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18 May 2022

With little left to be proud of in this country, at least we still have county cricket

A cricket ground bathed in sunlight is a wonderful sight; I would have been happy with any result.

By Nicholas Lezard

A couple of weeks ago I was trying to think of things I like about this country, or things this country does better than anyone else, and all I could come up with was asparagus and rhubarb. That I included rhubarb in this brief list shows how desperate I was, because I don’t even like rhubarb. I think hatred of this government and the Prime Minister might have clouded my thinking.

Over the last fortnight I have thought of several other things. They are mainly different kinds of cheese, but it’s a start, I suppose. The list of things this country does worse than anyone else, or just unforgivably badly, is a lengthy one. I found myself, from sheer masochism, scrolling through the readers’ comments beneath the MailOnline’s report on the casting of the new Doctor, as in Who.

[See also: Asparagus is the sexiest of vegetables, so I can’t bear to eat it alone]

As you might have expected, it was educational, but not edifying. Readers of the Mail thronged to the internet to denounce the choice of a young black man as the new Time Lord. (TV series about eccentric time travellers: that’s something we do better than anyone else. Then again, no one else seems to be doing it at all.) Anyone who said “He seems nice” or “He’s a very good actor” found their comment downgraded at the very least, or sneered at in another comment from some rancid bigot or other. Can a publication be held responsible for the character of its readers? It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation but I think, yes, it can.

To soothe myself I thought of the day I had just passed, a day in which I experienced what I came to realise was one of the quiet glories of the English summer: the last day of a four-day county cricket match.

I had not actually been to Hove cricket ground (it’s called the 1st Central County Ground now, after an insurance company) even though I’ve been living here – well, Brighton, actually – for three years. The first year I was here I was marooned at the top of a steep hill and the ground was about half an hour’s walk away; then Covid happened, and cricket was suspended and no one was going anywhere except of course to Barnard Castle to get their eyes tested. (I have a photo of myself standing waggishly outside the town’s Specsavers.)

Last summer cricket happened again but if you blinked you missed the county season and it was all limited-overs cricket, which could have been – and, now I come to think of it, probably was – invented to keep snobs and old farts like me from turning up.

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But last Sunday I had a deadline, and little inclination to meet it. I checked to see what was on and it was day four of a match between Sussex and Middlesex, and it was lovely sunny weather, so I thought, why not? It’s now only a ten-minute walk to the ground and there aren’t any inclines to worry about. It had been a high-scoring match, I saw, with a draw seemingly the most likely outcome, despite a sporting declaration from Sussex. Perfect. I wanted a day with an absolute minimum of excitement. Off I went, taking my passport with me, of course, in case there were any problems at the border with Hove.

Ticket offices at county cricket grounds have a relaxed attitude to entry if you turn up at lunch on the last day, so they let me in for a tenner. “I’ll put you down as a senior,” said the nice lady at the desk, which I suppose is a milestone for me of a sort: the first time in my life I have been officially declared what used to be called an Old Age Pensioner. As it meant I was being let in for a tenner I kept my mouth shut.

[See also: I understand the concept of paying bills promptly but I still struggle with them]

A cricket ground bathed in sunlight, I remembered as I walked in, is a wonderful sight. That the ground has a modest capacity – 6,000 – makes it even better. Only some of the seats are tiered, so almost everywhere was in the sun. I bought myself a Harvey’s (the local beer, of course) and settled down. I would be happy with any result: Middlesex might have been my team, as I was born and raised locally to them, but I am now a Sussex resident, and I like to see them do well, too.

As it turned out, the game got rather interesting. Without going too much into technicalities, what looked like an almost impossible task – scoring over 350 in the final innings – soon turned out to be increasingly possible. It was as if the Middlesex batters had realised that an important writer from the New Statesman had entered the ground, and it was time to raise their game. So they started whacking the ball around.

And here is the great thing, the thing that actually brings a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye as I type: that even though every boundary brought the opposition’s team closer and closer, the spectators – I think there were about 500, if that – applauded every scoring shot. They also applauded good fielding from Sussex, of course; but the main thing is that they gave audible credit to the opposition’s talents. All cricket fans know this, as do I, but to see it happen is still delightful. And I asked myself: is there any other sport in the world where this kind of thing still happens?

[See also: The Great Doormat Heist diverts me from my impending flat inspection]

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This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato