Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Cricket returns to rain, empty stands and Black Lives Matter

After 117 days, there was cricket. Only, because this is England in July, there wasn’t much cricket. Rain interrupted play several times on 8 July, and only 17 overs could be bowled on the stop-start first day of the first Test between England and the West Indies at Southampton. The hosts ended the day on 35/1, Dom Sibley the lone wicket, losing his off stump to a fiery Shannon Gabriel in the second over. Even as fans cheered the return of cricket, some might have wished the restart was in drier climes.

Though short on sporting action, the day was made significant by something that happened just before the first ball was bowled. All the players, in position on the field and on the boundary, took a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The West Indies players wore a black glove on one hand and raised that arm aloft. Both teams also have the BLM logo printed on their shirt collars.

That morning, broadcaster Sky Sports posted a video featuring two of its commentators, West Indies great Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent, the first black woman to play for England, talking about their experiences with racism and the need to address it in cricket and society at large. The two of them spoke again, separately, on the issue, the Holding monologue going viral on Twitter. During the broadcast, the scorecard carried the words “Black Lives Matter". Small gestures, perhaps, but necessary ones.

Cricket with covid restrictions took some getting used to—for the players too, as West Indies skipper Jason Holder returned interim England captain Ben Stokes’ fist bump with a handshake. Though football has prepared us for it, the absence of a stadium crowd is felt just as keenly in cricket—perhaps more so, because unlike the constant noise of a football game, cricket has moments of relative quiet followed by explosions of sound. I missed the cheers that would have accompanied Joe Denly’s pull for 4 off Gabriel, and the groan that would have come from West Indian spectators as he edged the next delivery past third slip for another boundary.

Day 2 brought with it more gloom—but no rain. With the benefit of uninterrupted play, I could begin to appreciate the small joys of cricket without crowds. Gabriel knocking Denly’s off stump over was a thrilling sound, as was the crisp ‘tock’ of a Stokes pull. There was a purity to this spectacle: cricket for the sake of cricket, no one to applaud you but your teammates, like a village or gully game elevated to the highest level.

The visitors won the first session, their four-man pace attack reducing England to 87 for 5. Stokes and keeper Jos Buttler righted the innings post-lunch, nudging the run rate, which had hovered around 2, closer to 3. Holder broke the partnership in the 53rd over, inducing the edge from Stokes. Soon after, he had his fourth, getting Buttler to edge, keeper Shane Dowrich taking a fine outstretched catch; and his fifth, Jofra Archer LBW for 0 (Holder had an excellent day with the reviews as well, with three decisions overturned). Holder took yet another before Dom Bess and James Anderson frustrated the opposition for 30 crucial runs. England were finally bundled out for 204, Gabriel picking up his fourth.

After tea, John Campbell and Kraigg Brathwaite put on 43 for the first wicket. James Anderson finally had Campbell LBW for 28; the opener survived two earlier LBW decisions on appeal. This was the only West Indian wicket to fall, with Brathwaite and Shai Hope seeing the session to a close at 57/1. It capped a satisfying day for the visitors, placing them in a position to get a useful first innings lead in rainy conditions—though the gap of 147 could start looking more serious if Anderson, Archer and Mark Wood find early wickets. All in all, a gritty, competitive day of test cricket. The players will just have to ignore the empty stands and imagine the grateful fans.

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