Warming up, with the Bharat Army.

Have seen India live – i.e. their cricket team(!) – a few times, now. Always fun. Yesterday no different, in that respect.

So happened that five minutes after I chose my seat in the Cathedral Road Stand (under the Media Centre, behind the bowlers arm), The Most Charismatic & Photogenic Indian Superfan came and sat down next to me.

Meaning if you saw some weirdly incongruous, tanned but unmistakably white bloke on the telly or on ‘insta’, next to the man with The Face & The Conch… well that was me. Sorry. If I photobombed any or all of the zillion selfies that the magnificently generous Bharat Army icon endured, I apologise. I sought nothing – was merely there in the first place.

My day then, was all about that happy coincidence. Rolling with the flags and the Bharat Army vibe. Reflecting now – and at the risk of patronising folks I simply don’t know – it was great. I expect it will be one of the highlights of my summer. Funny people, utterly charming people, Proper Cricket People. A refreshing, uplifting experience in the context of a currently depressing racial-political context. Thank you, guys.

Here’s how the *actual match* seemed…

 

Indian Superfan. Drawn to me, in an uncanny, unspoken non-ritual. Or maybe just wants, like me, to sit straight behind the bowler’s arm. Either way, he makes me look painfully pallid in every respect, what with his strikingly extravagant face-art. But inside… we are one. 😉

Cardiff. Coolish and both bright and cloudy. There’s a rain delay, after about four balls. More folks joining us, under the Media Centre, opposite the river. Including two ver-ry cool-looking guys who are (it turns out) Bharat Army hierarchy. I wonder about interviewing them but frankly bottle it.

The ball, meanwhile seems barely to be deviating despite that early cloud, rain. Some green in the pitch – and one goes through low – but no bowlers’ paradise, here. That how this World Cup’s gonna be? That how the white ball is? Just mainly hit through it: things may be difficult to time just now but reckon once you’re in…

Kohli, in soon enough, is fortunate very early on – edges through slips. Rohit, opposite, is similar in terms of relative discomfort.

A slow start, then and it’s one of those conflicting occasions where it’s hard to put your finger in what it is that’s so difficult but evidently, this is not easy for the batsmen. There is barely a timed aggressive shot in first ten overs.

Kohli gets through, having offered more than one ‘chance’ via the vacant first slip corridor: he looks almost human, today. He is bowled on 47.

13.30 and a Dhoni six over midwicket. Crowd full-throated, now. (Incidentally, had first thought the Indian mums/grans/daughters quota noticeably bigger than for the England equivalent…but maybe not).

But – sitting amongst them – there is that lovely, enthusiastic, engaged, 3-generations thing going on with the Indian support. Plus the most delightfully polite exchange of “excuse mes” as people trundle apologetically across your line of view or nudge past your beleaguered knees. Great fans.

176 for 4 after 32 (at the second drinks break). Rahul – like Kohli hardly fluent, earlier – has found a way to 68 not out.

200-up in the 36th. 37th & Dhoni explodes. Impudent swipe behind square for four, violent clonk over mid-on for six. Crowd loving it; he is plainly the Other God.

94 metre club-sweep from Dhoni immediately follows the milestone. He & Rahul looking comfortable, now, finally. Score could go VERY BIG, you sense, if they want it.

Mid-afternoon and somehow reassurring and appropriate to see Dhoni batting in a cap. Still moving pretty well, but *does look* like the clubbiest kind of god – also reassuringly.

Rahul goes to 88 with another edge – flailing somewhat, outside off. No slip, no catch.

Spin bowling for Bangladesh feels mixed – neither penetrative nor restrictive, particularly. On another day, they’re going at 20 an over. However their left-arm quick is admirably ardent, in the 41st. Sharp, committed.

Rahul bowled somewhat behind his legs, for 108. Good rather than majestic, today; appreciation and excitement, as this brings in Hardik Pandya.

Okaaay, it’s kindof a friendly but Bangladesh fielding has been ordinary. Dhoni profits from some dilatory stuff at mid-off; moves to 79 in the 45th. Hundred very much there if he wants it.

A brilliant fielder (unlike Liton, by the looks) might have him at long on, moments later. Tough chance lips out.

Some prolonged erm, drama as Hardik is cleared on review, after it became clear the ball pitched outside leg.

After 48 overs, Ind have 327 for 6, with Dhoni facing on 99. Boom. Straight drive, for six, into the river!

Dhoni, sumptuous in those later overs, is eventually bowled for 113. Jadeja fills his boots (as it were) by contributing a swift 11 as India finish on 359 for 7. Think Bangladesh have used 9 bowlers.

All things considered? India good, plainly, but 400 good? 400 to-win-against-somebody-really-tasty good? Not sure about that. Two centurions here but still 350 felt a touch lite. Could be the whole warm-up scenario but #CWC19 will likely demand early and sustained dynamism, if not outright violence.

India start their defence of the total with two slips, to Shami. Bumrah – whom I’ve come to watch – bowls the second over, wheeling and lashing.

