The road to 229, and other stories


This is a post about cricket. A post about Test cricket. A boring, mind-numbing post about some of the numbers in Test cricket. Some very particular and arcane numbers. You have been warned.

The scoreboard in my garden

15 March 1877. That’s the day when the first officially recognised Test match began, between England and Australia, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).

3 January 2022. 52,889 days later. Today. Tests #2444 and #2445 are in flight, the first between New Zealand and Bangladesh at Mount Maunganui, the other between South Africa and India at Johannesburg.

Each Test consists of up to four team innings, up to two per team. Each team innings consists of up to 11 completed batsman’s innings (although at least one batsman per innings would remain “not out” at the end of the innings. So each Test match is capable of generating up to 44 completed batsman’s innings.

I haven’t counted all the completed innings so far; my guess would be that there have been over 90,000 such innings so far, perhaps as many as 100,000. (Here, I speak solely about men’s cricket, and solely about the Test variety. While more attention is being paid to the women’s game, I have yet to find good sources of in-depth statistical information that I can use. I’m sure this will be rectified in the next few years. It’s been a long time coming).

The bingo board

Over those 2445 Tests (*and counting), the highest score ever made by a batsman in a single completed innings has been adjusted regularly, as shown below:

During the first Test, at the MCG in 1877, Charles Bannerman, an English-born Australian, scored 165 and set a high bar for everyone else to follow. That record would stand for another seven years, until Billy Murdoch, another Australian, scored 211 in the 16th Test, at the Oval, in August 1884.

Murdoch’s 211 remained the target to beat till 1903, when RE “Tip” Foster became the first Englishman to hold the title. He scored 287 that year, away to the Australians at the SCG. (Incidentally, Tip Foster apparently remains the only person to have captained England at both cricket as well as football).

Foster held the record for another 27 years, till Andy Sandham, another Englishman, went past the magical 300 mark at the 4th Test versus the West Indies in 1930, in Kingston. He scored 325.

Sandham wasn’t to wear the crown for long; barely three months later, Don Bradman whipped it off him, returning control to the Aussies, with his 334 at Leeds. Less than three years later, Wally Hammond reclaimed it for England, scoring 336 versus New Zealand in Auckland.

It stayed with England for a while after that. Len Hutton’s 364 versus Australia at the Oval in 1938 raised the bar again. It would stay that way till well after the Second World War. Hutton’s 364 was only the second time the high score was set by a batsman playing at home. The only previous instance was Bannerman’s 165, English-born, playing in his adopted home.

The first seven holders of the “highest Test score” record were either English (4) or Australian (3). The eighth holder, West Indian maestro Gary Sobers, became the first outside those two countries, with his 365 extending Hutton’s record, which had stood nearly 20 years, by just one run. While it was another “home” achievement, what stood out was that it was Sobers’ maiden century: the 21-year old had never scored a century before, much less a triple.

36 years later, the title moved again, but stayed with the West Indies. Brian Lara became the ninth holder of the High Score record, scoring 375 versus England, at home, at St John’s, Antigua in 1994. Nearly a decade later, Matthew Hayden briefly usurped Lara with a 380 versus Zimbabwe in Perth, to become the 10th holder of the title. Barely six months later, in 2004, the crown settled again on Brian Lara’s head, as he scored 400, again at home, at St John’s, Antigua.

And that’s the story of the men’s cricket single-completed-innings high score trail. Since Bannerman’s 165 in the first ever Test, the sequence has been 211-287-325-334-336-364-365-375-380-400. Eleven stops in all. Just ten holders, including the incumbent, who has held it twice. And no movement for nearly 18 years.

So why 229?

I mentioned a bingo board. If you’ve read this far, you will know that the highest score was slowly yet inexorably taken from 0 (the lowest possible score) to 400, over the 2445 intervening Tests, two of which are still in play as I write.

Now think of all the individual scores that have been achieved in that time. Thousands of Tests, probably a hundred thousand completed innings. We can create a “bingo card” with all those scores: we know that the smallest number is 0 and that the largest is 400. Every time a batsman completes an innings, we scratch that number off. What’s the lowest unscratched number? As of today, that’s 229. And it’s been 229 since Thursday 2nd January 2003, nineteen years yesterday, when Herschelle Gibbs scored 228 versus Pakistan at Cape Town.

Development of the lowest unscratched number

I’m nuts about cricket; those of you who know me would have expected me to do this, to plot the movement of the lowest unscratched number, the history and future of 229. So here it is.

Surprisingly, after just one Test, the lowest unscratched number was 14. By the end of the second Test, it had moved to 16, after Harry Charlwood removed 14 from play. The fourth Test took it further to 25, as George Bonnor scored 16; the next Test, the fifth, moved the needle to 29, courtesy Jack Blackham’s 25.

We then had a brief gap until the 9th Test, which set the bar at 44, when Billy Murdoch (Mr 211 himself), rubbed out 29. That wouldn’t budge till the 24th Test, when 44 was chalked off by Arthur Shrewsbury and replaced by 46. Seven Tests later, 46 became 60, with Bobby Abel’s help. That would last another 10 Tests: the 41st Test saw the record shift to 65: Alec Bannerman saw to that.

Some frenetic activity ensued. Seven Tests later, 65 became 71, thanks to Arthur Hill; after another six Tests, 71 became 76, with Syd Gregory’s help; eight matches later, 76 became 78, in the 62nd Test, courtesy Jack Worrall.

The glacial movements that characterised the later years then become visible. 78 became 110 forty-four Tests later, with Aubrey Faulkner’s assistance; moved to 125 fifty-two matches later, with Bill Ponsford scratching 110; swept to 139 one hundred and thirteen Tests later, with Pieter van der Bijl contributing the 125; and then jumped to 171, taking two hundred and forty-six Tests to make that move, as a result of Everton Weekes’ classic 139.

If you thought that was slow, you’re not prepared for what followed. The bar moved to 186 during the 675th Test, thanks to Ian Redpath, a whole two hundred and seventy-one Tests later; then on to 199 with a gap of two hundred and sixty-seven Tests, with considerable help from Zaheer Abbas.

That brings us to relatively modern times. 218 was set by Sanjay Manjrekar in the 1130th Test, between Pakistan and India, at Lahore in 1989, moving the target to 224. That was then taken by Vinod Kambli in 1993, versus England in Mumbai. The spotlight then moves to Herschelle Gibbs, whose 228 I mentioned earlier.

And we arrived at 229 being the number to beat.

That was Test 1637. Over eight hundred Tests ago. Over nineteen years ago.

A gentle walk from 14 to 16, then on to 25, 29, 44, 46, 60, 65, 71, 76, 78, 110, 125, 139, 171, 186, 199, 218, 224, 228 to bring us to today and 229.

So what’s next after 229?

Plaque at Lords commemorating the quest for 229, courtesy a close friend

There are still 18 unscratched numbers in the 200s, starting with 229. They are: 229 252 265 272 273 276 279 282 283 284 286 288 289 292 295 296 297 and 298.

