The writer John Berger ended one of his essays thus: “The moment at which a piece of music begins provides a clue to the nature of all art.” That probably holds true in other spheres too – the moment at which a Test match begins, for instance, provides a clue to the nature of all sport. Berger goes on to talk about “the incongruity of that moment, compared to the uncounted, unperceived silence which preceded it…”
The silence before the Southampton Test may not have been uncounted or unperceived, but the incongruity was inescapable. The moment before the first ball is bowled in a Test match is one of cricket’s sacred moments, full of possibilities and hope; the crowd holds its collective breath as it prepares for the unexpected, for that single delivery, which, in hindsight carries with it the potential of all that follows.
Yet, there was no crowd to hold its collective breath, no palpable tension in the air. But it didn’t matter. Cricket was restarting, and it wouldn’t have mattered if rain had stolen a chunk of it, or if it had finished in three days. God was in his heaven and all was right with the (cricket) world.
Showing the way
Not for the first time, cricket showed the way. The first-ever modern international sporting event was, after all, the cricket match between the US and Canada in 1844, more than half a century before the Olympic Games. West Indies’ win over England in the first Test meant that a team ranked No. 8 had overcome one that was placed four places higher, and that is one of the joys of sport — to watch the superior team being brought down to earth.
Man-for-man England were the better side, and they were playing at home. But the West Indies had spirit and they had been in England for a month to get acclimatised, two things that seemed to nullify England’s natural advantages. Joe Root returns to captain England in the second Test this week, and stand-in skipper Ben Stokes can focus on his game, leaving the worrying about the details to someone else. He must be relieved.
This wasn’t a great Test match, but it was a fascinating one, and of the many messages it had for sports and the world in general, three are particularly significant. At its conclusion, there was a half-serious suggestion that commentator Michael Holding be named Man-of-the-Match. On the opening day, he and Ebony Rainford-Brent — the first black woman to play for England — spoke eloquently and emotionally about what it means to be black. Later, during a rain break — seldom have rain breaks been as welcome — Holding barely managed to hold it in as he explained the whats and whys of racial discrimination. It was stirring stuff.
And it set the tone not only for the return of cricket but also for lassoing it into the real world where terrible things happen and need to be called out. The players taking a knee was of a piece with that. Cricket has opened a door through which other protesters could enter.
The second significant event was the indication that sport may be moving closer to being a complete television event, with neither spectators nor large stadiums absolute necessities. Technological advancement could, sometime in future, enable a viewer to be virtually present at the ground or stand next to a fielder taking a catch, and that would sound the death knell of the paying spectator.
High-fives and social distancing
Thirdly, there was the manner of handling the pandemic. High-fives flew, there was physical contact and lack of social distancing (the most difficult to observe on a sporting field), but it might not matter if the teams, who stayed on separate floors of the same hotel, figured the bubble kept outside influences away. We will know soon enough, but from all accounts, the England and Wales Cricket Board handled it well, and the players and officials followed the do’s and don’ts. Much is at stake for both the individual and the sport.
A critic once wrote that all post-War novels must recognise the fact, implicitly or otherwise, that we live in the shadow of the nuclear bomb. Likewise, all competitive sport today must acknowledge the existence and danger of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not a pleasant thing, and we will forget about it in time. But for those living through it, that is difficult to do.
How this series, and the one following against Pakistan, goes will impact India’s tour of Australia later in the year. ‘Bio-secure bubble’ has already entered cricket’s lexicon.