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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jonathan Liew at Edgbaston

What we talk about when we talk about cricketing dads isn’t as simple as Bazball

Spectators in the Edgbaston stands with umbrellas.
Fans huddle under umbrellas at Edgbaston on a day that stirred memories going back more than 20 years. Photograph: Paul Greenwood/Shutterstock

The rain came to Edgbaston early on the third afternoon, with the Australians still batting and a nasty swirling wind that whipped you in the face like a wet towel.

Edgbaston, it has to be said, is not the most auspicious place to be when it rains. Most of the seats are entirely open to the elements, and so when the weather hits the only places to take shelter are the poky little gangways at the bottom of each stand. And so here we cowered and shivered, pressed up against roughly 2,000 other punters all jostling for this same tiny parcel of dry land, patiently waiting for Damien Martyn and Adam Gilchrist to resume their innings. Dad sipped a cold pint. I drank tea out of a flask. We didn’t talk much. We never talked much.

When we talk about cricketing fathers, we’re usually thinking about lineages and dynasties. Mickey and Alec Stewart. Chris and Stuart Broad. Ian and Anya Shrubsole. But most of the time the influence is more subtle than that. It’s the strange ambient noise of the television in the next room or the radio in the garden. It’s long sun-blanched afternoons sitting on the grass watching Dad doing silly things in a white costume. It’s boring Sunday morning car journeys to colts games or All Stars sessions. In my case, it was the annual pilgrimage to watch England lose at cricket.

Dad was not, by even the most generous definition, a cricket fan. I think he got vaguely absorbed in the game when he moved to London in the late 1970s and had a flatmate who watched it. But he probably couldn’t have named more than a few England players or picked Brian Lara’s face out of a lineup. What really swung the dial was the discovery, in the Ashes summer of 1993, that he could plonk his only son in front of the BBC’s Test match coverage and thus obtain seven hours of free, public-service childcare.

But without realising it, he had created a monster, one that demanded constant feeding. A bat and ball. Pads and gloves. Membership of the local junior club. Car rides to places such as Gunnersbury and Southgate. Books; so many books. And eventually, after years of slowly ratcheting pressure, a day at the Test. It became our little ritual: the Oval in 1998, the World Cup in 1999, West Indies in 2000. Always the side-on or restricted view seats; always day four or five if possible. I discovered cricket via a route that is no longer open for most people today: terrestrial television, cheap and plentiful newspapers, tickets that were still – just about – within reach for a struggling west London family.

Mark Butcher celebrates a wicket
England’s Mark Butcher celebrates the wicket of Brett Lee during the third day of the Ashes first Test at Edgbaston in 2001. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Dad would pack lunch and a flask of tea, and on finding our seats would invariably be asleep within a few overs. When he awoke he would quickly tire at the glacial pace of play. “Just whack it,” he would grumble as the batter left yet another harmless delivery outside off-stump. At which point I would patiently and earnestly explain how it just wasn’t as simple as all that, how you had to consider the variables of swing and spin and uneven bounce and the game situation. Now, watching Bazball in full flow, I realise that it really was that simple. Dad was right. And I was wrong.

I suppose the point of telling you this is that all of us who love this game owe somebody for it. Of course when we’re young we like to imagine our choices are entirely our choices, our passions self-selecting. But hardly anyone finds cricket on their own. More often it’s something given as a gift, taught and explained, passed on and bequeathed by a well-meaning loved one. Sometimes that person is a mother, or a friend, or an older sibling. But a lot of the time, it’s a father. And sometimes it’s a father who doesn’t even really like cricket very much, and is already plotting his exit from his family home.

As the clouds again unloaded on Edgbaston early on the third afternoon, perhaps it was the sight of those very same gangways – populated, quite possibly, by the very same people as they were in 2001 – that brought the old memories flooding back. Perhaps it was the fact that Sunday was Father’s Day, which doesn’t mean a great deal to me any more, because Dad and I haven’t been in touch for many years, and I don’t know where he is now, but every so often something reminds me of him, and these days it’s often cricket.

The scorecard from that Test tells me that I saw Martyn hit a century, Gilchrist smash 152 at better than a run a ball, Mark Butcher take the only four-wicket haul of his international career and Michael Atherton getting out to Glenn McGrath (which admittedly doesn’t narrow it down a huge amount). Of all this I have only the haziest recollection. But I do remember being huddled in the concourse, the taste of tea from a hot flask, the silence between us, the sense of lives that were drifting apart but still just about entwined. Maybe cricket was our way of saying the things we could never say aloud. It was the last Test match we attended together. As parting gifts go, it was a pretty good one.

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