If You Can See It.

Tags

, , , , , , ,

“If you can see it, you can be it”

The summer of 2021 has been a fantastic one for this phrase within sport, and while I used to think it was a glib convenience, I’ve come to realise how true it is.

Women’s Cricket

I was first aware of the phrase in the context of The Hundred, which for all it’s myriad faults and issues, has given a further platform for female sport to be shown live on free-to-air television in the UK.

The matches themselves didn’t need the boost, as watching women playing cricket is every bit as enthralling as watching men doing so, but it has been hard to build an audience, to get the bums on seats of families and children that will ensure it can grow in terms of both participation and spectatorship.

The Hundred brought women’s cricket to the small screen on a regular basis, and has been capitalised on with a perhaps-even-more thrilling series between England and New Zealand, broadcast on BBC2. There are families in the ground, there are young girls watching with mums, with dads, with siblings. That is great to see, and hopefully those girls – having seen it will grow up to be the England players of the future.

It matters, free-to-air cricket. When only satellite TV shows sports, they are easy to look past and to ignore – I can speak pretty well here as a cricket fan in a football world – but when they are live on terrestrial TV, it serves almost to authenticate them. People must still flick channels up and down, and when they happen upon the cricket, they do stop and watch for a while – I know, because I get told so at work most days after matches are shown.

Alice Capsey, not necessarily showing her support for a former Surrey alumnus, but rather some peanuts.

It is helped that the product being shown is of such good quality, and while England and New Zealand’s womens’ sides are undoubtedly that, the women’s side of the 100 was exciting too, thrilling in parts, and allowed some new stars to shine; 16 year old Alice Capsey was one stand-out, Issy Wong another. Young players, in amongst the full sides, showing absolutely what they can do – and with some stunning success. That’s got to be inspiring, and not just to young girls. After decades of girls trying to be Viv Richards or Glenn McGrath, let’s have boys who want to be Alice Capsey or (please, lads, if you’re out there) Sarah Taylor.

Wrestling

This has been an odd one for me as I’ve never really paid much attention to wrestling in the past – I’m not even sure I knew there was women doing it.

My view there was perhaps flavoured by the turn of the century Divas era; the likes of Trish Stratus and Stacy Keibler – I can’t pretend to be an expert here, but even if their wrestling was good, the fact they were put into Lingerie Matches and Gravy Bowl Matches (yes, exactly what they sound like) demonstrates what the sport felt about women at that time.

Something, for some reason, flicked something in me over the summer. It started when I saw a promoted news story about Alexa Bliss calling out a poster on Twitter who had tried to body-shame her.

A powerful response, I’m sure you’ll agree (not my screenshot).

I wasn’t familiar with Alexa before this point, but was suitably impressed with her response here and it lit a fire in me to get to know a little bit more of her story.

What I found, in various interviews, podcasts and news stories was a thoroughly engaging athlete, who had experienced some terrible things, yet had come back strong, positive and determined – and her wrestling career has been a huge success.

This isn’t all. I don’t need to, I’m sure, get into the argument about whether wrestling is real or not – nobody here is silly enough for that – but even in the time I’ve been following Alexa, it is apparent how damned popular she is with younger fans of wrestling, with female fans, and how Alexa Bliss, with her current sidekick Lilly, might not strike the right chord with 40 year old men *waves* but sure do with 8 year old girls. If there’s one thing I do know, it’s that the world isn’t just made for me, but everyone.

Alexa and Lilly. Two heroes of my 2021 that I didn’t predict.

There is a commercial element to Lilly (a doll who travels everywhere with Alexa, even into the ring), but while it might have been an empowering riposte of a Tweet that started me down this path, Alexa’s feed is more usually packed with girls delighted with their new doll; that recognition from your idol must be giddying.

One of the first podcasts I heard Alexa on was her own (frankly too short-lived) Uncool show, an interview with Nikki Cross. At the time of recording, I think the two were performing together as a tag team, but they are now split. However, Nikki, now going as Nikki A.S.H (more of which later), was just as fun, and had a story of different hardships and difficulty to get to the big time. It was impossible not to start wishing the two all the success in the world.

Nikki came into wrestling as Nikki Cross, but has since changed her character into Nikki A(lmost) a S(uper) H(ero), with relentless positivity and self-belief despite the fact she is often hugely outmatched in terms of size and power by her opponents – indeed recently, in her tag team with Rhea Ripley (a quite fabulous dark/light combo, which makes for nice comedy segments) was picked up by her own partner and used as a weapon.

