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Cricket-Watching Resumed: Part 1

27th July 2021

To Yorkshire for a double-header of cricket-watching: my first for over two years. Last Thursday, Yorkshire versus Surrey in the Royal London One-Day Cup at Scarborough; two days later at Headingley, the Northern Superchargers versus the Welsh Fire in the England and Wales Cricket Board’s “The Hundred” competition.

I selected the two matches in order to juxtapose the (fairly) old and the (very) new. The RL Cup is contested by the First Class counties over 50 overs per side; it is the latest variant on the one-day competitions that they have played since 1962 (when it was 65 overs each). Royal London have sponsored the tournament since 2014.

The Hundred is the ECB’s brainchild (if that’s the word) to attract new audiences to the sport. The then England director of cricket, Andrew Strauss, explained the thinking in an interview with BBC Radio Five Live’s Sportsweek programme when the ECB revealed the format of the tournament in April 2018: “What we’re trying to do is appeal to… people that aren’t traditional cricket fans. We want to make the game as simple as possible for them to understand”.

The Hundred is a city-based tournament, hosted at test match grounds – Headingley being one of the eight chosen locations – the matches comprising 100 deliveries (in batches of 10 from each end) per side. The competition’s first match – the women’s fixture between the Oval Invincibles and the Manchester Originals – took place last Wednesday.

I will nail my colours to the mast. I am a traditionalist on matters cricket. However, I shall park my assessment of The Hundred for the time being and pick it up again in Part 2 of this essay with, hopefully, something approaching an open mind. First things first: the RL Cup.

Of course, whilst putting The Hundred to one side for a day or so, it was obviously the case that its shadow hung over the match at Scarborough. Yorkshire have supplied 11 players to the ECB’s new competition – and Surrey 12 – so the teams on show comprised (for me) some familiar names and a significant number of unfamiliar ones, particularly in the visitors’ ranks.

Surrey’s comfortable victory was based on contributions from both the youthful and the experienced. In his first RL Cup match, the seam bowler Gus Atkinson took 4 for 43, including three of the first four wickets to fall. Later, the opener Mark Stoneman – a regular thorn in Yorkshire’s flesh over the years – batted through the innings as Surrey reached the target of 166 for the loss of 5 wickets with over 10 overs to spare. That Yorkshire had been dismissed in only the 35th of their allocated 50 overs – and on a wicket that was far from spiteful – betrayed a collective misjudgement in the pacing of an innings. The 19 year-old Matthew Revis looked very promising, however, and it was a disappointment when a rash shot truncated his innings at 43.

In the long term, I will probably not recall the match for its detailed statistical outturn. I shall remember it – with affection – for constituting the resumption, after the long coronavirus hiatus, of my county cricket watching with all its quirks and skills The circle drawn in the air by Yorkshire’s off-spinning captain, Dom Bess, at the beginning of his run-up; the urgent skip into action by Surrey’s left-arm spinner, Dan Moriarty, at the start of his; the brilliant diving catch by Jonny Tattersall; the neat efficiency of the two wicket-keepers, Jamie Smith and Harry Duke; the umpire Neil Mallender’s acknowledgement to the section of the crowd that had signalled a 4 (rather than 6) when a lofted shot skirted the boundary rope; the wholehearted aggression of Yorkshire’s South African fast-bowler Mat Pillans – released by Surrey in 2018 – who ended the day with 4 wickets; the skilful way in which the impressive Nico Reifer, another Surrey debutant, evaded a hostile delivery from Pillans by dropping his wrists and swaying out of the way… And so on. It was good to be back.

Indeed, my enjoyment of the occasion had begun even before play commenced. I arrived about an hour before the start and took my favourite place in the West Stand. (I was grateful to be sporting a wide hat in the warm sunshine). The familiar routines unfolded: my initial purchase of a coffee and flapjack; the idle chat amongst some of my near neighbours, some of whom had obviously not met for some time; the volunteer scorecard vendor selling his wares for £1 each; the players warming up on the outfield; the flags drifting in the breeze at the top of their poles; and, this being Scarborough, the seagulls above, circling and observing with a hint of menace. I confess to having felt a pang of emotion. We have all been through a lot and we are now – hopefully – coming out on the other side.

Down to my right stood the hospitality marquee, on the grass in front of which were the rows of deckchairs for the sponsors and their guests. I identified the rough acreage of grass – a couple of square metres at most – on which my friend and I had sat on another hot July day (in 1969) and watched Yorkshire’s Gillette Cup semi-final win over the Gary Sobers-led Nottinghamshire. That had been my introduction to this – my favourite – cricket ground and I was mindful that it had been a long time ago.

After Surrey had completed their victory, I waited for a while before taking a couple of photographs and then making my way to the exit on the far side of the ground. By the time I got there, Mark Stoneman had already emerged from the changing room and, still in his kit, was talking to a couple of acquaintances by the boundary edge. Just along from him, a young boy – I would guess aged no older than 6 or 7 – was facing some under-arm deliveries thrown down to him from a few yards away by (I assume) his father. The boy played his shots with a correctly positioned left elbow and a perfectly straight bat.

As Stoneman started to walk past on his way back to the pavilion, the father stopped him to request a photo with his son. He agreed without any hesitation. A modern – very professional – cricketer with, perhaps, one for the future. It was a touching scene with which to end a very good day.

An Ordinary Spectator Returns

30th June 2021

Yesterday evening, Sweden played Ukraine at Hampden Park in the Round of 16 knock-out stage of the Euro 2020 tournament. It was the first sporting event I had seen for almost 17 months – or, to be precise, 513 days.

I had applied for a ticket at the end of 2019, when they were first put on sale. Although the sides for this particular contest were obviously not known at that stage – one of the attractions for me in seeking out the fixture – I was not successful in the initial allocation. However, I signalled my continued interest if and when a further tranche of tickets became available and I duly secured one at the beginning of last year. What I had not realised in my enthusiasm to land something was that I had inadvertently transferred my interest in one of the cheap(er) seats to a prime location in the front row of the upper tier of the North Stand. Still, needs must in my quest to participate (as a spectator) in one of 2020’s premier sporting events.

That was pre-Covid, of course. After UEFA decided to postpone the tournament for a year, I was given the option of getting my money back or simply rolling things forward 12 months. Having chosen the latter, I then had to trust my luck in the ballot for seats, given the authorities’ decision to restrict the overall attendance to 12,000 or just under 25 per cent of the ground’s capacity.

As it happened, my luck was in and so, last night, there I was.

It might be noted that, having secured my place at the match, the accompanying baggage of entry requirements was substantial. I had been supplied with an electronic ticket, sent to my mobile phone; I had to wear a face mask, of course, and keep at least 1½ metres away from other fans; I had to bring ID; I could take no more snacks than would fill an A5 bag; I could not bring any drinks; I was not allowed any bags in excess of A4 size; I could not bring a brolly; I had to arrive at the ground within a designated 30 minute time slot (which turned out to be 1½-2 hours before the kick-off).

