This is not about cricket. That’s a disclaimer for those who would glance at a landscape’s principal feature and decide the route is not for them. It’s not about cricket in the way that The Lion King is not about lions, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not about vampires, A League of Their Own is not about baseball. They are about love and friendship and fragility, the things we can’t escape from. It’s also true that this is about cricket, in the way that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about vampires. You can’t have the rest without a context.
It’s the northern summer of 2015, and the middle of an Ashes tour. Between the outsized hype of the men’s series is a more measured contest between women. Their first meeting is a one-day game in Taunton. Driving through Somerset county, England unfolds towards the south-west like a sleepy arm towards a nightstand. London’s clotted sky separates into watery sunlight, rippled across the country’s storied green. Down countless lanes of motorway, surfing traffic by shunting the snout of a rental car fancier than any you will ever own into the channels that appear, you sense your ribcage open a little and feel something lift.
I’m the prow
on an ancient vessel,
I’m going down to Peru
soul between my teeth
England’s county cricket grounds are legion, each a castle of modest pride. Low pavilions in twentieth-century brick, dim tea rooms with ageing carpet, grass banks or rows of creaky scaffold for the scattered hundreds who might attend an average day. Corridors crammed with photos or honour boards of past players with reputations grander than the surroundings, their achievements available for rote recital by elderly members shuffling by.
In these locales many a correspondingly mediocre cricketer gets something named after him, whether for local service or a modicum of international achievement. Marcus Trescothick has a stand. Andy Caddick has a stand. Graeme Hick has a stand. Basil d’Oliveira deserves one, but it’s a bleak and jerry-rigged affair. Eric Hollies gets a featureless terrace. Ian Botham has a stand at Taunton and a restaurant at Southampton and a knighthood at Buckingham Palace and a television job for life, despite a public dedication to being personally objectionable. Even Britain’s supposed elite are not immune to populism.
Somerset is famous less for Botham than for his departure. When the unglamorous, bespectacled captain Peter Roebuck backed the sacking of West Indies imports Viv Richards and Joel Garner, Botham walked too. All three stars were in decline, but still. Imagine Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger (another embarrassing knight, as it happens) being kicked out of a supergroup by the obscure classicist who wrote the arrangements. Botham carried an unedifying hatred of Roebuck to the latter’s death and beyond.
There is one Somerset dedication from beyond the cricketing parade. The Ondaatje Stand brings to mind the Sri Lankan–Canadian poet who famously became a novelist and wrote The English Patient, after years of less famously practising his original form. But while Michael Ondaatje wrote the verse quoted earlier, the building is named for his older brother Christopher, leader of his own peripatetic existence as a businessman, Olympic athlete and the kind of nostalgic philanthropist who gives large sums of money to small cricket clubs.
On this day, the arena between the dedications plays host to a culmination. The English Cricket Board has accelerated its backing for women’s cricket over several years. Now a heavily promoted series begins with a sell-out, a big chase and a win for the home side. From a distance the crowd is a bubbling backdrop to flecks of blue and green moving on the field. This complex, articulate choreography could be described by the younger Ondaatje: ‘friends / whose minds and bodies / shift like acrobats to each other’.
The bar of Taunton’s stone hotel that night is a world of vested interests pressed together in celebration. Of the commen-tators, reporters, ex-players and administrators, most hold at least two of those roles and some all four. Each is a women’s cricket advocate. But it’s hard to see this as corrupt: having the big names in one place also shows how small the circuit is, and how populated by people sincerely trying to build something. Their welcome is strong. The hotel requires drinks to be charged to a room, so those of us more likely to be sleeping in our rental cars than within its august walls trade damp wads of forgotten cash while inflating the accounts of broadcasters and athletes. The men’s tour would never be so collegial. (Some weeks later on the same system, former England captain Mike Gatting will accept two payments for the same round, fleecing a Wisden Young Journalist of the Year of 30 pounds. Beware.)
Before we join this scene though, I wander down the main street with a BBC television duo in search of dinner. A woman greets us from a laneway. ‘Hey. Do you know if Zinc is open tonight?’ Patrick or I would have fired off a negative and kept walking, but Chris the cameraman is medically incapable of being unfriendly. ‘Where is it?’ he asks in his practical London syllables, and she’s away.
