Read It and Weep

I've never made much of it here before but for many years my day job ('What do you do in real life?' Matthew Engel asked me the other week) involved looking after archives. These days I spend more time encouraging others to value them, but I still pass most of my days surrounded by registers, by maps, by deeds, by wills, by letters. I like it, and I can get days off to watch cricket.

We value the things we look after and we try not to let them get eaten by insects. This, at the most basic level, is part of our ethos.

Because of this, and perhaps because I've been reading and thinking about Wisden and the game's rich written heritage more than usual recently, I was truly shocked by this, which Aakash Chopra, the former Indian Test batsman, was good enough to post on Twitter yesterday.

As my friend Chris Smith, of Declaration Game, has suggested, the sad state of the Kanga Memorial Library could be regarded as a metaphor for Indian cricket; that beneath the gleaming facade of the IPL, or in this case the redeveloped Wankhede Stadium, the infrastructure of the game, or the fabric of its history, has been left to wither.

It's hard to know what to do. This is a library I've never visited in a country I've never visited. But, at the moment, I feel as though I ought to do something.

I'm going to explore a few avenues and report back.

In the meantime, read it and weep.


The Wisden Experience

In the first chapter of Rain Men, A Matter of Faith, Marcus Berkmann likens cricket to fundamentalist religion:

'...Cricket is a matter of faith. Either you believe or you don't believe. There is no rational explanation...We have the devilishly complex theology, whose baroque byways confuse even the most dedicated adherents. We have the curious vestments, for white is a holy colour in many religions. We have our holy book, published each April in both hardback and paperback editions.'

In what is possibly my favourite part of a great book, Berkmann is both persuasive and hilarious. However, questions arise. If Wisden is cricket's holy book, what is the status of the editor? Cricket's Archbishop of Canterbury? Its Pope? Or someone more senior?

Like any self-respecting cricket tragic (and, I suspect, plenty with no self-respect whatsoever), I've been reading Wisden since I was a lad and I always liked the idea of writing something which would appear in it. Until last year, I wasn't really sure how I was going to do it. A bit like the many cricketers with glorious futures behind them who ply their trade on the country's club grounds on the increasingly rare British days when it isn't raining, I probably felt that the opportunity to taste the big time (like the chance to open the batting for England at Lord's) had passed me by.

I could have been a contender.

Then came the Wisden Writing Competition. I wrote something and sent it in, just ahead of the deadline. For the next couple of months I largely forgot about it. My father became ill and subsequently died. Life, in the shadow of the longest British winter of modern times, went on.

One office-bound morning at the end of January, while I was trying to decide which of a thousand competing demands on my time I was going to tackle first, I noticed that I'd received an e-mail from the Editor of Wisden, Lawrence Booth. He was telling me that I'd won the competition, inviting me to the Wisden Dinner and asking me to keep the news to myself 'for the time being'.

This was it. A message from cricket's Archbishop of Canterbury. Or perhaps it was more akin to a missive from the monarch. Every year, when people (some of them cricketers) receive OBEs or Knighthoods, they mention the fact that they were told to keep the news secret.

'Oh, it was difficult', they say. And they're right.

In the end, people are told, sartorial advice (for a Black Tie virgin) sought and my bank account left reeling. April comes, and I find myself in the Long Room Bar at Lord's, drinking champagne.

Life can be tough sometimes.

Then a barely audible fire alarm sounds, quickly followed by a man telling us to evacuate the building. Within minutes I'm standing outside the pavilion in the murky drizzle, surrounded by the pride of the British cricket media and one or two people who've even made the odd Test match run.

Life can be interesting sometimes.

The cause of the alarm is rapidly dealt with and we return to more important matters, such as eating, drinking and congratulating people. Toasts are proposed and drunk, leather-bound Wisdens are presented to deserving candidates, and speeches are delivered with appropriateness and sensitivity. Nick Compton talks of his first encounter with English cricket, in the company of his grandfather and Peter Parfitt (who is sitting nearby), while Michael Palin expertly evokes the atmosphere of backyard Test matches in 1950s Sheffield and concludes by reciting a classic Monty Python sketch. Everywhere there is reminiscence and the exchange of the seasoned anecdote. I speak to various well-known people, none of whom have any idea who I am.

In many ways it is like a journey through the adolescence of a cricketing child of the 1970s and 1980s, who may well have spent more time with his nose among the covers of a chocolate and yellow book than is strictly healthy. Selvey is here, Brearley is there, Agnew and Marks are somewhere else. John Woodcock surveys proceedings with the air of a benign éminence grise. David Gower relishes the speeches, laughs in all the right places and finishes the evening in the bar with a few representatives of the press. He may look a little old for his years but to those of us of a certain age he will always be the man who made Test match batting look like the easiest thing in the world.

Unusually, I leave Lord's in darkness. The County Championship season began today, and, of course, it is raining steadily.


A Prior Engagement

Things have been quiet here recently. As ever, too much going on and too little inspiration. However, in the aftermath of the Auckland Test, I wrote this, which subsequently appeared, in slightly edited form, on Cricinfo. I think I got a little carried away, but Matt Prior does that to me.

Anyone who has watched sport for a long time, supported teams, will know what it feels like. From time to time players come along who, to you, are simply better, more captivating, than the rest, often for reasons which can be hard to define and may not be apparent to others. It is a little like falling in love.

To me, Matthew Prior, now at the absolute summit of his powers, is such a player. Here, from personal experience, are some reasons why.

Scene One: Lord's Cricket Ground, Friday 18th May 2007.

It is the afternoon of the second day of the first Test Match between England and the West Indies. By mid-afternoon the piercing early sunshine has faded to haze and the vapid West Indian attack is fading too. England, superior and confident, are 363 for 5 when Matthew Prior of Sussex comes to the wicket. This will be his first innings in Test cricket. We feel we know Prior a little; he has been around England's one-day team for a year or two, opening the batting, achieving little. Now, though, he is the latest person to assume the status of wicket-keeper-batsman in England's Test team, a role which has not been convincingly occupied by anyone - though Geraint Jones has tried hard and briefly flourished - since Alec Stewart retired four years ago. He is a short, muscular man of 25, a product of Sussex, with his shaven head hidden beneath a blue England helmet, proudly worn. He exudes intent and instinctive, unapologetic confidence.

Barely more than two hours later he has made a century, striking at 98 runs per 100 balls. At the day's close the crowd leaves the ground and takes to London's dusty streets in a state of noisy excitement. For once, after a long day at Lord's, this excitement is not exclusively induced by alcohol. We are yet to see Prior keep wicket, but we like what we have seen of his batting. We feel - because, when players start careers like this, you always do - that we could be watching him for many years to come.

Scene Two: Lord's Cricket Ground, Sunday 19th July 2009.

England, after a period of stagnation caused by Kevin Pietersen attempting to bat when he can barely run, require quick runs to enable them to declare and bowl at Australia. Once more, Prior comes to the wicket with the warm July sun on his back against a listing, vulnerable attack. There is a sense among the packed crowd that the tempo of the cricket is about to soar. We now know more of Prior and we expect him to do things like this.

Prior is instantly into his stride, driving Siddle repeatedly for four and then turning his attention more subtly and inventively to Hauritz and Clarke. He defends well when necessary, head still and level, hands and feet in all the right places, but he is the type of player who, you sense, always sees a defensive stroke as a kind of defeat. He is strongest on the off side but anything short or full directed towards leg stump will go for runs. And he runs between the wickets with the low-slung speed of a breaking scrum-half, his lucid blue eyes holding a steely gaze which betrays the intensity of his competitive desire.

In the two years which have elapsed since we first saw him he has spent time out of the team because of weaknesses in his wicket-keeping. Now, though, he has played a vital part in putting England in a position to beat Australia at Lord's for the first time since 1934. He is here to stay.

Scene Three: Lord's Cricket Ground, Sunday 24th July 2011.

This is an afternoon of Lord's afternoons. Once again England are ahead and chasing runs but they have been briefly shocked into unease by a burst of wickets. There is a slight sense of déjà vu as Stuart Broad joins Prior in a vibrant partnership which will go far towards defining the match's outcome.

By English standards it is an unusually clear and warm day, and, as the sun fades and shadow intrudes, the packed grandstand is a vital, hypnotic sight. There is, as always at Lord's, conversation and frequent laughter, but nobody's attention strays far from the play as Prior bends the attack to his will. He faces a range of bowlers - the talented but inconsistent Ishant, the aggressive but fading Harbhajan, the subtle, unpredictable, Praveen Kumar, the lost Suresh Raina - but all come alike as he eases through his concordance of cuts and drives, adjusting the shape of his body to steer the ball to a different part of the boundary. It is off-side batting from the Gods, based on technical proficiency, pin-sharp reflexes and crisp, decisive execution. But it is never hurried, or messy or inappropriate. It is batting to fall in love with, to become obsessed by.

Scene Four: Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand, Tuesday 26th March 2013.

Matthew Prior plays forward, defensively, to Trent Boult. He fails to score but he is not dismissed. He raises his arms in the air to salute England's draw. This isn't normally Prior's style - ostentatious emotion, celebrating drawn matches - but it fits the moment. Thousands upon thousands of miles away, in dark, cold, Britain, sleep-deprived people celebrate with him.

To borrow from and paraphrase John Moynihan, from his classic work on the first twenty years of post-war English football, The Soccer Syndrome:

Is this not why we watch cricket?

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