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THE OLIVER HOLT COLUMN

Mail on Sunday logo Mail on Sunday 09/05/2020 Cara Sloman

WHAT WILL BE LEFT OF CRICKET AFTER WE’VE MOURNED OUR SUMMER OF EMPTINESS?

AROUND the time the shadows start to lengthen and the swarms of insects thicken on the banks of the River Cherwell, I dawdle around the University Parks in Oxford on my daily run. Past its spreading cedars, lines of hawthorns, its great oaks and the Japanese pagoda tree near the gate that leads out on to Parks Road where red-brick Keble College stands.

It has always been a place of beauty but there is another reason I run there now rather than around Port Meadow or the city’s empty streets. When everything has been shut down and we wonder if it will ever come back as we knew it before, at least the Parks carry the echoes of sport and traditions we still hold dear.

The Parks are synonymous, for me anyway, with the dawn of the cricket season, a rite that seemed as unquestionable as spring’s journey towards summer. To see the players of the Oxford University XI ready to face a county side, their whites pristine against the lush green of the outfield in mid-April, was always a joyful image of optimism and renewal.

This year, of course, it is different. On Friday, I ran around the outside of the old pavilion, past its gables and its verandah that help to make it a symbol of the elegance of late 19th century sport. Now it was deserted and still, and the small blackboard that hung by the door and read ‘Today’s Sponsors’, had a blank space beneath it. Behind the building, a blue tractor lay idle next to the groundsman’s shed.

The sightscreens had been pushed to one side. The university was supposed to have played a three-day game against Surrey here a few weeks ago. The only activity on the outfield was a woman doing shuttle runs and a family of four walking their dog in the early evening  sunshine.

THIS was supposed to be the season when cricket capitalised on last year’s golden summer. It ought to have been basking in the afterglow of the chest-tightening melodrama of England’s magnificent World Cup final  victory over New Zealand at Lord’s and Ben Stokes’s astonishing innings at Headingley, which won the Third Ashes Test against  Australia when all seemed lost.

My happiest memory of this cursed year was walking around Newlands with Stuart Broad in early January after England had recorded a famous victory over South Africa in the shadow of Table Mountain. That, too, reminded us how enthralling and how exciting and how uplifting the longer form of the game can be and seemed to herald more drama ahead.

This was supposed to be the  summer when, despite all our misgivings, we tried to embrace The Hundred, the new darling of the England and Wales Cricket Board, in the hope its imagined economic benefits would help to safeguard the future of the game. Instead, as much as anyone cares about sport in the midst of the pandemic, most of the fretting has revolved around the resumption of the football season. That is why running around the Parks can become a journey into melancholy if you let it.

In a work that now seems improbably prescient, that same sense of gazing at a disappearing world has been articulated with great skill and, most of all, great affection by Michael Henderson in the recently published book ‘That Will Be England Gone: The Last Summer of Cricket.’

Henderson is a man whom the editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley, describes as a ‘romantic conservative’ and his book is an elegy not just to an English cricket landscape that he believes will be desecrated by The Hundred but also to the rich classical music  culture of favourite cities such as Vienna and Berlin, and to bars there such as Zwiebelfisch in the corner of Savignyplatz in the  German capital, where I have passed happy hours with him.

‘There can be no summer in England without cricket,’ the writer and critic Neville Cardus once wrote and ‘That Will Be England Gone’ advances the idea that because The Hundred was supposed to squat at the heart of this English summer, this would have been the first time the County Championship would have been pushed to the margins and that a bedrock of English culture would have been lost.

The book — a paean to the sub-culture of county cricket, its supporters, its players, its observers, its writers, its pubs and its arenas — was completed before the coronavirus crisis struck but its premise seems more pertinent than ever. Our existence these past few months has been ruled by loss or the fear of loss. Most of all, of course, that means the loss of loved ones as the death toll continues to rise but the virus has struck at other cornerstones of our lives.

And so we worry about whether our lower league football clubs will disappear and whether our county cricket clubs will survive.

Early in the book, Henderson  references the poems of Edward Thomas, in particular, ‘Adlestrop’, a wistful reminiscence of an unexpected halt at a rural railway station. ‘And for that minute a blackbird sang close by,’ Thomas writes, ‘and round him, mistier, farther and farther, all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.’

Mistier now are our remembrances of the way sport was and how even two months ago, it still brought us joy and escape.

In ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’, Thomas wrote about a ploughman and a fallen elm that blocked his team of horses as they worked with no men left in the community to move it and how the First World War interrupted the agricultural rhythms of rural life. Now we are being challenged by a virus that is threatening so much that we had come to take for granted, including so much of the fabric of sport.

The Hundred has been cancelled already and it was reported yesterday that county cricketers, many of whom have already had to take a 20 per cent pay cut, may face a second cut in their earnings.

Michael Atherton, the former England captain, said he felt ‘gloomy’ about the prospects of the County Championship, scheduled to begin on July 1, taking place at all this season.

There are hopes that England’s home Test against Pakistan and West Indies may survive in ‘biosecure’ environments at the Ageas Bowl and Old Trafford, beginning on July 8, but there are concerns about the West Indies’ willingness to take part. English cricket, it is said, faces a deficit of £380million.

‘On what should be the eve of the first-class cricket season,’ Nottinghamshire batsman Chris Nash wrote last month in a wry nod to the early fixtures against Oxford or Cambridge, ‘I should be sitting in a hotel off the A14, eating my first hotel burger of the season in a cold sweat over which physics student with a double-barrelled name will get me out tomorrow with a 76mph in-swinger.’

It never happened. The cricketers in their whites never ran down the steps of that pavilion in the Parks, Nash never got to face the Cambridge nerd of his nightmares at Fenner’s and The Hundred will have to wait for another year.

‘I thought it would last my time,’ Philip Larkin wrote in ‘Going, Going’, the poem from which Henderson takes his book title, ‘the sense that, beyond the town, there would always be fields and farms, where the village louts could climb such trees as were not cut down.’

A new set of uncertainties stalks us now. The time of fallen elms is upon us again.

l That Will Be England Gone by Michael Henderson is published by Constable.

HERE’S TO JIMMY...

JIMMY GLENN died last week,

aged 89. He was a boxer and a trainer in his youth but he became famous for owning and running one of the best bars in New York City, Jimmy’s Corner.

Jimmy’s is on West 44th St, opposite the Hudson Theatre in Manhattan, where once Mike Tyson bit Lennox Lewis on the thigh during an on-stage brawl.

It was a dive bar; a minimalist place apart from the yellowing fight posters and photos of Jimmy with famous boxers who stopped by. Robert De Niro filmed one of the final scenes from Raging Bull there, although quite how they fitted the camera crew into the narrow little place is anyone’s guess.

Jimmy’s Corner doesn’t win any prizes for beauty but that never stopped it being my favourite bar in America.

DON’T WRITE OFF SPOTY YET

IT is awfully early to be talking about the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, but reports last week that it may be cancelled seem a little premature. Many of the biggest events of the sporting calendar have been cancelled but Tyson Fury’s stunning victory over Deontay Wilder already means he is the leader in the clubhouse.

Maybe Lewis Hamilton will win another F1 title if the season starts up in July. Maybe Rory McIlroy will win the US Masters and complete his Grand Slam of Majors if the tournament takes place in November, as planned.

It is hard to think about it now when the coronavirus is still causing so much suffering but if sport returns, it has a fine habit of lifting the spirits.

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