7 numbers in the 200s were taken out in the last decade alone, so things are still moving along. Alastair Cook’s 294; Ross Taylor’s 290; Adam Voges’ 269; Tom Latham’s 264, Alastair Cook (again) with his 263; Shoaib Malik’s 245; and, most recently, Kane Williamson’s 238.

Pickings in the 300s are somewhat richer, with 76 numbers remaining untouched.

There’s some progress even there: David Warner, with his 335, and Karan Nair, with his 303, took two numbers off the table.

So we now have 94 numbers left in the range 0-400. The lower end of that range will not change unless someone comes up with the daft idea of negative numbers for batsmen. (Given the shenanigans I see in so much of sport, I wouldn’t rule it out, but I live in hope that it doesn’t happen in my lifetime).

The upper end of that range has remained steady for eighteen years, since Lara’s 400.

229 has been around longer.

The last number to be scratched on the bingo card was Kane Williamson’s 238. Exactly a year ago.

This year, for sure I expect to see some of the 94 numbers taken out. But will it be a bumper year? Will we see the 229 moved all the way to 252? Will 252 itself still be around by then? And will 400 remain the upper limit? All with or without the madness of Umpire’s Call, DRS and whatever passes for the technologies in use at the time.

We shall see.

It’s never locked

Excerpt from the script of Local Hero


I can’t believe it’s been nearly forty years since I first watched one of my all-time favourite films, Local Hero. if you haven’t watched it as yet, I envy you. You’re in for a treat. (If you don’t feel like watching the film, just listen to the soundtrack).

I’m not going to say anything about the plot just in case. The excerpt from the script is pretty innocuous as excerpts go. One line stands out for me. It consists of just three words.

It’s never locked.

Memory’s a strange thing. I could have sworn that the actual phrase used in the film was “We don’t lock doors here”. But this is from the official script so I’ll live with it.

I was born in what was then the family home in Lower Circular Road, Sealdah, Calcutta, over 64 years ago. When I was a little over two, we moved to Hindustan Park, and spent nearly a decade there. Shortly before my twelfth birthday, we moved to Moira Street, where I spent the rest of my life in Calcutta, until I left for the UK in November 1980.

I can still remember the names of at least of the immediate neighbouring families in Lower Circular Road. We visited that house many times in the years since we left there, it was in the family till the early 1980s.

I think I can still remember the names of all my neighbours in the apartment block in Hindustan Park, and have visited the building at least once since leaving India.

When it comes to Moira Street, that was a whole different ball game. Ten flats. One of them permanently rented by a business during the time we were there. The rest of the building? All families.

The centre of my universe for many years

In the four decades since I left there, I must have visited that building half a dozen times: a couple of times in the 80s, once in the 90s, three times this century. Pretty much every time I went to Calcutta.

Why am I telling you this? Not because I’ve decided to go on yet another nostalgia trip, something I’m quite happy to do regularly.

But because it was a place where we didn’t really lock doors. At least three families there grew up almost as one, with a few others almost-as-integrated. (You know who you are, and I remain forever grateful for the times we had together). We flitted from apartment to apartment at will, through open front doors, up the fire escape and through the back doors, occasionally climbing in through open balconies, and, very very rarely, using well-honed techniques to barge through doors that were apparently shut.

In the main, the doors weren’t shut. We had liberty withal, as large a charter as the wind, to blow on whom [we] [pleased].

Covenant relationships and mutualisation

Even in those days, Calcutta was a very crowded city, and there was physical and pragmatic security-through-transparency. Village-like, everyone knew everyone within their ????? (para) or neighbourhood. People looked out for each other, strangers were noticed straightaway, and usually challenged, in a typically blunt-curious way. The community looked after its own.

Neighbours, particularly children, growing up together, thick as thieves, fast friends forever. Until they grow up a little more. And flap their wings.

That’s the normal plot line.

But it’s not what happened here. The extended family I speak of is in at least four continents, and are still in touch with each other, fifty years after we came together. Social media does have its occasional uses, and has simplified access and connectivity.

The experiences we had (and continue to have) are good examples of covenant relationships, rather than the ersatz contract versions. In a contract relationship, when something goes wrong, when there’s a “breach”, the key question is “who pays?”, closely followed by the how much and the when. In a covenant relationship, the key question is fundamentally different. “How shall we fix it?”. And the critical word is “we”.

The society I grew up in was founded on those principles of mutualisation. The relationships we had were based on a bedrock of shared experiences and an immutable trust. It permeated my family, my friends, my schoolmates, my community-at-large.

The communities were relatively small, Dunbar-like in their compactness, a tight core of 20 or 30 in an extended network of around 150. We had address books, the telephone numbers were there as well, but we didn’t really have to use the address books or directories as a rule. We knew where everyone lived, and, where relevant, knew the phone numbers off by heart. Directories and address books were for “outstation” data.

Phone calls were for people who lived far away, not for people who lived in the same building. And if someone couldn’t be found, the wireless powerless megaphone would come into use: a yell from the balcony, which would then get relayed in some form or the other to wherever the child or children in question were playing, hiding, fighting, whatever. Audible smoke signals transmitted at speed without using up any scarce natural resources.

During my time there, the “building” saw the usual coming-of-age and rites of passage: births, marriages, deaths, “sacred thread” ceremonies, everything. The community came together as one, an integrated family in action. My father died while we still lived there, just over 40 years ago, and I saw that community-in-action “up close and personal”, covering my family in covenant protection in ways I can never forget, ways I will never forget.

Covenant relationships in an environment of mutual trust and respect.

Satisficers and maximisers

Ever since Herbert Simon coined the term “to satisfice”, there’s been a lot of good work done by great people on satisficers, and I’m not even going to try to summarise any of it here. Suffice it to say that a satisficer looks for “good enough” while a maximiser or even an optimiser looks for “the best”. (In doing that, I can be accused of choosing a “good enough” definition rather than “the best” one. So be it).

Years later, in the early 2000s, I was reading a book by Barry Schwartz, called The Paradox of Choice. One of the most interesting hypotheses put up in that book was the suggestion that satisficers were somehow happier than maximisers or optimisers. Over the years, I’ve also seen research and arguments that suggest there is a genetic predisposition to be one or the other, but I’m not yet convinced of that argument. I do like the “happier” suggestion though.

I’ve also come across papers that put forward an intriguing argument that looks at the “transaction costs” of satisficing and maximising and avers that satisficers are happy because they trade some cognitive workload in making their choices. And that gives me a feel for “happier because….” More to think about.

I like that idea. A part of me really likes that idea, because it gives me the chance to link to Janis Joplin singing Me and Bobby McGee. Amazing singer, amazing song.

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose

While reading Schwartz’s book, I couldn’t help having the Kristofferson-penned words ear worming their way though my head. Except they were ever-so-slightly malformed in the process. What I keep hearing was “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to choose”, a real Marmite statement. Everyone wants to have choice. Until they don’t. And only in places they don’t. In the wrong context, choice can be a tyranny.

