This is the North and we like our sport.
You certainly need some to get through your school days, up here. Later, it’s a useful language in which to converse with others. You can find yourself adrift at the wedding of your wife’s friend, amongst blokes you’ve never met. The chances are that talking sport will give you a solid ‘in’ with them, or at least one of them.
The local professional football club has been part of my life from the moment I was born. My Dad’s Dad worked in the office there during his later years. This was in the days before telephones were common in homes, and when I was born my Dad phoned the club to tell his Dad who then borrowed a bike and cycled across town to let my Mum’s parents know.
Later, when the club became the first in the modern era to move to a purpose-built new ground, my Dad was very proud to be heavily involved in the design, planning and construction. The club even honoured him, when he died in 2000, by holding a minute’s silence before the kick-off of a match.
Over the years I have spent a lot of my time and money supporting the club. The team was incredibly successful for a while – overachieving beautifully between 1999 and 2009 – some of the happiest days in my life – but eventually reverted to type. About eighteen months after things began to spiral back down, something changed in me.
I recognised that the Golden Years of our shared lifetime had passed, and it would be only diminishing returns from thereon in. The joy had completely gone, and I stopped going. It was the end of a relationship, not without pangs and some trauma. But I made light of the truth with the sense of humour which had become part of it all amongst my friends and I: “Dear United… It’s over. It’s not me, it’s you”…
Instead my interest in cricket came back to the boil, after simmering somewhere in the background since I sat with Dad to watch the mighty Ian Botham cream the Aussies in 1981, and occasionally steaming over.
My wife and I have recently been taken by The Hundred, a new fast-format cricket tournament. The matches have been played in front of really excitable family crowds in packed stadiums – but, clearly, the competition has mostly been an exercise in packaging for a broadcast audience.
The presentation has been unashamedly ‘in your face’ – so much so that I suppose you’d say the whole thing (other than the cricket itself) is “very American”. There are ‘fake’ new teams with dynamic names, assembled specifically for The Hundred, and they wear bright and colourful shirts. There are busy on-screen graphics, banging tunes from an in-stadium DJ and a live band between innings, plus youthful TV hosts and informal punditry and so on. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Simon Cowell and a panel of ne’er-do-wells popped up on screen to judge the LBW reviews.
The Hundred has been scheduled and televised at the rate of one game each evening, and watching (sporadic broadcasts on the BBC, the remainder through an emergency Sky subscription) has fitted well with the routine we’ve installed for our son’s bedtime. It’s given us something to share and settle into and focus on that isn’t him, just after he’s down for the night.
We’ve agreed that it’d be good if our seven-month old son grew up to be a cricketer, rather than a footballer or rugger-bugger of any persuasion. He doesn’t have to be any of these things when he’s older, of course – but at this stage it looks like it’ll be cricket we guide our son towards.
“He’ll need a good grounding,” I said, poised, card at the ready, Trent Bridge on speed dial, a few days before England’s First Test against India was due to begin in nearby Nottingham. In my mind’s eye I could picture him glistening in his whites, walking out on his debut as captain one sun-kissed afternoon twenty-five years from now.
A television montage featuring a wistful but inspiring soundtrack (perhaps the theme from Chariots Of Fire, musical shorthand for effort, achievement and transcendence). Golden photos of him sitting tinily on my lap watching England at a Test. Definitively the starting point of the journey which sees him surpass the greats of his country and write his name across the pages of the Wisden. The montage ends and he steps forward to accept the BBC’s Sports Personality Of The Year 2046, tearfully dedicating it to his blind 77-year old Dad, also blind drunk.
My wife and I ummed-and-ahed about the possibility of a day at Trent Bridge. The logistics of it. We reasoned that a Test Match day would be a good test (ho ho) as first time parents on the way out of a lockdown.
Although we’d taken our son to see friends and family a few times, and although we’d once been out for a bistro lunch, and although we’d also been to a relatively local sea-life centre for a bit on Father’s Day, we hadn’t yet been put to the sword in terms of being out for hours with escaping home not really an option. We would need to cater for our son’s needs for approximately thirteen hours away.
I have been to Test Matches before so am well-versed in what we’d encounter – the peculiar pace, the ebb and flow, the type of atmosphere, the customs – but for my wife it would be a first and I had to tell her not to expect the bang-and-flash of The Hundred. Though it can be incredibly exciting, for the most part Test Match cricket is ‘the long game’. Slow burning, with a very particular feel and matches sometimes steady, or even sprawling out across five days.
Anyway, the tickets were eventually ordered and arrived by post the following day. Responsibly, I’d opted for the alcohol-free family stand. I joked to a work colleague that I misread when ordering and thought they said “free alcohol family stand”. Beer is another of those special Northern languages, you see. But I don’t actually drink that often.
The first three days of play had been underwhelming from an England perspective, with India dominant. However, by the time that the fourth day – our day – came round England were just in to bat and the match was excitingly poised. Watching England bat is what I am always most excited by. I suppose it’s because I was a useless bowler, in my school days, but I could actually bat a bit. I even made it as far as one of the ‘house’ teams (one stage below the full school team) on a couple of occasions.
