Saturday, 27 July 2013

It's not cricket

Soul Limbo by Booker T and theMGs. Play that song at my funeral, or I will return from the grave to haunt you. I LOVE that song, and it never fails to make me leap up and do a shambolic salsa around the kitchen. I've played it so often that the 5yo even has her own little routine that she does when she hears it. It's the ringtone on my mobile, so the 8yo frequently gets confused and shouts 'MUUUM! CRICKET!', when really it's just O2 asking me why my phone bill has remained unpaid.

Most people know it as 'the cricket music', or rather the theme music used by Test Match Special on the BBC. And for me, that is what it really means. Cricket. T20, ODI, and the greatest of all sporting occasions, a Test match.

Like a lot of people, I came to love cricket in the summer of 2005. Prior to that, I was vaguely aware of the rules (throw ball, hit ball, try to catch ball) and precious little else. I was frequently baffled as to why Alistair would choose to sit inside of some of the hottest days of the year, curtains drawn, watching not very much happen for days at a time. In fact 'baffled' is putting it mildly. I was actually quite irritated by it. 'Come on, Ali! It's such a lovely day! Let's sit out in the garden, drink Pimm's and get a little addled before giving ourselves food poisoning with undercooked sausages!' And the response would be a 'Mm.', before he'd wave a distracted hand at me to get out of his way so he could get back to watching thirteen men stand around on a field.

Then of course came the Ashes Summer of 2005. The 8yo was then still a baby and I was at home with him until three o'clock most days before going to work, when Alistair would come home and take over. Ali got into the habit of texting me during the morning to ask what the cricket score was and I'd flick over to Channel 4, text him back, then get on with changing nappies and wiping sick off my shoulder, usually forgetting to turn back to Homes Under the Hammer or A Place in the Sun. And slowly, imperceptibly, I began to fall under the gentle spell of cricket. The thwack of leather on willow, the cries of 'Owzat!' the Aussies greeting every Shane Warne delivery with 'Niiice one Shaaaaane!'. But more than anything else, it was the commentary. The gentle conversation, the lulling, somnolent reassuring tones that certainly erupted into a roar of approval at a catch or a run out. The phrases used that meant absolutely nothing to me. 'He's moved the field up and we have mid off, mid on, two slips, a gully, deep square leg, fine leg, third man and silly point.'


I didn't care that I knew nothing about the laws of the game or the techniques different bowlers used. It was seeing this incredibly tense psychological contest being played out over five test matches, each test match five days in duration. First one side seizing advantage, then the other. Seeing how just moving one fielder to a different position two metres away would have such a subtle yet fatal impact on the opposing batsman. I was hooked. Completely hooked.

From then on, for every match England played, I was there. Test matches? Close the curtains and block out the sunlight. Dead rubber T20? It's important to see how the team play without pressure. ODI in the middle of the night? Hey, I have a young baby. Sleep deprivation is how I roll these days. At weekends, the telly would be tuned to Sky Sports, the radio to TMS, which was a second or two ahead of the TV coverage, so I would hear a run out and be able to watch it as it didn't happen.

When we moved to Norwich, we were stony broke – both of us unemployed, no real assets to fall back on, and so Sky was the first thing to go. I had thought I would miss being able to watch the cricket, actually seeing a disputed ball, hotspot, watching the crackle of snicko, the drawn out drama of seeing what hawkeye predicted. TMS was great, but it's not the same, is it?

No, it's not the same. It's better. Far, far better. Cricket is the best sport in the world to follow on the radio, and TMS is the greatest sports programme. Being a devotee of TMS is like spending time with some of your oldest, closest friends, whose foibles you all know so well that they don't really annoy you anymore, but you pretend they do, because that's the kind of teasing relationship you have. It is genius broadcasting because it convinces the listener that you are the only one listening, that you are almost there with them in the commentary box, admiring today's cake, and having your leg pulled.

Blowers with his love of pigeons and cranes, Aggers pooterish sighing exasperation, Tuffers falling asleep after a massage and missing a book signing. Vaughnie knowing full well that he's leading one of his colleagues into legover territory, whilst Simon Mann tries to get on with it. Boycs being... Geoffrey Boycott (I'm not a fan, I have to admit, but this is A Good Thing. When he's sitting in, I just go off and do something useful for half an hour). The much-missed CMJ. All of them have their own idiosyncracies, that lifts the programme up and beyond simple coverage of cricket. It's never forced, it's just a group of people discussing a sport they love and understand, imparting knowledge and information to the listener without hectoring or ranting (unless they're Geoffrey Boycott. I told you I didn't like him), with excursions into potential cat burglars, the spirit of the game, and a 73 year old man 'rapping'. TMS inspires loyalty in the way that only the truly genuine can, because none of it is forced. It's professional, but also personal, with every member of the TMS team allowed to be themselves. When I have it on in the background when I'm writing, it never distracts me, just gives me a reassurance that TMS is on the radio, all is right with the world.

Also, yes, it gave us this clip, which reduces me to sweaty redfaced giggles every time I hear it. Never gets old.

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