Liton and Soumya cope. It would figure that batting conditions might be a tad more favourable, what with bright skies and a drying breeze now, and this is generally confirmed, during the first phase of the reply.

However, in his second over, Bumrah bowls an absolute peach – fiery, bouncy but not that short – which zips through where that second slip had been. 31 for 0 after 4.

There’s something richly appealing about an action as distinctive as Bumrah’s. That stalking; that skipping; the exaggerated uncurling. It’s not beautiful – quite – but it’s really him… and it’s quick. I really like that he doesn’t look like he’s ever been significantly tampered with by some coach.

At the other end, Shami is also putting it in, with little reward. 36 for 0 after 7. In the field the intensity and quality does feel a notch higher than an hour or two ago.

Whistles, in the sunshine. Real shiny whistles, Indian whistles, cajoling rather than cat-calling. Non-stop virtually; telling the lads that we’re with them. Children, mainly. Somewhere between charming… and harmless.

Eventually, Bumrah’s sheer energy and persistence pays off. Soumaya caught behind of something that *just lifts* again. 49 for 1.

Wow. He follows that up with a magnificent, druggy, slower-ball(?) yorker that irresistibly rushes the base of the stumps. Fabulous. Shakib must defend the hat-trick ball. Wide of off.

After 13, Bangladesh are at 62 for 2, with the game poised, progressing but by no means aflame. Goodish crowd, with the heavily-outnumbered Bangladeshis now vocal – and sunshine.

At the Powerade Hydration Break 🤷🏻‍♂️ (15 overs) , we have moved on to 74 for 2.

In bright, late-afternoon sunshine, Dhoni is keeping in sub-Steve McQueen shades and no cap. 100-up, for 2, in the 20th. Lukewarm: we wait. And wait.

150 for 2 off 27, with Jadeja on from the River End. Looking easy for the batsmen, who are beginning to lift the tempo and the Bangladeshi contingent. Still low-key but a friendly-competitive finish seems entirely feasible.

Jadeja reaching high with that left hand of his, then bowling flightless, sharpish and full. Chahal offering something rounder and loopier at the other end. Keeping the lid on this, currently.

Good, long chat with Rakesh from the Bharat Army. They’re now quite a mob – a business, in fact, with more than 11,000 fans booked through them for the upcoming Cricket World Cup. Bright, capable bloke; tells me they have staff in several countries dealing with travel, tickets, merchandise etc. Wish them well – feel under-qualified to *actually join* but…

At 191 for 5, off 36, it feels like India’s greater variety and quality of spin bowling may be telling. Though maybe not by much. Until Kuldeep Yadav’s left-arm leggies suddenly take over.

(At this point – another two-in-two – the Bharat Army hoiked up a giant banner, occluding the *actual playing surface* for some minutes. So an announcement: normal service will be resumed when the flag is lowered)…

When I emerge, it’s 216 for 8. (Did hear another roar). And a steward is insisting on the Army rolling up the banner. He is polite rather than officious, roundly, comically booed… but obeyed. We move on, in more sunshine, with the game surely now won.

I note that as so often, it is leg-spin that has gripped and turned the drama, here – batsmen having rarely been genuinely troubled by the seamers, save for a moment or three of real quality from Bumrah. Bangladesh need 130 from the last five overs… and here come the quicks to see them off.

They don’t, in fact. Chahal has Shaif slicing tamely to gully  – 262 for 9 – then Jadeja will bowl the last.

There have been three two-in-two’s in the innings, which maybe characterises the rather bitty nature of the Bangladeshi batting, today. Could be that this is how #CWC19 may be, for them – occasional glory, general disappointment?

No further score is added before a scrambled & reviewed runout brings the match to a close. Words for today? Good-natured, ‘sunny’, affable, enjoyable. Very cricketty -in a warm-up kindofaway.

We need to wax lyrical.

Broad, at the end of the fourth day. Slightly playing to the admittedly rather small Brit contingent. Aware of the cameras. A tad self-consciously gesturing and twitching and rallying himself. Knowing the moment – knowing and relishing the import of this thing. Doing what you would want, in fact; revelling in the sport; in the knowledge that this, right now, right this moment, is the gather of a great session. Getting off on that.

Some of my own highlights come carouselling through. Dramatic spits and bounces and lurches off of the pitch. Engaging chaos. Stoicism. Young lads. Reviews, romance and a fair bit of competitive spite. Action that builds uniquely.

Yup, it’s time to re-wax the waxing lyrical thing – the waltz-along with Test Cricket. Because we need to. We must defy and we must celebrate… because we are the custodians.

Who are? And custodians of what? Maybe we need to think about this?

Forgive me – divert. I have this picture in my head of a ‘Journalism School’ where some dry old git is lecturing about sports. He is joyless and the purpose of the talk appears to be to remove the sparks of life and colour from that which is ultimately to be written. Because these are reports, not columns!

