THE WOMEN WHO RULED THE WORLD
How bereavement inspired a sports odyssey
Do you have someone special with whom you share your love of cricket? Someone with whom you can attend matches, play video games or even devise a bespoke living-room format of the game on Christmas night, complete with a wrapping-paper tube as the bat and scrunched-up detritus for the ball, while Test Match Special pipes in the Ashes from Australia? Whose shared highs, lows and near misses of following all kinds of sport over the years bind you together with atomic force? Until 7 June 2015 I had Dan. He wasn’t just my only brother. He was the only friend I’d known my whole life, a keystone in my Jenga tower. But then he was taken away, and I could feel my whole edifice teeter.
I had no idea how to react to Dan’s sudden and unexpected death. Aged 43, he should have had so much life left to enjoy and (this would have been his top priority) so much sport still to endure. When I tell you that his football team was Crystal Palace and his county was Surrey, you’ll get a sense of what I mean. The idea of never again seeing my brother still haunts me even as I write this, and the notion that sport can carry on without him at all continues to seem abhorrent and wrong.
But carry on it does, and by inheriting Dan’s Palace season ticket I had the unlikely honour of watching the Eagles’ next flight on his behalf. Across the 2015–16 season I gained my first taste of what it feels like to be a season-ticket holder at a football club as Palace flirted with European qualification, then dive-bombed down the Premier League table and yet mustered a heroic FA Cup run which took them (and me) to Wembley for a romantic final clash against mighty Manchester United, a repeat of the 1990 final that Dan attended and which had formed one of the most vivid moments in his life. I was completely swept up in the whirlwind of it all.
The big question came next. Should I renew the ticket? Several months had passed since he’d died, but concrete decisions like this sharpened my grief back into a blade, re-opening the still-fresh wound. Relinquishing Dan’s seat felt heretical, but at the same time I realised that if I renewed it once then logically I would surely have to do so again, and again, and again. Would I become trapped in a purgatory at the Palace for the rest of my life? Contributing to our playful fraternal rivalry, I’ve always been a Spurs fan and so to devote myself to 19 visits to Selhurst Park every year would have been painful. More seriously, it would have been living Dan’s life, not mine. With a sickening sense of reluctance I let go of the seat, although not without making a resolution. I decided that I needed to do more than just avoid clinging onto the past. I must be proactive. I needed to move onto the front foot as I faced the next delivery that life was about to bowl me. And an idea popped into my head. What if I took the money that I would have laid out on Dan’s seat and invested it instead... on a feast of sport? For 12 months I could target a few of our favourite events in the sporting calendar and try to see them for the first time in the flesh, and in so doing I’d fashion a new season ticket of a different kind.
The plan came with two problems. One: sport is highly addictive. Two: I’m a bit of a completist. This is a dangerous mix and things quickly snowballed, so I had to tweak the mission objective ever so slightly: if I was going to do this properly I couldn’t just dip into one-day cricket or a Test match, the golf or the snooker, the Epsom Derby or the North London derby. I needed to do the lot.
So I built my own personal fixture list. All those itches I’d longed to reach I would finally scratch, and not just the usual suspects either. I’d open my mind to anything. It would be an assortment box: you might say Dave Bassett’s Liquorice Allsports. I’d see for myself all those venues that for three decades had only existed mythically on TV as sporting meccas, and I’d uncover some lesser-known nooks and crannies, from the World Darts at Frimley Green to the World Rubik’s Cube Championship in a weird suburb of Paris.
I’d do it in Dan’s memory, to celebrate our unalloyed love of every sport in the world and wrap myself in the comfort blanket of our shared passion, as I began something that should have been unthinkable: my first sporting adventure without him. The spectre of grief still towered over me, but instead of allowing myself to be dominated by the past, perhaps I could use it to help chart my days ahead and keep my head from dipping too low. Over the next 12 months I wasn’t just going to be the avid supporter I’ve always been. Now I needed sport to support me. And this is how I found myself at Lord’s on Sunday 23 July to witness what turned out to be the most exciting contest of the lot: the final of the Women’s World Cup.
I confess that, as I tramped out of the tube station that morning and then up St John’s Wood Road, my enthusiasm for the day ahead was diluted by a mixture of apprehension and exhaustion. A cold wind and menacing clouds were threatening the prospects for play and, as I’d just returned to London from a trip to the Merseyside coast for The Open at Royal Birkdale, my feet were plotting mutiny. Two security checks and one bacon roll later, I was sitting by the Nursery Ground, drinking in the atmosphere of Lord’s just the same as Dan and I had done in years gone by. But alone.
I looked over to the Edrich and Compton stands on my left and my mind wandered back to the climactic day of the West Indies Test in 2000, when England somehow plucked victory from the familiar jaws of defeat. In the maelstrom of a rare pitch invasion, Dan and I had ended up walking alongside the giant figures of Ambrose and Walsh. “Well played”, we’d said to Curtly, who was one of our cricketing heroes. He glanced briefly down from what seemed like cloud level and gave us a look that imputed: “Not now, mate.” A smile creased across my face as I recalled the moment, and I expected the day to continue in the same vein as I wallowed in more dollops of warm nostalgia. But that’s not how things turned out at all. This wasn’t just any day at Lord’s.