When I came to the UK, I had never seen a supermarket, much less been in one. I had no idea what to do when presented with such immense choice for a commodity. (My first visit to a supermarket, I needed toothpaste and came back with some sort of denture cream, grabbing the first thing I saw, dashing for the till and then hurrying out. I wasn’t comfortable there).

In Calcutta, if we ran out of toothpaste in one of the bathrooms at home, one of us would go round the corner to S Stores (which I’m delighted to see is still there, exactly where it was in November 1969). We’d go there and ask for toothpaste. And be given toothpaste. Not a snake. Nor a stone. Toothpaste.

Levels of sophistication did emerge, sometimes one of us would want the “new” go-faster stripes Signal. Or maybe a tip towards the swadeshi, Vajradanti. Most of the time, we stayed uncomplicated. Toothpaste. Thanks.

The conversation was quick and simple, across a single counter, with someone you knew and who knew you. A relationship of trust, a relationship built over time, a covenant relationship. If there were qualifying questions to be had, they would get asked simply and unthreateningly. The shopkeeper was avuncular, and the uncle-ness was part of the relationship. Advice and counsel was part of the deal, and there was no question of being ripped off.

The customers who shopped there were proper customers: they gave the shop their custom. As part of a relationship founded on trust and enriched over time.

Yes, I’ve been a satisficer all my life. I like giving people my custom rather than continually shopping around; maybe I’m trading some cognitive workload in the process, maybe I’m genetically predisposed to do so. I don’t know. What I do know is that I feel good about it.

There is something about the Cheers mentality that I like:

sometimes you want to go

where everybody knows your name

and they’re always glad you came

As the saying goes, people buy from people, people sell to people. It’s all about people and relationships in relatively small communities. Global villages are good, but let’s remember the village part and not just the global part.

Good neighbours

A few days ago, a neighbour noticed something untoward in his garden, told me about it, and helped me answer something that had been bugging me. Why had a particular garden chair been moved from its usual place?

Today, as I walked back from the newsagent with my Sunday paper, I bumped into three different neighbours, and had the chance to speak with each of them. Yes, of course we exchanged pleasantries, wished each other top of the morning and the season and the year (as you do), and then did what everyone in the UK does nowadays. Instead of talking about the weather, we spoke of Covid-19 and masks and boosters. Social objects by another name, I guess.

We knew each other. We knew where everyone lived. We’ve covered for each other, taking parcels in, joining neighbourhood protests, noticing when alarms go off, seeing how we could help if the other(s) needed help. A loose, gentle relationship, but a relationship all the same, more covenant than contract. In no way transactional.

The Calcuttan in me was used to knowing my neighbours. When I left India and migrated to England, I lived in a part of Liverpool for a while. And everyone knew everyone there. And said hello. And smiled. And asked after each other. Civil. Polite. Helpful.

Then I came to London. A very big place, and I have no wish to generalise. But the part of London I was in, everyone was in a hurry, all the time. Disappearing from home while it’s still dark, returning only when it’s dark again. Surfacing occasionally at weekends. And in between, never meeting eyes, never speaking, never engaging. Heaven forfend.

I moved around until I found somewhere in London that still felt like a village, where people did speak to each other, where it wasn’t a crime to be on first-name terms with neighbours. Where everyone wasn’t always on a Danny Kaye schedule.

Phenomena like Nextdoor intrigue me, though I still don’t actually use it. I’m still wrestling with centralised-versus-decentralised, and, in general, tend to find that people conflate distributed with decentralised, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing. I love the neighbour-to-neighbour connect, I love many of the functions Nextdoor appears to have, but I still hum and haw about connections to businesses beyond the neighbourhood; I need to know more before I can truly engage.

Startups like Tredish fascinate me, enough for me to invest in them and to get involved in whatever way I can.

The neighbourhood is a unit of community that makes a lot of sense to me; and while I can see immense value in the ability to discover and share patterns between neighbourhoods, I still think of each neighbourhood as unique and vibrant and alive and deserving of its uniqueness.

So where is all this leading?

If you’ve visited here before you know what to expect.

I’m largely retired now, and have the privilege and luxury of time to observe life around. Time to reflect on what I observe. Time to research whatever I find interesting or at least intriguing.

One of those things is growth, particularly unfettered growth. I believe less and less in the constant need for growth. I spend some of my time learning about what the right minima and maxima should be for a given measure in a given context. Wherever possible, I look to nature as a teacher in this quest, looking particularly at complex adaptive systems.

One of those things is trust. I find the term “trustless” odd, odd enough to discomfort me. So I pull a thread here, remove a scab there, gnaw away at it, trying to understand why such a term should exist.

I have this hunch that these two intriguing things, the quest for unfettered growth and the development of “trustless” systems, that these two are related. So I pull and tear, gnaw and chew. Until I learn more. And then start all over again, refining my start position.


I’m increasingly drawn to a world where the “conquest” of distance and time means less to me than it did when I first heard it. I’m similarly keener on worlds where people know their neighbours and operate in a climate of mutual trust and respect, where communities are compact and coherent. I think ideas of continuous growth and scale need to be re-examined constantly, particularly as we learn to price social and environmental costs in ways we haven’t been able to do before. In much of this, technology can and will play a role; but there are bound to be missteps on the way.

The missteps that intrigue, nay concern, me the most are those where communal trust is weakened. I think the neighbourhood is a fascinating level of aggregation to look at; maybe I should look further into Geoffrey West‘s work on cities and try and tease out the neighbourhood implications, going wherever that leads me.

I want to live in a world where it’s not necessary to lock doors. I want to live in a world where we learn how to do this — again —in a way that we can preserve the valuable bits of technological advancement while filtering out the dross, the detritus. Keeping baby. Throwing out bath water.

I write to elicit and excite conversations about these things. Not with thousands of people. Not even hundreds. Just enough to help me learn that little bit more.

Why I love cricket – A long slow post

Souvenir from the first Test match I attended*

(*I do have the original brochure, which I photographed for this post. But it’s not the one I left the ground with in 1966. I acquired this one at a second-hand at a book fair decades later.)

1. Introduction

I love cricket.

I went to my first Test match fifty-five years ago today. And that’s when I fell in love with cricket, and in particular Test cricket.

I was taken by my father to watch my first-ever Test match. It probably helped that it was at Eden Gardens, one of the greatest Test venues in the world. It probably helped that the Indian team was captained by Mansoor Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi (Junior). It probably helped that the visiting team was managed by Frank Worrell (who, sadly, was diagnosed with leukaemia while on tour and died soon after), captained by Gary Sobers, included Conrad Hunte (who played golf with my father and Sobers during that tour) and Rohan Kanhai and the debutant Clive Lloyd and Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith and Seymour Nurse and Lance Gibbs and a host of others. It probably helped that the Indian team included ML Jaisimha and Abbas Ali Baig and Rusi Surti and Bishan Bedi and Srinivasa Venkataraghavan (who, after a long and illustrious bowling career, became a world-renowned umpire) and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and another host of others.