(Divert 2. Apols.) Let’s be clear: I’m a middle-aged nobody and I know that on the one hand this ‘frees me up’ to pontificate about many things  -including writing – whilst fatally undermining any truisms that might, streakily or otherwise, emerge. If I ‘say stuff’ I’m waaay past worrying if it appears ludicrous, plus we all know it doesn’t matter. So relax. Relax but see this thing out. There might be a point, eventually.

Ok so on writing about cricket, or pretty much anything, my in-first retaliation is going to need to be the following statement; that of course I know indulgence is a real danger… but (nevertheless) the scribe’s early duties include being entertaining and loving words. I mention this because I find a fair lump of sports writing to be dull. Dull because okaaay – it’s a report; dull because it’s allegedly sticking to the facts.

I’ve said it before but I’m with David Byrne on this: facts are not just useless in emergencies but sometimes hopelessly boring and figurative in a fabulously abstract world. Thus even writing ’bout sport becomes a diabolical underachievement when all we do is passively (and let’s say it, unimaginatively) regurgitate events.

I can’t, in fact, believe my own fear that journo’s are routinely taught to abhor indulgences like mood and sense when tapping out their copy. But I am struck that lots of what’s published avoids the question of what it was like to be there so completely. I assume this is because stuff like that is necessarily personal – and therefore surplus. Great.

All this waffle is George Dobell’s fault. He wrote, in that genuinely fine manner of his, about the first BangvEng test and then stepped right forward and beyond, to say something unashamedly beautiful and arguably sentimental, about Test Cricket. (Go find out – easily done.) I’m merely shuffling in behind.

George was supporting, making a point. Echoing and re-inventing the poetry of the cricket to send a message to the universe. Bearing witness. Bringing us back, arguably, to our custodianship.

It may not be entirely melodramatic to suggest that longform of the game is flapping in the morgue. Not given the violent prevalence of arguments towards allegedly more vital and more sustainable species. The thrust for change feels murderously powerful (to some) – as though more erotically-charged than considered. If this Horny Blokes Wiv Knives scenario has any basis in truth, then some real brilliance must emerge to counter, to make civilised the carve-up. That’s a job for the custodians.

How then, to oppose beautifully and skilfully and with invincibly good thinking? How to be practical, as well as unashamedly proud of the games’ slow movements? What does The Plan (our plan?) look like, that makes sense of the opposing needs, cultures, life-forces at work? This is the tough stuff, for all of us.

Personally I can simply enjoy and maybe express some of the weirdly, wonderfully incremental pulses within Test Cricket, or the wider game… but I’m not that good at restructuring the whole bloody shooting match. I take huge pleasure in both experiencing and being some (inadequate) conduit for skills and understanding – through either writing or coaching. I get most of the richness and the subtlety and I’m absolutely prepared to wait for that quiet magic to unfold.

The problem is they’re telling us that most of the universe ain’t. Things have to be faster.

Apparently in Chittagong, with excitement running high and ticket prices low, folks weren’t that bothered – or not enough folks were bothered. When a plainly magnificent and possibly historic test is going off but still fails to attract a crowd, those of us in the custodian camp may have to do some pretty smart talking.

Now really is a Big Moment. The alarming, polarising blur of the current T20 developments is just one of the manifestations of the game’s stampede away from the old. That’s not the only Supercharge in town, though. There’s energy brewing – nay massing – within and around the recreational game. We’re in the pre-surge phase of something powerful here too.

Having signed up to a dramatic re-boot, the ECB is fine-tuning strategies around ‘the battle for the playground’ – the significant re-positioning of cricket closer to the forefront of the national consciousness. The aim (I believe) is to massively increase the profile and  relevance of cricket to children and young people, thereby transforming prospects generally. The challenge will be to engineer change, in this peak-testosterone moment, which is both dynamically impactful and serenely wise.

Somehow we must find a way. To both re-invigorate the game in these islands and secure the future for Tests. If this means cricket becomes some outlying bastion against dumbness (and is exposed as such, as the know-all and the reactionary), then fine. Take the flak. In fact wade into it, waxing lyrical. Do that for Test Cricket and make changes too.

In Chittagong, Bangladesh, a young lad bowls spin. Seemingly nervelessly – though he has no experience and the England skipper opposite has just got the record… for precisely that. Young fella name of Duckett watches on. What proceeds is delightful, traumatic, nerve-shredding, complex, simple, beautiful. And not without its ironies.

Mehedi (who is 18, and on debut) torments the England openers. He does it with an absurd comfort – as though it’s just a game! When it would be so-o easy to tighten up, just a touch, and therefore lose his flow, or the freedom of hand so essential for his craft, Mehedi flights it. The seam does its wonderful, enchanting, revolutionary thing. It’s technical but mainly it’s something pure.

Duckett seems struck-down by nerves, but both he and Cook, largely, are gorgeously flummoxed – as though they’ve never encountered anything like this before. It’s hypnotic and almost funny that this off-spin lark seems so new to them…