There’s clearly something amiss. She has a blank face, unresponsive even to her own tumbling monologue. Her tone is unsettling: a singsong that is part public address system, part small girl blaming a doll for the grim fate of a childhood pet. Pigtails, hoody, she could be 25 or 40. ‘I’ll walk up with you,’ she says. We pass her nightclub, as dark and quiet as you’d expect at ten on a Tuesday night in Taunton. The main street runs an empty cobbled curve into the evening gloom. The only thing open is a chain pub, so she follows us there, nursing a Diet Coke and eventually being talked into accepting a solitary onion ring as she watches us eat dinner.
She says she’s from somewhere different each time we ask. She changes her name. She says she has a fiancé called Marshall whom she’s met twice. That the two purses she’s carrying are to separate her French and English money, necessary after her mother moved to Limoges and changed her name. She says unprompted things like ‘Have you ever had a godly experience?’ or ‘I don’t like Jeremy Kyle. David Cameron’s a good bloke. I think David Cameron’s Polish.’ Between each discursion, she’ll ask again what we do and where we’re from.
‘What’s your game then?’
‘I’m a journalist, like I said.’
‘You’re another one!’
‘I’m … the same one.’
‘You must be so intelligent. Did you go to college?’
‘Clifton? I could tell you a few stories about Clifton. There was this church near Clifton and it just went on and on and on.’
‘What does that mean? Never mind. Bristol’s all right. It’s very arty.’
‘What about Banksy, Banksy’s my brother.’
‘That’s not real, is it? Is that street talk?’
For a while this seems funny—we have to talk to anyway, so we ask questions to provoke her strange answers. Then there’s an unspoken moment where all three of us realise we’re making sport of a damaged person. Laughter curls to nothing like an insect in a flame. Soon she is casually assigning her parents the names of the Moors murderers, or impassively mentioning serial killer boyfriends and dungeon imprisonment. Of course nothing’s true—a half-chewed mash of tabloid crime reporting from the last 20 years—but the sadness is palpable.
She says she’ll take a taxi home, but when the time comes she’ll have none of it. ‘I’m staying out all night, to three in the morning.’
‘What’s going to be open?’
‘I’ll find somewhere.’
When further negotiations fail we leave her, that melancholy face atop blocky shoulders in pastel pink, two purses on the table, the scene reflected in the shiny fake timber ranked row on row by the drinking barn that we’re leaving. Back at the hotel bar, none of us are able to explain the story.
Much later, commentator Daniel Norcross and I are the human detritus left at the night’s high-water mark. The only other stayers are two strangers sitting quietly at the bar. They turn to us. The Gowler brothers are a marketing dream: Cambridgeshire farmers in town for junior cricket, who watched the women’s match on a whim and were surprised to be impressed. Having ascertained our line of work they pump us for gossip, disappointed to learn that we don’t often find ourselves on the lash with Warnie and KP.
Christopher is the avuncular sibling, Edward darker of expression and temperament. His face lights up though when he speaks of his son: Will Gowler is lining up for Cambridgeshire Under 13s the next day. A fast bowler. Tall and wiry. Whippy wrists, proper pace for his age. There is talk of an international future, a seam of belief running through the bravado. We must come to the tournament tomorrow, says Edward, buying whiskies. We’ll see the future of English cricket.
I have no reason not to. The day is warm and sticky, early rain leaving an atmosphere like flypaper. The grounds of King’s College are a cricketing champagne fountain: as you skirt the perimeter of one match, the slope drops away to reveal another, then another, each oval populated by a further set of teenagers in whites. Near the edge of the school’s domain I take an orbital slingshot back around the dozenth boundary to find the Gowlers on camp chairs by the rope.
Edward hands me a beer, but the mood is not high. Yorkshire have chewed through Cambridgeshire’s top order, and when the tiny wicketkeeper gives his innings away, young Will Gowler comes out at number eight. I ask how his batting is. ‘He’s not bad,’ says Edward, with the constipated preoccupation of a man who knows he’s fudging but doesn’t want to give it away.
