Sunday’s cricket World Cup final showcased so much that is great about the sport. There was plenty of skill on view, with both bat and ball, and in the field; fluctuating fortunes, tension, drama, a fantastic finish and some wonderful celebrations.
And (whisper it quietly) … the players were all women.
Women? Playing cricket?
Oh, you’d better believe it. And it’s now official—England’s women play cricket better than every other country on the planet!
England are also the reigning rugby union world champions, and the current Olympic hockey gold medallists (albeit in the guise of Great Britain—although the sixteen-strong squad was entirely English). Add to that a third-place finish in the last football World Cup and then compare the equivalent achievements of their male counterparts and it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the respective gulf in coverage.
I get the arguments about popularity, fan base, television audiences, money etc., and if you happen to think the physical differences are relevant (which I don’t), then throw them into the mix as well; but now consider the following:
How quickly women’s team sports are developing and improving; the ability, dedication and determination of our elite female athletes; how many of these women are role models for aspiring youngsters; how well England’s women perform on an international stage; how well England’s women perform under pressure; how often England’s women win!
In whatever athletic endeavour, you can do no more than strive to be the best you can be, but when talent and hard work takes you (both individually and collectively) to the pinnacle of your particular sport, then you deserve to be making headlines—to be noticed, congratulated, appreciated, supported (and “support” can take any number of forms).
In the two years leading up to Rio, I had been highlighting the women’s hockey squad, and how they were potentially the “team to watch” in Brazil. What they achieved last year was simply outstanding. I’ve rarely seen such belief and togetherness in any group of athletes, and Hollie Webb’s conversion of the penalty which secured Olympic gold was a sporting moment I will always cherish.
In one little semi-detached house near Middlesbrough, there were shouts of delight and tears of joy; but they were nothing in comparison to the outpouring of emotion from Kate Richardson-Walsh and her squad. I doubt I will witness a greater sporting achievement from any English/British sporting team in my lifetime.
And (say it out loud) … the players were all women.
In fairness, England’s cricket captain Heather Knight and her squad certainly kept the huge crowd at Lord’s and those watching at home on the edge of their seats (or sofa in my case).
At 191-3 chasing England’s 228-7, India looked home and as dry as the threatening clouds would allow. Two crucial-looking chances had been missed, and the balance was very much in favour of a fine Indian side.
Enter Anya Shrubsole.
The Bath-born 25 year-old bowler suddenly produced the spell of her life to demolish the Indian middle and lower order. In truth the first couple of wickets probably shouldn’t have altered the result; but they created pressure … and pressure can affect the very best, especially when you’re playing in front of thousands of people in the biggest game of your life.
India collapsed. Likely victory became almost certain defeat…
With one wicket required, the mother of all easy catches was spilled by Jenny Gunn (a shame because she’d had a great game with both bat and ball), but thankfully it was not a defining moment as two balls later Anya Shrubsole ripped through Rajeshwari Gayakwad’s defence to claim her sixth wicket and, more importantly, secure the victory and the World Cup.
Absolutely brilliant! What a performance; what a game; what a day!
And (shout it from the rooftops) … the players were all women…
It is to my eternal shame that since I passed my English Literature ‘O’ level, I can count the number of plays that I’ve read on the fingers of one … finger. But during our recent visit to the Coronation Street studios, Elaine and I had a lengthy chat with Connor McIntyre (the man behind the villainous but undeniably compelling Pat Phelan), and he spoke with such passion about his craft, and in particular a play by Steven Berkoff entitled “Harry’s Christmas” that I acquired a copy of a book containing the aforementioned work and yesterday settled down to break my adult play duck.
“Harry’s Christmas” is a monologue; and even I was capable of working out the identity of the lone character and the time of year when the scene was set. On paper, it is not a lengthy composition, but it is a deep, dark and complex piece of work that I found difficult to read, probably because there were moments to which it was uncomfortably easy to relate.
Harry is approaching middle age, single, evidently lonely, and quite obviously suffering from a mental health condition. The “condition” is represented in the text by capitalisation; a companion with a powerful voice that can (and will) persuade Harry to analyse anything and everything that will lead him to question “why”?
The power of that unseen companion is magnified by the timing of the play. Remove any element of childhood wonderment and Christmas leaves you with ample time for introspection. Harry judges his life’s achievements as a number. The number is six … the six Christmas cards that Harry received.
But add four more from the previous year and Harry would reach double figures, and “ten would be acceptable”. Harry’s struggle for self-justification is already taking shape. The notion of cards defining life is absurd, but how many of us already see something of ourselves in Harry?
All Harry wants is to be “normal”, but Harry sees himself as “UNBEING”, a word that his mind takes great delight in defining: “LONELY, UNPOPULAR, UNLIKED, UNDESIRABLE, UNBEFRIENDED, UNKNOWN, UNCARED FOR, UNINTERESTING …”
The desire to “reach out” becomes irresistible. “Give us a ring sometime” … a meaningless message in a card … “DO IT…”
What could be simpler than picking up a phone? Harry’s confidence ebbs and flows as his mind exerts more control. Eventually he rings Jack. Jack needs to ask Harry’s surname. Harry thanks Jack for the card. Jack tells Harry his wife sent it.
SHIT, SHIT, SHIT, SHIT, SHIT…
Harry rings Clara. He “loved” Clara … Clara is out.
All Harry has to do is ring his mother if he wants to talk. All Harry has to do is switch on the television if he wants to be distracted from what is becoming more than just seasonal misery. But these are “easy options”. Harry wants more than a guarantee. He wants to know that someone cares—someone who doesn’t have to.
He rings Annie. The call is a disaster.
