Claire Simpson: An unlikely obsession with cricket is richly rewarded by thrilling world cup final
As the sun split the stones last weekend, I did what I usually do when the temperature rises above 20 degrees - sat on the sofa with the blinds drawn and cursed that it was too hot for tea.
Thankfully Sunday brought one of the greatest sporting spectacles I’ve ever seen - the day-long panic attack that was the Cricket World Cup final.
Punctuated by dragging the dog on 27 walks to calm my nerves, I watched the absurd and brilliant spectacle of Irishman Eoin Morgan lead a team of sportsmen whose best players were born in Barbados and New Zealand narrowly win the World Cup for England.
As a young teenager, I developed an interest in the game which bordered on obsessive.
Like all my teenage obsessions, I knew my love for the Pakistani and Australian touring sides was incredibly cool and would win me many friends amongst other 13-year-old girls who couldn’t wait to discuss wicket conditions and reverse swing. Reader, this turned out not to be the case.
In an internet age I could have found lots of like-minded souls online but instead most days after school I’d walk to the local library to consult that year’s Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack - a beautiful daffodil-yellow hardback book that listed all the wonderful statistics you could ever want.
It was the 1992 England v Pakistan test series that properly fed this obsession.
The partnership of Pakistani fast bowlers Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram cut through the English batting line-up like Boris Johnson flattening a 10-year-old boy in a touch rugby match. The sound of those insane deliveries smashing through the stumps is still my version of Marcel Proust’s madeleines.
That 1992 series was marked by dark muttering over Waqar and Wasim’s ability to ‘reverse swing’ - effectively make the ball turn in towards the batsman rather than away from him - while bowling around 90mph.
At the time, there seemed something quite pointed about accusations that Pakistani players were tampering with the ball to make it swing. The claims turned out to be baseless - Waqar and Wasim were just too good. But there was still a sense of bitterness that a troubled former British colony had beaten England at the game it had invented.
I lost touch with cricket for many years, only sporadically tuning in to test matches, crying when “the little master” Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar announced his retirement and cheering when Ireland beat England in the 2015 World Cup.
This year’s tournament brought some of that teenage joy back. The rules were still as I’d remembered, apart from a ‘super over’ that led to some frantic Google searches about what it actually meant. The sound of England supporters singing ‘Jerusalem’ - a hymn which parodies nationalism - was still as strange. The Test Match Special commentary was still as soothing as eating chocolate mousse in a hot bath.
The final itself was essentially a draw. New Zealand were the better side and England only won based on the number of boundaries scored after the super over was tied. But the final minutes, clinched only by the slimmest of margins, were spectacular.
I’ve never appreciated the appeal of soccer and golf really does look like a good walk spoiled. Cricket, whose test matches can go on past anyone’s patience and is full of odd rules and conventions which make little sense, feels like life. It’s no wonder the game has attracted fans as diverse as Martin McGuinness, Stephen Fry and 13-year-old weirdos from north Antrim.
As a spectacle, it’s also completely daft. I laughed out loud when the legendary Tendulkar, surely the greatest batsman of all time, was called up to hand out the losers’ medals to New Zealand while the winner’s trophy was presented to Eoin Morgan by… Prince Andrew.
As a neutral observer, it didn’t matter to me who won. What I, and reluctantly the dog, watched was the greatest cricket match in history. That won’t mean much to those who don’t care about the game. But if joy has felt in short supply for all of us over these last few years, anything that creates that feeling is a cause for celebration.