A reminder. This was for Sweden versus Ukraine at Hampden Park in front of a maximum of 12,000 supporters, though – to be fair to UEFA – these ground-rules were clearly set out in the various e-mails that they sent to me. (The official attendance turned out to be 9,221).

My wife would testify to my being unusually tense in the days leading up to the match. Part of that was due, no doubt, to my low-key technophobia: I would happily much rather settle for a paper ticket sent through the post than have to negotiate with the electronic accessory in my pocket. However, I think it might also have been explained by my prolonged – that is, over a period of nearly a year and a half – lack of experience of attending a major social event. I consider myself to be a reasonably rational and well-adjusted person but, until a two-day sojourn in Edinburgh last week, the farthest that we had ventured since the start of the first lockdown had been about 6 or 7 miles. I have no doubt that, for many people, the pervasive lagged effects of lockdown will be felt for some considerable time to come.

How grateful I was, therefore – notwithstanding the angst of the previous days (and weeks) in anticipation of the event – that the delayed Euro 2020 Round of 16 tie at Hampden Park had provided an invaluable staging post on my journey to whatever the eventual “new normal” will turn out to be.

Sweden were probably the favourites in the tie, having come top of Group E in the tournament’s preliminary skirmishes (in which it had taken 36 matches to reduce the 24 teams that had reached the Finals down to the last 16). Ukraine had reached this stage by being one of the four best third-placed sides in the six groups, having finished behind the Netherlands and Austria in Group D. Sweden also had the higher (pre-tournament) placing in the FIFA world rankings: 18th, compared with Ukraine’s 24th.

I was aware, however, that the earlier tournament performances and rankings probably counted for nothing: this was now a straight knock-out (and another reason for my selecting the tie in the first place). As it happened, by the end of the evening, when the full line-up of the 8 quarter-finalists was known, it transpired that 3 of them had come third in their respective groups and only another 3 had actually come top.

The national colours of the two teams were identical – yellow and azure blue – and so the visuals alone from my lofty vantage point did not provide an immediate sense of the relative sizes of support. I judged that it was about 50: 50 with the Swedes in their replica shirts and the Ukrainians much more inclined to favour being bedecked in their national flag. The latter – congregating in the seats below me to my left – certainly won the vocal contest, their continuous chanting seeming to be amplified by the acoustics of the stadium.

As expected, it was a closely fought match. In the opening exchanges, contested in the bright sunshine of an early summer Glasgow evening, neither side took any risks and each defended in depth; at one Sweden corner, Ukraine had 10 players in their own six-yard box with the other one on the penalty spot. However, the game came alive just before the half-hour mark when a sweeping Ukraine move was emphatically finished by the left-winger Oleksandr Zinchenko. Sweden’s equaliser, just before half-time, had an element of fortune about it, as a shot from Emil Forsberg was deflected past the goalkeeper, Georgiy Bushchan. It was a due reward for Forsberg, however, who provided the Scandinavians’ most potent attacking threat throughout the evening.

There were near misses in the second half: Ukraine hit the post and, at the other end, Forsberg had successive attempts that shaved the foot of a post and then rebounded from the cross-bar, but the 90 minutes petered out with a sense of inevitability about the arrival of extra time. The game slowed down further in this period, as fatigue and injuries took their toll. However, it contained a decisive moment when the Swedish defender, Marcus Danielson, who had played with some assurance throughout the evening, put in a reckless challenge on Artem Besedin. After a VAR review, his initial yellow card was upgraded to red.

Thereafter, as Ukraine sought to take advantage of their extra man advantage, I sensed that Sweden were hanging on for the penalty shoot-out. They nearly made it, but not quite. The stadium announcer had just stated that there would be 3 minutes of added time at the end of the second period of extra time, when Zinchenko sent in a tantalising cross from deep on the left wing and the substitute Artem Dovbyk headed the ball home.

Perhaps the Swedes were taken by surprise. For the previous two hours, Zinchenko had consistently declined to attempt to beat his man on the outside and centre the ball into the penalty area, preferring inside to double back and play a conservative pass to a nearby colleague. This time, perhaps sensing there was nothing to lose, he went for broke: a swift, out-swinging cross of pinpoint accuracy for his on-rushing colleague to exploit.

Cue unbridled celebration amongst the exuberant flag-wearers down below me. Zinchenko ran towards them and was engulfed. Meanwhile, on the pitch, at least half the Swedish team were prostrate on their backs.

And so my long-delayed evening at Euro 2020 came to a conclusion. Fervour, skill, endeavour, controversy, drama, winners and losers. In other words, sport. It has been a long time between drinks. But the Ordinary Spectator has returned to the well.

Shuffling into Retirement

16th May 2021

In the UK, a restricted number of spectators are gradually being allowed back into stadia to watch the major sports events. 21,000 fans were permitted to attend yesterday’s FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Leicester City in the Wembley Stadium that seats 90,000. It is expected that some spectators – predominantly on a Members-only basis – will watch some county cricket next month. “Gradually” and “expected” are implicit caveats, of course: it all depends on the Covid-19 statistics being favourable. The original plans for 600 fans to be allowed into Hampden Park to watch the Scottish Cup final between Hibernian and St Johnstone next weekend have been quashed following the outbreak of the Indian variant of the virus in Glasgow.

It is a statement of the obvious that a spectator sport needs the presence of spectators – usually, the more, the better – in order that its full character can be presented and experienced. Over the last year, we might have watched a Premier League soccer game or a Super League rugby match or a Six Nations international on our television screen and admired the fully competitive nature of the encounter being played out in front of us – complete with sound effects, as appropriate – but, deep down, we probably recognise that, without the crowd of engaged spectators in attendance, it is not really the full shilling.

In this essay, the theme I wish to explore is the relationship that is often built up – over time – between a club’s spectators and an individual player and, as a consequence, the adverse effect that the requirements for dealing with Covid-19 have had on the acknowledgement of that relationship when it has come to an end. I am interested, in particular, in the examples of retirement from playing sport that have had to pass under the radar. I shall focus on two of the sports – cricket and rugby league – that should have had full seasons in the 2020 calendar year.

The new Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack’s review of Warwickshire’s 2020 season reports that “Ian Bell, Jeetan Patel and Tim Ambrose all shuffled into retirement without the farewell they deserved”. The threesome had played a total of over 850 first-class matches (including over 150 test matches) and, across all forms of the game, Bell alone had represented his county on no fewer than 383 occasions over 20 seasons.

