I spoke to my father back in London on Sunday and, after the usual exchange of irrelevancies, asked him anxiously how we--that's to say, England--were doing in the cricket.
"We've won, I think," he said, not having checked the score for a while. "Last time I looked, Atherton"--England's safest, sturdiest batsman--"was on 40-odd, and Thorpe"--the best stroke-maker--"was doing well, so it's looking pretty good."
He, and I, should have known better. By the time, a couple of hours later, I was able to check the score on the Internet, England had fallen to pieces against New Zealand and lost by 83 runs. On our home soil. To a decidedly average team.
The English collapse was as depressing and familiar as English summer rain. But Sunday represented a nadir that wounded even the most bitter, cynical fan. According to the unofficial but accepted ranking of the cricketers' bible, Wisden, England is now the worst cricketing nation in the world.
That has never been the case before, though it has often felt like it. And I'm trying awfully hard not to blame it on Tony Blair.
Now, don't ask me to explain the rules; it would take more space to precisely describe and define a crucial piece of equipment like a "bail" than to show you an exact-scale picture. Suffice to say, cricket shares many of the same skills as baseball--agile fielders (although they don't wear gloves), powerful and canny batters (although they do wear gloves), pitchers (bowlers) who can hurl and swerve a ball at breathtaking speed. And some of the same cultural glue, too.
This peculiar game, featuring players in white pants and white shirts, playing matches that last up to five days, obsessed over by spectators who talk of LBW (a way of getting out), silly mid-on (a fielding position) and Headingley 1981 (again, don't ask), bothers us deeply.
I learned how to play at the age of 5, and since then have spent countless days playing, watching and reminiscing about our summer game, etched on English identity as surely as baseball is here. As winter turns to summer, the currency of conversation between millions of Englishmen converts as predictably from soccer to cricket. Cricket is national consciousness, childhood memory, happiness and heroes. America has Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth and Mark McGwire, and England has W.G. Grace and Denis Compton and Ian Botham.
And now the English have to accept that at a game we invented, we are now uniquely bad.
Don't take my word for it. The English newspapers are mourning. On Monday, the Guardian's David Hopps displayed a kind of optimism both perverse and appropriate. "Today must be an occasion for hope. There can be no more hiding, no more prevaricating, no more refusal to accept the truth. England are now confirmed as the worst . . . in the world. Only if despair spreads far and wide might any lasting recovery begin." On these grounds alone--and I mean alone--I share his analysis, for grief traveled at least as far as my corner of Washington, D.C.
There has been much flailing over the decline of English cricket, at least since 1882, when Australia beat England for the first time on English soil. But this--really--feels like the worst it's ever felt.
For perhaps 30 years we have had to accept that the West Indies, packed with brilliant, athletic, dangerous fast bowlers, are better than us; for about half that time, that Australia was better, too. But the rush of nations decisively overtaking us--Pakistan, South Africa and India certainly, and now, it seems, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe and New Zealand--is cruel and unusual punishment.
There's a multitude of reasons. Blame social change, the selling off of school playing fields, less emphasis on team sports in schools, an uncompetitive cricketing professional structure, and the ever-growing domination of soccer, which has led to a tapering off of interest in cricket among young people.
But to rationalize what happened Sunday really doesn't make it any easier to bear. And right now I'd prefer to avoid the opportunity to characterize the crisis in English cricket as an example of a wider national malaise. I feel a huge twinge of guilt--more like a spasm--being rude about it in another country's newspaper.
You see, former prime ministers have been obsessed with cricket: John Major, for example, used to regale dinner parties with his analysis of upcoming test matches, and Clement Attlee used to interrupt meetings to check the latest score from Kennington Oval. But Tony Blair just doesn't care for it. That doesn't mean much, I'm sure. It just hurts right now, that's all.
English cricket suffers from declining interest and appallingly bad marketing. Games in the domestic professional cricket league often have only dozens--invariably middle-aged and white--rather than thousands of spectators. And the failure to attract the huge reservoir of talent and interest among immigrant communities from the Caribbean basin and the Indian subcontinent is perhaps the most shocking indictment of all. When India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the West Indies tour, each once every four years, their British-based and -born supporters flock to and cheer up English grounds; for the rest of the time, they are largely absent.
Yes, it's true the teams that are beating us hollow at cricket are our Commonwealth cousins. But my unhappiness is really not an indication of subliminal, post-colonial tristesse. Honest. We've--I've--come to terms with that. It's not that we don't accept the reality of former U.S. secretary of state Dean Acheson's famous comment that "Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role."
But if we could just find a couple of decent fast bowlers . . . .
CAPTION: At this spring's Cricket World Cup, a well-protected English batter hit the ball for four runs while a Sri Lankan player guarded the wicket.