Three memories of cricket in 2020

1) England v West Indies, Shannon Gabriel to Zak Crawley
It had been an emotional few days. It was early July, deep in lockdown, and we didn’t know whether we would see any cricket at all, when we would be back at grounds or even when we would get outside properly into the open air. Then, in the middle of Sky’s usual speculation about team selection and pitch conditions, commentators Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent invited us into a different kind of isolation: their lifelong prison, the prison of racism, with a searing 15 minutes of television. I can add nothing to their words except to say that they lose none of their power on repeated viewings – so click now.

We took a deep breath and, shaken up, bore in mind the words of the Italian football manager, Arrigo Sacchi – who described his sport as “the most important of the unimportant things in life” – and settled in for some Test cricket. To the immense credit of the players, the ECB, CWI, the broadcasters and everyone at the Ageas Bowl, Test cricket is exactly what we got, fought hard and fair with quarter neither asked nor given. Without a crowd, it sounded and looked different, but nobody could doubt for a second that it mattered.

Greater even than the joy of your side winning is that inward glow of pleasure that suffuses your whole being when a new talent emerges, one ready to write Test cricket’s future history, a torch illuminating a path that had never looked darker.

Shannon Gabriel was bowling fast and had a new ball in hand. He hit a length just outside off stump and Zak Crawley stood tall to punch it with a vertical bat through the covers. I thought of Barry Richards, who had played so many matches in the same county if not the same ground, or, more prosaically perhaps, of Michael Atherton, but he played the shot ever so slightly hunched – stiff in the back as always. Maybe VVS Laxman too, though he wouldn’t have hit it as hard, or Inzamam-ul-Haq with his economy of movement. Here was a player indeed.

Crawley scored just 10 more runs as England collapsed, the West Indies going on to a famous win and Zak was to find himself in and out of the XI, as England wondered whether it was too soon for him to become a fixture in the top order. Against Pakistan, in the final Test of the summer, he provided 267 answers.

2) The Bob Willis Trophy
I read a tweet that praised “The Bob” and suggested its structure might act as a template for the 2021 County Championship because “it took up less time.” For many of us, we would be happy to see the 2021 County Championship take up pretty much every day from mid-April to mid-September, but I guess we might find some room for the 50-overs knockout matches and the T20 crowdpleasers under lights.

Somehow, the ECB not only got the show on the road (and, again, gratitude and kudos to everyone involved), but what a fine show it was: innovative, competitive and starring a marvellous cast of old favourites and new faces. The streams, though variable in quality, were a lockdown lifeline and the daily reports (please take note anyone with the power to preserve this ancient craft next summer) were a delight to read, an oasis of calm in a summer in which time was out of joint.

In the final, in the cold and the wind, Alastair Cook, knight of the realm, batted on and on to win the first ever Bob for his beloved Essex. County cricket mattered to a man who has achieved pretty much everything Test cricket has to offer – and it matters to quiet, faceless millions too, from the one who turns up with his dog in April, to those who just like to catch the scores in the paper or on the radio from time to time.

In 2021, the sporting calendar will be packed like a White House swearing-in of a Supreme Court judge. It might be easy (and convenient for some) if the County Championship were to slide into the shadows, but mark these words – ground, once ceded, will never be recovered. The Summer Game must hold its own and we should all do our bit.

3) New Zealand v West Indies first Test
It wasn’t much of a match. New Zealand were far too good for a ramshackle West Indies side possibly feeling the pace of their schedules in this year like no other. But that didn’t matter.

Everything about the match stood in contrast to the recent overloads of T20 cricket with its garish colour pallet, its gruesome heaves to leg, its gargantuan stadiums. That format has its place and it can make for a fun evening out, but how many times can one cope with that sensory assault, as 57 is chased down off the last four overs yet again, without tapping out?

Seddon Park in Hamilton was the antidote I needed. Grassy banks, glorious sunshine and a palpably human scale provided the environment for Kemar Roach, his father having died on the eve of the match, to bowl his heart out, fortune, good or bad, met with the same smile. Kane Williamson played an epic Test innings, leaving when he should, defending or missing the good ones, hitting the bad ones, his heart seemingly bouncing off a rev limiter set to 50, a master craftsman at the top of his game. Neil Wagner, having had a tutorial from Trent Boult on the boundary the previous day, swung the ball beautifully as, joined by Tim Southee and the impressive newcomer, Kyle Jamieson, the Kiwis got home with an innings to spare, only Jermaine Blackwood and Alzarri Joseph resisting.

On the New Zealand Cricket YouTube channel a couple of voices I had not heard before perfectly captured the two most important elements of Test cricket commentary. Jeetan Patel coolly and clearly explained the technical side of what the players were trying to do and why, and went on to suggest what they might try next. The game is opaque (and, gloriously, the more you watch it, the more opaque it becomes) but his insights were most welcome and beautifully delivered.

Grant Elliott set the tone with as a wonderfully relaxed presence, describing the plays but asking questions of his co-commentators with a voice so soft that it took a moment to register just how pertinent his enquiries were. In the cutaways, he lounged a little in his chair and I half-expected to see a panama and a cheroot in a holder nearby ready for his break – in a year characterised by relentless discomfort, he looked like a man comfortable in his own skin. What a contrast with the incessant jabbering of their Australian counterparts.

The best memory went above and beyond cricket and takes me back to where I came in. The country whose leadership and populace led the world in their single-minded determination to defeat the virus were reaping their rewards. Kids played pick-up cricket round the back of the scoreboard; spectators wandered about half watching the cricket, half enjoying a summer’s day; and men and women sat at tables, drink in hand, laughing at tall tales of matches called off for snow in Invercargill back in the 1970s.