Elsewhere, those who also “shuffled” away included non-test playing county stalwarts such as Paul Horton (218 first-class matches over 18 years, including 15 with Lancashire), Ollie Rayner (151 matches over 14 seasons, principally with Middlesex) and Graham Wagg (164 matches over 19 seasons, including 10 with Glamorgan)

This contrasted with what had been possible 12 months earlier. Following his announcement in June 2019 that he would retire from professional cricket at the end of that season, Marcus Trescothick made on final on-field appearance as a substitute fielder in the final few minutes of Somerset’s County Championship game against Essex at Taunton at the end of September. He was greeted with a standing ovation by the spectators and he left the field to a guard of honour from the opposition. Quite right too: it was a fitting tribute from those had watched him play over many years.

For some rugby league examples, I go back to the opening day of the 2020 Super League season and the Castleford Tigers vs Toronto Wolfpack and Hull FC vs Leeds Rhinos double header at Headingley (The Return of Sonny Bill”, 7th February, 2020). The eponymous Sonny Bill Williams (SBW) is one of those to have retired from the sport following the announcement that Toronto would not be able to fulfil last season’s fixture schedule and his subsequent return to Australia where he played a further five games for the Sydney Roosters. His retirement could hardly be described as “under the radar”, however, as it received widespread media coverage, including reports that he hoped to resume his professional boxing career.

The Toronto team at Headingley also fielded Jon Wilkin, who was in his second season with the club having previously played over 400 matches in his 16 years at St Helens. My summary of his side’s defeat (“One senses that more will be required from both SBW and Wilkin if Toronto are to hold their own at this level”) suggested – none too subtly, perhaps – that both players were somewhat off the pace in this game. Accordingly, it was no great surprise to me when Toronto’s demise prompted Wilkin’s retirement from playing although, unlike SBW’s, this was a relatively low-key affair, given his impressive club and international career. Jon Wilkin has made a successful transfer into the BBC commentary team, where he is an informative and media-friendly analyst.

The end of the 2020 season saw other high-profile retirements from British rugby league, including James Graham at St Helens, Sean O’Loughlin at Wigan and Gareth Ellis at Hull FC. For the first pair, the final match was the dramatic Grand Final at the KCOM stadium in Hull, which St Helens won in the dying seconds of the game, so there was a significant media send-off, even if the ground itself was largely unpopulated. O’Loughlin is – for the modern era – the unusual case, as all his 450-plus club appearances were for his home-town club. But, as with Jon Wilkin, none of these retirements – Williams, Graham, et al – were major surprises, as the players were in their mid-thirties (apart from Ellis, who was 39).

It was a different story with one of the Leeds Rhinos team in the second match of the Headingley double-header – Stevie Ward – who left the field with concussion after half an hour. It was his last appearance on the rugby field, as 11 months later, in January this year, he announced that, due to the injury, he would be retiring at the age of 27. Ward had been a feature on the Rhinos scene for almost a decade – he had made his debut for the club as a teenager in 2012 – and, notwithstanding a series of injuries, had racked up over 130 appearances.

Retirements can be for many reasons, of course, of which age and injury are the most common. The point here is that, prior to the imposition of the Covid-19 restrictions on attendance, spectators had a known view of the playing universe – of who the participants were and which teams they represented. By contrast, when we (eventually) enter the post-restrictive “new normal” of watching live sport, a number of constituents of that universe will have been permanently removed. There will be a new “now” which will be devoid of some of the participants of the previous “then”, whose departures we will only be able to mark long after they occurred.

It might be noted that it’s not only retirement that will have been affected by Covid-19 in this way. In June last year, Tim Bresnan left Yorkshire CCC – for whom he had first played as an 18 year-old in 2003 – to join Warwickshire. He was a player regarded with great affection by the Yorkshire members and – as evident in many of the comments on the White Rose Forum supporters website – there was considerable disappointment that the absence of a traditional full-length season meant there was no occasion on which this could have been acknowledged publicly.

In the meantime – it is pleasing to know – that are some for whom the concept of retirement means something to be put on (semi)-permanent hold. In September 2019 – with his Kent career apparently approaching its termination – the then 43 year-old Darren Stevens scored 237 and took five second innings Yorkshire wickets in his county’s huge championship win at Headingley. Last year, Stevens followed this up by easily being Kent’s leading wicket taker – with 29 in 5 matches – in the truncated first-class programme. He duly opened his 2021 account with a century against Northamptonshire in the first championship match.

I do respect Darren Stevens’s robust Augustinian approach to retirement: ie not just yet. When it does eventually come, I hope his many admirers are able to acknowledge it in the traditional ways.

The First Rugby International

27th March 2021

The first international rugby match was held 150 years ago today – 27th March 1871 – when Scotland defeated England at Raeburn Place in Edinburgh in front of about 4,000 spectators. Scotland scored two tries and a goal (a converted try) to England’s single try. In modern scoring, that would be 17 points to 5 – decisive enough – and the following day’s Glasgow Herald duly recognised “a result most satisfying to Scotland”.

The respective compositions of the teams reflected the different initial paths that rugby football was taking in the two countries. Apart from one player from the West of Scotland club, the entire Scottish side played for either public school old boys clubs or the universities. Edinburgh Academicals – whose home ground Raeburn Place remains to this day – supplied 6 players. (West of Scotland FC, formed in 1865, were the only open club of the 8 who went on to form the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) in 1873, two years after the first international).

By contrast, English rugby was already evolving around a locally based club system across the country. The Blackheath and Manchester clubs both supplied 4 players and Liverpool 3, whilst West Kent, The Gypsies and Ravenscourt Park provided 2 each. (None of the last 3 clubs survived the 1880s). Incidentally, for anyone counting heads, the first international was 20-a-side.

My own attendance at rugby union internationals covers a mere one-third of their total lifespan. I began with Wales versus England at Cardiff Arms Park in 1975 and, to date, the most recent is the Scotland versus New Zealand encounter at Murrayfield in the group stages of the 2007 World Cup. (On the latter occasion, I was less than impressed when, after I had stumped up £85 for a ticket in the West Stand, Scotland fielded a near-second XV, so that the first-choice players could avoid injury and be ready for the subsequent group match with Italy. The New Zealand captain, Richie McCaw, strolled over for a try in the first few minutes and the All Blacks cantered to a 40-0 win).

During this period, I accumulated a total of 27 spectating caps: 17 for England, two of which were against Scotland (including the latter’s win at Twickenham in 1983, their last – until this year – on that ground) and a further 10 for Scotland against other countries. My success rate for England is low (6 wins in total or 35 per cent) and for Scotland even lower (4 out of 12, or 33 per cent). A total of seven visits to watch England in Cardiff or Paris has resulted in seven defeats.