I know that she isn’t the flavour of the month with everyone, but I find it impossible to think that a small, fiery, determined and positive woman, achieving success, even after occasional knocks, isn’t providing a fine rôle model, again, for any girls watching. I have plans to buy one of her t-shirts with butterflies on when they’re released.

Nikki ASH with Rhea Ripley

In other words, what I had thought was just an excuse to get athletic women into not much clothing and grapple one another (and I’d be lying if I said the commentary didn’t sometimes err that way, which is disappointing) is actually a regular demonstration of high-level stagecraft, the wrestlers themselves are fantastic; both athletically (some of the moves I’ve seen, even in a month or so, are mind-blowing) and outside the ring. More power to Alexa and Nikki; may belts come their way.

Women and Football

As a sports fan, who also happens to be a human being, it has always felt peculiar to me that women have been so under-represented around the game.

Women and women’s football is definitely on an upturn, and If you can see it, you can be it may well have its roots here. It only takes a glance at the crowd of a women’s football match to see the make-up is very different to a lot of men’s games; certainly there are more girls there, watching their heroes, and often it appears to be a lot more family friendly. Some of the things I’ve heard from men’s football crowds would definitely require an adults only rating.

Things are changing in the stands, then, but they’re also changing out of them.

Happily, we’re beginning to see more female presenters, pundits, commentators (hear rather than see, I guess) and reporters. Names that have worked their way into the collective consciousness like Michelle Owen and Jacqui Oatley are being joined by new names, coming both from both on (Karen Carney, Sue Smith) and off (Emma Hayes, Katie Shanahan) the pitch.

Progress is being made, albeit clunkingly, and these women are showing themselves more than capable of doing some research and describing something they have either just seen, or expect to see, at least as well as men, and in many cases, better. There are still rumblings, and Twitter, a cesspool at the best of times, must be nightmarish should any of these pundits make a mistake of any kind, but the tide is definitely turning.

I remember Karren Brady taking the reins at Birmingham, and recently watched back a Fantasy Football League upon which she appeared. I think it’s fair to say neither David Baddiel nor Frank Skinner emerge with a huge amount of credit, but I’m certain neither would make the same jokes now. As for the (then) future West Ham vice-chairman, she came in for some stick for building what was already a competitive squad just a few games into the season. Imagine thinking you might want to win a competition you entered.

Karren Brady and her husband demonstrate the easiest way to stop West Ham blowing bubbles.

That was twenty years ago, twenty years during which I’ve attended countless football matches with women, talked about football (and loads of other sports) with women for far longer than I probably should have, and found that – don’t get too upset by this – some women know a lot about sport, and love watching it. Others know less, but still enjoy it. Some don’t like it and know very little. All of these are fine. I have male family and friends who fall into all of those categories, too (if you’re the latter and you’ve got this far, well done).

Yet we live in a world where an initiative called HerGameToo is bringing to light exactly the opposite – men, usually but definitely not always (and horrifyingly so) on social media, abusing women and girls simply for liking, and having an opinion about football.

I don’t need to say much about how I feel about this. All sport should be able to welcome all kinds of people – if you think otherwise, then you’re part of the problem. If you think that your experience is somehow more valid than somebody else’s, then you’re part of the problem.

If you can see it, you can be it.

I came to realise that this phrase, for all the good it does, isn’t just positive, is it? If you’re young, and you see racism, sexism, homophobia, any other way of singling out and demeaning people, it gives it a validity it should not have. We are not all parents, of course, but we are all humans, and we have a responsibility to one another. It doesn’t take a lot, does it?

It isn’t difficult to not abuse somebody who says something about Bristol Rovers¹ that you disagree with. It isn’t that difficult to have a word with a friend if you see them doing it themselves.

So often, the argument posited is ‘how would you feel if it was your mum or your sister?’; and I get that – I’ve been to countless football matches, and sadly fewer cricket matches, with my mum (she’s in that second category I mention above; loves watching sport, but doesn’t know, or want to know, all the inner workings – I’m sure I’ve bored her more than once, I’ve certainly left voice messages on Sunday afternoons ranting about Yorkshire’s team selection) and I would be horrified if some of the things I’ve seen posted by #HerGameToo were directed in her direction.

But it’s a little more than that, and there’s an easier way (for me) to get people onside. If you welcome people into your club – be it football, cricket, ice hockey, or whatever – they will be far more likely to put something back into it. It might be a ticket when they come back, it might be a shirt, it might become a lifelong obsession, it might only be a positive word to a work colleague because they’re visiting your town from Dresden on business and had their Tuesday evening free.

If you are hostile to people, while all of those things above might still happen, it will take something, somebody, else to redress the balance. In short you are actively hurting the thing you profess to love. How can you justify that?

