A parody letter written by the American author Nick Farriella, which appeared on the humour site McSweeneys, has been doing the rounds on social media and WhatsApp groups. It is supposedly from F Scott Fitzgerald, who was quarantined in 1920 in the south of France during the Spanish flu outbreak, to his friend Rosemary.
I like the bit when Fitzgerald - aka Farriella - says:
"It seems as though the bulk of the city has retreated to their quarters, rightfully so. At this time, it seems very poignant to avoid all public spaces. Even the bars, as I told Hemingway, but to that he punched me in the stomach, to which I asked if he had washed his hands. He hadn't. He is much the denier, that one. Why, he considers the virus to be just influenza. I'm curious of his sources."
We have all retreated of late, "rightfully so". And we are all curious for information and of the sources. What the hell have we got into and how will the world look when we come out?
I make no apology for being something of a romantic and therefore a Fitzgerald fan. This romanticism spreads to my love of cricket and I can't help but wonder if the message behind Martin Crowe's memorable piece on these pages more than five years ago now "Towards a kinder, gentler game" might one day be the result of the traumatic situation in which we suddenly find ourselves now.
Three years ago or so I wrote A Beautiful Game, a book so titled because I see cricket as exactly that: balletic in its movement and charming in its friendship. Truth be told, cricket is not quite so beautiful now as when it captured my heart some 50 summers ago. There are exceptions, not least the Ben Stokes heroics of last summer, but in a wider context, traditional values, even ethics, are compromised by commercialism and, as a result, by the all-consuming need to win.
The spirit of cricket - an idea or an aspiration, not a code - is often seen as a confusion, and worse, an impediment. Witness the debate over running out a non-striker who is backing up, and what, or what is not, within the spirit of the game. How can anyone stealing ground at the non-striker's end be within their rights? It is they who are testing the spirit of the game, not the bowler who finds them out. Yet it is the bowler who is questioned, vilified even, if s/he takes action. Once all cricket captains have this explained to them, the non-striker will stay put. Then if the bowler plans something underhand to trick the non-striker out of their ground before the ball is released from the hand, the roles are reversed. Put simply, the spirit of cricket is a reference to honesty and fair-mindedness. It demands respect of the game itself, of the premise that runs through the laws and of the opponent. What can possibly be confusing about that?
Right now sport finds itself on hold, which provides a timely opportunity to recalibrate. By closing everything down, Covid-19 has led us all to think more about the things and people we love, and to miss aspects of our lives that we take for granted and, to some degree, have abused. Sport is among them. "Our earth, our beautiful planet, our home, is calling out to us," said the artist Lorenzo Quinn in a recent video. "We need to stop and listen." For too long we have followed paths that do less than justice to the game we were given. Now, through the silence, we can hear this earth and the message is for us to unite and follow the light of togetherness and respect.
Cricket is a game, no more and no less. "The most important of the least important things," as Jürgen Klopp said about football the other day. Perhaps this enforced sabbatical will bring some perspective. The narrative has been about brand, marketing and money; about the value of media rights, corporate sponsorships and contracts across four different formats that boggle the mind. The game has sold itself to the highest bidders and the fallout is the effect on its future. Outside of the Indian subcontinent, an astonishing number of kids don't even know cricket is there.
"My hope is that players and administrators, at least to some degree, recalibrate, take their foot off the pedal, consider the importance of health, family and friendship, and in so doing, wind down their intensity"
It is gratifying to read that the ICC has released its archive to all global broadcast partners (though the question of why it was locked away came to mind). This will ensure the armchair fans get their fix, though I couldn't help but wonder how many of them already needed it. Unless, of course, they are going to sit down with their children. Truth be told, cricket has become a bit greedy - think of the ever-increasing franchise leagues and the oxygen they suck from the rest of the game over ever longer periods. And it's not just the franchise leagues, there is too much of cricket everywhere, and by all account, more to come. It is a marvel that Virat Kohli plays all the matches he does, and no surprise that he stalled so in New Zealand. The body might cope but the mind cannot. Of course, Kohli is everything to Indian cricket, rather as Tiger Woods has been everything to golf. With these fellows to hand, the value of the stock remains strong. Without them, it falls.
How sport acts amid the pandemic will be remembered. Roger Federer has given a million Swiss francs to the most vulnerable families in his native Switzerland. Manchester United has guaranteed to pay casual staff. Wilfried Zaha has offered his 50 flats to house front-line medical personnel - 50 flats, Wilfried! Roman Abramovich has opened the Stamford Bridge hotel to NHS (National Health Service) workers; Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs are doing similar with their own establishments. Kent and Durham have offered their facilities to local councils and the NHS, while their players deliver to the elderly and infirm. Durham's innovative CEO, Tim Bostock, has suggested the Riverside become a drive-through coronavirus testing area when the government gives the signal. Watford players are manning a helpline for stressed and isolated fans. And so on and so forth. Two days ago the UK government asked for 250,000 health-service volunteers; they got more than half a million. From these little acorns of kindness can come the trees that shore up our sporting world with great swathes of communal kindness and a whole new set of values. Much has been written about the game reconnecting with its roots. There will never be a better time. Nor has there been a time so needy.
A life in professional sport is overwhelming: few see outside the bubble, most get caught up in the madness of it all. In some ways, a tendency towards obsession is advantageous, for without it you are probably not going to win the Ashes or the IPL. My own hope is that players and administrators, at least to some degree, recalibrate, take their foot off the pedal, consider the importance of health, family and friendship, and in so doing, wind down their intensity. The present toll on mental health is alarming. Surely such an approach would help them cope better in the weeks ahead, which, in turn, and in the long run, may leave them better equipped to deal with the demands and expectations of high performance.
One very good way to start this is to give back to the communities that have made us - after all, there is the greatest pleasure in giving. Cricketers, at all levels, still play for the love of the game and it is those communities that remind us why we fell in love in the first place. This is a time for healing and we are all responsible for thinking outside of the bubble and for making new choices. Among them must be the reinvention of old ways. Through the chaos, we will find community.
It may be that when life returns to normal and fans flock to stadiums, grounds and fields again, they do so with a renewed sense of patience and joy. With a bit of luck, this will happen within a few months and cricket in the UK will be the sport on show. If so, the crowds could well match the immediate post-war years when every ticket was taken and Denis Compton and Bill Edrich were kings. We will be reminded that less truly is more, that the live experience still beats even the finest television coverage, and that sport, the most important of the unimportant things, wraps its arms around us in the most uplifting way.