Will sees out a few deliveries but is soon bowled. His father looks queasy. There’s no disappointment in his boy, just disappointment for him. Yorkshire are set 100 to win. Will sends down seven tight overs but the chase skips on around him. On the boundary, able to watch but never intervene, is Edward Gowler, aching, living every ball his son bowls. We worry twice as hard for other people, worry like Ondaatje for ‘children wise / as tough shrubs’. How hard it must be raising teenagers, fearing for them, a fervent and endless prayer for their fortune as they tear themselves further away from you each month.
Sometimes you are so busy
discovering your friends
I ache with loss
—but that is greed.
I do not know this yet, but a week later my friend Kat will be dead. I will get a shaky long-distance phone call. There will be uncertainly of circumstance, though intent seems irrelevant beside the result. In the minutes beforehand I’ll be on top of the world: a lived dream of working on a Test series for the ABC with one of my commentary heroes. We will be in the middle of a video shoot. I will accept the call but not its contents. The news will be impossible, colliding before sliding from view like a bird down glass. We will hang up and I will keep working, because there is no other possible thing to do.
Some days later it will sink in with the suddenness of a horseshoe through a mile of ocean. In a late-night Birmingham pub I will book a flight home to Melbourne and go straight from the bar to a bus to a hungover airport to a day in midair suspension to a midweek funeral on the greyest and bitterest day of winter, where the rain comes in sideways and the people fold back inside the blank church before the hearse has even gone from view. A friend will hold onto me in an empty corridor like we’re mutual flotation devices. The hall will be too featureless for any real person but especially this one. The mourners will raise their massed grief to a collective animal pitch. Her family so staunch that day, facing an unthinkable absence in all that follow.
Was that woman in Taunton ever cared for like that? Most of us are once, at least as children. The questions pile up: whether she ever had anyone; when they drifted away; how she resorted to hailing strangers to talk out the relationships in her head. ‘Where the bloody hell is Marshall, that’s what I want to know,’ Chris had muttered with frustration when we were trying to get her home.
‘Marshall is hanging out,’ she had said, pronouncing the last two words as if she’d just found them at the back of a cupboard and couldn’t remember what they were for.
‘What’s he up to? That crazy cat.’
‘He kicks it, here and there.’
‘Do you live with him?’
‘I don’t live with him at the moment, but it’s going to be … it’s gonna be soon. I just go round mostly on my own.’
Fuck. I will return to England after the funeral. The Australian men’s team will have subsided, the women will be fighting back. All of it will be irrelevant. I will run into Chris at a match. He will tell me that he’s thought of her every day, and confirm that a heaviness has stayed with us all.
We have this religion about hardship. How it makes us stronger. How each setback increases the distance we can travel, each swing of the axe pares us back to something sleeker. Scars fuse into a carapace, misfortune begets wisdom as though bad luck were a vaccination. This has the same provenance as all religious belief: a fear of how to get through life if suffering serves no purpose.
In 1976 Jeff Thomson busted his bowling shoulder by crashing into a teammate. He was probably the fastest ever, but he was never as fast again. The perfect machine of youth was dented. We are injured and told it will heal, not conceiving that healing is partial, that we will carry the dull memory of that damage with every step. Enough scar tissue and a joint can’t move.
We’re not all going to make it. Some of us crash up against life so hard we break, or part of the mechanism does. Tip over a grandfather clock and see what is knocked out of true. Some of us limp on, some only get so far. There are those so alone they live in their own world among ghosts; those who despite any amount of love can’t find a way to carry on. Many live the fear and joy of having children, knowing those kids can’t be guarded or recalled.
You step delicately
into the wild world
and your real prize will be
the frantic search.
Want everything. If you break
break going out not in.
But the real message of that missive is: don’t break. Please. Let probability’s burden fall on someone else’s child. We are brutal in our computing of the numbers but we cannot do it differently. We raise our loved ones up then send them into that wildness. We carry model ships down to the docks and regard the ocean. The water is treacherous, the expanse unthinkable. All we want is to keep safe what we love. But there is nothing for it. We push our fragile craft out to sea, and scour dockside markets for amulets against storms.