Cricket, Lovely Cricket

for Max (Ferdinand) Maxwell, by Zoe Mitchell

One

The bat is heavy in his hands. Max thumbs his way around it, searching for grip on that well-worn wood. It’s older than his skin, this bat – it’s been softened by other hands, other games played long before he was born. But, for Max, this all feels fresh. He’s played cricket every day for a whole summer now. And yet the novelty is still there. He wakes every morning with the bat already ghost-like in his hands, fresher than the night’s dreams. It’s almost a ritual: when he gets up, he dresses fast, wrangling the clothes over his head as he makes for the door. He can squeeze a few hours of cricket in before school – and after, if he’s quick about it. With every lapse in the day, every moment of quiet, he makes for the cricket pitch. The set-up is makeshift, scrambled together from old equipment, but it’s enough. For Max – for all the children – this is the stuff of life.

He steadies the bat in his hands, lowers himself into his batsman’s stance. He’s braced here, poised for action, rocking with fresh screams of adrenaline. This never gets old.

Two

Max steps onto the field, swinging his bat so it just noses the ground. The bat feels lighter to him now. It doesn’t drag so much, doesn’t strain on his arms. Now he’s older – ten years older, and hardly a kid anymore – he’s plenty big enough to wield this bat proficiently. And he’s got a whole childhood of experience. He steps into place in front of the wicket, just as he’s done a thousand times before. Only this time it’s different. Max eyes his teammates through the grating of his helmet. Teammates. The word clings heavily to his ear. He’s used to a team, of course he is – but usually, his teams are as makeshift as the pitch. He plays with schoolfriends and the kids hanging out on the street, scrambles together a hotchpotch of them till there are enough to fill all the roles. This is different. Max turns from player to player, meeting the gazes of every member of his team. They’ve practiced together, grown together. And now they’re about to win together. Max steps up to the line and crouches, bat outstretched like a fifth limb. This is so much a part of him. It’s gouged into his muscle memory, wired into every tendon and fibre. These hands are steady. These legs are ready. And Max has never been so excited to play.

The crowd quietens and leans in to watch, but Max squints them all out of sight. Right now, all that matters is the ball, and the bowler’s windmilling arm that holds it. As the bowler lets it fly, Max forgets all about the pressure. He forgets about the tournament, about the kit he’s wearing and the crowd staring. Right now, all that drives him is that same old instinct. He squeezes the bat and it seems to squeeze right back, familiar like the hug of a friend. And when the ball hits, Max is ready.

Three

This time, Max isn’t playing.

He wriggles forward right to the edge of his seat, balancing with about a third of his tailbone. Not that he minds. It’s one of those days so giddy that you can’t feel pain. You don’t notice the discomfort of a hard chair, don’t notice the way your eyes strain from staring too hard at the TV. Some things are worth the suffering. And right now, Max hardly notices a jot of it.

He’s not here – in the family room, watching the telly – not really. When he squints hard enough, it’s not a stretch to believe that he’s there. He looks on, in through the pixels and the hard glass of the screen, seeing past the feedback till the picture is as clear as the room before him. Clearer, in fact. As he clenches his fists, he can almost feel the bat set within them. He can feel the weight of that sun searing down, lashing its warmth out in fierce sweaty bursts. And he can feel the tension.

This moment – this day – means everything. For the first time, the West Indies are in the World Cup Final. And it looks like they’re damn well going to win.

These guys on the screen are just like Max. They were grown in the same places, fertilised with that same pure cricketing spirit. They found their feet on the same streets, made their first runs in parks just like the one down the road. They, like him, learnt cricketspeak even as they gummed out their first words. And now here they are, in the Cricket World Cup Final – the real one. Max understands these men, feels the adrenaline in their steps like it’s his own. Everyone around him feels it too. That heady stadium atmosphere extends well beyond the field. Max senses that same atmosphere in the living room, in the way his family gripped their hands to their knees. The atmosphere stretches through the ground, ripples like heat on the roads, holds tight to everyone in Barbados. Every eye is captured, every throat closed tight around the same breath.

For all of Barbados, this moment is significant. These men – men just like Max – are, for this day, the centre of the universe. The world sees them now.

Four

Today’s the day – the final.

Max wipes his brow, feels the hair heavy at his skin. It’s been a long, hard match already, and he’s only just begun. 30 runs in, and he has no intention of going out just yet. Max eyes the bowler, pulls back the bat and readies himself to move again. He’s taking it one ball at a time, but he can’t help noticing the score racking up. They’re winning. If it goes on like this – if he goes on like this – they could actually take home the Aidan Cup.

He looks around at the faces of his teammates, all poised and posed around him. These men have played with him, served with him, on the cricket field and in the army. He’s travelled the world with them, laughed with them, trusted them with his life. And now here they are, ready to win the Cup together.

The ball whizzes towards him and Max raises his bat, knocking it back in the perfect swoop. He visualises the moment of impact before it happens, narrowing his eyes till all he sees is that ball, hurtling ever closer. The bowler put a real spin on it, but Max knows how to handle that. Angling the bat, he lets his muscle memory take over, lunging forward in the beat of one breath, just as he has a thousand times before – ten thousand times? A million, maybe? Whatever way it is, it doesn’t matter now. Hitting this ball is a part of who Max is. It’s a direct result of every action he’s taken up to this point: every moment of training, every innings he’s played since he was six. And yet, when he hits the ball – when it soars obediently off the flat of his bat – something in him is surprised. There’s no time for thinking about it now, though. No – right now, all Max has time to do is run. And so, he does.

A few innings later and he’s out. 54 runs – he’s rarely played so well. His teammates surround him, reaching out with their wicket-keeper’s gloves to hug him. They congratulate and clap him on the back, grinning so wide that their faces are transformed. Max has done them justice. When the match is over – when they’re lifting the Aidan Cup, celebrating their victory – he knows he’s done his part to secure it. His fingers brush the hard skin of the cup, dashing against that tantalising shine. He’s earned this.

