By Dominic Dixey
The start of the coming term brings many things. It brings us closer to exams, the promise of a new calendar year, for some the fun of Palatinalps. For me and similar folk, however, there is a higher joy on the horizon. The return of cricket.
People have long sought answers to the question of why we always come back to the game. Through all the dropped catches, ducks, rained off matches, England top order collapses, there persists a longing for those rare sunny afternoons. For the rare 50s, the rare well-taken catches, glorious England victories, cold pints of lager, friends, joy. There is something woven into all these things that binds us and gives us a love of this great game- and yet I think there’s also a profoundly personal connection.
For me, like most of my generation, it all started in 2005. Little more needs to be said. I was hooked and spent afternoons in the garden recreating the brutal, high action of Harmison, angular yet smooth rotation of Hoggard, stubborn high elbow of Jones and indescribable power of Flintoff. I like to tell myself I taught my brother to play. He’s not a great batsman but can bowl absolute peaches, especially on our garden wicket, where considerable spin is readily achievable. I remember my first England match, a game at Bristol where Paul Collingwood took an absolute screamer and Kevin Pietersen hit a six so big, Michael Vaughan still refers to it in interviews today. I remember my first Gloucestershire game, against Hampshire, the first time I heard that wonderful west country refrain “Glooooucester!”.
I suspect all lovers of the game have a similar story of how they grew to adore it. I’m reminded of a line from Jon Hotten’s marvellous book “The Meaning of Cricket” where he describes a glorious Saturday afternoon “when one story ended, and others began.” I always think of it when I watch cricket- for someone else in the crowd, some lucky young lad, it’s his first game. His first experience of the joys of watching cricket.
This love of the game in the general sense undoubtedly forms part of the reason why we come back to play it each year. Our attitude before the season, the sense of anticipation, definitely contrasts with how feel after a long summer of sporting hardship. And yet there is something more, something special that makes us don the whites ourselves and step out onto the fresh, green pitch.
Simon Barnes, a Times journalist, suggests a two-fold answer. The first part is scientific. The adrenalin produced when playing, he explains, causes the body to maximise specific physical resources and enhance memories to make them “powerful and enduring”. The second is, perhaps, more interesting. He identifies a kind of “secret pact” between players- specifically, that everyone has to want to win. No matter how laughably casual a game is, no matter how bad the fielding is, we’re bound by a desire to be better. To be like Joe Root or Jimmy Anderson. The one thing, Barnes says, worse than the overly keen and strict captain, is the “person who had five pints for lunch and thinks it’s all a laugh.” We all want to have fun, but equally we all want our time out in the middle, trying our best to be like our heroes.
And so we wait. First comes the indoor league with the irritatingly small hall and hard floor. Then comes the outdoor league in the summer term. Then comes the club season and possibility of tours and reunion matches. It’s a time to be among friends. It’s a time to reminisce, drink beer and above all play cricket. It’s serene, majestic and magical. I can’t wait.