted by the call of leather on willow from back home. The scenery might be breath-taking, the food delicious, but it’s nothing compared to the boys in pale blue spluttering their way to the final at Lord’s. We listen to it on TMS in a studio flat on the Aeolian Islands, off the coast of Sicily. The humidity isn’t helping. I’m pacing up and down in my boxer shorts using a curtain tie as a makeshift bat, shadow-playing every delivery. I demand that my girlfriend sit on the same cushion for two hours as Stokes and Buttler rebuild the innings and the game hurtles towards its denouement.
This is the game that cracks it for her. After years of unsuccessful cajoling and numerous romantic trips sullied by furtive phone-glances and live text updates. This is the one.
So here we are. Remember the back-yard buffoon? I think perhaps that this all helps to explain why I got so riled with him. With a bellyful of schnapps and beige BBQ food sloshing around inside me, I felt wounded by his reaction and words. I felt his dismissal of cricket as a personal attack. My memories, my happiness. My life. From the child getting his first bat to the precocious teenager, from the love-stricken young adult to the broken and lost young man. The times when life is tough to the times when it is brilliant, and everything in between.
Cricket has been there for me. I still have it now as distraction and comfort. There are unseen matches and unheard stories to discover.
And it will be back. But to tide us over till then it’s thoughts, memories and dreams.
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