Sport is brilliant. It inspires us, takes our breath away, and gives us a sense of belonging. Sometimes it can be cruel, even heart-breaking. But we always come back, desperately hoping that this time, it will be our team that comes out on top. The suspension of elite-level cricket these past six months has only accentuated what we already knew as we’ve been left only with the monotony of our ordinary lives. But no more.
Such is the public’s appetite for athletic drama that, even as much of the world remains in lockdown, top-level sport has returned. First football, now cricket. Of course, it’s different: hand sanitiser all around the stadium, the players and staff living in a “bubble”, and, most notably, no crowds. Only the eerie echoes of the players themselves shout from the ghostly grandstands. It feels a long way from the ‘champagne super over’ in front of a packed house at a sun-drenched Lords.
In reality, test match cricket doesn’t need 35,000 delirious fans belting out Sweet Caroline, or fireworks every time the ball sails over the boundary. All that is great fun, but it can wait for the rock-and-roll shorter formats. Test match cricket is unembellished: it’s just two of the best teams in the world battling it out over five days.
The return of the Wisden Trophy, the cup awarded to the winners of test matches between the West Indies and England, has been thrilling. The first two matches between the sides have both gone down to the final day and left the series level at one all. The series finale was competitive, but England rallied to a comfortable victory, behind Stuart Broad’s 500th test wicket. Broad became the seventh bowler, and second Englishman ever, to reach such a level (James Anderson the first).
In the first match it was the West Indies’ inspirational captain Jason Holder who put the pressure on England right from day one, and produced a swing bowling masterclass in taking six wickets off just 43 runs. He was backed up by Jermaine Blackwood’s magnificent 95 that guided his team to victory on the final day.
The second match belonged to one man: Ben Stokes. England’s World Cup hero put England firmly in control in the first innings as he ground his way to 176 in a 250-run stand with Dom Sibley. He then smashed a masterful 78 not out (off 57 balls) on the final morning to set up England’s victory push. Just as it appeared West Indies had a hope of batting out the day and saving a draw, Stokes took the key wicket of Blackwood. This was one of the great all-round performances from a man who can be depended on when it comes to the superhuman. Having regained the Wisden Trophy, England will now hold the trophy in perpetuity, as it is to be replaced by the Richards-Botham Trophy in the future, after Sir Vivian Richards and Sir Ian Botham.
This is sport back to its exhilarating best. The sides evenly matched, matches going down to the wire, and the best players in the world on show. In an extraordinary year, we have been confined to living very ordinary lives. This series is giving us that little glimmer of the exceptional that makes us love sport.
Image Rights via Albert Chevallier-Tayler