When Moeen Ali danced down the pitch and lofted Yasir Shah over long-on to bring up his century in the fourth Test, at The Oval, I felt a tingle in my eye.
Maybe I was just tired. Perhaps it had been a long day at the computer screen. Either way, this was not the first time a snippet of cricket had threatened to turn me into a snivelling wreck.
I was sitting in the same spot a year ago the last time it happened. Adam Voges sliced a ball to Ben Stokes at gully, who flung himself backwards like an Olympic gymnast. On the radio, Jonathan Agnew exploded into life. “And he’s brilliantly caught! Brilliantly caught! That is an outrageous catch!”
I swallowed hard and glanced around the office to check nobody was looking. As eye-watering pieces of commentary go, it was up there with: “The new world record-holder is Brian Charles Lara of Trinidad and Tobago”; “Stephen Harmison with a slower ball – one of the great balls”; and, of course: “Jones! Bowden!”
I get more excited, angry, nervous and overjoyed about cricket than I do about anything in normal life. Once, when England made a vital breakthrough in the 2013 Ashes, I shouted so loudly the neighbours came round to check I was okay.
A therapist would probably tell me it all stems from childhood. I went to my first Test match aged six: England v West Indies at Edgbaston. The scorecard tells me England finished day three on 158 for 8 in their second innings, just 52 ahead, with Derek Pringle and Chris Lewis at the wicket. That explains a lot.
Growing up as an English cricket fan in the 1990s, as Emma John says in her wonderful bookFollowing On, was a painful business. Enduring defeat after defeat was one thing, but the glimmers of hope – Barbados ’94, Johannesburg ’95, Edgbaston ’97 – kept me coming back for more.
Every time Mark Ramprakash compiled a flawless 27 before spooning a long hop to cover point, it broke another piece of my fragile young heart.
In Brisbane in ’98, Alan Mullally’s stupid hands got in the way of the stumps, blocking a direct hit that would have run out Steve Waugh. I was furious and stormed off to my bedroom in a strop.
The emotions were no less raw when it came to county cricket. On my first visit to Lord’s,Warwickshire chased down 322 to beat Sussex off the last ball of the NatWest Trophy final. In many ways, nothing I have experienced since has been able to live up to that day. The following season the Bears, inspired by Dermot Reeve and Lara, won an unprecedented domestic treble.
I thought this was normal, that the champagne would keep flowing and the glory would last forever. It wasn’t, it wouldn’t, and it didn’t. One of the low points of the comedown was utter humiliation in the ’97 final, Essex winning by nine wickets with 33 overs to spare. I fought back tears on the train home as my dad reminded me the next day was the first of the new school term.
Some people see injustice and are driven to seek a life in politics, campaigning or law. I saw Gloucestershire beat Warwickshire to the 2000 NatWest Trophy on the Duckworth-Lewis method after a brief rain shower. We left the ground in bright sunshine and cursed all the way back to Marylebone. “Character-building,” you might say. “Bloody stitch-up,” we said.
In 2005, as every schoolboy surely knows by heart, everything changed. I was in a student-union bar, holding back tears of joy, when Messrs Bowden and Koertzen removed the bails and Michael Atherton chuckled: “What a performance from these two gentlemen!” To this day I cannot bring myself to watch highlights of that series without taking a few deep breaths and warning anyone in the immediate vicinity to be ready with the Kleenex.
Picture, if you will, a typical English cricket fan. Stiff upper lip, wry gallows humour, weary sense of detachment, ready at any moment to add two wickets to the score. My grandad fits this description perfectly. Whenever I’m on holiday or otherwise engaged, he sends me a message telling me how badly England are doing. When I visited him during this summer’s third Test against Pakistan, England were 120 without loss on the fourth morning. As the clock ticked past 11am, grandad came striding across the garden to tell me both openers had gone in the first few overs of the day. I kicked the ground and clenched my fists; he just laughed and shook his head.
Nothing makes me feel as strongly as cricket does. Walls have been punched in anger, nails chewed in anxiety, car horns beeped in relief. It must look very odd from the outside, and I have thought long and hard about why it happens. Is it physiological or psychosomatic? Was I programmed from birth to well up at the sight of white-flannelled figures on village greens and the sound of leather on willow?
Perhaps there are parallels to be drawn between cricket and art. Some folk get weepy at a particularly stirring piece of ballet, a rousing opera, or a Van Gogh painting. They are at a similar loss to explain why: “All I know is it touches something deep inside me.”
I’m not especially fussed about dancing, singing or painting. But I happen to have a weakness for languid cover drives, short silly mid-ons, and the irresistible allure of the lbw law.
Oh, hang on – we’ve just lost another wicket. Has anybody got any tissues?