Of Life, Death and Cricket

Upon first glance, there isn’t much in common between living with incurable cancer and a few games of cricket. But as I continue to vicariously experience this most explosive of Ashes series, a few parallels come to mind.

It’s said that a test match is like a slowly unfolding novel. So perhaps a five test Ashes series is like a Proustian saga, even if the current England team seem hell bent on skipping through the boring bits. This approach makes them hard to watch at times, with what appears to be a reluctance to turn a winning position into an unassailable one – that would be too predictable. A contest such as this – with two teams so evenly matched – will have all manner of plot twists but England have picked up a knack for playing out nail-biting cliffhangers.  I’ve sometimes imagined that having life ending cancer would give me a sense of perspective and lead to me not sweating the small stuff like performing on stage, getting through a long run or watching some cricket.

The reality, as it currently stands, is anything but.  Maybe a psychologist would tell me the underlying precarious vulnerability of my situation is manifesting itself in whether or not England arrive at the Oval with this series alive, Stokes and Wood stay fit or Ducket finds the sense not to chase every single wide or short ball.  I suppose, given that I’m so relatively healthy right now, I’m quite fortunate to be able to indulge in the luxury of worrying about the fluctuating fortunes of English cricket, even if it sometimes feels like their ups and downs mirror my own.

It feels like I too am 2-1 down with two to play.  Humbled by cancer, chemo and surgery, I’ve emerged from my own personal Headingly test victorious in the sense that I’m living a full life (for now) despite everything the opposition has thrown at me.  It’s almost possible to forget that – no matter how much fight I show – I’m the last man in with 700 to chase and Stark is hurling in-swinging yorkers at my toes.  Sooner or later, there’ll be a ball with my name on it.  But hopefully in the meantime, I’ll play an entertaining Mark Wood style cameo and hit a few balls into the Western Terrace as ironic cheers resound.

There’s also the battle analogy. Some don’t like this being used in relation to cancer as it implies a straightforward case of winning and losing. Likewise with the ceremonial ringing of the remission bell. Why should some be afforded the life affirming honour of marking their remission as if the Victoria Cross is being pinned to their chest, when others (including me) will never be able to be able to, no matter how steadfastly we hold our ground in the face of a relentless enemy onslaught?

I’m definitely not the first to employ this metaphor. I remember studying the poem Play Up! Play Up! by Henry Newbolt in school, where a resilient rearguard batting effort is directly illustrated in the context of some colonial fort defence – perhaps someone can fill in the finer details. I’m not sure it’s aged well, but (ok – with a few stark exceptions) we’re living in peacetime and it can only be for the better that our valiant young men march off to sporting conflicts than real ones. There are far fewer deaths involved this way – cricket has concussion protocols now.

In all cases, it depends on the opposition. This Australian team aren’t necessarily mean spirited or dishonest, but let’s say they’ve got form, what with underarm bowling, ball tampering and, most recently, a case of cold and merciless opportunism. The ‘spirit of cricket’ is loosely defined along emotional grounds, so it’s difficult to level any real accusations at Carey and his captain. But for me, that moment encapsulates a sporting culture where winning is everything and all means – fair, foul or dubious – will be considered in order to gain that all important victory.

By contrast, England want to win, but are willing to risk losing in order to get there and draw a crowd in the process. They are true professionals in the sense that they are the only team in test cricket resisting the game’s inevitable irrelevance to a society short on attention, where very few people can spare five concurrent days in which to watch a test match and in an age where Proust probably wouldn’t get published.  So why not give the game a bit of a push?  What’s more entertaining than a load of swashbuckling underdogs?  They could be bringing in megabucks playing right now in America, for example, but instead are shepherding Test cricket into a new era.  This is about the very existence of the game – should that not be applauded?  People call me inspirational for returning to work or ultra running – well this is my turn to be inspired.  I don’t care how many times Crawley gets a start and gives his wicket away – he and his team are playing not just with honour and integrity but with their collective heart and soul – we few, we happy few!

I’ve never been all that competitive. Perhaps that’s why I admire the current England setup/bazball revolution. They may or not win but they’ll go in with flair, flight and a good deal of courage. It’s how I want to live now. I’m not exactly going to win the war but I can and will at least give this cancer a good skirmish and have a lot of fun along the way.

But, unfortunately, reality isn’t quite that straightforward. In cricket, the desire to win at all costs leads to ball tampering; in war, it leads to flooded dams and countless deaths. I don’t care how many innings defeats are coming or indeed the ignominy of a woeful drubbing. I’d rather watch some cricket, even if the odd incidence of gamesmanship (from either side) leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

But the real conflict scenario that seems to chime with this situation is much more recent. Ukraine is right now fighting for its very existence. They also face a ruthless opponent willing to stop at nothing in order to gain an advantage.  Things aren’t looking great for them and even if the Russian hoards are repelled for a good long while, it seems inevitable that this enemy with superior weaponry and manpower will eventually win through.  Even if boarders are repelled, their country has been lain to waste.  Let me be clear – I’m not for one second likening the Australian cricket team to cancer but I can’t say that about this Russian regime.  No matter how passionate the fightback, they’re spreading through both our homelands with impunity.  But that doesn’t stop the Ukrainian people fighting the most valiant and passionate fight in the most miserable conditions imaginable and – one thing is for certain – they’re not giving up.

Ukraine, England, me – we’ll all go down swinging.

That is the spirit not just of cricket, but life itself.

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