Of course, my exposure to international rugby union had begun long before I attended a game. I reported in An Ordinary Spectator that I watched games on television from an early age and stored some famous tries in my memory bank – Richard Sharp’s classic fly-half’s try against Scotland in 1963; Andy Hancock’s length of the field effort for England, also against Scotland, in 1965; Keith Jarrett flashing on from the left of the screen to catch a bouncing ball and hare down the touchline in Cardiff to score for Wales against England in 1967. But my actual spectating debut was some 12 years after I had seen my first rugby league international when, as a 9 year-old, I was taken to the ferocious Great Britain/Australia test match at Headingley in 1963.

Whatever celebrations the SRU or Edinburgh Academicals had planned for today’s anniversary have had to be put on hold, of course. How I would have liked to have taken the train from Milngavie to Edinburgh this lunchtime and gone to Raeburn Place either to watch a match or, if not, simply to have walked around the open space in which the historic encounter took place in 1871. Curse this blasted coronavirus pandemic. But I will carry out that mission at some stage in the future.

As the sport’s overall governing body – World Rugby – celebrates 150 years of international competition, there is much with which it needs to engage if the future is to remain bright. The impact of repeated head trauma on the long-term health of players, the legal cases being prepared by some former players against the administrators for the alleged insufficient duty of care, the need to make the game more attractive for spectators to watch… These are all weighty issues.

My own bête noir, which I have noted before (“Nationality”, 7th February 2018), is the ease with which international caps can be won by players whose links to the country are, at best, tenuous or opportunist via either the grandparent qualification or the three-year residency rules. (Of the 46 players in Scotland and Ireland’s match squads for the opening round of this year Six Nations tournament, no fewer than 14 (30 per cent) had been born outside the country they were representing, including 9 (20 per cent) in either New Zealand or South Africa).

What will be guaranteed is the continued ability of the sport of rugby union to evolve. 150 years ago, we not only had 20 players a side… and the need to register a “goal” in order to win a match… and halves of 50 minutes in duration… We also had a different of sartorial preferences.

The Scotland team played in brown shirts, adorned with a thistle, and white cricket flannels.

The Man Sitting Next To Me

16th March 2021

My father – William (Bill) Rigg – features prominently during the many years of sports spectating that I have described in An Ordinary Spectator. It is appropriate that – today – I refer to him again.

In the book, I noted that, when he first took me to the Parkside ground in south Leeds to watch his beloved Hunslet play rugby league, there were three reasons why I would sit on his shoulders as he stood at the back of the stand: so that I could see over the heads of the other spectators; so that he could explain to me what was going on (the points tally, scrums, the referee’s signals, and so on); and so that he could explain to me what was really going on, especially the different roles of the players (the speedy winger, the skilful half-back, the lonely full-back as the last line of defence…). I was six years old and I lapped it up.

My father’s own induction to Parkside had occurred in the early 1930s, when he had been regularly taken to the ground by his maternal grandfather, a Scotsman called Peter McBride, and his uncle Willie McBride. Dad’s father – my namesake, John Rigg – rarely attended, as his duties as a policeman meant that he had to work on most Saturdays.

We shared the enjoyment of Hunslet’s success in the first half of the 1960s – a Yorkshire Cup, a Second Division championship, a Challenge Cup final appearance at Wembley – and then the pain of the club’s precipitate decline in the years to 1973, when Parkside was sold for industrial warehousing and the club folded. Shortly afterwards, I left to go to university, but we made sure that, after the club had been resurrected as New Hunslet – when it initially endured a peripatetic existence playing at a number of venues, including both the greyhound and football stadiums on Elland Road, before settling permanently at the South Leeds Stadium in Middleton – we took in a fixture during my Christmas and Easter vacations. By that stage, mine was obviously a more distant attachment to the club, but Dad remained hopelessly optimistic: at one stage he endured a 12-month stretch without a home win.

My father was never one for shouting and hollering at the players and officials. He would naturally get excited at the creation of a scoring chance or a fine defensive tackle, but his preferred approach was as a more reflective observer with whom I would occasionally share a quiet aside about a team’s tactics or a player’s speed or a coach’s options… The one (fairly) hard and fast rule we had was that the bag of sweets purchased for the occasion – usually toffees or mints – could not be breached until the first points had been scored.

Rather oddly, given that the Chandos Park ground of Roundhay RUFC was situated only about half a mile from home, it was some 7 years after my league spectating debut that we first attended a rugby union match: as it turned out, a full-blooded encounter between Roundhay and Headingley. We had watched the international fixtures on television, of course, but this was our initial live exposure to the “other” code. Afterwards, we wasted little time in analysing what we had seen – basically far more kicking and much less handling than in league – but that did not prevent us making further trips to both the Roundhay and Headingley grounds, the latter in particular to watch Yorkshire in the Northern Group of the County Championship.

I graduated to watching the bigger rugby league matches with my father at an early stage, beginning with the Great Britain vs Australia test match at Headingley in 1963. Subsequently, we regularly took in the Leeds-based league internationals against Australia or New Zealand. Then, for the 15 years or so from the mid-1980s, we made the annual pilgrimage to Wembley (him from Leeds, me from London and then Scotland, joined by my uncle Vic from Hampshire) for the Challenge Cup final, irrespective of who was playing in it. My father liked the spectacle of the big occasion, though I sense he was also drawn to the Wembley events by the attraction of our annual ritual and the repetition of the familiar.

And so to the cricket at Headingley, for which our first visits together even post-dated our joint venture into rugby union. I had been to see both Yorkshire and England play many times – either with friends or by myself – before my father and I started to attend the occasional match.

After all these years, it is astonishing what remains in the memory. I remember us watching Middlesex play at Headingley in 1972 and Dad being enthralled by the idiosyncratic run-up of John Price, who began each of his long journeys to the wicket by running directly towards us in our seats at long-off. A couple of years later, we saw Phil Carrick take some Surrey wickets one afternoon at Bradford Park Avenue. Then, in the August Bank Holiday Roses Match at Headingley in 1979, we watched Yorkshire complete a thrilling victory over Lancashire, the action being interrupted at one point by the sombre announcement over the loudspeaker that Lord Mountbatten had been killed in an explosion on his boat, followed by the gasps of shock from the spectators sitting around us. These were rare excursions, however: Dad was working during the week and I would be playing cricket at weekends.

Our joint visits to the soccer – all two of them – came later still, both Leeds United matches at Elland Road in 1981: a 1-1 cup-tie against Coventry City and a goalless league game against Liverpool. He said after the latter game that he had really enjoyed watching the skill of David Johnson and Kenny Dalglish in the Liverpool attack, but the truth was that he was simply not much of a soccer person. It was no surprise, of course, when he reminded me that his previous visit to Elland Road had been to watch Hunslet beat Leeds in the 1938 rugby league Championship final.

It was after my father had retired that we formed a more regular cricket-spectating partnership, notably for the second and third days of the Headingley test: the former in the lower tier of the Football Stand, the latter higher up in the balcony. He was the man sitting next to me as we watched the centuries being compiled (Gooch, Ponting, Steven Waugh), the five-fors hauled in (Reiffel, Waqar Younis, Mallender) and the ducks lined up in a row (Atherton, Flintoff, Cronje).

