Having overseen the broadcast of 78 days of international cricket across last summer, either in person or remotely, from limited-overs matches against Pakistan, a one-off Test with Ireland, an Ashes series to a 50-over World Cup, Test Match Special producer Adam Mountford sat down in his study and made notes. What went well, what didn’t, what should change, what shouldn’t. Alongside these notes, he wrote down the date – 4 June, 2020.
At the start of March, Mark Wood put that same day on a target at the front of his mind. After missing the Ashes, he shocked South Africa in January only to be ruled out of the winter’s final tour away to Sri Lanka with a side tear. Another injury, albeit not the same injury as before. But with three months to go, one he could get over and put himself back in the reckoning. Come the first Thursday in June, he promised, he would be back where he belongs.
Even David Rodigan had been working towards it. Few championed reggae and dancehall quite like him, an endeavour that began way back when, sneaking around specialist shops and into small halls for his fix. And while central London and out west in Acton proved particularly fruitful, it was south where he settled. So who better to pull together a “Sounds of ’76” playlist, and where better to spin it than at the Oval with the West Indies in town.
Alas, 4 June will come and go just as interminably as the previous 73 days of lockdown. Stripped of the tag it would have worn with pride: day one of the first Test between England and West Indies. The opening day of the Test summer.
It’s a cliche to say there’s nothing quite like it… but there really isn’t anything like that first day of Test cricket, is there? Of lush green, pure cream and limitless possibility. The promises of a fruitful international summer, runs and wickets for whoever needs them most and hopes for excitement, serenity and competitiveness exactly how we want it. Regardless of when we began thinking about this day, we all had visions of how it would pan out, and it was certainly not like this.
Had coronavirus not brought the game to its knees, an England squad would have been announced ahead of the weekend for this Test. Weeks and months of pontificating over its make-up morphing seamlessly into weeks, months and years of reaction. But for players, once you get the call, followed by the e-mail confirming when and where you need to be, that’s when it gets real.
“It’s like Christmas, really” says Joe Root, now England captain, of the sensation. “It signifies what I think is a great couple of months of the year. International cricket at home, full house all the time, and brilliant atmospheres around the country.”
The backroom staff would have arrived at a hotel on Chelsea Harbour on Sunday to prepare ahead of those selected checking in on Monday.
They would have filed in around similar times, parking their cars, they would make their way to the team room – often a conference room at the hotel – embracing and congratulating each other as their paths cross, even with those they may not have played with or against before. Here they would be given their room keys, supplements and, perhaps the most exciting bit – their training kits and whites for the summer.
For regulars, it’s nothing new, especially this year with no change to the manufacturer or design. But if you’re new to all this, then it’s a different matter. Some players say the first thing they do when they get to their rooms is to rip open the plastic and try on all the kit. The more superstitious leave the whites and cap well alone. Either way, if a debut is in the offing then those would be taken away and returned either on Wednesday night or Thursday morning, Test number freshly embroidered.
Only a chosen few get to feel truly comfortable at this time of the year, assured of their place in the XI. The rest face anxiety before the squad is released and any further comfort upon selection is gripped tightly in case this is the last time. At the very least, it is another summer as a Test cricketer and not one having to spend chasing that buzz.
Even Mountford, no jeopardy on his place for almost 20 years, cannot relax. Once, drawn to the ground as early as 7am through nerves, he found he’d be beaten to the worm by Phil Tufnell whose own worry had got him there at six. His inner monologue has never veered: “Just make it to 10:25am” he tells himself. Calm arrives on cue in the form of Soul Limbo playing through his headset. On with the show.
As for the rest, we each have our moments we attribute with this day.
That confirmation email to say we’ve succeeded in the ballot months ago, or the spare from the club chairman over WhatsApp the night before. The winters spent wondering if you’ll be watching the start of Jimmy’s last summer or someone else’s first. The moment you step off the train and head to your mates’ for a kip on their floor. The cash you take out for the kitty. The outfit you’ve choreographed together or the apoplexy you shared at the mere thought. The quibbling over what’s an acceptable time to get to the ground. The messages of “Can you take booze into the Oval, or is that just Lord’s?” The “I told you, didn’t I?” as you take your seats. The ticket you’ll keep long after it’s done its job.
Whether we’re there or not, that first delivery hits differently. It’s no primal scream at the referees opening whistle but a pop, fizz and the sigh of all good sighs that rids you of winter’s angst, like the baddest of bad chi leaving the body.
From here, anything can happen. A real sense of starting over. “New Year, New Me”. Batsmen and bowlers looking to carry previous form to greater heights or forget it entirely. Captains instilling or reiterating their way. Fans willing to give things another go, but only to a point. A universal desire to be better.
That extends beyond the game itself. Beyond Rodigan sets at lunch and tea. Surrey were looking to mark their first West Indies Test since 2004 by reconnecting with its strong African-Caribbean community through a partnership with the University of London’s Commonwealth Institute. Seminars informing and educating about south London’s rich black history were due to be hosted at the Oval before the pandemic took hold. Of the real shames at having to cancel this Test, here might be the realest. Surrey, though, remains committed to funding the project.
Hopefully those sort of schemes become embedded into the routine. Because it is that familiarity and what we add to it each time that makes it special.
Former cricketer turned broadcaster Isa Guha grew up with her father taking her to the first Test of the summer. Last year was one of the few she remembers without a Guha in the stands but was one of the first of many with one presenting out in the middle. It is where traditions begin, sustain, adapt and sustain.
As Root says, it is our Christmas. We come together as a family again, like those older Christmases when our lives become more important than they should be, returning to the house that remains familiar and wonder why we even left. Each of us further down the road, having gained in some years and lost in others.
Where the happiest times are old favourites returning and new faces joining. And the saddest reminders of the time that has passed are the seats at the table that no longer need to be set. If we are lucky, it’s because other aspects of life have taken priority, like other plans or international retirements. But had this been the day we thought it would be, and England batted first under this cloud and lost too many for too few, thoughts would turn to what Bob Willis might have had in store later.
If there’s a sombreness to now, it’s at least tempered by the years we’ve had before. Rhe players will get their fill on 8 July. Even if there’ll be a coldness for the rest of us, it is a necessary one to endure.
If ever we dared take this day for granted, current events has shown us the value of its unbounded optimism and comforting distraction. What we miss on 4 June will be gained more-fold next year. As such, this is a day to celebrate what we have rather than what, for now, we haven’t.