What Cricket Does

In the past few days one old cricketer has died and another has announced his retirement. In terms of seriousness or finality they cannot be compared, but, in its own way, cricket mourns them both.

The death of David Capel hit me hard. Unexpectedly so. He was someone I’d seen play a little for Northants back in what now seems like a distant and opaque era: of single division county cricket, of plentiful outgrounds, even of matches that only lasted three days. But, as with so many players, memories are distilled through the medium of television, of radio, of the written media. For me, Capel will forever be associated in the memory with his one and only innings of real substance for England, 98, made in Karachi in the third Test match of England’s notorious tour of Pakistan in late 1987. Tormented by a combination of great spin bowling, chiefly from Abdul Qadir, and some of the worst umpiring ever seen in Test cricket, Capel’s long innings was a quiet epic. The type of knock where you left the radio (no live TV coverage then) to go shopping, came back to your car two hours later and found to your astonishment that England’s innings hadn’t finished and he was still batting.

There were other times, though: getting Viv out twice in Bridgetown in early 1990, as England began the long pushback against years of West Indian superiority, or gesticulating through the gloom as the Port of Spain Test came to a shuddering halt. But, in truth, David Capel was a man of the English county circuit. He grew to maturity there, he left his mark there – as much in terms of his humanity as his runs and wickets – and he finished his career there. The heartfelt responses of many of his former team-mates and players whom he coached and befriended testified to his popularity and exemplified the unshakeable bond that exists between those who have spent the best years of their cricketing lives treading the boards in the English provinces. Unlike many, Capel had tasted life at the top table, but the source of his reputation lay closer to home.

It is a truism that cricket, and all that goes with it, reveals character like no other sport. An element of this, at first-class level, where games take days to play and time away from home is part and parcel, is the amount of time that players spend together both at and away from the arenas where they ply their trade. This leads to a depth of knowledge, respect and emotion that feels unique. Rob Bailey was just a little younger than David Capel, played hundreds of matches with him and shared many moments of collaboration, triumph and intense disappointment, including several on that tour of the Caribbean. No wonder he was in tears as he went out to umpire at Edgbaston on the day following Capel’s death.

This is what cricket, especially county cricket, does.

Ian Bell was different. Ian Bell was a prodigy. Ian Bell found a high level of fulfilment at Test level, although I would argue that he never quite achieved what he was capable of. But then which of us does? It is always a judgment call and it is never an exact science. In common with many another English player – many another player from anywhere and everywhere – there is a feeling that he didn’t realise just how good he was capable of being.

Ultimately, though, this doesn’t matter at all. What matters are the shimmering memories of Ian Bell easing the ball through extra cover with an easy elegance and a tiny, slightly self-conscious, flourish. What matters is Ian Bell’s part in a short but golden era (which for many went unrecognised since it lay behind a television paywall) when England were the best cricket team in the world. What may matter in the future is keeping the memory of outstanding batsmen and men such as Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott and Paul Collingwood alive when people’s recollections are focused on those – Vaughan, KP, Strauss, Swann – who, through personality, or seniority, or choice of future career, are more easily recalled.

This will happen, though, as it always has. People will be talking about players. They will be complimenting and comparing them, and someone, probably me, will say ‘Ah, but you should have seen Ian Bell bat’.

This is what cricket does.

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