A security guard standing just off the covered areas of the pitch at Old Trafford yesterday
This isn’t a post about Joseph Heller‘s often-panned second novel, which, despite the critical reviews, particularly the one by Kurt Vonnegut Jr, has a cult following. I have read it, I confess to have found some of it hard going, but I did finish it. I liked it. And it didn’t make me feel depressed.
It’s not really a post about cricket either, though my observations are made through the lens of being at a cricket match.
I went to Old Trafford – the one with the James Anderson End rather than the one with the Stretford End – for the first time yesterday. Got there around 9am. By the time I left there late in the afternoon, I was able to add to my (relatively long) list of “days spent at the cricket without a ball being bowled”. (Incidentally, that category is distinct and different from “days spent at the cricket without watching a ball being bowled”, something I have yet to achieve but have noticed happening around me, particularly amongst the Roy Keane “prawn sandwich brigade”.
Rain Stopped Play. Three little words that no cricket fan wants to hear. But it happens often enough. I haven’t seen the latest statistics, but I remember reading this a few years ago:
If you’re interested in things cricket, then it’s worth reading the whole of the article: Soggy Days Are Here Again.
Even if you’re completely uninterested in cricket, I hope you find the rest of this post useful. (Incidentally, if you are thus afflicted, may I recommend prayer?)
Nature abhors a vacuum
Much of the time, things don’t go according to plan. Which is why we’ve been told: Best-laid schemes gang aft agley. They don’t survive first contact with the enemy. They’re useless, but planning is essential. And everyone has one until they get punched in the face (preferably not by the originator of that particular phrase, Mike Tyson).
Quite often, something that was meant to happens doesn’t happen. People fall ill. Events get rained off. Flights get cancelled. Cars break down. Machines stop working. Something happens.
It’s not about the vacuum caused when something happens (or doesn’t happen), it’s about what happens as a result.
Yesterday was a case in point. A lot of people made the effort to get to Old Trafford to watch a day’s cricket. Despite the rain, and despite the forecast.
Yes, it was about the cricket. But not just about the cricket. It was about preparing for the day, packing the necessities in terms of food and drink and rainwear and whatever. It was about preparing for the day, planning the journey, booking the train tickets, filling the car up, whatever. It was even probably about giving Accuweather its busiest day. (Incidentally, I was on the Apple Weather app, the BBC weather app, the Met Office app, anything that would give me the slightest reason to believe that somehow there would be some play that day; and Accuweather was amazing in the way it did what it said on the tin. Accurate weather forecasts. Not the forecasts I wanted but accurate nevertheless).
It was about going to the match. And being there. Hoping to watch some cricket. (And yes, hoping to watch England win). But it was never just about the cricket.
Cricket as a social object
If you’re interested in the theory of social objects, the Wikipedia article is probably as good a place to start as any, especially if you then follow the links to the articles and papers it refers to. I was introduced to the term by Jyri, then had opportunities to learn further and to discuss the implications with Hugh; that led me to reading the works of people like Durkheim and Latour, which is why I think the Wikipedia references are a good foundation.
In those days my favourite example of a social object was a song’s lyrics, as evinced by a site called songmeanings.net, which I believe is now to be found here. I loved the idea that people went somewhere to debate (often with both passion as well as competence) the meaning of lyrics of some of their favourite songs, and in the process formed communities of interest that went deep and lasted long. After a while, you could take the lyrics out of the community but the community would still remain. And that’s my simplest understanding of a social object, something that attracts people to do something “ritually”, and then almost fades into the background as the relationships form between the people so attracted.
Cricket is often like that. People get to know each other better while watching cricket, in a way that just doesn’t happen with most other sports.
When you’re watching football or rugby you are barely able to hear the person next to you; much of the time, you’re standing up. And it’s all over in a couple of hours.
When you’re watching tennis or snooker, it’s pin-drop silence time (as my teachers used to say at school). Talking is very much verboten. You do get the chance to get yourself some food, but the imperative is to get back as quickly as possible and to re-enter the Pin Drop Zone.
Now these are not the only sports, and I’m sure there are many with social-object characteristics. But none of them has the set of rituals that cricket comes with. Meeting for breakfast before the match, often with the customary bacon roll(or its non-pork equivalent). Breaking for lunch. Breaking for tea. Chatting with your companions throughout. Chatting not just with your companions, but with everyone else who’s there. The security guards. The ticket checkers. The venue assistance providers. The staff serving at the food and drink outlets and franchises.
You’re not just allowed to chat. You’re expected to. In the same way that you’re both allowed as well as expected to nod off occasionally on a warm summer’s day at Lords. It’s an integral part of being at the cricket.
Yesterday, I had the chance to spend time with the security guards, learning what they did when they weren’t doing what they were doing as guards. Why they signed up to do what they did. What made it special for them. The people they met, the respect they were shown, the experiences they had. Some were local, others had travelled a long way. Some did it for the cricket, some started doing it for the money but then found themselves smitten.
Yesterday, I had the chance to spend time with the other would-be spectators, learning about the distances they traveled, the methods they used. The ones nearest to me had walked a decent distance to the railway station, taken a train, then taken a tram, then walked again.
The list goes on. And it’s not as if I was doing something special. Everyone around me had a smile on the face, a greeting for everyone. We were together. Together in this insane belief that somehow the sun will shine and play will resume and England would win and all would be well.
There was a little bit of that. But it was never just about that.
Something was happening. People were being polite and charming to each other. There was civil discourse. Mobile phones were only being used for two things: to check AccuWeather or to resolve cricket life-or-death trivia questions. No conference call wallahs, no pollution of personal space by phone-meets-boombox. Just civil discourse. Even if some of that civil discourse was of the Four Yorkshiremen variety. Especially if some of that civil discourse was of that variety.
Of course there’s a selection bias. We were all there for the cricket. Nostalgia is never what it used to be, even at the cricket.
Yes, something did happen
Visitors at Old Trafford yesterday, with accoutrements in tow
We were acting normal. Human. Engaging with each other. Listening to what others had to say. Giving each other time and attention.
Of course, it would have been nice if there was actually some cricket to watch. But you know what? We would still have been polite to each other, asked after each other, learnt about each other. That doesn’t just happen when there’s no cricket to watch. It’s part of what happens at the cricket.
The worst that could happen
As long as cricket is cricket, as long as we have Test matches, as long as the game continues to evolve, as long as the game continues to attract people from all backgrounds and interests, we will look on days like this with only mild regret, because it wasn’t just about the cricket.
Changes are needed. Weather patterns look like they’re getting more extreme, and we all know why. We’re going to have to get better at planning for rain, preparing for rain and protecting against rain. Early starts, as was scheduled today in Trinidad. (Though even that early start plan has failed). Reserve days. Better drainage. Better forecasting. Whatever.
The changes will happen. As long as we protect the reason why people turn up knowing that they’re unlikely to watch any play. It’s not about abominations like the Hundred, which compress an already-busy schedule. It’s not even about short-format games. Yes, short-format games do have their place.
The T2o, the 50 over game (and the 40 and 60 over games that preceded them) all have their place. Bringing innovation to the long-format game. Helping introduce people to that game. Attracting people who would otherwise not have experienced the joys and sadnesses of the game.
In the end it’s about the Test. The communities that have been built around Test cricket. And the humanity embedded in those communities. That’s what we have to protect. Test cricket is a precious thing.
It’s great to see the women’s game evolving at pace, and I look forward to attending a five-day women’s Test match at Lords. It cannot be soon enough.