It is early in April. A long way away, on an island off the south-eastern coast of India, England are playing a Test match against Sri Lanka.
There it is fiercely hot and sappingly humid. At least once in every hour the players take drinks in an attempt to guard against dangerous dehydration.
This is contemporary Test cricket. Except when England are playing, few people watch, but the match is urgently covered by the multi-faceted beast that is the modern media. People, some of whom have even played the game to a high standard, observe what is happening, analyse it and write about it for newspapers, for magazines, for websites. They talk about it on television and on radio. They blog and they tweet. Sometimes, for them, the temperature becomes hard to bear and they complain about the air conditioning in the press box. In a sense they are lucky, but in another they are not to be envied. They are missing the start of the county cricket season.
I am not there. I might wish to be, but I cannot afford to take the time away from work or pay the air fare. No, I am in a small town in the provincial south-west of England, waiting in vain for Somerset’s first match of the 2012 County Championship to start.
The sky over Taunton is a deep cast of grey. Indeed, at times, it barely appears to be properly light. It is also raining. Not very hard - for every English cricket follower knows proper rain all too well - but with too much momentum and persistence to allow a prompt start. It is also jarringly, numbingly, sickeningly, cold. Unlike at the P.Saravanamuttu Stadium, nobody is removing any items of clothing. Instead they are wearing gloves, scarves and coats in an attempt to protect themselves from the north-easterly wind. For many, as a futile final line of defence, a blanket is draped across their knees. The last two weeks of March, when the sun shone incessantly from an azure sky, is a now a distant and unreliable memory.
We are among the faithful. Most of these people will have waited all winter for this, anticipating the time when they can fill their trusty old bags - and many, like their owners, have seen much better days - with their flasks, their sandwiches and their printed works of statistical reference. Indeed, interest in events in Sri Lanka is only lukewarm, but, when an announcement over the public address system informs the ‘crowd’ that the 2012 edition of the Playfair Cricket Annual has just been delivered and is available to be bought from the shop, a murmur of anticipation ripples around the ground. These are people who know what they like and what gives them pleasure.
After the rain stops, the players tentatively make their way on to the field to warm up. For the game’s native Englishmen the conditions are familiar, if far from pleasant, but for a man such as Vernon Philander, born and bred on the Western Cape of South Africa, they are alien and strange. He moves slowly and tentatively, as if fearing that to break into even a brief trot is to invite his taut bowler’s muscles to rebel. But within a while, he, and his new team-mates, are ready to play.
Somerset win the toss and invite Middlesex to bat. On the first afternoon of the game the London county lose four wickets, three of them to Philander, who exhibits the virtues which have enabled him to make an exceptional start to his Test career. But these virtues are, in fact, unexceptional and old-fashioned. He bowls at a brisk fast-medium and hits an off-stump line with painstaking, repetitive accuracy. Occasionally he will move the ball away just enough to pass or catch the edge of the bat and he gains plenty of bounce from the responsive pitch.
Only thirty-six overs are possible before the umpires decide that it is too dark to play on. However, to most people in the ground, the light is no worse than it was when play started and there is a suspicion that the men in white coats simply want to put everyone, themselves included, out of their misery.
The following day, Good Friday, dawns bright, but it is still cold. I recklessly decide to spend the first session of the day sitting in the Old Pavilion, where the re-upholstered cinema seats afford a peerless view of the cricket, but I am compelled to leave when my fingers and toes start to go numb. Whatever the difficulties experienced by the England bowlers as they try to work their way through the determined Sri Lankan batting in far away Colombo, frostbite is not among them.
Somerset make relatively short work of the Middlesex batting and begin their own first innings fluently. They are pegged back when Arul Suppiah and the seemingly invulnerable Marcus Trescothick are dismissed, but Nick Compton and Craig Kieswetter bring the innings round, first slowly and then with increasing fluency, as the day fades to the gloom and cold of early evening.
Compton, playing against his former county, bats with a self-conscious diligence which his illustrious grandfather can rarely have emulated, although any bad balls are dismissed with power and timing to spare.
Kieswetter is different. His crouched stance is slightly ungainly, but, as he begins to feel more secure at the crease, he plays a series of cuts and drives which are distinctive for their clean, unfettered, timing and power. Like his partner he learned to bat on the hard, true pitches of South Africa, but, in his case, it is instantly noticeable. Natural batting class can be hard to define, but you always know when you’ve seen it.
On the following day play is again shortened by the weather but Somerset manoeuvre themselves into a dominant position, with Kieswetter making 83 and Compton finally falling for 99. On Easter Sunday the game is won.
It has been said before, but watching English county cricket is still, for those who love and respect it, one of the finest sporting experiences available in Britain. Crowds are never large - though they are usually larger than the sceptics would claim - and standards are never what they were, but a day or two at a ground such as Taunton gives you a sense that you are inhabiting an oasis, away from all the world’s madnesses.
The game has a lineage that goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century, and, while they may not realize it - modern professional sporting culture allows little time for contemplation or sentimentality - the players, in their sponsored whites and their sunglasses, are the heirs to the tradition of Grace, Hobbs, Mead, Woolley, the Langridges and so many more. We, the spectators, are the ones who have the time to consider such things, but it is the players themselves who inherit the tradition and maintain it.
And it’s worth something. Even when it’s really, really cold.
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