The first Test against India starts on Wednesday at Trent Bridge, with barely an ahem; let alone a ta-da. It has been a peculiarly modest buildup to a five-Test series, to what Virat Kohli calls “the absolute pinnacle of the game”. This is no reflection on India, but on a sport-soaked summer, the Euros wallchart barely pulled from the fridge before the Olympic supplement kicked down the door, demanding immediate attention. Wimbledon barely got a look-in.
Throw in a vat of international white-ball men’s cricket, a women’s multi-format international series and then the Hundred, which seems to be shouting at me every time I pass the living room, and the weight of sport is almost overpowering. It is possible to flick from the Tokyo velodrome to the rhythmic gymnastics to two Hundred games and back to the Olympics again without clocking either the rising or setting sun. Certainly, my children are giving it their best shot.
India have been in the country long enough that they greeted the soon-to-be-fading summer. The players arrived in early June, the women for their red- and white-ball series against England before a handful joined various Hundred teams. The men came for the World Test Championship final against New Zealand, before taking a UK holiday and being snapped at various Instagram-able locations. There has been time for Rishabh Pant to catch Covid and recover, Shubman Gill to fly home with an injury, the opener Mayank Agarwal to develop concussion after being hit on the head by Mohammed Siraj in the nets and for Ravichandran Ashwin to take six for 27 to unpick Somerset’s second innings in his one County Championship game for Surrey. Not to mention a warm-up match against a County Select XI behind closed doors in Durham.
But the big buildup, the Jackanory narrative, England’s bid to avenge the winter’s 3-1 thrashing, that 81 all out and defeat in less than two days, India’s dreams of reversing their 4-1 defeat in 2018, has all been lost in the general noise. The most famous cricketer on the planet has been able to walk around in plain sight. In a few weeks, it won’t matter – England v India always develops an intriguing thread of its own and this time the meeting of the second- and fourth-ranked Test nations, led by two of the world’s best batters, are the first matches to be played in the new World Test Championship.
But one thing will not arrive this time round: the huge group of journalists that usually accompanies a travelling India team, reflecting the enormous interest back home. Hosting a series against India (in non-Covid times) usually involves press officers imaginatively using every spare inch of space – a quick mention here for those 41 kilos of biscuits consumed in the Old Trafford press box during India’s World Cup game with Pakistan in 2019.
But India was put on the government’s red list in April. India’s second wave, which at times overwhelmed the healthcare system, has peaked, but experts predict a third wave of infections in October, with less than 10% of the population fully vaccinated. The Centre for Global Development reported that excess deaths in India during the pandemic could be as high as 4.7 million, 10 times the official toll. Elite sportspeople and support staff have had an exemption for travel but though a few broadcast journalists have made the journey, there are currently no members of the written press.
I will miss their ability to slip into three languages during a chat about the merits of Rahul Dravid
This is obviously a real shame for Indian fans, whose writers cannot do on-the-spot reporting, but also for English readers and journalists. One of the best things about watching another touring team is the chance to spend time with, and learn from, the writers who come with them.
I will dearly miss my two best Indian buddies, Sharda Ugra, longtime of Cricinfo, now a freelance, and Neeru Bhatia, sportswriter of the Week magazine – the only time the three of us meet is when India tour. I will miss their friendship, of course, but also their insight on the India team, their gossip – gloriously scandalous – their acute observations on the team dynamics and their encyclopaedic knowledge of the background of India’s players.
I will miss their patient cultural explanations of this and that, their exasperation that restaurants in England close so early and their ability to slip into three languages during one short conversation about the longstanding merits of Rahul Dravid.
Cricket is a beautiful vehicle for developing international friendships, as more and more cricketers are discovering through the less-highly charged world of franchise cricket – see India’s Jemimah Rodrigues and South Africa’s Laura Wolvaardt, of Northern Superchargers, singing and playing the guitar together; Dale Steyn cheering on Mitchell Starc’s brother Brandon in the high jump at Tokyo; the closeness of Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers as teammates at Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Ugra and Neeru are writing, brilliantly, about India’s women hockey players beating Australia to get through to the Olympic semi-final. They will be here in spirit for the Test series, but cricket lovers will be the poorer for their, and their compatriots’, absence from the press box.