If you can see it, you can be it. Youngsters, keep dreaming big, your time will come, and you can be anything – indeed, just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean you can’t be it, you might just have to be the first. Adults, you are it already, so be the best version of it you can possibly be.

¹I choose Bristol Rovers because I believe the first inklings of #HerGameToo were from a Bristol Rovers supporter.

The Hundred Tunnel

Tags

, , , , , ,

When I was a much younger man, I spent my summers in a range of different ways. Without ties to people or a job that required commitment beyond my attendance during school hours, I was free to travel around Yorkshire, free to enjoy the myriad things that fine county has to offer.

From Ilkley to Scarborough, from Sheffield to Meltham and all points around, and beyond, I travelled there either to look at sites of historical interest, or watch sport, or, on rare occasions visit people. Yorkshire has a strong identity that way, and I was delighted to reprise that part of my life on a weekend visit back in 2019, travelling up to see cricket in some far flung parts on the Saturday and Sunday, before zeroing back in to see Yorkshire play Warwickshire at York on the Monday I’d booked off work.

One of the most memorable days I had during my younger stint took me through Standedge Tunnel with my Grandma and Grandad, as they transported my uncle’s canal boat from the White Rose side of the Pennines to the Red Rose where he more usually kept it. If you’re not familiar with canal travel, and Standedge in particular, I’d urge you to visit as an experience in solitude, but the thing I remember most is the darkness.

More than five miles in pitch darkness is a long distance and one spends a good deal of the early portion of the trip looking backwards as the pin-prick of light that is Yorkshire (in our case) disappears, leaving only the dull lamps of the boat, and often no way of working into their beam. The second, seemingly endless period of the trip, is in utter darkness, with no light at either end, and the relief that comes with the third section, once the Lancashire side appears, is palpable. Suddenly you are re-united with the Earth, and though it grows apparent only very, very gradually, there is no emerging into the light quite like it.

I have been reminded of that trip recently. There has been a lot written of the Hundred, a lot of gnashing of teeth and a lot of pre-emptive back-slapping, despite the story having barely begun. We are yet within the glow of the Yorkshire side of the tunnel in my analogy. We can see only the direct disassociation with the cricket we have already known and the problems that might bring on the clubs we have come to love.

This summer, for example, while the county sides toil with a number of their best players in the new competition, the Royal London One Day Cup is beginning today. Of course, with the Covid pandemic still very much to the fore, players will be lost to isolation, players will be lost to Covid itself, and whatever level of competition the famous trophy is able to retain will be a blessing – we have learned to excuse sport a little that way, better that it goes on at all than is absent.

The Hundred, with its women’s matches beginning tomorrow is very much in its infancy, and the horror stories of the death of cricket that are being posited in its wake are based on only what we can see.

Existing within the English cricket summer, the biggest players of English cricket have been cherry-picked for participation, leaving their counties to struggle in their wake. It is entirely possible to see how this could be a problem going forward. Yet we are still at the very beginning of the tunnel. There is much travelling to be done.

Allow me some leeway to posit a position that might yet hove into view. All records, all statistics, all performances, within the Hundred concept will be almost as if they have taken place in exhibition games until a big enough field of data has been created to grant it context. This will take time. However, some things are immutable.

There are eight Hundred franchises. These will require eighty-eight players (of each gender) per first team and sixteen players in each squad each – 128 men and 128 women.

Ten years down the line, with Covid no longer prominent, if the Hundred is still going, things could look very different. Making the franchise names more important than their geographical locations is an interesting aspect to this – to an international audience, it is less important in which cities teams are based, and more that they can be easily differentiated and their stories develop – players may well continue affiliations to teams from one iteration to the next.

To somebody in Adelaide, it won’t matter if they are supporting a team from Nottingham or Cardiff, just as I didn’t care that Adil Rashid was bowling for the Strikers – it could have been any of the brightly coloured Big Bash franchises.

Furthermore, taking place over exactly one month, one month that happens to be in the Southern Hemisphere winter means that players from the West Indies, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and India are not caught up in their domestic competitions at this time. They are (in usual summers) free to travel to England, and would be able to make up a much greater proportion of the teams than they currently do.

We could end up with the Hundred being an annual free-standing month-long almost festival of cricket, held at a time during which all the best and most explosive players are free to play in it. The English domestic game might only need to give around 22 of those 128 players, equivalent to a test series, and on either end of the Hundred, the T20 Blast would have access to players who were both in the country already and – at the beginning – eager to adapt to conditions.

The county game could benefit from this, if harnessed correctly, and while it is still difficult to imagine how a calendar would pan out to improve four day or five day cricket, and how the 50 over game links into it, it isn’t a foregone conclusion – the back burner still offers heat.

