On what turned out to be the final day of the New Zealand versus West Indies Test match at the Basin Reserve, I was cataloguing material in the library of the New Zealand Cricket Museum. I spent most of the morning working on a collection of cricketing stamps, first day covers, and other ephemera left to us by a gentleman in his will. It’s a large and detailed collection and it takes a lot of time. If you don’t like that sort of material it might seem as much fun as watching paint dry but, luckily, I do find it interesting. That said it is lonely work. You don’t really talk to anyone but the isolation helps you find the patterns and collection themes and makes you appreciate the depth of what you are working on.
It was a Test match, though, and I would pop out into the Museum and see what was going on. I’d miss a couple of wickets falling but occasionally I would catch one. Each time a wicket fell it started me thinking- a dangerous process at my age. There I was with the collection we were cataloging while, out there on the grass, all sorts of emotions were surfacing and re-surfacing. I have mentioned before that cricket must have more ephemera attached to it than most sports and is also awash with statistics that I am sure can only be equaled by baseball. Everyday, in every way, they pop up on my screen with a relentless cheeriness that wears me out sometimes.
My thought processes are not too sharp and it was only after the game that I realised I had been missing something. This Test had been played in gorgeous weather; the sun shone and it was warm. Cricket had been invented for days like these. Of course, where there is sun there is shadow- and it’s these shadows on the grass I want to mention. I am not just talking about the big shadows- politics, match fixing, the role of television, etc. that bedevil every sport. In this instance, I mean the smaller shadows that lay on the cricket grounds of the world.
There’s a danger (one that I regularly succumb to) of seeing cricket as something idyllic. The green grass, the white flannels, the red ball, all play their part in the rhythm of a game that so many love. I rather think it’s a myth that seduces the spectator and, like all myths, it hides the reality of what is really going on. As those wickets fell I couldn’t help but think how brutal and lonely cricket can be for those who play it at Test level, how individually heartbreaking and demoralising this wonderful game can be. Cricketer’s actions are video analysed in ways that would make Martin Donnelly shiver. Good batsmen as well as good bowlers can be routinely humiliated by tiny flaws in their technique that coaches and other players have spotted. Ostensibly a team game, cricket can be as lonely as golf, and as mentally brutal as the NFL, and I’m not sure that we are able to talk and write about it in that way anymore.
When Tom Blundell achieved his maiden Test century in his maiden Test innings the tension in those last twenty minutes or so (it truly did feel like an hour!!) as he went from the high nineties to his century was awful to experience. I was worried sick and one can only admire his mental fortitude and physical skill. I was also impressed by the bloody-mindedness and ability of Roston Chase, the West Indian spin bowler. He gave nothing away and every ball he bowled was a challenge. To this spectator, the contest was almost gladiatorial. Each over careered through a whole range of emotions and that little saga is surely worthy of the most thorough, mainstream reporting.
When I first went to cricket cricket in the 1960s in England I didn’t go because I wanted to know the statistics or even for the programmes ( although I did start to collect them soon enough!). I went to watch the players. I wanted to appreciate their experience – the grimness on Johnny Wardle’s face, the big grin of Jimmy Binks after a fine catch behind the stumps. I instinctively knew I was watching a battle and when Yorkshire played Lancashire it was a war. Those hardened old pros weren’t trying to entertain me. They were trying to win. Those games were emotionally exhausting and you can get a good sense of what they must have felt like for the players if you in the contemporary reports in the newspapers! Try Bob Bowes in the Yorkshire Post or John Arlott, anywhere!
I think that all our collections of books, ephemera, and statistics allow the game to be a little more inclusive than when I began to watch it. We supporters can throw statistics around, collect cigarette cards, collect programmes and everything else, and, consequently, somehow be a part of these wonderful events. Surely that must be all to the good. We can, with statistics, make sense of what we have seen. We are not, necessarily, just passive spectators.
After the game, putting some sheets in order I began to worry, though,that all this ephemera, all these statistics do not help me understand the shadows on the grass. As much as I should. I rather think that we can only appreciate a great innings when we also appreciate the mental hurt and worry a player has gone through before he puts that innings on the scorecard. A bad bowling performance can lead to self doubt or obsession. Overcoming that can be a dark psychological journey and one that needs to be appreciated, never mind any statistic or cigarette card.
I have come to believe that cricket is as raw as any sport. What we collect or what figures we conjure up can never replicate the lived experiences of the players on the field and I think I need to keep reminding myself that the collections we catalogue and the statistics we read, wonderful though they may be, have a neatness and smoothness about them that are not always out there on the field of play. There’s a lot of anguish in the shadows on the grass.