We took them for granted of course, those sprawling match reports that filled pages in the broadsheets all those years when everyone was happy to wait until the next morning to read about what had happened the previous day.
In the long hot summer of 1984, I was living in South Kensington with all the time in the world before college cranked back into life in October and enough money to indulge simple pleasures. So rising late after watching the Daley, Seb and co at the Los Angeles Olympics deep into the night, I would stroll round to the newsagents at the tube station, hand over, what, 20p or so, and feel the thick weighty (in all senses of the word) Guardian in my hand, the print already leeching its daub on my skin. Opening a packet of croissant purchased at 9.45pm the previous evening (and hence reduced from 60p to 12p), I’d press down the plunger on the filter coffee and sit back for a slow read.
It always annoyed me that, having grown up in a tabloid household, I had to work a few pages in from my customary starting point when reading any newspaper – the back page – but soon enough I’d got the folding right to prop the awkwardly sized, reluctantly flattened paper to display a full report (why were those panels so oddly shaped – as if the layout was done as a daily tribute to Piet Mondrian) and I could whisk myself away to Horsham, Old Trafford or Wantage Road. Reports then were full of phrases like “Slack and Butcher accumulated steadily through the afternoon to post their century stand a quarter of an hour before tea, their hundred raised in just 140 minutes.” One could almost smell the St Emilion gurgling into the glass as the note was scribbled for later typing. Cricket correspondent on a national may well have been a wonderful job, but it was wonderfully done too.
Forward a few years and thud of The Cricketer dropping through the letter box was a monthly thrill, leapfrogging above (wait for it) Private Eye, When Saturday Comes, Procycling, Cycle Sport, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and three or four other magazines I would subscribe to intermittently – they all had to wait their turn. The photos in the opening pages caught the eye, so too the news updates, the major interview, the County news panels, the reports of home Tests and ODIs, but the real pleasures were towards the back – suitably, as pleasures deferred were pleasures savoured all the more.
I loved the reports from overseas Tests, especially any played on the subcontinent, which were invariably peppered with local colour by the local stringers doing a fine, fine job. “Fires were lit on the popular side of the ground to celebrate Miandad’s 150 and it was ten minutes before police, acting, it has to be said, with little restraint, restored order and Reid was able to complete his over”. Sentences like this (if not quite identical) lit up the page, and my imagination.
But my favourite section of Pelham Warner’s grand old publication was a much calmer backwater, tucked away near the classified ads and back page questionnaire. Incredible as it may seem today, as many as a dozen cricket books were reviewed each month in a highly individualistic style (in keeping with the rest of this piece, I shall not name the writer). Histories of Lancashire League clubs, lovingly researched and written, were lovingly reviewed; biographies of long forgotten umpires considered over 500 words or so; an encyclopaedia of cricket-related stamps given another 500 or so words, this time with accompanying illustrations. It was an eccentric selection which surely only cricket could produce – and, though the opinions expressed were seldom aligned to my own, I loved those pages.
To the new media of the new century and a technological advance on staring at Ceefax (and later Cricinfo) waiting to see if Robin Smith would get that century you just knew he deserved. The Over-By-Over coverage at guardianunlimited.co.uk/sport was a joyous re-creation of the kinds of conversation one would revel in at the ground itself. Here were the key developments in the Test (in as close to real time as made no difference) and the conversation that took a love of the game and a keen understanding of its nuances for granted. Layered over that vital information were not references to cake and public schoolboy pranks, but the wit, humour and pop culture I knew, delivered with a winning self-deprecation that took its craft seriously, but its subjects lightly. Between the grind of replying to emails and the drafting of papers for committees, this new form of reading broke up the most tedious workday afternoons with good company – men and women whose company remains delightful and welcome online and in real life to this day.
Much of the subject material of this reading was a chronicle of grim cricket – bore draws and England’s long losing streaks, home and abroad – but the actual cricket didn’t matter. What mattered was the whisking away from one’s narrow world of work, bills, washing up – whatever… to the green expanses with the brown strip in the middle, the white flannels so, so bright under the high midday sun and those consecutive sounds of bat on ball and hand on hand, as a boundary is applauded and the scoreboard rolls round.
To anyone who wrote any of those words I, and thousands like me, are very grateful.