Nearly a month on, my country feels unfamiliar, its howl against the future still echoing around its four nations, its politics stabilising a little, but perhaps, like Werner Herzog’s boat in Fitzcarraldo merely pausing in an isolated calm while malevolent rapids whip and pull at it. Every day since June 24 has had a moment when I have caught myself thinking that it didn’t actually happen, that all would be well again, that a common polity amongst a people sharing geographical, cultural and social space would be ours again, warts and all. But no. There’s Boris giving my country’s response to the appalling events in Nice, and emerging leaders casually frightening me about my kids’ future access to the hospital where they were born and which I love and revere like mediaeval peasants must have loved and revered their Gothic cathedrals. Are my kids’ passports stamped with the mark of heresy, excommunication their fate?
And there’s the much darker, much more immediate fear stalking the land – that shared by people with foreign accents, with names that show roots in faraway climes, with skin that just isn’t really white enough to avoid comment now, is it? The people sworn at on buses, abused from passing cars, the people whispering to their children at school gates in the language they use to express their family love at home. Fear has been planted in the hearts of those utterly blameless people at whom the graffiti, the tweets and the hate is aimed – and who must look forward to the next general election knowing that their children’s right to breathe England’s air is somehow now a subject for polite debate: for shame, England for shame. This hate was unleashed by the rhetoric of campaigns for whom second was nowhere, campaigns that always had another good reason to crank up the emotions just one notch more, campaigns that worked out that one message trumped all others – race – and it won’t be easily put back in its fetid box. This was the legacy of 23 June 2016, the day my side lost the vote and I lost a huge chunk of a future that I had complacently believed to be mine forever.
On a day so sunny it could have been conjured by Enid Blyton, Lord’s looked its best on Sunday afternoon – no, it looked beyond even that superlative, an intangible atmosphere penetrating sense beyond vision. Nearly 30,000 people were completely absorbed by the match: no buzz and clinking of glasses in hospitality, few picnickers on the Nursery Ground, the near silence suggesting the collective concentration of Examination Room. Jonny Bairstow and Chris Woakes were fighting hard, still well short of their goal, but still fighting, while Yasir Shah and Wahab Riaz went through their bags of tricks and Misbah-ul-Haq pondered his next move from mid-off. It was a very good Test match, teetering towards becoming a great Test match, and I was there.
But it was more than that. Green shirts were scattered generously amongst the house, their support for the visiting team vocal and made visible on the big screens. It was the kind of support that could lift a team, but it lifted their opponents too – this was something that really mattered. There was no hate – nor even its precursor, insult. Thursday had brought a century for Pakistan’s captain which had lifted everyone to their feet, and a celebration that was as charming as it was surprising. Misbah is following the Brendon McCullum playbook of last summer in playing the game with a smile and a fundamental decency that respects his own team, his opponents and the game. His carapace of dignity did not just deflect insults, it deterred them.
There was little of the rancour that meets every (inevitable) defeat of England’s football team when Mohammad Amir (who had been treated decently by the crowd and whose palpable Day One nervousness was more of a sign than any interview soundbite of how exactly much it mattered to him, of his understanding of the extent of his terrible error) smashed Jake Ball’s stumps, cricket’s most inarguable dismissal provided the match the fullest of full stops. Pakistan’s fans were naturally joyful, England’s rueful, but with the considerable compensation that their team had not surrendered meekly against a very fine bowling attack, one blessed by skill, led with authority and touched by genius. Tickets for future Tests sold well in the aftermath of the Lord’s defeat, for these lads were worth supporting.
When the victors lined up in the slanty early evening sunshine for an impromptu set of press-ups in tribute to their army fitness instructors, peals of laughter rang round the ground. This was no over-rehearsed melodramatic haka (the players were gloriously out of synch – for the first time all match, they looked like a club side), nor was it set up for a cynical exposure of sponsors – it was simply a bunch of blokes who had achieved what they set out to do, saluting (literally, if haphazardly) their captain and the discipline he had brought to an often chaotic cricket culture.
When memories of the match fade – they won’t disappear, not after a match like that – the emotions will remain. Here was my game being played in my city with thousands of people reacting in my way to a game played the way I believe it should be played. 2106, having delivered misery and fear far too often, had brought forth four days that might not matter that much in the sweep of history – it’s only a game after all – but they sure mattered to me. And I suspect that I am not alone in that sentiment.