Knock. knock… knock.
The sound of a leather ball hitting the middle of a willow bat is, for me, the auditory equivalent of the smell of a bare hospital corridor carrying the aroma of antiseptic. Both have the power to take me back in time, though to very different episodes in the Life of Ryrie. Cricket, and hospital corridors, was as much part of my childhood summers as the paddling pool and my birthday were.
My brother ‘knocking in’ a new bat, the incessant banging driving the rest of us half demented, to be followed by his padding up to practise his forward defensive in front of my parent’s full length wardrobe mirrors, a more precise forward defensive you would be hard pushed to find! The disappearance of my father for whole weekends (or so it seemed) when he played for the league and the friendly village sides. The smell of fruit cake wafting through the house along with loaf upon loaf of sliced white bread in preparation for the traditional cricket tea that Mum had inevitably been roped in to supply. The aroma of sweaty jock straps and boxes when the kit bags got dumped in the hallway. The hours on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon spent at The Rec loitering about the pavilion (in the early days a glorified shed, full of character and cobwebby corners, latterly the sparse, clinical village hall), awed by the men in their pristine whites and the elegance of the game. The joy, yes really, of being asked to change the scoreboard at the end of each over. Back then the scoreboard wasn’t a digital affair, but had black metal rectangles painted with white numbers which hung on little hooks fixed into the wooden back board, finding the right numbers would make a satisfying amount of noise to be carried on the summer breezes across the pitch and onwards to the village inhabitants. Village Cricket. Ahh.
At prep school I volunteered to be a scorer for one of the cricket teams. I really don’t know what I was thinking when I stuck up my hand. It was an interesting experience, the team didn’t really talk to me – I was a girl after all, a fact which bemused the opposition as much as my own school peers. I like to think that I prompted a certain amount of respect when I proved I knew how to mark a maiden over and could keep track of wides and no balls, although this probably only exists in my head. I was so shy that on more than one occasion I remember guessing at who the new bowler was because I couldn’t bring myself to shout out to ask, apologies if I unintentionally screwed your stats for the season (fortunately I was only 10 and so this won’t have had any lasting consequences. I hope.)
I think what I loved most about cricket was feeling as though I was part of a team. Thanks to my heart condition I hadn’t been sporty and I had no yearning to pick up a bat and start running between the wickets. This peripheral involvement, whether it was scoring or helping with the teas, was enough and as I got older and some of the village cricketers got younger, I became accepted. I could contribute to the running of a game. I could participate in the banter that was bandied around whilst the batting side sat waiting for their chance of glory. Later still I could join the team at the pub afterwards, shoot some pool (badly) and revel in the glory of a win, or share a couple of pints that would be sure to improve a loss.
Of course there are a couple of down sides to cricket; most of the time not a huge amount happens. You can guarantee you will miss the wicket, or the strike of a six, returning from the loo as the umpire declares a ‘lost ball’. Sweaty boxes are a natural by product of the game, though I believe the jockstrap is no longer necessary as special box pants are available! It also takes so bloody long to play. This is why the modern T20 games (or Twenty20) are a stroke of genius. Each side facing 20 overs (that’s 120 balls) in a total of just 3 hours.
For J’s birthday we celebrated by getting tickets for us to watch Somerset v Gloucestershire at the Somerset County Ground down in Taunton along with my Mum and Dad. I’d never been to a T20 game before and wow, what a difference between that and a Test Match! A Test Match is definitely the Grandaddy of the game. Quiet, refined and masterful, but with moments of pure eccentricity (you just have to listen to Test Match Special to understand where I’m coming from with this). The T20 game is like a hyperactive nephew. Music blasts out whenever a boundary is hit or a wicket falls. There is a mascot that strolls round the boundary line with a cameraman filming the crowd which appears on big screens. There are even people throwing t shirts and other paraphernalia into the stands a la Tour de France Publicity Caravan. This all combines to provide not just an enjoyable game of cricket but an all round form of early evening entertainment (it’s over by 8.30pm so there’s plenty of time for further evening antics should you be so inclined). Just one tiny note: the Family Stand is alcohol free.
Sadly Somerset lost and whilst we didn’t get to witness the legendary Chris Gayle celebratory boogie as his contract with Somerset had already ended, we did get to see Mahela Jayawardene knock a few balls round the park, and we even had a photo posted onto the big screen, yes I am happy to say that J and I thoroughly enjoyed our 5 seconds of fame!
The T20 concept is perfect for introducing professional cricket to children, lots going on and short enough to retain interest levels all fielded in a friendly, carnival atmosphere. I know the purists out there will say otherwise, that test cricket is the way to go. Yes, Test cricket does showcase high levels of skill, both batting and bowling and it has a stamina and elegance that the T20 game simply does not have. But, in this age of social media and mobile media how can a sport that takes 5 days to reach a conclusion (and even then might be a draw) attract the younger generations? Cricket is no longer competing against tennis or athletics, it is competing against Pokemon Go and endless YouTube videos. Unless the sport appeals to a wider audience and a younger audience, unless the sport shows there is more to it than 4 days of endless dots on the page, how will it encourage the next Botham, the next Warne, the next Trescothick into the arena? I think this is the ultimate goal of T20 and as far as I’m concerned it appears to be succeeding.