I’m naturally pretty optimistic, but it hasn’t been the greatest year by most metrics. Between politics, the Black Lives Matter struggle, quarantine, the COVID pandemic, the struggle against bigoted, outdated mindsets, and of course the lack of spectator sports, not much has been able to help distract us. However, I’m guessing most of you have failed to notice that there have been a couple of fields in England that have fought back against the tide of utter bollocks that this year has brought us. I am, of course, talking about English cricket.
When the pandemic hit in March, the entire summer sports schedule for pretty much everyone except Belorussian soccer teams was canceled. Given that we all had to stay home, this was an unmitigated disaster. What are we meant to do for entertainment? To start with, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the England Cricket Board (ECB) re-ran classic games in full, and fans got together around a podcast called Tailenders (possibly the most British thing you could ever listen to) and re-lived their favorite games, in some cases doing a mass scoring session together over social media. Ladies and Gentlemen, I was the scorer for my all-boys boarding school’s first XI (Drive Reeds), and I can confirm that to the untrained eye it is a cross between Tolkienian cirth and ancient cuneiform, and is incredibly uncool. Still, people found fellowship in missing live sports and the obscure art of cricket scoring.
The ECB never gave up on live, in-person summer sports, though. Plans emerged for a limited handful of games against the West Indies, in ‘bio-secure bubbles’. The idea was that the squads would go into full quarantine in one of two venues in England that had hotel facilities on the grounds—Southampton’s Ageas Bowl and Manchester’s Old Trafford (next to the football stadium). Players, support staff, and commentators would live on site with almost no contact with the outside world, hand sanitizer would be everywhere, face masks would be worn by all non-players, and they would employ celebratory elbow bumps instead of high fives. A three-game series of test matches (games that can last up to five days) would be played in rapid succession, with players moving venues only once during the series.
The plans were scoffed at for being so precarious and open to abuse, but the game needed to take the risk. The revenue the ECB would get from the games would save the fate of most of the smaller cricket teams around the country and would give cricket fans across the world something to watch. The British government gave their blessing, hoping to get something right after their own leader became hospitalized through reckless hand shaking.
Miraculously, it all came together at the beginning of June, by which point the world had been horrified by the murder of George Floyd, and the BLM movement caused much of the world to look at itself. The England one-day game team had won the cricket World Cup in 2019 with a historically diverse team that included British-born Muslims, a couple of northern gingers, players born in South Africa, Barbados, and New Zealand—all calling England their home. They were united under an Irishman with English parents called Eoin Morgan, one of our best captains in generations. Thus, as plans were made to play the first game against players from various Carribean islands under the West Indies banner, the teams came up with their own symbol of solidarity and unity.
The first morning of the first day of the first game arrived, and the players for both teams walked out to the middle of the field with ‘Black Lives Matter’ printed on the collars of their cricket whites next to a black fist symbol. Both teams took a knee before the start of the game, with the West Indian and Black English players and staff raising a fist in solidarity and defiance.
The biosecure bubbles worked. Commentators for both Sky and the BBC entered the bubbles later than the players but kept their distance and were tested frequently, noting on air which testing staff were the gentlest and which were the most brutal. Chief BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew took up the ukulele, and could be heard in the background of many post-game interviews. One television interview with England batter Ollie Pope showed the high spirits in the bubble, as his teammates hammered on his hotel room wall, called his room’s telephone, and knocked on the door as he tried to summarize the previous game’s play. Only one player, Jofra Archer of England, broke the bubble by visiting his apartment while driving between venues, and was dropped from the next game and forced to spend five days in solitary confinement in his hotel room as a result.
The summer was a fantastic success. England played against the Windies, Ireland, Pakistan, and Australia, in games that were watched around the world. There was one more series to play, though. In what could arguably be the most impressive setup given the resources available, the England Women’s team played the West Indies Women’s team in three T20 games in a similar biosecure setup at the England training facilities in Derby. Two England players, Nat Sciver and Katherine Brunt, were due to get married in September but ended up postponing the event along with many other couples across the world. Their teammates still held a wedding party for them inside the bubble, with a sparkling cake and tears of happiness all around. The Bob Willis trophy was set up between the English county teams using the biosecure bubble system as well, bringing local cricket teams and fans vital funds in a cash-strapped summer. Finally, the lucrative and ridiculously popular Indian Premier League, featuring the best players from across the world, was moved to venues in the United Arab Emirates. It is currently entertaining over a billion cricket fans across the world and providing a number of international players their first paychecks in months.
Without England cricket stepping up and putting on a summer of sport to remember, none of this would have happened, and other leagues such as the English Premier League are now following their example. The camaraderie between teams was wonderful, best demonstrated by the Pakistan players all bumping elbows with England batter Zak Crawley after his record-breaking innings of 267 runs over nine hours of play. England bowlers Stuart Broad and James Anderson hit their milestones of 500 and 600 test wickets respectively, with Anderson cementing his place as the most successful fast bowler in the history of the game.
International cricket demonstrated friendship, diversity, solidarity, and some bloody wonderful live sports. I might even suggest that NFL Football would not be taking place without the example set by the ECB this summer. Thanks to them for saving summer.
Mark Russell is a fully paid up member of the Barmy Army (the England cricket supporters club).
Photo by Yogendra Singh on Unsplash