Leading Edge: Remember when cricket was fun?

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg

TWO tykes, one maybe nine, the other about seven, stood with knobbly knees and jug handle ears on the paved path the runs between the back of the Western Pavilion and the nets at the Wanderers.

They wore khaki school uniforms, and each of them held a bat, the faces of which were as virginally free from the scrawl of an autograph as their own faces were free of the troubles of life.

As they stood there, wondering how they might ever put themselves into signing distance of a player, any player, the crunch of spikes on paving stones came into earshot and grew with each passing step.

“Did you see a ball come this way, lads?”

The questioner was Jonny Bairstow, who had emerged from the nets in search of the errant orb.

Silence.

It is, after all, difficult to talk out of a gaping mouth. And the tykes’ mouths were so agape that it was difficult to tell whether their precariously hanging teeth were bigger than the small planets their eyes had become.

But they were well-mannered kids who knew that a politely asked question deserved an answer, even if it did come from, gulp, a test cricketer.

“Umm, no,” tyke the elder managed to say.

Then junior said something that will haunt him for the rest of his life: “Why do you need a ball?”

Doh!

Best he doesn’t remember that when he’s trying to ask someone out years from now. It’s up there with the line that precedes “Does your dad own a brewery?” in that silly song by Kevin Bloody Wilson.

Bairstow came to the moment’s rescue: “Ah! There it is!”

With that, the England wicketkeeper crunched his way back to the nets. He was closely followed by two tripping tykes in khaki talking to him – and, yoh, being answered by him! – with suddenly, rampantly loosened tongues and thumping hearts and eyes as bright as the sun above itself.

Bless them all.

It was, in this of all weeks, a glimpse from a parallel reality; a place where cricket is that thing it has not been for too bloody long by half – fun.

Years ago, Gulam Bodi might have been the Bairstow in that scene. A few more years ago, he might have been one of the tykes.

Now, he is an embodiment, allegedly, of the game’s greatest evil, the thing that robs it of all it really has to elevate it above the other, lesser distractions of modern life.

Match-fixing or spot-fixing doesn’t just take away sport’s integrity, it uses that integrity to erode sport into a vehicle for making money.

Sponsors do something similar. The suits are capable of infecting sport with a stultifying corporateness. Broadcasters can turn the most interesting game into an ugliness of squawking voices and unsettling flashes from their techno toys.

Even going to a ground is less about watching a match than it is about having all manner of products and services rudely marketed at you. It’s as if the last thing cricket’s money masters want is a moment of quiet in which you might realise just how calculating it all is.

But fixing goes beyond all that. It’s easy enough to decline an offer to buy sunscreen from some thirsty student trying to ensure their beer fund doesn’t run dry. It’s impossible to know whether a wicket has been lost honestly, or whether it comes with a price that specifies how many runs it should fall for.

Why do we need a ball? To remember what fun looked like.

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