Context is seemingly the new buzzword around cricket. The ICC bigwigs are meeting in Auckland to thrash out the details of some manner of international championship, a proposed league system that will breathe new life into the sport at it’s highest level. Test cricket, apparently, lacks context. I know just how it feels. My relationship with cricket lacks context.
The hardest part of returning to the summer game was not reacquainting myself the rules. Nor was it learning the names and faces of current players. In fact, nothing that happened inside the boundary rope caused me any real difficulty. It was that which takes place off the field that I have struggled with.
Just over twelve months ago I was on the train home from Edgbaston following the events of the final afternoon of the season. Whilst the drama at Lord’s was garnering most of the attention, I had my eye on the goings on at Southampton. Having just watched Lancashire lose to Warwickshire, my fingers were crossed for Durham to beat Hampshire and confirm the Red Rose’s continued presence in Division One.
By the time I arrived home, Middlesex were champions, Hampshire were relegated and Lancashire remained where they were. Their was a surge of positive coverage about county cricket. I felt like I had been involved in something truly special, but it can’t have been more than four days before a crack in the love affair started to show.
There were rumours of Durham’s precarious financial state. Speculation that the side who finished fourth might end up relegated to Division Two. Hampshire’s Rod Bransgrove rushed to manoeuvre his county into Durham’s grave before the body had even been exhumed. Less than a week later, sentence was passed on the Championship’s northernmost representative. Relegation, points deductions, revised salary caps, withheld prize money and the loss of Test ground status. The gavel had come down, the honeymoon was well and truly over.
Problems weren’t limited to the domestic scene either. From international cricket, news came that India’s ongoing home series with New Zealand was under threat after the BCCI’s bank accounts had been frozen. Whilst the final Test and five ODIs did go ahead, similar clouds hung over England’s own tour there soon after.
The new year would bring fresh intrigue. The resignation of Alastair Cook raised the spectre of the KP affair. Loved and loathed in equal measure, a martyr to some, a pariah to others; it would appear that Pietersen had done something impolite with a blackberry years before. Thankfully the blackberry isn’t one of nature’s larger or spikier fruits.
The question of kolpaks. The future of Headingley. The headlong rush to a franchise T20 league that no one, outside those with a vested interest, seems to actually want. It would truly be a winter of discontent.
The part of the offseason that stuck in my mind the most was Tom Harrison’s appearance on Test Match Special, where the ECB chief executive informed the cricketing public that the penalties handed down to Durham were as harsh as they were in order to, ‘send a message to the other counties’. The message I personally took from this being that Harrison had possibly watched The Godfather once too often.
Did the bosses of those other first-class clubs receive a package at their gates, a dead fish wrapped in a Durham sweater? Or perhaps woke to find the blood-soaked, severed head of their T20 Blast mascot at the foot of their bed upon the eve of the franchise vote? With the shires under gagging orders and sworn to the code of omertà, we may never know. If Tom Harrison will admit to a few too many viewings of Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia epic, then I will do the same for The Big Lebowski.
The Coen Brothers’ bowling detective story is not a film that immediately comes to mind when you think of cricket – barring a short scene where a ponytailed nihilist waves his willow about in the Dude’s bathroom. However, I do feel a sort of kinship with one of the characters with regards to my return to the sport.
Early on in the story, Theodore Donald Kerabatsos, known for the most part as Donny, is described as someone who arrives partway through a film and wishes the plot explained to him. He is told that he is out of his element, that he has no frame of reference. He even manages to confuse revolutionary communist Vladimir Lenin with John Lennon, the Beatle.
Like Donny, I feel out of my element with the recent occurrences around cricket. I have no frame of reference for the happenings of the current landscape. Last year, I even mixed up Ian Bell and Geraint Jones. For around two decades, I’d been off bowling strikes, but had turned up in time to catch the back end of a conversation and found myself unsure how it had started or where it was going.
Unlike Donny, I have so far kept my mouth shut on larger matters that I’m not entirely clear on – unless, of course, you see my almost two years of blogging as me simply repeating the phrase, ‘I am the walrus’ over and over again.
Somewhat naively, I hadn’t expected there to be quite so much turmoil at work in the gentleman’s game. About the most earth-shattering event to happen back in the mid-90s was the discovery of earth, there in Michael Atherton’s pockets. Although, to me, this didn’t seem that big of a deal as my school trousers were similarly inclined to collect more than their fair share of dirt and grime. Ball-tampering was a phrase my teenage self sniggered at and assumed to be a euphemism referring to fielders whose hands spent too long burrowed deep in their flannels.
During my time out in the cold, only a few cricketing tales would reach me. The fall from grace of Hanse Cronje, Bob Woolmer’s death and the infamous Lord’s Test of 2010 – although, up until last year, I was unaware that the culprits had actually served time in prison. Only news of a sufficiently salacious manner would make a big enough splash to carry it to me.
Following the developments of last winter, I had hoped this year’s might turn out to be a milder one – Australian cricket having decided their fortieth anniversary production of 1977’s cricket war didn’t need an extended run – and yet, here we are.
Only a few weeks after the domestic season has finished, and complications are once more piling up. Several members of England’s Ashes squad suspended for late night shenanigans. South Africa’s franchise T20 league cancelled a month before it was due to start and put back until next year and fans of the County Championship still none the wiser over who will join Warwickshire in Division Two next season – the curious case of the Oval arrow remaining open for the time being.
So what to do. Well, I could spend the offseason devouring every Wisden since my exile in a bid for more understanding. An endeavour that would not only be time-consuming, but also rather expensive. Not to mention the strange dreams I might suffer as a result of gorging on twenty-years worth of the weighty cheese-coloured tome. Alternatively, I could hibernate and wait for April to return the simple pleasure of merely watching the game itself.
It’s like Lenin said… er, you know… er, I am the walrus?