The Nawab of Pataudi, Jr, with his wife Sharmila Tagore. Photo credits Saba Pataudi Instagram

It probably helped that the second day’s play was an absolute riot. Literally. I had just turned 9 the previous month. I could never forget that day.

That Test made sure I fell in love with cricket. India lost. I watched India play many times at Eden Gardens, saw many great cricketers in action; but I never saw India win at Eden Gardens.

I heard India win a few times. Radio commentary was a lovesome thing, God wot.

I watched India win for the first time in 1981. I think it was the Bombay Test, when England were visiting. When I say I “watched” India win, I may be accused of stretching the truth. But I stand by my words. I watched India win. On Ceefax. Oh the joy and the agony, when you knew something had happened because the page didn’t refresh, and you knew that someone somewhere was about to type letters and numbers that had such power over you. A wicket? A boundary? An appeal not given? Something ominous, something of import.

An aside. Some years ago, the New York Times carried a piece about petty crimes in London, generating a Twitter storm. I had the chance to remind people about the correct way to watch cricket. Here’s an extract from the piece.

Yes, I love cricket. All forms of cricket, but with the clear understanding that the essence of cricket is encapsulated in a proper Test match. During my lifetime I have watched the emergence of the 60 over game, the 50 over game, the 20 over game, and more recently “The Hundred”. (I shall resist the temptation to say any more about the last in that list. At least for now).

I’m not legalistic about the five-day game per se. In fact this year I went to the “6th day” of a Test match, the “reserve day” set aside for the World Test Championship Final. And yes, I watched India lose. New Zealand were worthy champions.

When I started watching cricket, Test matches were played over six days, there was a rest day (usually between the third and fourth days), and it was normal to go to the match on the rest day to watch the teams practising and to get closer to the action, get autographs, meet friends and generally have a good time.

Which brings me to one of the points of this post.

2. Cricket as a social object

Cricket is more than just a sport. It’s a social object par excellence. (My thanks to Jyri Engestrom and Hugh MacLeod for introducing me to the term, and letting me discover Durkheim et al as a result)

Say you’re lucky enough to be watching some tennis at Centre Court, Wimbledon. It’s a game that tends to be played in what my teachers used to call pin-drop silence. Shhhh. Quiet please. Murmurs of applause between rallies acceptable. Occasionally, appreciative roars. Shouting a player’s name out loud? Not really, though it does happen. You’ll definitely get a “look” from everyone for that. You’re barely able to move. You shouldn’t really be talking, not even to your companion. The only sounds allowed are the grunts of the players and the thud of the ball, and even then at least one of those sounds is “new”… there was no grunting at South Club in the late 1960s when I saw India play Australia in what was then the Challenge Round of the Davis Cup, a final of sorts. Yes, they lost. I must be a real Jonah. But then I was at Tunbridge Wells in 1983, when India played Zimbabwe. Hmmm.

Snooker and billiards are also pin-drop silence sports. I love watching tennis; I’ve enjoyed watching billiards live; though I’ve never been to a snooker tournament, I could make myself, and I’m sure I’d enjoy it. But it’s not the same as watching cricket.

At football, it’s hard to carry on a conversation for the exact opposite reason. You can’t hear yourself think. So you sing along with the club songs, question the parentage of the officials, and, occasionally, exchange very brief words and phrases with the people you’ve come with. You do get a twenty minute break in between, but that tends to get frittered away queueing for the loos or bar or something. It’s not the same as watching cricket.

Someone said to me that football is a game for gentlemen played by louts, and that rugby is a game for louts played by gentlemen. When it comes to watching the game, they have similar characteristics: lots of noise, lots of singing, lots of drinking (at least before and after — it’s not always possible during). Hard to have a conversation while the match is on. It’s not the same as watching cricket.

Cricket is unusual to the extent that it’s all right to chat to your friends during the match rather than principally before and after. Silence is not expected. And you can hear yourself think. That’s the first difference.

There are many more. It is normal and expected at a cricket match that you meet for breakfast before the match – I’m partial to finding the best bacon sarnie at the ground nowadays – but when I was at Eden Gardens it used to be all about finding the “Nescoffee” stall and having some samosas. When in Rome.

It is normal and expected that you take a break for lunch, and another for tea, as part of your day’s entertainment. In which other sport are there scheduled stops for food? Not just one, but two. During the match. During every day of the match. And not counting the parentheses of breakfast and dinner that bracket each day’s play.

(By the way, I don’t count the “Dinner” break that shows up in Pink Ball matches. In order to count Dinner as a formal break, I have to recognise the existence of the Pink Ball, which I have yet to do. My Pink Ball thoughts are kept in the same drawer as my Coloured Pajamas thoughts and my Hundred thoughts. There is no handle to that drawer. The drawer above it has Duckworth-Lewis and Decision Review. I have to treat that drawer with great care, making sure I have my blood pressure pills and GTN spray handy before ever venturing close. Some things are sent to try us).

It is normal and expected that you punctuate your day with breaks for food during a Test match. You can bring food from home, buy a hamper at the ground, queue up at one or more of the wonderful stalls, go and sit down at one of the posh restaurants, leave the ground and go to the pub and come back, any and all of the above. Watching cricket is essentially a culinary experience if you are so inclined. That’s the second difference.

The socialising doesn’t just happen within your own group/circle/clique. Again, because it’s possible to hear others around you, it’s quite normal for people to talk to each other beyond your normal circle, beyond the group you came with. This odd and unusual behaviour, so very at odds with the “look deep into the newspaper and avoid eye contact with anyone else at all costs” technique perfected on public transport in the UK. Talk to the person next to you? Heaven forfend.

This social transgression is also part and parcel of being at a Test match. It tends to happen for three reasons.

One, people around you want to know what you’re eating and where you got it from. A very understandable curiosity, one that is born of the necessity to be better informed — for the next day — so that you can beat the queues and eat the junk food you really want rather than the junk food that happened to be available.

Two, people want to know what just happened. It is natural and normal to miss the action. Ninety overs is a long time, every day. (Assuming of course you get to the ninety overs. I’m less than impressed with recent trends in this respect). Not much happens in a day, even with 540 balls bowled. At best you’ll see ten or fifteen wickets/near wickets and maybe thirty or forty boundaries/near boundaries. Forty or fifty “events”. Spread over six hours. One every ten minutes on average, if that. And it could happen at the very time you went to the loo, got a cuppa, queued up for a snack, whatever. So it’s normal to ask what happened. Nowadays, with big screens and action replays and DRS and all that, some of the magic of not knowing what happened is lost. But there’s a replacement, the opportunity to argue about the pros and cons of DRS. Again, I shall carefully bite my tongue and say no more at this stage.

