A funny thing happened (these things are relative) on the way to my family holiday in France last week when it emerged that the campsite we were going to stay in was owned by someone called Mathieu Valbuena. Just imagine – oh yes, how the miles flew by – if this was the real Mathieu Valbuena, the pint-sized midfield ferret and star of France’s World Cup campaign. Imagine if all the camping huts were Valbuena-scale tiny little pixie houses and there were signed pictures of him everywhere, and a seaside-style Mathieu Valbuena cutout by the entrance that you could stick your head through.
Which was all fine until we got there and it turned out it was owned by the real Mathieu Valbuena, the cabins were poky little pixie huts and there was a Mathieu Valbuena photo cutout you could put your head through, not to mention framed shirts on every wall and a general sense of status-confusion in the air, as though in this small sandy corner of southern France Mathieu Valbuena was no longer a moderately successful French footballer, but had instead been transformed somehow into a kind of looming pagan holiday camp deity, a beguiling mix of Walt Disney, General Kurtz, Billy Butlin and Lord Fairisle.
To be fair, Valbuena’s campsite was at least better than the one on the way back, which was run by Eurocamp, a kind of portable middle-class Magaluf in which well-to-do English people can drink hypermarché sauvignon blanc while their weepy, overtired children enjoy the experience of screeching unattended in a French field, and where middle-aged Dutch men are free to sit on the stoop of their travelling Winnebagos and stare in undisguised horror at the braying, vino-stained house price-debating English while making a mental note to definitely book somewhere in Croatia next year.
The reason for moaning on about this here is just to point that it was still all OK in the end because there was a Test match going on. Thank God for the gift of half-glimpsed holiday cricket! In fact it seems fair to say England’s victory in Southampton is right up there with the most complete Test match performances it’s been my privilege not to witness while engaged in a slightly draggy European holiday. This is not an entirely facetious point. Not watching cricket is of course a great English summer tradition, a shared heritage of nail-biters and series-clinchers not actually watched but still followed with a sense of complete out-of-body absorption via the internet, three-day-old back pages and a gargling long wave radio signal ferreted out of the air in an autoroute lay-by just outside Ghent.
The fact cricket can be experienced in such vibrant, semi-imagined detail by people who appear on the surface to be happily engaged perusing a traditional Breton pottery street market speaks to something unique in the sport itself. Unlike most spectator sports cricket is not so much a spectacle as a narrative. There is no real need to see it actually happening in order to be absorbed by its personalities or its moments of incident, just as the bare facts of a cricket scorecard can be “read” like you might read a short story, the numbers and the names ushering in their own sense of swirling human drama.
The idea of a certain distance, of a sport than often happens most vividly when to the untrained eye nothing is actually happening at all is present in cricket’s basic disciplines. A poor fielder is often just one who moves too much, an embarrassment of waggling limbs under the high ball, just as the best fielders often have a rare quality of stillness about them. In his pomp David Gower would snaffle the ball one handed in the covers without seeming to move at all, like a particularly suave international spy switching briefcases on the main concourse at Brussels central station with just a covert little dip of the shoulder.
Similarly Test match batting – or even power hitting: Chris Gayle basically just stands there and yawns the ball away over mid-on with slight incline of the eyebrow – is often about an absence of movement, inaction as opposed to action. It was Jonathan Trott’s stillness that marked out his best moments with England, an abrasive, provocative kind of passivity that made it all the more shocking to see him skittering about the crease against Australia like a cartoon badger caught in the sights of Mr McGregor’s blunderbuss, stolen radishes spilling from his waistcoat pocket.
With this in mind India’s collapse against the new ball at Old Trafford this week was perhaps simply a case of too much batting going on, not enough in the way of passivity and inaction. Virat Kohli in particular has looked in this series like a player who lacks absolutely nothing in his batting except the ability to do nothing for a while, who has every answer to every ball except no answer at all: a kind of Eric Morecambe of elite level Test match batsmanship, constantly playing all the right shots just not necessarily in the right order.
Absences, passivity, dissipated energies: this has been a theme of the cricketing summer. It has been slightly jarring to see empty seats at most grounds on most days of the Test series. This is something the England and Wales Cricket Board marketeers will no doubt address in detail, albeit perhaps without dwelling too much on relentlessly over-priced tickets, general Test match overload, or indeed the wider perception of the ECB itself as a self-serving corporate entity responsible for the current irreversible retreat behind the pay-TV ramparts that has meant, in Wisden’s words from 2005, that “the overwhelming majority of the British population will never come across a game of cricket in their daily lives”.
The point has been made again this summer that attendance figures at Test and county cricket are no reflection of the actual degree of interest. This is a commercial obstacle for those intent on wringing dry every last revenue stream, but it is also a major part of cricket’s enduring power. The demand among the pre-converted is what economists might call inelastic: like smoking or breathing or taking crack, once you start you never really stop wanting more. Albeit in cricket’s case this is a passion that can exist in isolation, that is defiant and aloof and cannot always be monetised or made to stand in line.
The likelihood is those empty seats are evidence not just of the usual holiday diaspora – a love that dare not speak its name but must instead pretend to be interested in central European church architecture while secretly worrying about Ian Bell – but also of a degree of necessary absence. The seats will be full again. We are still watching. It is just that like all the best mannered and quietly inexhaustible passions a little distance is at times a necessary part of the pleasure.