One could almost suggest that the Hundred would only need to run every three of four years – and the other the format could transpose to an Olympic cricket competition – and wouldn’t that be beneficial in growing the game?

This year, this cutting of teeth, will live or die on the quality of its cricket. The initial signs that way are encouraging – from the one match so far. My Grandad would be delighted that more cricket is available on free-to-air TV, and that (some of) the best players in the world are there at the touch of a button. He was a Yorkshireman, yes, but a sports fan, moreso.

I have misgivings about the Hundred, huge ones, and they will be difficult to get past.

But I also know that it isn’t always easy to see the end of one tunnel from its beginning. Maybe just keep an eye out for the light – it might just be another county.

Trips in Cricket 20: Leeds and Broomfield

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

One of the reasons I started this series was to visit new places to watch cricket, but another was to revisit old ones, to come into contact with myself from the past, and to see what has changed from then to now. This was one of those trips.

I also knew, from the off, that I wouldn’t be able to see the whole game. Despite the fact it was a cup final, travelling to and from parts beyond Maidstone by train on a Sunday is difficult, and having had a full day with family the day before, I needed an evening indoors to sort myself for Monday. It was going to be one of those trips that was more walking than watching, then.

I’m sure I’m not alone in following the Cricketer Village Cup; it feels a right and proper thing to do, villages being the natural home of English cricket as well as often playing in public spaces – ideal to watch in the current climate. When I saw that Sunday was the day of the Kent Final, and it was at Leeds and Broomfield, I felt duty bound to attend.

It was not, I feel I should admit, my first visit to Leeds Castle, and as a result it is a place to which I have felt certain emotional ties. Way back in the summer of 2003, a group of recently qualified linguists left East Anglia on a tour of the UK, the plan being to work clockwise around and see as much as they could. The people pressed up against that Renault Espace that sunny day remain some of the best friends I’ve ever had and some of the most wonderful people I’ve had the privilege of knowing.

I’m sure I loved them all before we set off, but that time in the Badger Bus (as it came to be known – we acquired, somewhere) a poster of a badger in the back window, who on the first day of their trip visited Leeds Castle, got lost in the maze and then headed to Canterbury, only to get utterly sodden in a campsite; my memory of specifics is hazy, I know we eventually titled our barbecue the Seville Groy, but I have a feeling the weather that first night was too inclement to use it.

Certainly, after that trip, my participation having been cut short when I ran out of money in Carlisle¹, we had an indelible bond between us and, though we are scattered in, pretty much all four corners of the country now, I couldn’t be happier to call them my friends, and now we’re older and wiser, prouder of the influence they have on the world. I thought of them often on the train journey; mainly with fondness, but a touch of regret that we see each other so infrequently. If you happen upon this, and I’m sure you’ll recognise your backs from 18 years ago, hello!

Maybe it’s worth noting that there’s not really any hardcore sports nuts amongst the group, so maybe that was when I learned to appreciate the peripherals of games as much as the games themselves.

So there was a bit of emotional baggage to the journey down, but I didn’t want to mention that to the older gentleman who met me as I picked my way through a gate that led from the road to where I thought I’d seen some white-clothed figured from the road.

At the time I felt edgy, I wanted to get past, to watch the cricket, but looking back, he was almost like a guardian angel in thick gloves and a bucket hat – it was, I have to say, too warm for both. We talked of the grounds, and the gates we could see, we talked of the castle and whether I had seen it before. He recommended that if I had seen it, even twenty years ago, that I should only ‘pat it on the back’. I had plans to do less than that, but obligation to his words took me through the gate later on, and he was right. It would have been a mistake not to at least see it while I was there. Eventually he meandered away, and I picked my way into the ground through the swing gate.

I looked right, to where a small crowd had gathered by the clubhouse; parents, grandparents, unused teammates. Nobody sat too close to one another, and the staccato line of deckchairs extending towards me like a harbour arm saw couples at least two metres apart. As I took up my position on the grass, and did battle with an ant scoping out my personal terrain, the spacious nature of a cricket field had its advantages.

The field, I noticed, was closed on three sides by hedgerows, meaning that the tourist attraction in the distance was well disguised, but the open side, beyond the outfield tree that is seemingly traditional to Kent offers a clear view to the verdant hills that lollop off towards Maidstone, but without any sign of its presence.

Turning from the setting to the game, there was encouragement for the fielding side, who grasped eagerly at difficult caught and bowled opportunities, trying hard but each time missing out. These opportunities are due to tight bowling, and the scoring rate is slowed right down, so that when the batters do strike out, and one soon hauls a huge six soaring over the castle boundary, seeing the ball disappear into the overgrowth, the release of pressure is like a soda syphon. That was not the last ball that seemed to get sucked into the earth; someone could do a roaring trade in winter when the leaves die back if they can scour the grounds of the castle.

A few minutes later, in a suitable break in play, one of the gents who had set up on his deckchair crept towards me and admitted he had a terrible question to ask. “Who is fielding?” he asked. I confessed my own, similar, ignorance and we shared a laugh. I had, at this stage, checked the PlayCricket app, but such things are not always updated, and this was not one of those times.

Undeterred, he went the other way, soon gleefully reporting that the hosts were putting the runs on against the toiling visitors. Immediately he sat down, the ball was spooned to mid-off and the diving fielder made the ground but was just unable to hold the catch. The bowler, Freddo, shouted encouragement but looked distraught.

Soon after this there was a terse exchange between a fielder and a parent about a refreshment; the youngster covered himself in little enough glory that seeing the fourth drop of the day coming off his bowling felt like karma more than any of the others.

The 15th over saw a pair of geese appear from the castleside boundary, flying over the pitch if not the game, and adding their honks to an already voluble fielding team; and instead of returning to the match, my focus was drawn by a fielder chatting to one of the spectators, his position in the deep obscured by the tree. They passed the best part of an over in conversation, giving lie to the idea that the ball always goes to the fielder who wants it least.

When I turned back to the match, another fielder had been placed directly in my eyeline to the batter. He shouted “Played, Marky” at nobody in particular as I stood up, and figured that with cloud thickening at 72/2, it might be a decent time to see if I could lay eyes on the castle, or at least seek some shelter under the trees.

Sure enough, the third wicket soon came. Toby saw his medium pace hoiked high into the sky, the grey cloud acting as a natural sightscreen for a fielder who had plenty of time to consider his own position, and the catches that had gone down beforehand. He cradled it calmly, and the cheers rang out.

I arrived at the gate on the far side, thinking that it’s wooden frame offered me a nice upright resting spot and settled down to watch Marty bowl. Shoring up one end beautifully with his spin, dust shot into the air with every ball, the batters struggling to get any kind of power onto their shots; a few over had raced by before a late cut to four beat the despairing fielder on the fence in front of me, as the score crept up to 94/3 off 23.

Deservedly, he claimed the fourth wicket, the umpire’s finger being raised after the first time he had beaten the bat, leaving me to wonder quite why it had taken so long for him to come on. As I wondered, a yellow bi-plane buzzed over head, presumably out on a day trip from the local airfield – my suspicion is that it was a Tiger Moth, but I’m no historian of aviation.

The fourth wicket opened the floodgates, and the fifth fell before the 100 was reached, after a neat piece of juggling by the wicket-keeper, who looked to have let it past before plucking it cat-like out of the air in a display of fabulous agility. One wonders, seeing such moments in village cricket, about the nature of such inspiration – how much is the result of hours of training and basic muscle memory, how much is the brain, refusing to be defeated, and how much is pure talent?

I ponder this as the sixth wicket partnership begin to settle, showing discipline enough to leave as the scoreboard held firm, and I sit for just a few minutes before the long trek back to Hollingbourne for the train home. I survey this idyllic ground again before I leave, feeling blessed to have made the trip, and thankful to have seen cricket played, even just an excerpt from a much bigger whole.

I think back to my last visit to Leeds Castle, that group of youngsters full of possibility and hope, and wonder whether we have fulfilled the former or lost the latter. Maybe it doesn’t matter either way; our only destiny was the passage of time, and having been able to do that whilst they remain close to me has been something to cherish for nigh on twenty years.

Leeds & Broomfield rallied, reaching 157/7 off their 40 overs, nobody reaching more than 32, as Tobey Castle took two more wickets to end up with three.

Castle himself was the fourth Linton Park bat to fall, with the score at just 18, but they too recovered, Mark Christmas steadying the ship, and Sam Boyns bringing them home with just five balls to spare. Another three wickets from Castle in the next round, at Crowhurst Park down in Sussex, were in vain as Kent’s interest in the Village Cup was extinguished, but I will certainly look out for fixtures next year – nearly every ground I clicked on to read about was described as picturesque, and Leeds and Broomfield most certainly fit the bill.

¹We had, by that stage, covered the south of England, large parts of Wales, and even bits of my traditional stomping ground in northern England. He responded by taking the wicket of the day, clean bowled – no fielders required. Another fell at 45, and what had looked a good start had fallen victim of the Geoffrey Boycott test.