The commonest reason for missing some of the play? Nodding off to sleep. Cricket is wonderful for that. Ever since I was a child, I’ve conjured up images of moustachioed majors snoring gently, the foliage on their upper lips gently wafting in the breeze from their nostrils, while watching the cricket. Maybe I read too much PG Wodehouse as a child. But one thing’s for sure. People do fall asleep at the cricket. It is natural. It is normal. And it is expected.

Three, people transgress and start talking to strangers because of a “derivative”social object. Statistics. The game is chock-full of data about the game. There is no true equivalent of the collecting frenzy for the annual Wisden in any other sport; there is no true equivalent of the Aladdin’s Cave of data that is cricinfo, especially the statistics sections. Football may have its Playfair and its Opta, golf may have its plethora of numbers about drive lengths and sand saves and fairways hit, American football and basketball and baseball all have their number fiends, but they don’t come into the same county as cricket. Not even close. More on that later, as I describe the Road to 229.

3. Cricket’s unexpected inclusiveness

Photo copyright @LIFE, accessed via @Indiahistorypics on Twitter

It’s very easy to think of cricket as an exclusive sport. And at some level it is, if what you’re talking about is playing at Lords (or Eden Gardens or MCG), wearing pristine whites and with your country’s cap on your head. Fair enough.

But that’s not the kind of exclusiveness I was talking about.

When I was growing up in Calcutta, I saw people playing cricket everywhere. Much of it was on the maidan (often referred to as the city’s lung), a broad expanse of green that I spent a lot of time on and around. (For those who are interested in such things, the maidan is about 988 acres, as compared to the 843 acres of New York’s Central Park, or the 350 acres of London’s Hyde Park. The Oval Maidan in Churchgate, Mumbai, which is probably the densest cricket-playing area I’ve encountered, is only 22 acres).

If there wasn’t a patch of green to play on, any road would do. Stumps were often made of a column of bricks, single-brick width. Traffic would stop for the cricket, if it was an important neighbourhood match. Like the internet, the cars would route around obstacles, never interfering with the field of play.

If there wasn’t a suitable segment of road to play on, any concrete patch would do. Car parks. Back yards. Wherever.

Can’t drive your stumps in? Use the tower of bricks. No bricks available? No space anyway? Draw the stumps on the wall.

There was always something that resembled a cricket bat, though it was unlikely to have the wood or the splice of a “proper” bat. The balls were usually tennis balls, though I’m convinced someone had come up with red cricket-ball-like tennis balls just for Indian children. They didn’t have a classic seam, but for sure they could be made to spin.

If you didn’t have room to play outside, you played inside. And caused havoc with the furniture and fittings of the house. (If I had a dollar for the number of chandeliers that must have fallen prey to indoor cricket in houses all over India…).

If you didn’t even have enough room for that, you played “French cricket”, where you stood with your bat in the centre of a circle while everyone else bowled at you — by flinging the ball at your legs as hard as they could — one “bowler” at a time, varying the angle of attack across the 360 degrees — and you could be out caught (as normal) or bowled (when the ball hit your legs).

If you didn’t have room for that either, you played “book cricket”. You opened a book at random, and the page number determined what happened. The 0-1 page was a wicket; the 2-3 page was a single; the 4-5 page was a boundary; the 6-7 page was a six; the 8-9 page was a dot ball. Sometimes we had other rules to determine “how out” after a 0-1 page. You get my drift.

The point I’m trying to make is that there were no barriers to entry to playing cricket, and that it was played in every way possible: at home sitting down with a pair of books, indoors in a small group with the batter in the middle, in the living room, in a car park, on the street, in a playground, on open green spaces and, where possible, on proper cricket pitches and at proper cricket grounds.

When I was introduced to cricket, I had no idea where Lords was, but I found out soon enough. And soon I knew my Pavilion End from my Nursery End. Finding out about things cricket only required you to know someone who knew a bit, and to have access to a radio.

When I was young, I could always hear what was going on at a Test match, even if I couldn’t see what was happening. If there was a match on, someone would have the commentary on the radio, and it was considered quite acceptable to stop, listen for a while, and then to move on to the next “commentary stop”. When people started carrying “transistor radios” this public facility became wireless, portable and ubiquitous. On a bus, on the train, on the pavement, everywhere. AirBuds hadn’t been invented as yet. Your personal radio was public property when it came to the cricket.

4. The death of Test cricket

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been hearing about the death of Test cricket. I am reassured by the knowledge that it died in 1882, when only two countries played Test cricket, and the foundation of the Ashes was set then. It seems to be doing remarkably well since, all things considered. (Incidentally, try naming the two countries that first played an “international” cricket match, as distinct and different from the two countries that first played a Test match. In fact, try and name just one of the two countries. Then google the answer. You’re in for a surprise).

I used to wonder about the impact of the limited-overs games on the longer-form game, but, having watched that impact over the past fifty years or so, I’m relaxed about the shorter-format variants in the main. (With one exception, the Hundred, which I continue to loathe).

Games like cricket are organic, they evolve, they mutate, they adapt, they adjust. Cricket’s been around for over four hundred years, so we should all expect some change. And continuous change at that. Change itself is not the issue.

Without the shorter-format developments, we may still have seen the development of techniques like the ramp shot, the reverse sweep, hitting with hands switched, relay fielding, “death bowling” and suchlike. All these new techniques have enriched all forms of cricket, not just the format they originated in. Long may this trend continue.

Do I think there is too much cricket on? Possibly. But, over time, that market will correct itself, in a Yogi Berra kind of way. People will limit the time they spend watching cricket, and somewhere a butterfly will flap its wings.

Nobody goes there any more. It’s too crowded.

Do I think limited-overs games have deleterious impacts on the longer-format game? Possibly. I tend to think that modern bowlers just don’t bowl at the stumps enough, trying to get that all-powerful dot ball. There are constraints to try and correct this, in terms of the “wide” rule. But in general I feel that bowlers now try and tempt the batters to play at balls that won’t hit the stumps, bowling on the fifth or sixth stump and hoping it doesn’t become a wide. Only a feeling, not based on enough evidence to be anything more than that.

Do I think DRS could kill Test cricket, and potentially all of cricket with it? Possibly. I think it’s the biggest threat to cricket as I know it. I hope it won’t succeed in killing it. But why do I think it even could?

5. Not cricket

Cricket is more than just a game, more than just a sport, more than just an incredibly inclusive social object, more than just the passion of millions all over the world.

It’s a way of thinking, an essence. Let me change sports for a minute. One of the reasons I love golf is the treatment of solitary golfers on the course.

A single player has no standing and should give way to a match of any kind,” …

One of the essences of cricket is the very idea of “not cricket”.

Something that’s not done. Not to be tolerated in polite society. Not for the clubbable. Whatever.

Cricket is about a set of values.

The epitome of cricket to me is when a batsman walks, despite not being given out by the umpire, because he knows he hit the ball; when a fielder signals he didn’t catch the ball cleanly, even though he may be the only person on the field with that knowledge; when a fielder signals a boundary, even though there was some doubt as to whether he touched the ropes.

