Images above: Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in action
by Richard Heller
Of course there are more important things to worry about, but the virus left England bereft of cricket just when its devotees could look forward to the new season. To us, this represents not just a physical but a psychic deprivation. No cricket is almost a synonym for no hope. Our condition was made worse by the mocking fine spring weather, which would normally have drawn us in droves to our first outdoor practices and our first matches, where even those of us like me, in the twilight of cricket careers which never really had a dawn, convince themselves that they still have some magic to offer for one more season. Those who have finally retired as players have been deprived of their brief authority as umpires or scorers, or the joys of live spectatorship – companionship, shared memory (and the display of expertise), the mentoring of new generations, the aesthetic pleasures of watching a graceful ritual with moments of sudden drama.
Cricket deprivation is a very hard condition, so when my old friend Peter Oborne invited me to join him in an effort to relieve its victims I was happy to answer the call. Peter and I have shared over forty years of cricket, playing with and against each other for a variety of teams in this country and overseas, especially Pakistan where we worked together on two major books on the history and dramas of Pakistan cricket. He has almost forgiven me for a catch I misjudged on the deep midwicket boundary off his bowling, which, in a mighty effort to reclaim, I tipped over the rope for six.
Peter suggested we do some cricket-themed podcasts, to help those locked away from live cricket. He thought that together we could give them an alternative remedy to watching repeat matches or the video (delightful though it is) of New Zealand captain Kane Williamson giving slip catches to his dog. There are other cricket podcasts, but they tend to be dominated by gossip or “banter” or discussions of such cricket news as remains. We hoped listeners might enjoy something different – two friends talking about anything and everything that has made them love cricket. Our podcasts share the kinds of conversation we used to have on long railway journeys in India and Pakistan, often with the help of fellow passengers.
We have a slight bias towards Amazing Facts or Eccentric People in cricket (including the legendary J E P McMaster, who will be for ever the worst England Test cricket player). At times, we tip into complete fantasy (the tragically lost cricket scene in Gone With the Wind.) But we have also talked seriously about the literature of cricket, and cricket’s relationship with domestic and global politics. The iron discipline of our producer Bridget Osborne keeps us more or less focused, the expert engineering of James Willcocks makes us sound more or less coherent.
We have been lucky with our guests to date. Nathan Leamon gave us unique insight into the nature of top-level cricket (and an amazing fact about Ben Stokes) from his first-hand knowledge as England’s performance manager and his creative imagination as author of the superb cricket novel The Test. Tim Wigmore made us see T20 cricket in a very new light based on his book Cricket 2.0 (he even told us how to pronounce the title) which was rightly chosen as Wisden‘s book of 2019.
We have been constantly enriched by listeners’ suggestions for topics and contributors. Our literary excursion elicited dozens of other cricket novels we should have mentioned – and we’ll read them all and talk about them another time. To my amazement, one was by my idol Garry Sobers, and I really should never have missed that since he was my special subject on Mastermind.
By the time these lines are published, it might be possible to watch a live cricket match on television in an empty stadium. Those who want and need more from their English cricket season are welcome to drop in on us. We hope they will stay.
Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. Together they wrote ‘White On Green’, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket.