It's not that I am a cricket neophyte. I'm more of a lapsed, if very amateur, fan. Longer ago than I would care to admit, I enjoyed the elder daughter's privilege - attending a couple of Test matches with my father, at Trent Bridge, as it happens. Long hours spent watching cricket with him years ago on television mean that I (still) know what the score signifies and roughly where the fielding positions are. I know about the hazards of the "new ball" and the "follow on", but the finer distinctions of bowling escape me.
Neophyte or lapsed fan - I am, it turns out, part of a trend. Cricket has a new following, and many of the initiates are women. Surprising confirmation came for me during a Saturday around town. On the bus, the snatches of overheard conversation sounded infuriatingly like talkSport when you had intended to tune into Five Live. Prick up your ears, though, and it is not Beckham, Rooney and the latest butter-fingered goalie who are the subjects of today's morning-after commentators, but Vaughan, Flintoff, Warne and the rest. And the girls are offering opinions with the best of them. The same cricketing drift could be detected through the drizzle on Regent Street; it wafted across the aisles of a suburban Sainsbury's.
Suddenly, there is a quorum for cricket-talk, just as there used to be long ago. And I cannot bring myself to be displeased about it. In fact, almost anything that ends the monopoly of football over public discourse has to improve the quality of our national life.
That it is cricket that has finally made the breakthrough, though, should really not have caught us so much by surprise. The terminology may seem complicated, but cricket is not hard to understand once you have got your head around the main principle of defending the "wicket". And the big difference this season, of course, is that "we" - England, that is - are winning. It never harmed anyone to have a national team doing well, least of all against an old adversary. With Sven and his lads otherwise engaged, Vaughan and his men have cheerfully usurped their position in the national sporting pantheon. Good for them.
Over the years, too, cricket has done its bit to make itself more accessible. My memories of the game were frozen in an age of manual scoreboards in black and white. Spectators brought their radios to the field to find out what was going on, even who was at the crease. My interest briefly flared up - before dying in disgust - when the game was first commercialised by Kerry Packer: that was when the one-day internationals came in, and players forsook their whites for coloured pyjamas, trashily decorated with advertising logos.
The logos are still with us. But, as I learnt this weekend, cricket - in the field and on television - has been transformed by the gee-whizz technology of modern sport. Instant replays are shown on giant screens, visible around the ground. The same screens show how many runs the batting team has to score to win or avoid the follow-on; the crowd can thus count along with the final runs. Graphics explain why someone is given "out" - or not: the so-called "red zone" came as news to me. There is spectator-participation in a way there never used to be.
But something more elaborate may account for the revival of cricket than either its newfangled accessibility or the decline of English football. There is an aesthetic quality to a cricket match - the white-clad figures spread around the green field, the wooden bat, stumps and bails, the red leather ball - that the supposedly "beautiful game" does not have, for all the millions lavished on its sleek new stadiums. There is a gentility of pace and procedure that sets it back from the rush of modern life. There is in a cricket match - whether on a village green or at Lord's or Trent Bridge - something integral to the image of England that has been preserved by natives and foreigners alike.
The resurgence of cricket may turn out to be nothing more than a flicker of nostalgia, proof only that a game excitingly played by two well-matched teams holds an abiding attraction. But it may also be an early sign that, amid all the discussion about Britishness, the idea of England and an English identity is far from forgotten.Reuse content