Players sit by the boundary
Laurence Griffiths / © Getty Images


Spring is here

And with it cricket. Or is it the other way round?

Simon Barnes |

Every spring the most extraordinary thing happened in my cricket bag.

Absolutely nothing.

And I was never really able to get my head around it. In September I would play the last match of the season and bundle my whites into the bag. Every April I would open the bag and find my kit inside, still bundled up and still filthy. Dried mud had fallen from my shoes and covered everything with a gritty powder. The trousers wore snot-green streaks from the last dive of the season. The elbow of the shirt was ripped. The sweaters - and I was going to need them all - looked grubby and sad.

I always expected the kit to clean itself over the course of the winter: to be fresh and inviting as I opened the zip, smelling of laundry, still warm from the iron, in a neat pile along with the pads, the wicketkeeping gauntlets and the old cricket balls that people liked to throw at my head during the warm-up.

The annual failure of my kit to self-clean was baffling. After all, it was the only miracle that didn't take place in April. Why this one miracle should fail to come about in the face of so many others was a perpetual mystery.

For it was as if cricket had called the life back to the land: as if cricket had restored warmth to the sun, as if the grass was growing because cricket had demanded it, as if candlestick flowers appeared on the horse chestnut trees so that cricket grounds could look more crickety.

The after-work pubs explode onto the pavement as the world seeks an al fresco drink, a joke, a flirty moment and a conversation about cricket

Of all the major cricketing countries, England in the cold north is the only one that celebrates the sport as the rite of spring, as the return of life, as the rebirth of hope. Ashis Nandy famously said that cricket was an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English: but only the English could have invented it. Cricket was a response to the annual miracle of the English spring.

The birds start to lift their voices in song, bare trees grow leaves, flowers leap from the earth, the sun lingers ever longer in the sky and even in the cities the English lose their heads. On the first day of real warmth the women are at once a layer or two from nakedness, men wear their jackets on their thumbs and the after-work pubs explode onto the pavement as the world seeks an al fresco drink, a joke, a flirty moment and a conversation about cricket.

When I was a boy, the change in seasons was celebrated on Streatham Common. No longer did John Murtagh and I make a goal with jerseys and play three-goals-and-in: we drove stumps into the ground and batted and bowled until teatime. Across the open grass other groups of boys made the same decision. It was more like a religious observation than a sporting decision: to play football in spring would have seemed blasphemous, a perverse rejection of life and light.

As the weather grew warmer my family would go to Birmingham to spend a week with my grandparents, and that too meant cricket. My grandfather and I would take the bus to Edgbaston and watch Warwickshire struggle for mastery. We would lunch on sandwiches that my grandfather made, take tea and cake at teatime, and as evening came, we would go to the bar where my grandfather would drink a half-pint of mild and I would drink lemonade.

And it would seem that cricket itself had transformed the world: that cricket brought warmth and life, that cricket was responsible for making the things grow, and that the turtle doves purred in the trees because they were required to accompany the sound of ball on bat and the sudden hoarse shouts of the fielders.

Where there's cricket, can tea be far behind?

Where there's cricket, can tea be far behind? Laurence Griffiths / © Getty Images

The start of a new cricket season still fills me with hope and good cheer. But this mustn't be confused with hope for victory. Of course, I always hope for great things from the England team, as I used to hope for greater things from mighty Tewin Irregulars, but it has never been the hope that warmed me.

The real hope is to be found in the fact that the whole process is starting again. It's the continuation of the narrative that matters: the idea of starting again from where we left off.

It's like a beautiful girl. You spent last summer with her, off and on, but she was away all winter, getting up to all kinds of adventures that you'd rather not know about. But the wise person never worries about such things and is only filled with joy at the thought of seeing her again and starting all over again. On whatever terms are offered.

I didn't expect Tewin Irregulars to start playing like Clive Lloyd's West Indies. I never expect England to avoid disasters, collapses, defeats plucked from the jaws of victory and all the other kinds of traditional self-inflicted wounds. That's an essential part of the narrative, and I am overjoyed that the story is continuing and that I'm still a part of it.

Cricket brings the countryside to the city. The other ball games require small spaces, places in which you can huddle from the cold, if only for an hour or two. They're essentially urban. But the generous spaces of cricket and the generous hours in which it takes place contrast gloriously with the fuss and hurry of city life: telling us that there is a better rhythm to our lives, if only we can surrender to it. When cricket starts again it feels like the promise of a better life.

Cricket is a game rich in nostalgia, but all the nostalgia in the world is nothing when compared with spring. Never mind the old days: what about the new days?

The hawthorn trees break out into white blossom and the green fields break out into white figures. They give a passer-by a glow that's as warm as the sun: confirmation that spring is here and that England is still England, and if many of the white-clad figures are black or brown of skin the scene becomes more profoundly English and timeless.

You pass a match in a train or a car and turn your head as you go, in the hope of seeing a moment of action: a bowler running up, a batsman smiting the ball, a catch, a shout, a run. And mostly in vain. They remain unmoving: white statues on a green background, like a piece of ephemeral art.

And so we English dust off our best gallows-humour jokes and get ready to see where our brave boys will take us. Right now the team is still shattered after being caught in a pincer movement between Mitchell Johnson and Kevin Pietersen: but there's always a story of some kind unfolding.

I remember the spring of 2005, when the Australians were expected. I don't mind losing, so long as it's close. So long as England are competitive. So long as it's not too humiliating… so we were all saying: modest ambitions that were actually realised in that extraordinary summer as the disbelieving England team, almost despite themselves, found a way to win.

But victory isn't essential. Dear me no. Victory is a luxury and a particularly decadent one. I remember sitting in the crowd at The Oval, at the time when crowds of Brits of West Indian extraction would come to the cricket and create a carnival of brilliance and wit and rum and rhythm… yes, that Grovel Summer of 1976 when Tony Greig's team was blown apart. As good a summer of cricket as I've ever experienced.

If it's May, get your coat

If it's May, get your coat Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images

No, cricket is too good to waste on victory. Lovely when it happens, but not by any means essential. It's the pursuit of victory that matters. That was true when I played for Tewin Irregulars: you played as if winning the match was the most important thing that had ever happened in the history of the universe, while knowing all the time that it was nothing of the kind. That's the contradiction at the very heart of sport: but perhaps it's clearer in cricket than it is anywhere else.

And when it comes to big-time cricket, what matters is the narrative, and being involved in it. It's all about stories within stories within stories. Each ball is a story, each individual innings, each duel between batsman and bowler, each innings from a team, each match, and so through the course of the series, which itself is just part of the greater story of cricket.

Stories are themselves a kind of life. Stories are the way we humans understand life and reconcile ourselves to its difficulties. Of all sports, cricket is richest in narrative, and when the spring begins in England it's like the opening page of a great book.

So read on. "It was the best of games, it was the worst of games…"

Cricket is a game rich in nostalgia, but all the nostalgia in the world is nothing when compared with spring. Never mind the old days: what about the new days? What about the life and promise and hope of the new season? What about the newly warm sun, the newly laundered whites, the fact that it's all about to begin and - this is the best bit of all - you have absolutely no idea what happens next.

Simon Barnes is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books