We only conversed infrequently during the actual play: just the occasional whispered comment about a change in the field or a dropped catch. Our discussions were primarily reserved for the lunch interval – my mother’s sandwiches consumed in the seats on the other side of the stand, overlooking the rugby pitch – or, later, back at the parental home. We would compare notes on what we had observed: the trim neatness of Alec Stewart’s appearance, the notable deceleration in Mike Smith’s delivery stride (against Australia in 1997, his only test), the impressive urgency of the young Michael Vaughan’s running between the wickets… We were invariably on the same wavelength.

The Indian tourists of 2002 produced a batting masterclass. In the gathering gloom of the Friday evening – as the lights on the scoreboard came on – Sourav Ganguly hit Ashley Giles over the old pavilion and Sachin Tendulkar deposited Andrew Caddick several rows back into the Members’ seating in front of the old bowling green. 628 for 8 declared.

That was the last match that we watched together. Two years later, my father was claimed by mesothelioma.

Who knows whether I will be able to resume my rugby or cricket-watching this year. If the latter, it will not be for a test match – Ganguly and Tendulkar also provided my swansong – but perhaps a Championship or T20 fixture at Headingley. And, if so, it is fairly likely that at some point – probably to the slight discomfort of those in my immediate vicinity – I will find that I am muttering quietly. Nothing serious, just a hushed aside to my invisible neighbour about the altered field-setting or that latest missed chance.

I know that the man will be sitting next to me. And that we will compare notes again later.

Incidentally, he was born 100 years ago today.

William Alexander Rigg: born in Hunslet, Leeds, 16th March 1921; died in Moortown, Leeds, 2nd June 2004.

Edging Up and Down

19th February 2021

The International Cricket Council (ICC) world rankings of test-playing countries are determined via a rigorous statistical process that takes account of all the test matches played over the previous 3-4 years. For a team to reach the Number 1 position requires, therefore, that it has consistent success over a significant period. Last month, it was announced that, following their latest series win over the West Indies, New Zealand had acquired this status.

Congratulations to them. They have three excellent seam bowlers (Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner), a fine wicketkeeper-batsman in BJ Watling and, in their captain Kane Williamson, the batsman currently rated as the best in the world. Moreover, they play the sport in what I (and many others, no doubt) consider to be the right spirit – hard and fair and with a smile on their collective face – to the great credit of Williamson and his predecessor, Brendon McCullum.

As it happened, the announcement coincided with my viewing of the excellent documentary The Edge (Noah Media Group, 2019), which charted the rise between 2009 and 2011 of the England team to be the ICC Number 1 side (having started at 7th) and then catalogued their subsequent decline. The documentary makes for fascinating (and, at times, difficult) viewing, particularly in revealing the tolls – physical and mental – that were exacted of the players in the England squad by the coach, Andy Flower, in the drive to reach the top of the tree.

Much of the material is not unexpected. It is likely that even the relatively casual follower of the England team would have been familiar with the personality traits of the likes of Alastair Cook, Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann, as respectively described by the captain, Andrew Strauss: “doggedness, determination, resilience”, “a solid, dependable person” and “chief joker, buffoon, pain the arse… invaluable”. In this respect, it is reassuring that our expectations are confirmed.

The Edge spends a considerable length of time on the virtues and flaws of Kevin Pietersen: from his commanding presence and frequently superlative batting through to undermining his captain by texting his (Pietersen’s) friends in the South African changing room during the Headingley test of 2012. There is a noticeably perceptive comment about him from Paul Collingwood: “When he first came into the England side, he needed England. As his career went on, the less he needed England, the harder he was to manage”. However, it is Pietersen himself who, perhaps unwittingly, provides the most revealing insight, when referring to his need to take a break from the non-stop demands placed on him to play the various forms of the game: “As soon as you take your whites off, your value and your brand just … fall off the face of a cliff”. I suspect that, with Pietersen, it was – and is – always about the brand.

We are probably also not surprised – though still made uncomfortable – by seeing the venomous hostility that exists in some test match confrontations, particularly those pitching England against Australia. The sledging appears to be vicious and unremitting with no prisoners taken. I happen to think that the spite-ridden comment made by the Australian captain, Michael Clarke, to James Anderson, as he came out to bat as England’s last man to face the fearsome Mitchell Johnson in the Brisbane test of November 2013 – “get ready for a broken f…… arm” – ranks with the worst type of drugs-cheating in terms of being the antithesis of what international sport is supposed to represent.

[An aside. It appears that the boorish nonsense
consistently brought to the game by New Zealand’s neighbours across the Tasman
Sea is not restricted to Ashes encounters.
Australia’s trite apologia following the exposure of the
“Sandpaper-gate” scandal in South Africa in 2018 seems to have now bitten the
dust, judging by their on-field behaviour in the recent (lost) home test series
against India].

The Edge’s most revealing insights concern the emotional costs that were borne by some of the England players. Stephen Finn refers to bursting into tears during a session with the team doctor, whilst Monty Panesar describes bingeing on junk food in the safe confinement of his hotel room.

However, the most painful – and poignant – viewing concerns the effects on Jonathan Trott who, in his own words, by the time of the same Brisbane test “…was really struggling internally… in tears on the field… [with] banging going on in my head”. Not that his circumstances generated any sympathy from some of those paid to offer their supposedly expert analysis of the proceedings. “Pretty poor, pretty weak” opined David Warner, as Trott left the field after being dismissed.

My main grievance with The Edge is with the hype and inaccuracy attached to one of its core statements. There are several references to England not having reached the ICC’s Number 1 position before – and, indeed, the DVD box states that they “[became] the first and only English side to reach world number one”. To me, this did not sound quite right.

The ICC began ranking teams in 2003 and it is the case that England had not been in the Number 1 position in the period to 2011. But test cricket records date from 1877 – when Australia first hosted England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground – not 2003. In this respect, the documentary’s retrospectively short-sighted presentation of test match history mirrors that of the media cheerleaders of the Super League, who often seem to view professional rugby league as having started in 1996 not 1895, or of soccer’s Premiership, who forget that English football has had a top flight since 1888, not just from 1992.

To examine The Edge’s claims about England’s historical Number 1 status (or the lack of it), let us consider the years from 1950 onwards. As noted in the previous blog (The Test Match World Title,4th February 2021), this was a period in which there were at least 6 test match playing nations, rising to 8 by the time of South Africa’s re-emergence into the international arena in 1991. It was also a period in which England enjoyed lengthy stretches when they either won or drew several consecutive series against all of the other test-playing nations: 14 between 1950-51 and 1958-59, 9 between 1966 and 1971 and 8 between 1976 and 1979-80 (the West Indies excepted in this last period). It is difficult to believe that England were not the Number 1 ranked team for at least part of these times.