All this is about the spirit of the game. It has nothing to do with the letter of the law. Why listen to me? Go watch Brian Lara on the topic. In fact, watch the whole of his lecture from over four years ago.

I remember, many years ago, there was a story about Gundappa Viswanath. He’d made over 600 runs in his previous 8 innings. He went out to bat. And he was out for zero. Came back to the pavilion. Asked by a journalist “what happened” he said “the ball deserved it”.

Walking is about doing the right thing. Not claiming a catch you didn’t take cleanly is about doing the right thing. Not appealing ad nauseam in order to put pressure on the umpire is about doing the right thing.

Cricket is a way of life. A way of life where children can be taught to do the right thing. If the nature of competition changes from that, driven by commercial interests, if winning becomes more important than doing the right thing, then perhaps it’s time for Test cricket to die. After all, it will only be a matter of time before it becomes impossible to distinguish cricket from WWE. And WWE has been evolving for years to become what it is.

The way DRS is implemented, the way DRS is evolving, I worry about the future of the game. I cannot abide by Umpire’s Call, there isn’t the time or space for me to vent my spleen on that particular topic here. Weaknesses in ball tracking don’t really get discussed in the open. Apparent innovations like Hotspot and Snickometer get brought in and out willy-nilly, and I have to watch batsmen given out for a snick when there is a clear gap between bat and ball, without any consideration that the sound picked up may be from bat hitting pad or similar.

From my viewpoint, there is neither true openness nor adequate transparency in the design, architecture, selection and implementation of the technologies involved. I won’t even bring up the issue of the completeness of the “training datasets” because I should really watch my blood pressure before doing that.

I have seen batsman stay at the crease after the most glaring errors by umpires … because the fielding team didn’t have any reviews left. God help me. If that is what cricket has come to, then I’m happy to stop watching the game. This, from someone who watched twenty days of Test cricket this past year, including two whole days of “rain stopped play”. (In similar vein, I shall leave my frustrations with The Hundred for another day, perhaps never. When it comes to the Hundred, never is a good word as far as I am concerned).

6. A numbers game

Lily, our cat, looks at the segment of cricket scoreboard on permanent display in our garden

Sometime in the next week or two I shall write more about the number 229 in Test cricket. For now, here’s a teaser.

Imagine the world of Test cricket to be an interminable bingo session. You have a bingo card in your hand. The current version of the card has all the numbers from 0 (the smallest number any batsman has ever scored) to 400 (the largest). In less than an hour, Test number 2444 is due to start at Mount Maunganui in New Zealand, between the host nation and Bangladesh, a country that bordered the state of my birth, West Bengal.

Every time a batsman completes his innings, you can scratch the number off your card.

229 is the smallest number that hasn’t been scratched off yet. Some batsman or the other has landed on every number below 229 already, and many beyond it. Until Vinod Kambli came along, the magic number used to be 224. On Monday 22nd February 1993, he took 224 and moved the magic number to 228.

Nearly a decade later, Herschelle Gibbs had other ideas and took that number off the board as well.

Since then, since that brilliant single-day double century of Gibbs, since 2nd January 2003, the number to hit has been 229. Many have hovered nearby, some have moved on, but no one has been able to stop there. Therein lies a story, a story I will write about in detail soon.

There are many many strands to write about when it comes to the numbers of cricket, a topic I’m entranced by. I shall be writing more and more about it in days to come, as I make use of relative quietness this New Year.

The statistics of cricket are part of what make cricket something very different from other sports.

7. Some conclusions

Cricket is more than just a game, a sport, a pastime; it is more than a wonderful social object, more than just a truly inclusive low-barrier-to-entry activity; it is a way of life, a way of thinking, a way of practising doing the right thing.

It is good to see the commercialisation of sport. It is right and proper that sportsmen and sportswomen get paid well for what they do (although I think we are still far from gender equality there). With the advent of greater commercial stakes comes an increasing sense of competition, where winning becomes more important than taking part. We see the impact of this in many sports: simulation, diving, pretend injuries, use of prohibited performance-enhancing substances, ball-tampering, various types of grunts and groans carefully timed, walking on your opponent’s path to the hole, stepping on to the pitch after you bowl, slowing the over rate down, challenges against authority on the pitch, time-wasting, concerted appeals, gaining instructions from the dressing room through coded signals, the list is long.

We’re not going to be able to stop people attempting to cheat. We’re not going to be able to keep adjusting the rules quickly enough to adapt to new forms of cheating. There will often be a time lag, regulation is often post-facto.

What we can do is to ensure it is against the spirit of the game. All the time.

Cricket epitomises that concept of spirit.

That’s where the importance of Test cricket comes in. It is the pinnacle of the sport, the peak to which the child on the street aspires. And we must make sure that what she aspires to has value, has values. That the game is inclusive, easily accessible, fair, open, affordable, in ways that no other sport can be.

A match spread over five days, sometimes more, that may not have a result. It could be a draw. It could be a win for either side. It could be that wondrous event, a tie, something that has happened only twice in 2443 instances.

Cricket, by its very nature, is not about winning or losing. It’s too important for that. The grassroots game, the regional/county/state game, the Test, all form part of a brilliant whole. A whole that is about playing the game. Doing the right thing.

Innovations can and will take place, in terms of techniques and tools and rules; new venues will be found; new formats designed; new times chosen; new ways to partake found.

But all these innovations have to be done while not losing the principles that make the game what it really is. What are those principles? We could spend a long time arguing about which particular angels were meant to dance on the heads of which pins, how many angels and pins should be involved, and so on. But that’s not the point.

The Victor Meldrew in me wants to be sure that coloured pajamas are kept away from the field of a Test match; under duress, has accepted the need for coloured stumps (though I still think that modern bails don’t behave as they should); has come to terms with numbers and names on the backs of cricketers in a Test match, albeit reluctantly; at least it makes one part of the game even more inclusive, which is a good thing. (But 5- and 10- ball overs? Give me a break).

Innovations should be additive to the core principles; unnecessary fiddling with the rules in order to maintain some benighted view of “intellectual property” are not additive.

I love the speed at which “batsman” is becoming “batter”. A sensible and worthwhile change. A change that will come into my parlance more and more as I learn to adapt. Which I will.

I love the idea of double-header games where the men’s and women’s games are held in close proximity in time and in the same space. It would be even better if tickets were sold only for the combined event, like the right to watch “a day of cricket at Lords” being equated to the right to “a day’s tennis at Centre Court”. It would be even better if the gender pay disparity issue is solved at speed, similar to what my erstwhile boss Marc Benioff did at Salesforce.

But 5- and 10- ball overs? Not changing ends at the end of each over? Nah. Not for me.

Cricket is about the right thing to do. Test cricket is the pinnacle of that essence.

Test cricket has seen off many challenges, and will see off many more. When I was young, I dreamt of going on a cruise to the Caribbean and catching all five days of every Test in an entire series there. The West Indian team were the team to aspire to in the 60s and 70s. Of course I was influenced by the first team I saw. And of course I loved the very idea of “calypso cricket”.

