The way Douglas Adams told it in Life, the Universe and Everything, the world ends right after England win back the Ashes on a glorious late summer day at Lord’s. “The sun was shining on a happy crowd,” Adams wrote. “It shone on white hats and red faces. It shone on ice lollies and melted them. It shone on the tears of small children whose ice lollies had just melted and fallen off the stick. It shone on the trees, it flashed off the whirling cricket bats.” If the last few months have taught us anything much, it’s that there would be worse ways to see out the end of days than from a seat at the back of the Tavern Stand.
When the England and Wales Cricket Board first announced the season would be postponed in April, the only obvious comparison was with the last time that had happened, during the war years. One of the many differences being that back then the worry was whether and when they ought to stop playing, rather than when or whether they would ever be able to start. They finally did this year in July, eight weeks late, against West Indies in Southampton, the first Test in what would turn out to be one of the more remarkable summers of English cricket, as memorable as the one before it and better, surely, than the one it replaced.
England women have a series against West Indies coming up in the next fortnight and county cricket is going to stretch on into October, but the men’s international season finished on Wednesday with the last one-day international against Australia. Any other year, these two limited-overs series – three Twenty20s and three ODIs – would have felt superfluous, the upshot of the administrators’ desperation to squeeze lucrative matches into the schedule. This year we’ve been glad to have them. England fans especially so, since they were sweetened by Australia’s habit of blowing up when they looked to be coasting home in games they had all but won.
Every ball has felt precious, a welcome relief from the unremitting awfulness of everything else. Three weeks ago, there were reports that even the ravens in the Tower of London were thinking of chucking it in (which means, according to superstition,the monarchy is about to fall). So, silly as it is to get swept up talking about sport during the pandemic (like some Carry On parody of life in England) it has at least meant the summer has felt something like it’s supposed to. The cricket has been a reminder of the way things were, a distraction from the way things are and an augur of how they may yet be again.
Given we worried there would be nothing to watch, there has turned out to be an awful lot, starting with West Indies’ famous victory in the first Test in July, a game shaped by Shannon Gabriel’s furious fast bowling and Jermaine Blackwood’s belligerent batting in the fourth innings.
More than that, the match will be remembered for the superbly eloquent explanation of why Black Lives Matter given on Sky by Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent during the rain delay on the first morning and a call for change that has echoed through the game. The onus is on the ECB, and the counties, and the rest of us, to follow through on it.
At Old Trafford the following week, there was a man-of-the-match turn from Ben Stokes, batting better than ever, that delightful molasses-in-January century from Dom Sibley and Stuart Broad, channelling his anger at being dropped for the previous match into a six-wicket haul. In the next Test he picked up his 500th wicket as England completed another come-from-behind series victory. Then, a short ODI series against Ireland, three games squeezed into a week, the best of them the third, which ended in a famous victory for Ireland after a 214-run partnership between Paul Stirling and Andy Balbirnie.
After that the series against Pakistan, with their dazzling bowling attack, all blisteringly quick pacemen and beguiling leg-spinners. After four days they had England in bits in the fourth innings, five wickets down and 160 runs away from winning. Then came a match-winning sixth-wicket partnership between Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes. It was the best Test of the summer. It was followed by the worst, five days blighted by bad light, a match best forgotten. Then the third Test, Zak Crawley’s monumental 267 and one last landmark, Jimmy Anderson’s 600th Test wicket.
There has been a lot of talk about how hard everyone had worked to make this happen, how much the game owes to the players, yes, and also all the administrators and support staff. At the end, though, a sour note, a press release from the ECB’s chief executive, Tom Harrison, explaining what a glorious summer it had been, saying how proud he was of the way everyone had pulled together and how, now, at the end of it all, he was going to have to make 62 people redundant because the game had lost £200m. The amount will double if there is more disruption next year.
Fortunately, the previous ECB regime, under Giles Clarke, built up a £71m cash reserve to protect the game against exactly this sort of situation. Unfortunately, Clarke’s successor as chairman, Colin Graves, seems to have spent most of it on the Hundred and in the ECB’s most recent set of accounts, the fund had dwindled to £17m. It was good fun while it lasted, but after that it feels harder to suspend disbelief about the state the game is in and what a long, difficult winter it is facing.