I first noticed it at about half an hour before the start of play and it kept on growing: a tangible and overwhelming wave of novelty that was infusing the old ground. In my earphones TMS had announced that a 24,000-strong crowd was expected but, despite the numbers pouring through the gates, the Home of Cricket felt far less frantic than I’d experienced before and certainly less privileged – I don’t think I spied a pair of red corduroy trousers all day, and that was definitely a first. Perhaps the first concrete manifestation of the new vibe was the lack of any queue to use the gents’ and an astonishing lack of poorly aimed urine soaking its floor. Whatever was going on, I could get used to this. Then, once the England and India players had taken the field, the distinctiveness of the occasion spread to the soundscape during the ritual of the national anthems. The fans of both teams belted out their song as lustily as you would hear at any international cricket match, but they were doing so in a dominant register that was an octave higher than capacity-crowd sports stadia are accustomed to. Of course it was due to the huge number of women who were in the stands. The atmosphere crackled with freshness. It was fantastic.
In an ideal world this shouldn’t be remarkable. But it’s a sad fact to report that, in the course of my ad hoc odyssey through the blue riband events of the British sporting calendar, so few of them yet display an equality of the sexes. The Olympics, athletics and tennis grand slams have led the way in relatively bucking this trend by offering women parity of esteem (and latterly prize money), and other sports have been showing signs of catching up. The University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge now features men’s and women’s crews racing on the Thames on the same afternoon, although how this took until 2015 to occur is astonishing. On my visit to Twickenham for the Six Nations clash between England and France I was treated to the women’s fixture afterwards too, also in the main stadium, and I rapaciously enjoyed the chance to see two games for the price of one.
There are further chinks of light, sometimes in unlikely places. Many column inches have been recently devoted to the welcome decisions to end the practice of “Walk-on Girls” at the PDC Darts and “Grid Girls” in Formula One, but removing displays of active sexism does not translate on its own into equality of opportunity. So it’s to the credit of the BDO World Darts Championship that over the last decade it has expanded its women’s tournament and now gives far more precious TV oxygen to champions such as Trina Gulliver and Anastasia Dobromyslova. On my trip to the Lakeside in 2017 I saw men’s and women’s matches just as you would on Centre Court at Wimbledon.
These changes are positive and long overdue. But from my vantage point in the Mound Stand on that July Sunday last year, the women’s World Cup final seemed to escalate progress to a new level. This tournament wasn’t piggy-backing a men’s event. It was a phenomenon that had captured fans’ imagination in its own right; the British public truly discovered women’s cricket. The fact that it was climaxing at Lord’s, where until as recently as 1998 women could not join MCC, was particularly apt.
As the match got underway and England openers Lauren Winfield and Tammy Beaumont began diligently constructing the innings, the symbolism of the occasion retreated to the wings and gave way to a delicately poised contest that gripped the crowd from start to finish. The form book and tournament pedigree probably favoured England but India had triumphed by 35 runs in the group-stage clash and Harmanpeet Kaur had scored an electrifying 171 not out in their semi-final win over Australia. Both XIs were packed with potential match-winners. The question was whether the game could live up to its billing. So often in sport it’s a truism that finals rarely live up to the hype or grandeur of their stage. Not here, though. We had a classic.
I’m not writing this to give you a match report. As a cricket aficionado you’ll know what transpired. But what has stayed with me in the months since is the sheer glee I felt throughout the most epic sporting battle I witnessed all year, fought out with fantastic skill by players who already should have been household names. If Joe Root ever played a through-the-legs glance shot like Nat Sciver had done earlier in the tournament, fans would be cooing about it as “Shot of the Century” for years to come. Here I was treated to ramp shots from Sarah Taylor, metronomic bowling from Jhulan Goswami and of course the destructive final burst from Anya Shrubsole, whose 6 for 46 is the most beautifully decisive spell I’ve seen at Lord’s in over 20 years of visits.
As the pendulum swung from one team to the other and back again, the misery of the day’s inhospitable weather was forgotten. In the opening ten overs I’d been craving England boundaries, not only in support of the team but also because each boundary was greeted by an ignition of the flame jets positioned in front of the spectators, which would waft pleasant bursts of warm air across the crowd and briefly dispel the chill. But tension and excitement have heating powers of their own. As the players continued nonchalantly through bursts of rain, the only thing that mattered to anyone inside Lord’s was the score. The festival atmosphere helped too. India looked like homing in on their target of 220, and I had no need to check the required run rate on the scoreboards because the strength of the constant bhangra drumming five rows in front of me was indication enough of where the balance of power lay.
At last as the final ball thudded into Rajeshwari Gayakwad’s stumps and Shrubsole was mobbed by her teammates, the hours of drama and suspense gave way to joy and appreciation for the contest I’d seen. I was now among the tiny minority of sports-lovers who have seen England win a World Cup. It had been one of those rare symphonies of 50-over cricket when there are enough rollercoaster turns and delicate nuances to make it feel like the most perfect format of the most perfect sport on the planet.
The companion of my delight was my devastation at the loss that had stalked me since summer 2015. I looked at the outfield, which was now thronging with officials for the post-match presentations, and gazed at the spot where Dan and I had met Curtly all those years before. A deep breath. A shallow consolation. I couldn’t watch this game with him, but I had at least seen it for him, and in spirit he’d always be with me whenever I continued to enjoy the wonder of sport.
During my year of travelling in my brother’s memory I had watched Roger Federer, Harry Kane, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Rory McIlroy, Usain Bolt, Owen Farrell and Max Park (the World Rubik’s 3x3 Cube champion, as if you didn’t know). But in terms of pure sporting theatre that did justice to its occasion, nothing came close to matching the 22 women who took the field at Lord’s on 23 July 2017. Approaching fast in its slipstream is the men’s Cricket World Cup, which arrives in England in summer next year. If Eoin Morgan, Virat Kohli, Steve Smith et al want to repeat the brilliance of their female counterparts, they’ll need to work bloody hard to catch up.