Under normal circumstances, the first morning of a Test match—the most celebrated form of cricket, contested between international teams, wearing traditional white uniforms, for a maximum of five days—feels like a holiday. The game always begins on a weekday, and many spectators take time off work to watch it. On the opening morning of a Test in Manchester, the streets near the stadium at Old Trafford are thronged with cricket lovers carrying bags filled with sandwiches, newspapers, binoculars, and rain jackets. Groups of fans wear costumes: a dozen Fred Flintstones; a gang of red letterboxes; a Tour de France peloton. Scalpers ask, sotto voce, to buy or sell. The noise of expectant chatter rises as the crowds thicken. The bars around the stadium do brisk business.
A recent three-match Test series between England and the West Indies was not played under normal circumstances. On the first morning of the deciding Test of an intriguing series tied at 1–1, I walked twenty-five minutes from my house along near-empty streets to the entrance gate at Old Trafford, alone. The reason for my solitude was Covid-19, naturally. In March, when the novel coronavirus began upending life and ending lives, it also appeared to have destroyed the chance of professional or recreational cricket being played in England in the spring and summer of 2020. Scratching a cricket season was a minor consideration in the context of a global pandemic, but it was a cause of real sadness to fans and players of the game.
Neville Cardus, the Mancunian grandfather of cricket writing, wrote, “There can be no summer in England without cricket.” In the early days of the pandemic, the England and Wales Cricket Board, like other sporting bodies, looked for a way to salvage something—not least television revenue—from the spoiled calendar. In early May, the E.C.B. proposed an idea: biosecure cricket. The proposal was similar to the “bubbles” currently in use by the N.B.A. and professional soccer leagues, but cricket’s bubble would be complicated by the duration of a series, and by the need for international travel. A team would arrive from overseas, meet nobody but themselves, stay in hotels that adjoined cricket stadiums, and be subjected to regular medical tests. The England team would be similarly confined. On the field, players could no longer polish the ball using saliva, in their customary way; they were obligated to use only their own sweat. (In June, when the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was asked why nonprofessional cricket remained banned, he said that a cricket ball was a “natural vector of disease.” Recreational cricket resumed in July, with less spit than usual, and more sanitizer.) Around a hundred and twenty television and radio broadcasters would follow the series, but the majority would not return home between games. Selected print journalists would gain access to matches in tiny groups, but would not mingle with anybody else. There would be no paying spectators.
The West Indies team—made up of players from English-speaking Caribbean nations—agreed to play England in a three-match series: one in Southampton and two in Manchester. Pakistan and Australia arranged to play England under similar conditions later in the season. (The first Test against Pakistan began this week.) International cricket played in England without crowds was a sterile prospect, in more than one sense, but it was still cricket. A summer was possible.
Cricket is a mystery to most Americans. I won’t explain all of its finicky laws, but the essentials are easy enough to understand. Two teams take turns to bat. The batters try to score runs; the bowlers try to get them “out.” You are out if the ball hits your stumps, or a fielder catches a ball you have hit, or in exactly eight other ways. A team is “all out” when ten batsmen have been dismissed. In newer formats of the game, which limit a match by the number of balls each side can face, whichever team scores the most runs wins. In more traditional forms, which are limited by time, there can be a draw (but not a tie, which means something different in cricket) if the team batting last is not all out. The different versions of the game are reflected in their aesthetics. In short forms, players wear garish uniforms and use a white ball. In traditional cricket, they play in white and use a red ball.
A Test match is considered by aficionados the sport’s best expression. As its name suggests, it tests the players’ skill, endurance, imagination, and concentration over long periods. Both teams must bat twice. Momentum can swing wildly within an hour of play. Torpor gives way to drama. Last August, Ben Stokes won a Test match for England, in Leeds, against Australia, with a batting performance of scarcely believable skill and composure. The final hour of that match was the best sport, of any kind, I had ever seen. Gideon Haigh, one of cricket’s most reflective writers, explained to me recently that the five-day format is particularly beloved by journalists. “Test matches are long, complex, dense, evolving, confounding,” he said. “It’s like having the full palette to work with.”
This year, the E.C.B. was due to begin a new, extremely short, and nearly incomprehensible format called the Hundred, the first season of which has now been postponed to 2021, owing to the pandemic. Its arrival is not a direct threat to Test matches, and I am eager to see how the Hundred will work. But its announcement, in 2019, occasioned many wistful and conservative laments for traditional cricket and its values—notably Michael Henderson’s “That Will Be England Gone” and Duncan Hamilton’s “One Long and Beautiful Summer.” Both books teem with evocative descriptions of a vanishing England of local cricket grounds surrounded by somnolent spectators in deck chairs. The authors’ conclusions strike me as too pessimistic, but whatever your view on the transformation of cricket, it seems likely that traditional versions of the game will become less significant. It seems even possible, if unlikely, that they may eventually disappear altogether. Traditional formats are already losing popularity, especially outside England and Australia. Watching a Test, then, is like trekking to see a mountain gorilla—an opportunity not to be spurned.
Two days before I arrived at Old Trafford, I was tested for Covid-19 at home by a nurse. (Result: negative.) At the gate, a security guard checked my credentials, and then I was accompanied to a tent where remote sensors measured my temperature. If I had recorded anything higher than a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, I would have been ushered to an “isolation room.” I wore a mask as I walked to my position for the day, in a block normally reserved for corporate guests. The only other person in my section was a genial, cricket-loving doctor, who was employed by the E.C.B. Nobody in the bubble tested positive on any day of the series; the doctor happily watched cricket and read his novel in the sunshine.
Phil Davies, the E.C.B.’s head of security, explained to me the measures put in place for the series. Among other precautions, which included locating coronavirus-secure emergency dentists in each city where matches were played, the E.C.B. had bought, for this summer alone, a hundred thousand surgical gloves, two hundred and fifty thousand face masks, and fifteen thousand litres of hand sanitizer. Davies joked that Old Trafford was at that moment the safest place in England—unless you were a batter facing Jofra Archer, England’s deadly-fast bowler.