SHIT, SHIT, SHIT, SHIT, SHIT…
Harry’s mind tightens its grip. If life is nothing more than “SLEEP, WAKE, SMOKE, EAT, WATCH, DIE”, then why bother? Harry’s mental state is clearly in decline. How can receiving six cards lead so quickly to believing death is better than being lonely and miserable?
It’s a steep downward spiral, but the sound of the phone ringing suddenly creates a positive surge of hope. This could be the call that changes everything … somebody wants Harry … somebody needs Harry…
It’s a wrong number.
Harry’s attempt to reach out to a total stranger is literally pathetic. The descent gathers pace and Harry lies to his mother about having friends over for a party and renames the television a “flickering idiot box”. The one person and one inanimate object to whom and which Harry could have reached out at any point are all-too-readily discarded, as a final call to Clara is answered by her partner.
Harry decides to take a few pills—just to sleep through Christmas. As the tablets take effect, Harry believes he has the strength to contact Clara and simply invite himself to share her Christmas. And that is the sum of his courage … making a phone call. And now that Harry is the dominant negative partner (“I’m a coward”), his mind simply states the opposite (“NO YOU’RE NOT”). Clever…
The possibility of objective clarity disappeared the moment the first pills were swallowed. The descent accelerates with every subsequent tablet, and as they start to take effect, Harry suddenly imagines he is with Clara. Everything is perfect … until he feels her slipping away; and the sudden panic in Harry’s mind (It’s cold … it’s dark … where … are … you?”) coincides with Harry taking his final breath.
The play ends with three simple words: “Harry is dead.”
There’s nothing much more to say. That is literally the end. The reader is left to wonder just who (his mother notwithstanding) will genuinely mourn Harry’s passing. How many people will go to his funeral? And if they go, do they go out of duty, or because they care? And if they cared, why didn’t they just take a minute to send him a Christmas card? Four more could have been the difference.
This play isn’t good; it’s thought-provokingly good; it’s frighteningly good. The way Harry’s mood swings so far and so quickly is superbly realised; as is the fascinating and destructive struggle between Harry and his own mind. Whatever combination of factors resulted in Harry becoming quite so lonely and isolated is largely irrelevant; what strikes the reader is the fact that it only takes something trivial to tip the balance.
For me the gathering momentum of the fall is summed up by Berkoff’s use of the three-dot ellipsis; my second-favourite piece of punctuation—after the em dash. It gives the impression of uninterrupted (maybe even uninterruptable) flow towards a conclusion that the readers can see long before the play’s protagonist. Of course, I could be totally wide of the mark, but I was always told that if you argue your point well enough, you could never be proven conclusively wrong.
Advice I clearly didn’t take when I barely scraped a ‘C’ in my English Literature ‘O’ level…
Maybe some of us know a Harry. Maybe some of us feel some connection to Harry. All I would say is don’t wait for Christmas—it’s good to talk and it’s fine to ask for help.
81. Learn to knit
83. Appear on television
88. Get back in the boxing ring with Josh Leather
91. Meet an actor who has appeared in Coronation Street
93. Meet someone who has had a no.1 single
94. Have a race against an Olympic swimmer
98. Row a marathon
100. Allow Sarah from work to dye my hair pink
These are the remaining challenges from the total list of one hundred that I started way back in January 2014. I honestly can’t believe that 92 tasks have been completed; some were reasonably straightforward, but others have really tested me (both mentally and physically). So whilst the editing process is underway for the book I never imagined would be professionally published, here is how things are looking for the outstanding eight challenges.
Learn to knit
I am left-handed, so I gather this isn’t going to be easy, but Elaine has the needles, the wool and hopefully the patience. The plan is to knit something that will benefit local wildlife… a blanket for a baby shrew seems like a good idea.
Appear on television
I’ve only made one conscious effort to see if this was possible, but nothing came of it. If all else fails, I’ll stand behind a news reporter doing a live outside broadcast piece to camera and do a comedy walk…
Get back in the boxing ring with Josh Leather
I met Josh in Middlesbrough the weekend before last; he suggested we do our sparring challenge again, after describing our first meeting as “fun”—not one of the words I would have used. I was so bad back in 2014, that having another go seemed like a good idea. As soon as I put it on the list, it seemed like a really bad idea, but I’ll be getting some expert training from Coach Imran, I’ll work hard to get in shape, and hopefully come the day (and we’re looking at November) I’ll do a little bit better than last time.
Meet an actor who has appeared in Coronation Street
Not an easy task… but I’m working on it.
Meet someone who has had a no.1 single
All being well, this should be accomplished at the end of September, when three-quarters of the original Bucks Fizz bring their current line-up to Billingham. Is it wrong to be looking forward to it?!
Have a race against an Olympic swimmer
I have an opponent… Chris Cook, the dual Commonwealth gold medallist from Melbourne in 2006, who reached the Olympic 100m semi-final in Beijing two years later, as well as being a member of the 4x100m relay team who finished sixth in the Olympic final. We are going to race over 100m at a time and place that is yet to be determined, but on the basis that Chris has completed four lengths of breaststroke in under a minute, it looks odds-on that I’m actually going to be lapped. No matter, I’m really looking forward to meeting Chris and to giving the challenge my best shot….
Row a marathon
Training is going well for my first attempt at just over 26 miles (42195m). I’ve rowing on average 40km a week, and I’m looking at taking on the marathon in mid-September. Target no.1 is to finish, no.2 is to finish in less than 4 hours, but what I’m really aiming for is no.3… to complete the distance in under 3 hours 45 minutes.
Allow Sarah from work to dye my hair pink
This was Sarah’s idea, and she clearly caught me in a weak moment. The “pink pizazz” will be applied on the last Friday in August. I won’t be going out on the Saturday… I’ll be washing my hair… frequently.