First World Thinking

There was once a time – we can call it 2019 – when we in the world’s rarefied zones of privilege could lapse into thinking that we were immune from death. The feeling could drift at times, sure, with the death of an elderly relative, even parents, just as long as they’d lived until the arbitrary point where their passing didn’t come as a shock and you felt that they’d lived a full life.

Age diminishes this – and didn’t I know it, even before today – but what kills it stone dead (no pun intended) are pandemics, and wars and the death of the greats.

Over the last two years we have seen and heard of too many deaths for it ever to seem a remote possibility again. Deaths from Covid-19 and now deaths in war. Not in Africa or the Middle East but in Europe, and the result of a calculated invasion and not ageless sectarian tensions (which is not, of course, to overlook or accept what happened over generations in Northern Ireland or the Balkans).

So, if we didn’t before, we know we are all vulnerable, all the time. Life is just as fragile, just as precious as it has always been. Living in the first world – even as one of the greatest cricketers there ever was – guarantees you nothing.

One minute it is morning in England in early March; you notice how early the sun has risen and the clarity of the light. The next you are thinking about what is happening in Ukraine, where people have more pressing things on their minds than the coming of Spring. The next you are taking in the fact that Rodney Marsh has died. Rodney Marsh, who you saw from the very earliest time you knew what cricket was; Rodney Marsh, who was just about the first international cricketer you ever came close to (you were standing next to the pavilion steps at Chelmsford when he led the Australian team out, throwing his fag away and telling your 11 year-old cricket friend where to go (impolitely, it must be said) when he asked for an autograph). But Rodney Marsh was 74, and you knew that had recently suffered a heart attack, so it wasn’t especially shocking, just sad in the way that deaths of great sportspeople always are to those of us who believe.

Soon it is early afternoon. The sun is still shining and you are at home trying to work. You struggle to concentrate; it has been a crowded and draining week, although that is just an excuse really. So you look at Twitter and the first thing you see is that Shane Warne has died. Looking back you’re not sure what you said, but it probably bore a strong similarity to the expletive used by Rod Marsh that time in Essex 45 years ago.

This is different. For one thing Shane Warne is – was – younger than you. Shane Warne was one of the best people ever to do what he did; Shane Warne was famous; Shane Warne was (you assume) rich. Shane Warne wasn’t living in Ukraine; Shane Warne didn’t have Covid-19. But Shane Warne was dead. In a few weeks it will be the cricket season in England; he will not see it.

Like anyone who was interested in cricket (and you were much more than simply ‘interested’) in the years either side of the millennium you had your memories of Warne. In lots of aspects they are the same as everyone else’s, but the random fragments coalesce rapidly into thoughts about The Oval on Monday 12th September 2005. This is far from surprising since you think about that day a lot. It is one of the times in your life (along with the week you spent at the London Olympics) about which you are inclined to think that people who weren’t there can never know what it was like. You can only reach for clichés about there being ‘something in the air’ and they are inadequate. You had to be there.

Shane Warne was there. He bowled from the start that day in an atmosphere pregnant with hopes, dreams and suppressed euphoria. As you watched Vaughan and Trescothick battle away against him you saw a great bowler who wasn’t going to let the Ashes, held by his country since long before he became a Test cricketer, slip without a fight. Of course, ultimately, slip they did, and a dropped catch by Warne himself sealed their fate. It was the best of times for some of us, and it was the worst of times for others.

Only later do you remember that years earlier you saw Warne take a hat-trick at the MCG on your birthday, but that was a different time. England were falling headlong to depressing defeat in a cavernous ground. There were no resonances.

In these turbulent days when our first world thinking can lapse in a different way Рtowards a feeling that all the old certainties are gone for good (and they are, because of course they were never certain at all) Рwe need sport, and we need cricket, and we need our recollections more than anything else. Once more it is clich̩, but if the present is too difficult to bear and the future is as uncertain as it ever was, you can always think about a better time in the past. Things are different there.

Old players’ epitaphs are not engraved in stone; they are made of memories. Memories of days when the Ashes came home and you walked back to Victoria Coach Station in the September twilight; memories of remembered glory; memories of times when life and the world was better.

Shane Warne, with all his skill, and optimism and ingenuous joviality, would have settled for that.

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