World Cup day 24
When you travel to Southampton you have to leave time. Time to take an early train from London down towards the southern coast, then time to find your way from a station to the distant ground.
When you travel to Southampton for an India match, you have to leave a lot more time. The limited bus services are at capacity, with long lines of people waiting to board. Likewise the queues to get into the ground. Everything is more complicated on these days, even for a match against Afghanistan.
You might not expect the Afghans to be the biggest drawcard, but they provide one of the best contests of the tournament. On a slow pitch offering turn, their spinners squeeze and squeeze. Mujeeb bowls one of those spells that he’s already so good at producing.
Before the match, some of the journalists are doing a sweepstake on how many runs Rohit will make. Someone says 214, someone 216. In the end, India barely make that many between them. And throughout the chase, even though it falters, for long hours the impossible is possible.
It’s fascinating to watch an Indian crowd at a match like this. They go from exultant triumphalism at the fall of a wicket to glowering despair as a partnership reaches 10 runs or 10 minutes. The mere possibility of losing to the biggest underdog in the tournament is enough to make some supporters despair, but then the chance for forestalling that loss sends them into raptures.
Mohammad Shami smashes through the last wickets, and I may be the only person rushing back to London to attend a Billy Joel concert. It’s easy to forget that there are a thousand other delights in an English summer than the cricket: music, theatre, the outdoors. And sure, Billy Joel at Wembley might be about the cheesiest of the lot, but there’s nothing wrong with cheese.
I’m definitely younger than most of the crowd by 30 years, and younger than the performer by 40. But even past his 70th birthday, Billy can still reel off the hits. Say Goodbye to Hollywood. New York State of Mind. You May Be Right. There’s more to him than just Piano Man. Not so much diversity in his crowd though. The perfect encapsulation is the couple who arrive straight from Ascot Races, still dressed in the top hat and tails and the fancy frock. That is some strong white middle-aged energy.
World Cup day 25
Finally, on the 25th day of a tournament that has seemingly gone for months, we have a match at Lord’s. The grand old dame gets her own fancy frock out and comes to the races. It’s not the typical Lord’s crowd though. There may be two teams playing today, but the green of South African shirts is barely noticeable among the various greens of Pakistan.
People often note how the media centre at Lord’s looks like a spaceship. They also note that its outer hull was built in a shipyard. There is something very naval about it when you’re using it as well as when you’re looking at it.
There are winding stairways that climb up into its heights – more reliable than the lifts, which I’ve never trusted since they broke down in 2013 with some people stuck inside.
But the best part is if you find your way onto the ladders and catwalks underneath, where the cameras are set up to film the match. Inside the media centre’s aluminium bubble, you can feel too removed from the action outside. But out on the gangway, you feel the breeze and smell the air and hear the crowd’s noise swell up from beneath you, across from you, around you.
Late on that day, as South Africa’s chase ends in a tailspin, Wahab Riaz keeps hitting the stumps. He has had catches dropped all day, all tournament. He is steaming in and bowling fast, full, reverse-swinging his yorkers. In the sky above is some seriously thick looming cloud. The whole air is soupy and grey, so dense you could cut it. And in the midst of this foreboding atmosphere, Wahab hits the stumps again and again and again.
World Cup day 26
Of course, often during a tournament, you’re not at a cricket match at all. Often you’re doing a preview the day before a cricket match. There is, if I’m perfectly honest, not a lot of point in doing this. But it’s a staple that everyone has agreed on.
Those organising the match want to have stories in the paper and on the telly reminding people that it’s on, building anticipation. Those who work in media want to have a story to tell. To whet the appetite. So by agreement the two captains arrive, give press conferences at which they try to say as little as possible, then leave. The journalists then try to turn the little that was said into a story to tell.
Australia are due to play England at Lord’s on the Tuesday, so with this being the Monday we have Aaron Finch and Eoin Morgan at the press conference. Finch tells us that he doesn’t know what the team will be, has hasn’t looked at the pitch yet, and that Australia have won World Cups before. Morgan says that his injured batsman Jason Roy won’t play, he’s not worried about pressure, and that he doesn’t mind what people in the crowd do or say.
After this we watch Bangladesh take down Afghanistan to stay alive in the tournament, with Shakib doubling up with five wickets and a fifty. With Lord’s completely empty the day before a game, Adam Collins and I wander down to record the Final Word podcast for the day, taking a seat on the sightscreen while we do it. Having access to these places is one of the privileges of the job.
For a final sortie, that evening Vic Marks is launching his new book at The Windsor Castle pub nearby. It’s a cosy hole-in-the-wall kind of venue, with lots of cricketing faces past and present. Vic is very much both, someone with a remarkable history in the game but still someone who contributes greatly to the current day.
For several decades Vic has been a loved presence on BBC radio and a regular contributor to the pages of The Guardian. He was once famously described as a man with no enemies, and it’s easy to believe that is true.
He manages to combine complete affability with considerable wisdom – both cricket related and general – as well as reflexive self-deprecation, and a sharp sense of humour. An all-rounder as a player, and the all-round package as a human. The book is called Original Spin, and proves that he’s not too bad at that pursuit either.
There is a really strong community of people who work on cricket. We tour together, support each other, and make firm friendships. So it’s especially nice amidst the most chaotic tournament of all that so many colleagues can find time to come together in celebration of someone who deserves it.