Not surprisingly, when the Indian team did their magic in the West Indies in 1970-71, and followed up with a win in England, my cup definitely did a lot of runneth-over-ing. (Though I still didn’t ever watch India win in India while I lived there).

Cricket teams and markets ebb and flow. Somehow we still have Test cricket, and every now and then I see a full crowd as well. The crowd matters. Crowds matter. If Covid-19 has taught us anything about sports, it is that crowds matter. I am lucky enough to be able to go to watch sports pretty much whenever I want, be it cricket or golf or football or tennis. Anything that makes it easier for more people to watch cricket “live” is a good thing.

Test cricket is still alive, sometimes because of innovations, sometimes despite them. I hope and pray it will continue to evolve and to thrive. In the meantime, we need to nourish it and protect it and support it. It’s not just a game.

Anything else is not cricket.

And on that note, happy new year.

More on the trust … and kindness … of strangers

I was at Lords on Thursday and Friday. And will be there today. And probably tomorrow, Monday, as well. By now you may have figured out that I love cricket. Particularly Test cricket. This year, I’ve spent eleven entire days at a Test match, and expect to make another six. Of those eleven days, two had no play whatsoever, one at Lords and one at the Hampshire Bowl. But I was there. I’m not a fair weather Test cricket supporter.

My fascination with cricket started in Calcutta. Eden Gardens. India versus West Indies. 31 December 1966. I don’t think I missed a match between then and 1979-80, even made a few “rest days”. I was hooked. Bitten. Besotted. Entranced.

Incidentally I was at the Pavilion at Lords, courtesy of a friend, a few weeks ago. And I noticed the portraits on the landings as I walked up the stairs. Sir Garfield Sobers. Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi, Junior. Two cricketing greats. Two men who just happened to be the opposing captains at that game.

Sir Garfield Sobers (MCC Pavilion Stairs)
Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi, Jr (MCC Pavilion stairs)

I went to Eden Gardens many times those days, between 1966 and 1980. And I never saw India win. Not once. That’s cricket.

I’ve still never seen India win in India. But I have seen them win in England. That’s also cricket.

That first match, in December 1966, went off with a bang. Almost literally. Oversold tickets. Some fraud. A questionable decision by an umpire. And it was bonfire time. Seats were torn up, set alight. A problem. A problem that became more acute as we realised that the bonfire blocked our route out of the stadium, and it was heading our way.

Time to exit stage left. Except “left” was up, a dozen rows or so. It was the only way to escape the fire. Even in winter, Calcutta was warm, and the crackling seats just added some smoke and ashes to the ambience. (Incidentally, Smoke and Ashes is the name of a fine detective novel by Abir Mukherjee, set in Calcutta. If you haven’t read the Wyndham/Surrender-Not series, a treat awaits).

So we scampered up, my father and I. He told me, wait here, I’ll jump first, show you how, and then I’ll be there to catch you when you jump.

Gulp. I was 9. The ground looked like it was a mile away. There were people milling about, lots of shouting and noise, but others were jumping. No dropped catches in that cordon, which was comforting. My father jumped. Was caught safely. I jumped. Landed safely in the arms of strangers.

We ran for it, leaving the stadium. And other than having to watch my father get a sturdy lathi on his back, wielded by a burly constable on a horse for no apparent reason, we left the ground without incident.

The trust … and kindness … of strangers. In this particular case, I didn’t have a choice but to trust the strangers. They did have a choice about being kind. And they exercised that choice. They were kindness personified, encouraging me to jump, helping me jump, waiting for me to jump, catching me carefully, setting me down carefully, checking that I was okay, reuniting me with my father.

When you trust someone you make yourself vulnerable, in some way you’re at the mercy of the person/people you trust.

Some decades ago, I was travelling from London to Bangalore on business, changing planes in Delhi. The trouble was, the London-Delhi flight was landing at midnight and the flight to Bangalore wasn’t till 6am or so. A frustrating gap.

Once I learnt about the wait, I did the only thing that came naturally to me. I called a “five-star” hotel nearest the airport, spoke to someone there and arranged that a hotel car would meet us at the airport when we landed, whisk us off to the hotel, feed and refresh us, provide us a couple of rooms to get some kip before the next flight, feed and refresh us again, then take us back to the airport, this time the domestic wing.

Of course, sir. All he has was my name. All I had was his. And yes, we exchanged mobile phone numbers. No credit card details. No filling in of forms. We trusted each other.

He ran “front of house” for the hotel. And he was there himself, at 2am or something like that. Took us back to the hotel. While we were having our first cup of decent coffee in ages, he came and checked on us. Is there anything else you need, sir? Why yes…. we need our onward flights reconfirmed, and I could do with getting some sterling converted to rupees. Of course, sir, just give me the passports and the cash and the flight tickets and I will arrange that.

So we handed over our passports and tickets. And I gave him a thousand pounds to get converted to rupees. And off he went.

My close friend and colleague was both bemused as well as aghast. How long had I known the guy to whom we just handed our passports, tickets and a large sum of cash? I just met him, never seen him before, spoken once to him on the phone.

My colleague remained bemused and aghast. We had our kip, came back down, settled down for another cuppa. No sign of the manager. He had told us he’d be back in an hour or so. That was two hours ago.

It was now 445am. We were meant to leave for the airport in 15 minutes. No passports. No tickets. And out a good chunk of money as well.

My colleague was now somewhat less bemused and somewhat more aghast. I continued to sip my coffee.

The manager turned up a few minutes later. Sorry sir, the right person wasn’t there. I needed to wait. Let us go now, the car is waiting.

I knew he would turn up.

In the same way that he knew I would turn up at the airport. In the same way that I knew there would be an air-c0nditioned car waiting for us then. In the same way that I knew he would organise us “quarter-day” rooms.

We trusted each other.

Strangers. Strangers trusting each other. Letting themselves become vulnerable to each other. Running the risk of being let down, being scammed, having our pride hurt. Sometimes having somewhat more at risk than just pride.

Many years ago, I played a round of golf with a colleague. We drove to the back of beyond, to a course that neither of us had been to before. He parked his car, we got out, went to the pro shop, checked in for our round.

My colleague spent a few minutes looking at some clubs that were on display. Would you like to try those out, sir? May I? Of course.

Then, just as we were leaving to tee off, he said You’re heading out quite late. I’m going to be shutting up before you come back. Just drop the clubs in when you’re next in these parts.

Why? He trusted us. Yes he probably clocked the car we’d arrived in, the clubs we had, the clothes we were wearing. He probably made some high speed calculations as to whether he had the possibility of a sale or not, and weighed up the odds in some subtle way.

He trusted us.

The trust of strangers is important. And it’s underpinned by kindness, a belief in humanity. A belief in humanity running counter to our modern principles of suspecting everyone, criminalising everything.

As we move more and more into a world where everything is connected and everything is online, a world where everything is constrained by “algorithms”, we’re going to have to rely on the trust and kindness of strangers. (Incidentally time to read Kevin Slavin if you haven’t already).

