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Bit of a close match

09 September 2022

As the summer cricket season ends, Tim Stevens draws an analogy

Richard Watt/Church Times

Scene from the final of the Church Times Cricket Cup in Southgate in 2017

Scene from the final of the Church Times Cricket Cup in Southgate in 2017

“FIFTY years from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog-lovers, and pools-fillers and — as George Orwell said — old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist.”

When John Major, a lifelong cricket lover, addressed the Conservative Group for Europe in 1993, he underestimated what would happen to the “county grounds” and “the old maids” in the ensuing 30 years. Changes in our national game and in our national Church have been rapid and far-reaching — and, in many ways, parallel each other. Is there anything to be learned from this?

THE county grounds are empty today for much of the season. The exception was August’s high-entertainment version of six-hitting, live on TV: the Hundred. The counties have temporarily disappeared: no longer Somerset v. Warwickshire or Middlesex v. Glamorgan, but Southern Braves v. Birmingham Phoenix, or London Spirit v. Welsh Fire. The marketing teams have crafted a product designed to attract non-cricket-lovers: high on adrenaline, fast-moving, with flares piercing the night sky, and bands filling every interval.

The old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist are much less in evidence, too. The Church of England is anxious to grow younger (as well as humbler, bolder, and simpler); so the emphasis is on the innovative, on the appeal to the young, and on quick and measurable returns. If the Archbishops’ Council finds itself mirroring the England and Wales Cricket Board, we should not be surprised. The C of E, historically embedded in the towns and villages and cities of England, carries much of what many would still see as English identity, just as village cricket grounds have done for a couple of centuries.

The nostalgic longing for a lost England is woven into much of the literature of cricket — and, indeed, of the Church. Francis Thompson’s poem “At Lord’s” reflects it movingly:

For the field is full of shades as I
    near a shadowy coast,

And a ghostly batsman plays to
    the bowling of a ghost,

And I look through my tears on a
    soundless-clapping host

As the run stealers flicker to and

To and fro:
O my Hornby and my Barlow
    long ago!

Yet this nostalgia for a lost past is put into a new perspective by some of the cricketing achievements of this long hot summer of 2022. It has not been the flashy, eye-catching cricket of August which will linger in the memory, but England’s extraordinary four Test Match victories against New Zealand and India.

Several times, England broke the record for run targets required to win the match. Each game created a tension built out of courage, perseverance, skill, and team sprit tested to extremes over several days, which captivated audiences all over the country, even though Test cricket was no longer being available on terrestrial TV. Moreover, it was embodied by Ben Stokes in a leadership style that set team performance above individual reputation. It seems that the traditional “long game” has shown us this in way that the marketing hype of the Hundred could never do.

THE capacity of Test cricket to draw out human qualities and to stress-test endeavour and endurance is arguably greater than any other game’s. It takes time, patience, endless practice, and — above all — character. The former England captain Mike Brearley, now a psychoanalyst, has explored this in one of his books, Spirit of Cricket (Constable, 2020). He argues that what makes for a great team is the long-term aim of fostering creativity, and an ability to think outside the box. He writes: “As captain, I wanted all the members of a cricket team to think like captains, not only about their individual skills or specialities, but also about the whole game.”

Brearley is realistic about his use of the word “spirit”. In cricketing terms, it’s not about transcendence, or “soul”, but, rather, about orientation, disposition, and passion. Cricket, he says, “can either enlarge our capacity for empathy or reduce us to cynicism and to treating others as mere ciphers without inner worlds”.

Of course, a retired bishop with too much time to think and a lifelong love of the game is in danger of pushing the analogy between cricket and the C of E too far. But might there be something to reflect on here? Our task as a Church goes far beyond the challenge of attracting newcomers to a carefully crafted product that engages the attention and curiosity of a new generation (crucial though that may be).

Our task is to set before people the lifelong challenge of being shaped into the likeness of Christ. That, too, is about shaping character. That, too, takes courage, skill, and perseverance. It involves the long labour of coming to an honest appraisal of ourselves and the world. That is the Church’s version of Test cricket rather than the adrenaline rush of a couple of hours of cricketing fireworks.

Perhaps the “county grounds” and the “old maids” still hold something of the institutional memories of English cricket and the Church of England which we cannot afford to lose?

The Rt Revd Tim Stevens is a former Bishop of Leicester and an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich.

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