T.As Douglas Adams put it in Life, the Universe and Everything, the world ends right after England reclaims the Ashes on a glorious late summer day at Lords. The sun was shining on a happy crowd, Adams wrote. It sparkled on white hats and red faces. It shone on popsicles and melted them. It shone on the tears of little children whose popsicles had just melted and fallen off the stick. It shone in the trees, it flashed on the revolving cricket bats. If the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that there are worse ways to watch the end of days than from a seat in the back of the Tavern Stand.
When the England and Wales Cricket Board first announced that the season would be postponed in April, the only obvious comparison to the last time that had happened was during the war years. One of the many differences was that the concern at the time was if and when to stop playing, rather than when and if they could ever start. Finally this year in July, eight weeks late, they did the first test against the West Indies in Southampton, in what would prove to be one of the most remarkable summers of English cricket, as memorable as the last and better, sure, than the one who replaced it.
England women will have a series against the West Indies over the next two weeks and county cricket will stretch into October, but the international men’s season ended Wednesday with the final one-day international against Australia. Every other year, these two limited-overs series would have made three Twenty20s and three ODIs redundant, the result of the administrators’ desperate wardens to squeeze lucrative games into the schedule. This year we were happy to have them. England fans especially, as they were sweetened by Australia’s habit of blowing up when they seemed to be running home in matches they nearly won.
Each ball has felt precious, a welcome relief from the relentless dreadfulness of everything else. Three weeks ago, there were reports that even the ravens in the Tower of London were thinking of throwing him in (which, according to superstition, means the monarchy is about to fall). So, as crazy as it is to be swept up about sports during the pandemic (like a Carry On parody of life in England), at least it has meant that summer has felt something like it should. The cricket has been a reminder of how things were, a distraction from how things are and an omen of how they can be again.
Considering we were concerned that there would be nothing to watch, a whole lot turned out to be the case, starting with the West Indies famous victory in the first Test in July, a game formed by Shannon Gabriel’s furious fast bowling and Jermaine Blackwoods belligerent batting in the fourth innings.
More than that, the match will be remembered for the extraordinarily eloquent explanation of why Black Lives Matter on Sky was given by Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent during the first morning’s rain delay and a call for change echoed throughout the game. It’s up to the ECB, and the provinces, and the rest of us, to follow suit.
At Old Trafford the following week, there was a man-of-the-match turn from Ben Stokes, who beat better than ever, that delicious January-century molasses from Dom Sibley and Stuart Broad, who expressed his anger for was dropped for the previous game in a six-wicket haul. In the next Test, he took his 500th wicket when England took another win in the come-from-behind series. Then, a short ODI streak against Ireland, three games were squeezed into a week, the best of which was the third, ending in a famous victory for Ireland following a 214-point partnership between Paul Stirling and Andy Balbirnie.
Then the series against Pakistan, with their dazzling bowling attack, all blisteringly fast pacemen and seductive leg spinners. After four days, they had won England in bits in the fourth innings, five wickets and 160 runs away. 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, devastated for five days by poor lighting, a match best forgotten. Then the third Test, Zak Crawleys monumental 267 and a final milestone, Jimmy Anderson’s 600th Test wicket.
There has been a lot of talk about how hard everyone has worked to make this happen, how much the game owes to the players, yes, and all the administrators and support staff as well. At the end, however, a sour report, a press release from the ECB’s CEO, Tom Harrison, explaining what a wonderful summer it had been, saying how proud he was of the way everyone had worked together and how now. he had to fire 62 people because the game had lost 200m. The amount will double if there is more nuisance next year.
Fortunately, the previous ECB regime, under Giles Clarke, has built up a cash reserve of 71 million euros to protect the game against exactly these kinds of situations. Sadly, Clarkes’s successor as chairman, Colin Graves, appears to have spent most of the money on the 100, and in the most recent ECB accounts, the fund had fallen to 17 million. It was a lot of fun while it lasted, but after that it feels more difficult to suspend disbelief about the state of the game and what a long, difficult winter it is going through.