Fielding was always okay, too, but you don’t really fork out £100 on a pair of Test Match tickets to spend the day admiring deep backward leg. “That guy on the boundary is a hell of a player. Hands in pockets or hands out of pockets, hat tilted or taken off, just look how brilliantly he’s standing there”. So, anyway, unless the batting order decided to collapse in on itself quickly, it was likely we’d be seeing England at the crease all day and giving it a decent knock. Perfect.
Saturday morning finally came. Friday’s play had been somewhat affected by rain, which had rattled my wife as she listened to Test Match Special on the radio. She’s one of those people who will check the weather forecast days before doing anything. If I tell her I might go tidy the yard on Sunday she’ll look up the weather on an app on her phone. When the bins need putting out she’ll check. She won’t even go out to the shop if it’s looking like rain, whereas I don’t really care if I get wet. You cannot keep a man from his favourite tinned goods.
She made lists of everything we needed – food and drink, of course, but also things like my portable digital radio and two sets of earphones so we could listen to Test Match Special while watching the game, and a portable battery pack just in case the radio ran out of power. Just before bed the night before we made our ‘pack-up’ and put it in the fridge, ready to be cool-boxed in the morning. Modest excitement was palpable.
I’d given a ‘leaving time’ of 8am to ensure we could make the journey steadily, get parked up, stroll to the ground cooing at the lovely houses in beautiful West Bridgford, have a mooch round the stadium, buy a programme, take our seats and acclimatise before Jerusalem rang out for the 11 o’clock start. The absolute unspoken cut-off to depart was 8.15 – much beyond that and we were sure to lose some of the early action.
“So what?” I imagine some saying. “It’s only a couple of minutes, you’re not really going to miss anything”… However, I’ve been at a football match when a player was sent off after 20 seconds and one when a goal was scored in the first minute – with nothing else of note happening for the remainder of the game. And I’ve been to the cricket when someone was out second ball of the morning session. So…
In the end we left home at a shocking quarter to nine – partly due to the baby, but partly due to the fact that when my wife goes into her dressing room to get ready she actually crosses a portal into another dimension, where clothes no longer fit or suit, and watches no longer work. Temporal distortion means five minutes in there are actually twenty-five out here. It’s exactly like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, but with double the budget.
Somehow, on the way to Nottingham, I rounded a junction and the sat nav shaved almost eighteen minutes off our time. I’m a steady driver (“Driving Miss Daisy”, my wife sometimes says) so it was nothing to do with my speed. I can only presume there’s another portal on a roundabout on the A46 just past Lincoln.
Anyway, we arrived in good time despite the late start. We parked up in my usual spot – near a parade of shops past a pedestrian crossing on Abbey Road (which always makes me chuckle) – and got our stuff together and ran through my wife’s checklist. Again.
Walking up to the ground with our son dressed in his tiny little knitted cricket jumper and sitting up in his pushchair made me feel proud. Father taking son to his first sports event – and the national team, to boot!
The weather was decent, no hint of rain, and the buzz on the busy streets was good to be a part of. Arriving at Trent Bridge – which I’d told her was the friendliest cricket ground I’ve been to – my wife was immediately impressed and possibly even slightly humbled by the welcome from the members of staff, and their very helpful attitude.
In the queue, a gate steward called us forward and took us straight through because we had a child, and people got out of our way with no complaint: “Sir, Madam, follow me please… Through here please… Thank you for joining us today, enjoy the cricket and enjoy your day” – and then we were in.
Another steward inside the stadium took my wife off to show her where we could put our son’s pushchair during the match, even offering to carry it there for us. We got settled in our seats, cracked open a sandwich and got the radio going, and our son sat on my knee taking in the sights, just as Jerusalem rang out.
The match itself… well, this is not a sports website so I won’t write up a full report.
Suffice to say we saw the Captain of England – Joe Root – make a century. My wife was pleased to see Johnny Bairstow batting. She’d been particularly impressed with his meat-and-potato approach in The Hundred. He’d hit a no nonsense 72 not out (including five sixes) in a match for Welsh Fire before being called up to England duty for this Test series. Indian spin bowler Mohammad Siraj was a real pantomime villain, mad eyes and chip on his shoulder and constantly ‘chirping’ at the England batsmen, trying to rile them and goad them into making mistakes.
By tea-time England were all out for 303, and India had come in to bat. The weather began to turn just at the point when there was likely to be only ten minutes or so of play left anyway. The skies had greyed and the rain was beginning to roll in for the first time all day. I suggested that we beat the rush and leave. Just as we were packing our things, Stuart Broad bowled a wicket and the whole experience was somehow complete.
Meanwhile, in parent world, our son was absolutely tremendous. We shared out his knee-time and he made friends with whoever was sitting behind us. My wife went off to change his nappy a couple of times, putting him in the baby carrier on her body and going to Trent Bridge’s parent-and-child facilities.
He also napped well, seemingly unfazed by the 17,500 people around him. When, during one of his naps, an old Indian fellow two rows in front of us pulled a vuvuzela out of his bag and raised it to his lips, my wife and I looked at each other in horror. The noise those things make is obscene, but this one seemed even louder. Our son? He opened one eye, looked around for a moment, put his head back down and went back to sleep…
Our first test. A victory.