Returning to Cheltenham

There were times during the long sporting hiatus which followed the fracturing of the world, when it was easy to believe that one’s return to watching county cricket would be emotional. This was because, at the start of the pandemic, it was reassuring to invest in the belief that there would be a time when it would all be over, when everything would return to ‘normal’. That may still come, although nobody who has lived through the blighted era of early Covid will ever be the same as they were in 2019. Physically, if you are fortunate, yes. Psychologically, no. We know too much.

When I last went to the old, venerated Cheltenham College ground to watch cricket, on 15th July 2019, we bathed in the afterglow of England winning the World Cup, the sun shone out of an azure sky, and nobody had any idea of what lay ahead. You never do, of course, but no-one apart from scientists and those supposed to be planning for them ever thought about pandemics, and those supposed to be planning for them in this country didn’t think hard enough. Nobody had ever heard or spoken the word ‘Covid’, or talked about ‘social distancing’ or worn a mask to go the shops. Many people – possibly including some who were at Cheltenham that day – were alive who are now dead as a result of the unspoken word. Life was simple then.

Returning to Cheltenham two years on there was no sense of euphoria or palpable emotion. Simply a collective feeling that maybe, just maybe, the beginning of some sort of end had been reached, although, for some, there may have been an underlying sense of illusory fragility which they cannot escape.

For most, this messy collage of responses fades into the background as play begins to the hum of conversation born of the end of enforced separation. Friends are reunited, as much in thought as in physical proximity, the thought being how much they love cricket and how much they love watching it played in these surroundings. This is what kept them going in the dark days of a locked down January.

As play settles there is a lovely example of the simple humanity of county cricket. When James Bracey, Gloucestershire’s number three, comes to the crease, there is a hint of extra resonance to the applause. The home supporters recognise his proud Bristolian’s role in Gloucestershire’s renaissance, and sympathise with him over his recent Test appearances, during which he struggled with two largely alien roles. For Bracey’s part he repays this loyalty by batting in both innings with an authoritative neatness and judgement which has an element of timelessness about it to match his surroundings. For his surroundings are those of a Victorian English public school; an institution suffused in the cliché of ‘muscular Christianity’ perhaps embodied by Middlesex’s Daryl Mitchell or Matt Taylor of Gloucestershire, although I have no idea how either of them likes to spend their Sunday mornings.

It is also appropriate that Bracey’s main partner in both innings is Miles Hammond. He is a student of architecture and he designs a couple of important knocks, punctuated by powerful cuts and drives which provide a counterpoint to Bracey’s more restrained accumulation. Elsewhere, although gravely let down by their batsmen, Tim Murtagh, 39, and Ethan Bamber, 22, both bowl with energetic purpose and skill, accruing figures which at one point are almost identical. Murtagh is a man who may be able to glimpse the dying of the light but gives no impression of being bothered by it; Bamber resonates fresh-faced enthusiasm and promise. In the Covid world hunches feel dangerous, but there is a feeling that Bamber could go far. He is the sort of cricketer Middlesex need. On the second afternoon, as Gloucestershire build a lead after Middlesex subside, thoughts turn to the way in which empires can crumble; anyone who has been around English cricket since the pre-T20 era will recall the days when Middlesex bestrode English domestic cricket like a colossus. Here, at late Covid Cheltenham the gallows humour of their supporters (“Do Lundy Island have a team?” “We can be the first side to win the Third Division”) indicates the depths to which they have fallen.

But then, if there’s anything that the last sixteen months have taught us it is that nothing is permanent and anything can crumble. The old certainties of the world have been torn asunder by disease, and much of the pleasure of coming to somewhere like Cheltenham lies in a desire to reclaim some small elements of our former lives which can be enjoyed for what they are but also for what they signify.

On the game’s second morning more old certainties come crashing down. News spreads that the England team has been hit by an outbreak of positive Covid tests and one player from either side has been called into the team. David Payne and John Simpson are two players who have never previously engaged the attention of the England selectors, so for them this is far from a return to normality; it is a welcome and unexpected journey into the unknown. Something of the same feeling must permeate the thoughts of Michael Atherton’s son Joshua De Caires, whose first innings in first-class cricket ends early with a raised finger greeting an lbw appeal. His body language as he departs the crease speaks of guilt and unease, but unease is the way of the world these days. He will come again.

For most other people at the ground, a gradual resumption of former lives and their mundanities is all that they want. Overheard conversations speak of altered living arrangements and cancelled holidays, but the tone is one of rumination, not bitterness. Most people know that they are the fortunate ones. Fortunate to have escaped death or Long Covid, fortunate to have been vaccinated, fortunate to be here. They have done things over the past year that they never thought they would have to do, or possibly even believed that they could. They now want to do things that they always did and never thought they would have to stop doing. It can, as one sweatshirt proclaims, be cycling from Cork to Kerry, or it can be watching a cricket match among friends.

We have lived under metaphorical clouds for months on end, but, as we head south-west out of town at the end of the second day, the watery sun dips and real clouds intrude. Rain will soon follow, but we have a sense that something in the world is slowly changing.

That, for now, is enough.

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