Because there will be failures. Connections will fail. Batteries will run down. Software will crash. Devices will be lost or broken. The fantabulous AI system that tells the person at the edge what to do will be silent.

It will about you. And the person in front of you. Having to take risks, to trust each other. Knowing that sometimes you will be wrong.

This won’t just be about buying and selling, about trading. It will be about access to medical care, about access to finances, about access. Access to many things.

We’ve been carefully stripping human beings of discretion. Judgment. Empowerment. And mollycoddling ourselves into believing in “trustless” worlds.

The trust … and kindness … of strangers. Because in the end when the intervening systems fail (and they will) it will be down to you. And the stranger in front of you.

The kindness …. and trust …. of strangers

I met an old friend last week. We’ve known each other since September 1981, and have stayed in touch. We were embarking on a project, to visit every Wren church in the Square Mile, one by one, meeting as and when we can. No hurry. It was an excuse to meet, to walk the streets we knew well, to take time to smell the roses.

I had been a fan of Wren’s for a long time, probably since my first visit to St Paul’s, early in 1981. Working in and around the City meant you were never particularly far from a Wren church. When I moved to Windsor later that decade, I was entranced by the (possibly mythical) story of the pillars under Windsor’s Guildhall.

The superfluous pillars “holding up” Windsor’s Guildhall

Legend has it that Wren was asked to design the Guildhall. The powers-that-be rejected his submission; in their opinion the main room would not be safe without the addition of four central pillars. He gently reminded them who the expert was. They didn’t budge. So he relented. Sort of. He put the pillars in. Six inches short. Job done. Legend or not, I love the story. (If it was true, then it’s a classic They Would Say That, Wouldn’t They? opportunity which the councillors of the day wouldn’t have wasted).

While on the subject of noticing, and enjoying, little foibles left by architects, my walk around some of the churches led me to Philpot Lane. A regular haunt of mine when I worked, between 1999 and 2006, at 20 Fenchurch St, at the erstwhile headquarters of Dresdner Kleinwort, long since demolished and replaced by the Walkie Talkie. When I worked there, I used to meet friends and colleagues every day at the coffee shop that graced the corner of Eastcheap and Philpot Lane. It started off as a non-chain place, but became a Caffe Nero and stayed that way for many years. I think I must have been going there for over a year before I saw the Philpot Mice:

The Philpot Mice, locked in their interminable tug-of-cheese, gracing the Philpot Lane frontage of what used to be Caffe Nero until recently

I love walking, and often enjoy walking for walking’s sake; wherever I go, part of my joy comes from observing what’s around me, what I would otherwise fail to notice.

Anyway, where was I? Walking down Philpot Lane and on to Eastcheap with a friend. We walked around the City for a couple of hours that morning, ending at St Mary-Le-Bow. And then we bade our goodbyes and headed our separate ways.

When I got to Bank Station, the Waterloo and City Line was no longer running, even though it was barely midday Friday. “Planned closure”. So I walked back up the stairs, hailed a cab to Waterloo. Got there, picked up a cup of tea for the journey home, boarded my train. As we pulled out, I went to check my phone to see what was happening at the cricket.

Oops. No phone.

So I retraced my steps in my mind while waiting to get off at the next station, Vauxhall. When did I last know I had the phone with me? In the taxi: I called my wife from there. I left the taxi, picked up the tea, boarded the train. So if it wasn’t on the train with me, I must have left it in the coffee shop (Pure something) at Waterloo, or in the taxi.

Jumped off at Vauxhall, ran down the stairs, checked where the next Waterloo-bound train was scheduled to arrive, ran up the stairs, boarded the train, got back to Waterloo. (Incidentally that’s a loose use of the word “run”, it was closer to amble along gently only ever-slightly faster than if I had walked).

Back at Waterloo. Went to Pure. The staff said no, we haven’t seen your phone, and no one has handed one in either. Hmmm. Then…

First, the gentleman behind me tapped me on the shoulder. Do you want to use my phone to call yours? So I did.

Then, after a number of rings, someone picked up. Yes, mate, I’ve got your phone, where are you now? Back at Waterloo. Right, I’m just off the King’s Road, I’ll come by there in 15-20 minutes, just wait for me where I dropped you.

Then, the woman serving at Pure said, you look like you could use a cup of tea, you take it black don’t you, here it is.

Twenty minutes later, I’d been reunited with my phone, refreshed and reinvigorated by a perfectly-timed cuppa, and set off again on my journey home.

Three people. Three people I’d never seen before, much less met or known. Three people who offered their help unasked. Three people who did their simple acts of kindness without any expectation of any reward or return whatsoever.

Three people who chose to help a stranger. Because they thought it was the right thing to do.

The kindness and trust of strangers. A thing of beauty. A joy forever.

Nowadays there’s a lot of talk about trustless systems and processes, designed and built to disintermediate the institutions that brokered trust. Many of these rely on software and hardware to do so.

Occasionally the software won’t work. Occasionally the hardware will fail. Occasionally the network will be down.

And there’ll be a person there. Who could just say I’m sorry, the system’s down. My computer’s crashed. It won’t connect.

The computer says no. By default.

As Picasso is meant to have said, computers are useless. They can only give you answers.

Time for a little detour. Have you heard of Erwin Chargaff? He was instrumental in figuring out nucleic acid, a key prerequisite to everything we’ve learnt about genetics in modern times. A good friend and mentor, Yossi, told me a story about Chargaff. I’ve found a version of that story in a 1993 issue of the New Scientist:

The most surprising denial of uniqueness was provided by the biochemist Erwin Chargaff, whose discovery of the pairing of bases played an important part in Watson’s story. Chargaff put forward the idea that there could not have been anything unique about Watson and Crick’s contribution, because ‘ . . . it is not the men who make science, it is science that makes the men. What A does today, B and C and D could surely do tomorrow.’

According to Chargaff, this is not the case for those who make art: ‘Timon of Athens could not have been written, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon could not have been painted, had Shakespeare and Picasso not existed.’ 

New Scientist, 23 April 1993: DNA’s stroke of genius: Gunther Stent

As we meander towards a “trustless” age, let us keep an eye on the kindness of strangers. What people do when the systems are down, when the software crashes, when there is no connection. When the computer that can only give you answers isn’t able to give you an answer.

When a stranger has to decide whether to walk that extra mile for another stranger.

Trust implies uncertainty, vulnerability. Humans are able to make decisions to trust strangers because they can. Every day, humans do make decisions to trust strangers because they feel it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes they’re wrong to do so. Sometimes they’re not.

Uncertain, vulnerable. Willing to treat other humans with respect and with dignity. The computer might not be able to say anything, but I can.

When I was at school, one of my favourite poems was William Butler Yeats’ An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.

One particular stanza haunted me, intrigued me, delighted me:

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

William Butler Yeats, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

A lonely impulse of delight. The kindness — and trust — of strangers.

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