And so it was the case. What The Edge did not report was that the ICC itself has retrospectively calculated its own test match rankings back to 1952 and that these are readily accessible. England were at Number 1 in four separate periods (covering a total of 106 months) over the subsequent half century, including for 33 months after June 1955 and 37 months after January 1970.

As noted, The Edge is an excellent documentary and it is recommended viewing for anyone with an interest in the sport. It’s just a shame that it had to play fast and loose with test match cricket’s historical record.

The Test Match World Title

4th February 2021

Forgive me if I report on a piece of slightly anorakian historical cricket research. I blame it on the need to exercise the brain cells, in these continued strange times, as I await my invitation to receive the coronavirus vaccine.

The concept of my “Test Match World Title” is straightforward. It starts with the first series between Australia and England in 1876-77 and allows its winners to be judged as the first holders. As it happened, as the series was drawn 1-1 – thus giving us joint holders to begin with – it would appear that we would have to wait until the next series two years later (when Australia defeated England 1-0) to find our initial title holder. However, at this point, I will make the vital – and totally unilateral – executive decision that, in order to qualify for these purposes, a test matches series must have at least two games. Hence, the first holders of the title are indeed Australia, but only after their 2-0 series win in the 1881-82 series against England.

Thereafter, the rules of the game are analogous to that of a World Championship boxing title (or, indeed, the determination of the holders of the Ashes). Australia would retain the title until defeated in a series that had two or more matches – until 1884, in fact, when England won the series 1-0 with two matches drawn. And so on.

This means that, in order to acquire the title, a side would not necessarily have had consistent excellence and success over a lengthy period of time (which is required to reach Number 1 in the International Cricket Council’s rankings of test-playing countries). Rather, it is sufficient simply to have a single series win, at the opportune time, against the team that held the title.

[An aside. It might not have gone unnoticed that I have employed this historical approach on a previous occasion.  “And the Football World Title holders are…” (7th January 2019) described the corresponding exercise in international football from 1872 to the end of 2018.  The only difference in methodology was that individual match results, excluding the Olympic Games, were considered.  It was seen that the title was initially held by England and Scotland (who drew the first encounter) and ended up with Holland.  In 2019, the baton was subsequently passed to Germany and then back to Holland again.  The current (end January 2021) holders of the World Football Title are Italy].

Since England first relieved Australia of the Test Match World Title in 1884, it has changed hands on a further 55 occasions – most recently last year – which implies an average length of holding of 2½ years. Of course, until the West Indies, New Zealand and India entered the test match arena – in 1928, 1930 and 1932, respectively – there were only two (and then three) contenders for the crown, South Africa having (retrospectively) joined the party in 1889. Pakistan played its first test match in 1952 and Sri Lanka in 1982.

The relatively frequent turnover of the crown has occurred partly because of the frequency of teams winning a home series and then immediately losing a series on its next away tour: this has occurred on 21 occasions. The shortest duration for the title ownership is 22 days in the 1979-80 Australian season, when – highly unusually – the home side played concurrent series against England and West Indies. Australia took a decisive 2-0 lead to relieve England of the title on 8th January before going 0-2 down to the West Indies on 30th January, both series being of three matches.

England and Australia have held the title on 19 and 18 occasions, respectively, although the latter’s total duration of ownership has been considerably longer, largely due to the long period of dominance that Australia had between 1934 and 1953. However, all the other countries noted above have had their turn: South Africa (on 4 occasions, initially in 1905-06), West Indies (3, including for 11 years following a series win over Australia in 1983-84), New Zealand (3), India (4, beginning with the 1971 series win in England), Pakistan (4) and Sri Lanka (2).

The comparison of each country’s relative success in holding the Test Match World Title is perhaps most interesting in the period since (say) 1952, when the competitive environment has been such as to comprise at least 6 test match playing nations, rising to 7 with Sri Lanka’s accession in 1982 and 8 with South Africa’s return in 1992. (The total is now a round dozen with the inclusion of Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Ireland).

England have held the Test Match World Title on 12 occasions during this period. However, there was a long stretch – from 1982-83 (series loss in Australia) through to 2005 (home series win against the same opponents) – when the ownership of the title was held elsewhere. Moreover, no fewer than 8 of the 12 were examples of the short-duration “home series win, next away series lost” phenomenon that was noted earlier.

For England, the lengthier period of title ownership were from 1953 to 1958-59, 1967-68 to 1971 and 1977 to 1979-80. Each of these was part of longer runs of consecutive series – 14, 9 and 8, respectively – that were either won or drawn against all of the other test-playing nations (apart from the West Indies in the last of these periods). England’s status as the Number 1 ranked test team for at least part of these times is a theme to which I shall return in a forthcoming blog.

The current holders of the Test Match World Title are England, following last summer’s 1-0 win in the 3-match series against Pakistan, who themselves had taken the crown from Sri Lanka at the end of 2019. Having enjoyed another series win in Sri Lanka last month, England will resume their defence against India in Chennai tomorrow. A tough task awaits.

Note on data

The details of every series of test match cricket to the end of 2019 are given in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2020.The subsequent series (to January 2021) are given on the website of the International Cricket Council. The specific dates of individual series are available on Wikipedia.

The responsibility for any errors is mine. The results presented here are given in good faith.

One Year On

29th January 2021

It was on this weekend one year ago that I enjoyed a mini-tour of rugby-watching in and around Leeds. Four matches in three days: the rugby union encounters between Yorkshire Carnegie and Nottingham Rugby in the Championship (Arresting Decline, 5th February 2020) and Otley and Caldy in the National League Division 2 North (“Let’s Keep It Up, Otley”, 6th February 2020) and the double-headed opener of the Super League season at Headingley, where the Castleford Tigers played the Toronto Wolfpack and the Leeds Rhinos took on Hull FC (The Return of Sonny Bill, 7th February 2020).

To date, this remains the most recent live action sport that I have watched in the flesh.

When we consider the events of the last year – and the pervasive impact of the coronavirus – it is tempting to think that much of the world has been put on hold. Foreign holidays have been cancelled, weddings postponed, concerts re-arranged for some future date… In the global sporting arena, the Olympic Games in Tokyo and the Euro2020 football championships have been held over from last year to this. For the four rugby union teams noted above, their 2019-20 seasons were brought to a premature halt in March and, later, the start of the 2020-21 season delayed until March at the earliest. And so on.

It was not quite so straightforward, of course. The combination of financial and broadcasting pressures meant that the truncated seasons were completed in the elite sports (The Icing and the Cake, 10th December 2020). Thus, an abbreviated rugby league Challenge Cup competition (involving only the 12 – later 11 – Super League clubs) was conducted (in empty stadiums) and reached a thrilling conclusion at Wembley in August, when Luke Gale’s late drop goal gave Leeds a one-point victory over Salford in the final.

