“Conor Varius? Triffic little player!” Harry Rednapp (allegedly)
“It looks like Liverpool will have to add yet another year onto their 30 year wait to win the League. Ha ha!”
At first, the banter with my brother, a keen Liverpool supporter, was light-hearted. Then it became sympathetic. And now, as the full repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic are slowly sinking in, the mood has darkened and the tone has become distinctly uneasy. Never mind the Premier League. The future for all sport, as with everything else, is in jeopardy. Jimmy Anderson, the England fast bowler, has been quoted as saying it may well be that not a single ball will be bowled this coming season.
So what will the new world look like when, eventually, sport resumes? Undoubtedly its axis will have shifted considerably. Perhaps, the landscape will be unrecognisable. Looking on the bright side – a difficult point of view to adopt in these depressing times, I grant you – there might just be a silver lining peeking out from behind the clouds. At present, I am reading a comprehensive account of the 1948 tour by Australia of these shores, in which they comprehensively defeated England in an Ashes series. Dubbed ‘The Invincibles’, Bradman’s team of all the talents went through their complete itinerary (34 matches) unbeaten. Quite apart from putting England to the sword in the Test matches, they thrashed most of the counties and only rain prevented them prevailing in the other games. The unbeaten record, never before achieved and one that will stand unchallenged for the rest of time, given that tours these days are much shorter, was Bradman’s last hurrah in a peerless career that had started back in 1928. At his disposal were world class players such as Lindwall, Miller, Morris, Hassett, Barnes, Harvey and Tallon, supported by a talented cast of players only slightly below the highest quality, all at the top of their game. England and the counties were outclassed.
Given the one sided nature of the contests, you would have thought that the public would have soon tired of watching lambs led to the slaughter. Not a bit of it. All 34 matches were sell-outs, as cricket followers in their thousands flocked to see one of the great teams in the history of the game in action. How come? Two reasons, it would appear.
First and foremost, Britain was still recovering from a world war. The public had been starved of sporting entertainment and cricket was not the only pastime to enjoy a resurgence in popularity and mass attendance. The Australians were the hottest show in town and everybody wanted to see them. Furthermore, Donald Bradman was probably the most famous sportsman on the planet. It was well known that this would be his swansong. At the age of 40, not in the best of health and nursing a rib injury sustained in the previous Australian season, he was not at all sure he should tour. He was persuaded by the insistent clamour from the Mother Country to give his legion of admirers one last chance to see him perform. Wherever he went, he was mobbed. And he didn’t disappoint either. His batsmanship remained masterful; he scored 2428 runs at 89.92 with 11 centuries. Famously, he made a second ball duck in his final Test innings at the Oval. Had he scored 4, his overall Test average would have been 100. As it was, it slightly dropped below the three-figure mark – 99.94. (For the record, the next highest average for a batsman who has completed his Test career is 60.97 by Graeme Pollock.)
Secondly, the Australians, and to some extent their English opponents, played with a freedom and buoyancy of men rediscovering their love of the game after having been denied the opportunity to display their skills whilst the world was at war. The Australians were amateurs. They were not paid to play. Indeed, many of them had taken unpaid leave from their jobs back home; some had forsaken their job altogether for the honour and privilege of touring. Keith Miller, who flew Mosquito fighter-bombers on active service for the Royal Australian Air Force during the war, was asked how he coped with the pressure of playing in a Test match. “Pressure?” he snorted, “Pressure! Pressure is when you have a Messerschmitt up your arse!” He was not alone in the touring party who had fought for King and country. Nor was he alone in giving thanks for being alive and determined to make up for lost time. The season was a financial, as well as a playing, triumph. The Australian Cricket Board sailed home with £64,664 in its coffers, a colossal amount in those days. None of it found its way into the pockets of the players.
Not that the competitive edge of the matches was ever dulled. Ray Lindwall bowled as fast on this tour, Bradman asserted, as had Larwood in the Bodyline Series of 1932-33, and broke as many bones. Ashes series stirred the blood, whatever the era, and the Australians, despite their amateur status, were ruthlessly professional in the manner in which they saw off the old enemy. It wasn’t money that motivated them – clearly. They were playing for the sheer love of the game and the satisfaction of winning the contest.
Which brings me – finally – to my point. How different this band of brothers was to the fabulously wealthy host of pampered stars in the sporting firmament of today. I don’t want to be too starry eyed about the old days but that pure joy of playing a game has become tarnished by money. Big money. In some cases, gargantuan sums of money. Sport has become a business, and a very profitable one too. For some. Not all. Others, clubs and individuals, bump along at the bottom of the pile, eking out an existence as best they can.
Now, coronavirus will have changed everything. I am no economist but it seems obvious to me that there will not be the oceans of cash lapping around the sandy beaches of those select few islands once all this is over. Some clubs will go to the wall. Some players, to say nothing of all the support staff associated with any club, will lose their jobs. And how will the pampered few justify their grossly inflated salaries (£500,000 a week, for goodness sake!) in the straitened times to come, especially if they are not actually playing? Maybe, perhaps, let’s hope so, there will be a reckoning and that sport, so long in thrall to Mammon, will regain its lost soul.
Forgive me if I indulge in a little crystal ball gazing. The cricket season has been abandoned without a ball being bowled. Some players still under contract have been retained; others sadly have dropped off the perch. The cricket grounds, deserted and neglected, bear a forlorn aspect. But there has been an unexpected drop in cases of the virus and we all, the authorities included, believe the worst is over. Restrictions have been lifted but as this is early September, there is no chance of resurrecting the season. But the weather is fine and warm and young men up and down the country want to don whites again. Somebody at Worcestershire CCC, possibly the captain Joe Leach, has a word with a few of his mates, floating the idea of a one-off match against nearest neighbours, Gloucestershire. One thing leads to another and a game is organised on the College Ground in Cheltenham. The pitch is prepared, marquees swiftly erected, members and supporters clubs hastily disinterred and an army of volunteers raised to provide operational support. Entrance to the public is free. The match counts for nothing, no prize money is at stake, no reputations on the line, no contracts under discussion, no promotion or relegation involved….and no pay for the players.
Do you think the participants won’t go at each other hammer and tongs as if their very lives depended on the outcome? No Festival match, this, no exhibition game, no hit-and-giggle. Do you think the players won’t relish the competition and the thrill of being outdoors, chasing a red leather ball, glorying in physical activity and in the execution of their talents – at long last? And the spectators – won’t they sigh and reflect on what they have been missing?
Of course, it wouldn’t last. Just the one game before the clubs, the ones that are still in existence, start to get down to the business of resuming professional cricket the following season. But perhaps a sea change in attitudes might have come about. I speak only of cricket because of cricket I know yet the same could apply to any chosen sport. Maybe, some of the cynicism, the greed, the naked commercialism, the multi-million sponsorships will have abated and everybody, participants, supporters and employees will remember what they love about their game. For in the end, it is only a game. Isn’t it?