Five

Max pulls the bag across his shoulders and steps from the bus onto the pavement. He likes a London bus – having worked as a bus mechanic here for years, they hold a comfort and familiarity for him. But now he’s stepping off, and the air is colder than he likes. Even now, when London shows its chilly side, it takes Max by surprise. But then, he’s used to a whole range of weather. He’s broiled in the heat of Yemen, where the sun would bear down all morning and the warmth never seemed to lose its edge. He and his fellow soldiers struggled to get anything done before noon the whole time they were there – yes, Max knows heat. He doesn’t need that kind of weather to be happy. London’s conditions are perfectly acceptable, most of the time. And they’re plenty good enough for cricket.

He continues his journey, bat pressing against the bag on his back. It digs at him with every step, niggling about his spine. It’s as though the bat’s eager to play, to be released to the field. Max knows how it feels.

There are several parks they play at, Max and his friends, all across London. He loves the regularity of these games – the structure of them, the precision of them. But cricket is now, as it’s always been for him, about fun. Max plays for the love of it. When he’s here, in these manicured London parks, he’s stepping into those halcyon Barbadian days. Something of Barbados is carried in his bowling arm. It’s alive on these grey British pavements, these quaint trees that line the streets, sitting complacently on the roadside. The trees are evenly spaced, like teeth at measured intervals. But the bat in Max’s bag doesn’t know that. It doesn’t know where he is. It doesn’t recognise the passage of time, or the way the world has moved on. As far as this bat is concerned, cricket is all there is.  And now, for an afternoon at least, Max is about to step into that bubble. For the duration of this match, only one thing matters.

Max met his new teammates when he moved to London after retiring from the army. He met them all through cricket – they bonded over their shared love, took the sport as a common denominator. Cricket was the thread that tied them together. With it as the focal point, they became more than friends – they became a team, comrades. There’s no cup to win now, no big final to train for. But cricket has always been about more than the glamour and the accolades. Max will play just as readily with no audience as he did in the Aidan Cup final. In the enormity of London, more than just physical space is needed to form community. And cricket does the trick nicely. It pulls the cricket lovers together, drags them out by their roots. Traipsing across the city weekly, they stake out new territory in parks, pushing their wickets into fresh ground. This week is no different. Turning into the park, Max feels the give of soft grass underfoot, feels the bat press anew against his back. It’s time to play. He pulls the bag away from his shoulders and draws back the zip, fingers tingling and alive. All these years later, cricket holds that same thrill it bound him with at age six.

Six

Max folds himself back into his armchair and turns to the TV. It’s a big screen – much bigger than the screen he had in 1975, on that wondrous afternoon when he watched the World Cup final. But, somehow, sitting here takes him back. Just as it was then, cricket is a uniting force. The thrill and buzz of a stadium continents away is pressed into every 4k pixel on his screen. Max feels the presence of that crowd, dispersed the world over, all drawn in by that one same camera shot. He sees the game through their eyes, and they see it through his. They all share a lens and a passion. And, now that he can watch on this big screen, it feels more real than ever.

It’s been so long since he’s played the game himself. That’s the way of things, of course, the natural order – a strong grip weakens, fast feet grow tired. It’s been so many years since these hands have held a bat of their own. But when he picks up the TV remote, Max feels something of that old weight, that heft. And when he watches these cricketers play – young, vigorous, full of that same giddy energy that fuelled him, once – he knows he doesn’t need to set foot on a real cricket field. The spirit lives on, the game continues. Cricket never gets tired, never grows weak or old. It is reborn every day, made new in the little hands of some other six-year-old child. For as long as cricket is played, it will be alive and well. Max will always be a part of it – always able to watch it, right here from his armchair.

At least, that’s how it seems to him. Right up until the day that lockdown is announced.

Seven

It’s 2020, and the year is bulging into one months-long quarantine. Max is keeping busy – he helps out at the Pepper Pot Centre, supporting vulnerable elderly locals. Like always, he stays active and sociable as much as he can. Only it’s harder to socialise in the middle of a pandemic. As always, he keeps tuned into the sport on TV. Only that’s harder in a pandemic, too. Lately, there’s hardly been any sport on to speak of. No cricket at least. Still – Max can make do.

The thing about Max is that he’s adaptable. You have to be, to grow from a boy to a man, keeping your eye on a cricket ball all the way. You have to be adaptable to make that transition from amateur to skilled player, from skilled player to viewer. Max can deal with one more change.

For these few months when there’s no regular cricket on his screen, Max will improvise just fine. He enjoys the games that are played, savouring each test match like it’s the last. And in the interim, there’s plenty other sport on TV. He watches football, mostly, or Formula 1. Of course, there’s a world of difference between a steering wheel and a cricket bat, a racing driver’s helmet and a batsman’s. But the same spirit thrives in both. These people Max sees on his screen love their sport, live for their sport. The racing drivers might not have cricket drumming through their veins – but they, like Max, are there for the fun of it. In that way, the heart of cricket beats much like any other. The stadium energy Max once felt through his TV is the same now:  even when the stands are empty; even when the sport is different.

Max sits back, listening to the racing cars harrumph and screech like mechanical banshees. In some ways, everything has changed since those summer days when he was six, batting down wickets for the first time. In other ways, nothing has changed at all.

Cricket lives in Max’s core, lockdown or no lockdown. Until all this is over, he’ll enjoy these other sports, fill the void with footballs and race cars. But cricket won’t die. And as soon as it’s back – back to normal – Max will be ready for it. He’ll sit here and watch, TV remote steady in his hands.

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