In the league, Leeds and Hull qualified for the Super League play-offs by finishing 5th and 6th, respectively, in the shortened 2019-20 season. (This itself represented the Super League authorities thinking on their feet, as the original plan had been for a top-four play-off). There was the possibility, therefore, of Hull FC lifting the title at the Grand Final having finished the regular season half-way down the division. In the event, although they impressively defeated the Warrington Wolves in their first match, they were then heavily beaten by the Wigan Warriors in the semi-final.

At this point, I should probably own up to one of my occasional “what do I know?” mea culpa. In The Return of Sonny Bill, I remarked that Hull had invested heavily in some big, powerful forwards and that this looked to have been money well spent, given that Leeds had been overwhelmed by 30 points to 4. I noted that, as Hull could also draw on the evident firepower in their three-quarters and the accuracy of Marc Sneyd’s kicking game, there was “much promise for their new Super League campaign”. In the event, the club’s almost immediate slump in form saw the coach, Lee Radford, lose his job in March and it was only a late-season rally that took them into the final play-off place.

Off the field, there has also been action. At the time of their match with Nottingham, Yorkshire Carnegie were hopelessly adrift at the bottom of their division, having taken only one point from their opening 10 matches. Nottingham added to their woes by winning by 62-10. Conversely, in their lower league, Caldy were striding away at the top of the table. The respective relegation and promotion of Yorkshire Carnegie (who have subsequently been re-branded as the Leeds Tykes) and Caldy were confirmed and, when the hostilities are eventually resumed, the two clubs will confront each other in National League 1.

In contrast with my expectations for Hull FC’s prospects for the Super League season, I was more accurate in my assessment of the lower part of Otley’s division. With three teams to be relegated, I did suggest that it would be a close-run affair, as Otley were then fourth-from-bottom and level on points with Luctonians. It did not turn out well. Otley had slipped down a place by the time the coronavirus-induced drawbridge was raised on the league season and, notwithstanding that they and the sides around them still had 5 matches left to play, the Rugby Football Union decided that Otley would join Preston Grasshoppers and Scunthorpe on the downward path to the North Premier Division.

In the Super League, the off-field events have certainly been significant. Toronto Wolfpack lost their 6 league matches before the season was halted in March. In July, the club announced that the “unexpected and overwhelming financial challenges” brought about by the pandemic meant that it would not fulfil the remainder of its fixtures once the league resumed in August. Toronto’s 2020 results were expunged from the records, including the 10-28 loss to Castleford that I had witnessed in February. In November, a formal vote was held by the 11 remaining Super League clubs – plus the Rugby Football League and the Super League Executive – on whether Toronto should be allowed to return to the competition in the 2021 season. The vote was 8-4 against with 1 abstention.

At present, there remain plans in place for a rugby league team from Ottawa to enter the National League 1 (the sport’s third division in Britain) in 2022. Let’s hope so. However, the huge uncertainty about any Toronto-based revival casts a long shadow over the development of regular transatlantic competition, notwithstanding that there are also eventual hopes for a New York-based team.

The sense of events moving on applies in the wider world, of course, as well as in the narrower sporting context. One year ago, the US Senate was conducting the first impeachment trial of the former President Trump, whilst at the same time – on the Friday evening on my rugby-watching weekend, to be exact – the UK formally left the European Union and entered the transition phase for finalising the details of separation. This was to last for the remainder of the year, of course, the denouement only being revealed – like the stopping of the bomb’s ticking clock at the end of a third-rate James Bond film – at the 11th hour.

And what of the predictions that were being made a year ago? The introductory paragraph of the February 1st 2020 edition of The Economist opened with the low-key statement that “[A] new coronavirus continued to spread rapidly in China”. Jerome Powell, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank was quoted as stating that the virus would probably case “some disruption” to the global economy, though it was unclear how far that would extend. Powell, having drawn on the vast armoury of the Fed’s analytical resources, is the winner of our Understatement of the Year Award.

By contrast, an editorial in the same newspaper referred to the “sparse data and conflicting reports” about a disease that was spreading exponentially. “The medical and economic cost will depend on governments slowing the disease’s spread. The way to do this is by isolating cases as soon as they crop up and tracing and quarantining people that victims have been in contact with… If… that proves inadequate, they could shut schools, discourage travel and urge the cancellation of public events”. For an early insight into how events would turn out in the UK, that was impressively accurate.

Likewise, in the section on US politics anticipating the first of the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries (in Iowa later in the week), the publication suggested that, of all the major candidates on view (including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren), the one who would be the most likely to win the election against Trump was… Joe Biden.

I wonder if The Economist has views on Hull FC’s likely performance in the 2021 Super League season.

Memorable Lines

17th December 2020

As we move towards the end of the calendar year, let me refer back to a couple of the television sports programmes which I noted in the previous blog (“The Icing and the Cake”, 10th December 2020).

They generated the occasional memorable line. Two examples.

The weekly NRL Try Time programme of Australian rugby league highlights produced by Fox was actually quite a hard watch. There was no introduction or summary and no context was given to the action in a match, for example by showing player dismissals or crucial drop goals. Instead, it was just an unrelenting diet of tries: perhaps 70 or 80 (plus replays) in 50 minutes of airtime.

In August, the build-up to one score was when James Tedesco, the Sydney Roosters full back, made a break down the centre of the field. As he was halted in a despairing tackle by his West Tigers opposite number, his shorts and jock strap were hauled down, thus exposing a bare backside. As the play continued, the commentator – uncredited, unfortunately – remarked: “That thing’s broken… It’s got a crack in it“.

Absolutely brilliant. Moments later, a sweeping Roosters move produced a superb try in the right-hand corner for Brett Morris.

The second example – from Gary Imlach during ITV4’s excellent coverage of the highlights of one of the days in the La Vuelta a Espana in November – was probably less spontaneous. In the usual way, at the individual time trial towards the end of the race, the day’s current leader took his seat in a makeshift studio in front of a camera – with a backdrop of the sponsor’s logo – until someone else finished the course in a faster time and moved in to take his place.

Imlach’s commentary covered the moment when the time of the Australian cyclist, Alex Edmondson, was beaten and he was about to leave the seat: “He’s about to vacate it for the next leader…[pause]… unless he refuses, of course”.

This was on the day of the US Presidential Election.

Finally, another line – not from a sports commentator, but from a poet: the Northern Irishman Derek Mahon, who died in October at the age of 78.

The obituaries referred to Mahon as “truculent” and “troubled” and the details of his personal life – estrangement from his parents, alcoholism, illness – make for sad reading. It might be expected, therefore, that in our present circumstances – approaching the depth of winter, dealing with the coronavirus and its various implications, wondering when the light might shine again – we would find little in Mahon’s work to comfort us.

Not so. His reading of his short poem – Everything Is Going To Be All Right – was broadcast by the Irish television channel RTE at the end of its news bulletin earlier in the year and this has been widely shared on the internet. The poem acknowledges that “There will be dying, there will be dying…”, but goes on to state that “The sun rises in spite of everything…” and concludes with its title line “Everything is going to be all right”.

I am determined to end the year on an upbeat note. Everything is going to be all right.

The Icing and the Cake

10th December 2020

In the absence of watching any sport from the terrace or the boundary edge since the beginning of February, it might have been expected that I would have compensated by seeking out more sport on television. This has turned out not to be the case.

Since the Spring, the full catalogue of my television sport viewing has comprised:

* the BBC’s evening highlights of England’s Test match series against the West Indies and Pakistan (see “Soul Limbo”, 10th July 2020);

* BBC Alba’s coverage of the Glasgow City vs VfL Wolfsburg match in the UEFA Women’s Champions League (“Unfinished Business at Petershill Park”, 22nd August 2020);

* the respective finals of the rugby league Challenge Cup and rugby union’s Heineken Champions League (“Risks and Probable Outcomes”, 19th October 2020) plus a couple of games in the earlier rounds of the Challenge Cup;

* the weekly editions of the BBC’s The Super League Show and The NFL Show (a review of the National [American] Football League) and Fox’s NRL Try Time (the tries in Australia National Rugby League shown on a Sky terrestrial channel);

* the evening highlights of the major cycling tours of France, Spain and Italy (the Tour de France and La Vuelta a Espana on ITV4 and La Giro d’Italia on QUEST/Eurosport); and

* ITV’s coverage of England’s delayed Six Nations match against Italy (when the English half backs spent 80 minutes kicking the ball high into the early evening Rome sky).

For what it’s worth, the programmes I have most looked forward to have been the ITV4 cycling highlights (with the excellent presentations by Gary Imlach and informed commentaries of Ned Boulting and David Millar) and The NFL Show.

The latter, in addition to the highlights of the week’s key games, has included some revealing analysis by Jason Bell and Osi Umenyiora (both former NFL players) not only on the intricacies of individual plays on the field, but also some deep-rooted issues within the sport, including the “taking of the knee” and the psychological effect on the individual of long-term injury. The programme does have a laddish tendency, however, and the mid-season replacement of the reliable Mark Chapman by Dan Walker as its anchor is a step backwards. I am prepared to wince at some of the on-field hits that are shown, but Walker’s comment that the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrows “looked the most promising” of two young quarterbacks following an earlier “Me and Jason were wondering…” really did set the teeth on edge.

The overall choice of viewing has been constrained by the prescient cancellation of my Sky Sports subscription in 2019 but, even so, the above list is selective and not particularly long. There are no one-day cricket internationals or England soccer games (or, indeed, any soccer games apart from the Glasgow City/FC Wolfsburg encounter) or any of England’s recent rugby union internationals in the Autumn Nations Cup. There is no Match of the Day or golf or motor racing or athletics… Admittedly, some of these I probably wouldn’t have watched in a “normal” year, but the fact still remains that the scope of my interest in the general sporting environment – and the specific outcomes within it – does appear to have narrowed.

I am not at all sure what the psychological roots of all this are, though I suspect that they are complex. I assume that underpinning it must be the continual process of revaluation of what is or is not important – prompted by the global impact of the coronavirus – that all of us must have undertaken in some form or another in recent months across many parts of our day-to-day lives.

I should acknowledge that – pre-coronavirus – I was already really not all that interested in watching the global multi-millionaires of the Manchester United and Arsenal brands battle it out in front of a capacity Old Trafford on MOTD. So it is not surprising that I have not had any more interest when the stadium is empty. However, it can’t all be about the finances. My interest in The NFL Show has not been diminished by the reports of Patrick Mahomes – the quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs – being awarded a contract worth $503 million over 10 years.

Perhaps some insight is given by looking back at the soccer games that I attended over the two years prior to last Spring. There was an international at Hampden Park, a Europa League tie at Celtic Park and Scottish Premiership fixtures in Kilmarnock and Edinburgh. But the other matches I watched were in Berwick, Alloa, Dumfries and Annan. Likewise, the rugby league venues included Workington and Millom as well as Huddersfield and Leeds and there was rugby union in Otley and shinty in Kingussie… It is not difficult to work out that, whilst I enjoy being an observer at a “major” event, I also like to attend the small-scale contest when there is a new place to visit and a local history to explore.

It was probably inevitable that the availability of television sports would not compensate for the absence of opportunities to watch local events. The sports on television are largely at the elite ends of their respective spectra – not at all surprisingly, given that broadcasters have hours of airtime to fill, the sponsors want value for money and the governing bodies and major clubs need to receive the finances for which they had budgeted.

Hence, for the rugby union authorities, the Autumn Nations Cup: on the one hand, a much-needed contribution to addressing a financial black hole; on the other, a quick-fix solution without any history, played in empty stadiums, the viewing rights for which were sold to the streaming arm of a global behemoth with no pedigree in the sport. Regrettably, for me, in the grand scheme of things, it just didn’t seem that important.

The principal impacts of the coronavirus on sport have been below the elite levels. In Britain, the 2020 rugby league season was abandoned after a couple of games at all levels below the Super League. For the 2020-21 season, the Rugby Football Union has cancelled all matches below the top two divisions (and even the second tier – the Championship – has not yet started); Scottish Rugby followed suit for all matches in its league structure. The 2020 English cricket season saw the 18 First Class counties muddle through truncated versions of their 4-day and 1-day competitions, but the club-level programme was drastically curtailed. The recent lockdown in England ruled out amateur and grassroots team sports, whilst team sport in schools has also been severely affected.

And so the elite players are – if not thriving – keeping their heads above water. The multi-millionaire footballers and motor-racing drivers are still being paid. But the events in which they participate are – as they always have been – the icing on the cake. The difference now is that the icing is in danger of being all that is left. The cake itself is being hollowed out and is at risk of disappearing.

The Super League’s governing body can probably feel satisfied that its competition succeeded in reaching the end of the season, which culminated in a pulsating Grand Final between St Helens and Wigan that was only decided in the final seconds of the match. However, in doing so, they would do well to remember that, amongst the players who took part in that encounter, were those that had begun their professional careers at lower league clubs such as Batley, Featherstone Rovers and Whitehaven. About a dozen others had aided their development via loan or dual registration experience with other teams in the lower divisions, including the North Wales Crusaders, Dewsbury Rams and Workington Town.

My concern is that, by the time that we reach the “new normal” of the post-pandemic world, there might be a generation of sports participants below the elite levels – especially players and coaches, but also administrators, volunteers and spectators – who will have moved on to other things, not to return. Where, then, will the elite players come from for the television sports of the future?