Inside the Iron Cage

September 23 2019 / Spear's Magazine

Sports fans, especially those who ardently follow a football club as I do, are obsessives. There’s something irrational about fandom. You commit yourself, often in early childhood, to a cause over which you have absolutely no control but which affects how you spend your time and money and even your general wellbeing and happiness. You can change your name, nationality, partner, job, the shape of your nose, even your gender, but, if you are a true fan you cannot change the team you support.

For some football supporters, fandom must feel like being locked in an iron cage: they know only suffering and confinement. They hate so much about the team they support – the manager, the owner (especially the owner), many or indeed most of the players, other fans – and yet they cannot escape their commitment.

Nick Hornby in his book Fever Pitch has a very good description of being taken as a child by his father to his first Arsenal match. What was most striking to him then was that hardly anyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Everywhere around him, he saw people moaning and raging. He should have been warned, and yet he was enthralled by the intensity of the experience, and in becoming a fan he found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail.

All this is preposterous, and, in many ways, a complete waste of time. But there you have it. This is how the experience of fandom can be: irrational, all-consuming, tedious, enraging, pathetic. And yet, there is always hope: a new season, a new manager, new players…

I’ve been thinking about fandom a lot ever since I had the good fortune to attend the Cricket World Cup final between England and New Zealand at Lord’s. Cricket does not inspire the fanaticism of football or the tribal passions of rugby. The old rituals and rhythms of the English county game have been disrupted – perhaps even destroyed – in the era of globalised franchise cricket and the relentless commercialism of the Twenty20 game.

As a schoolboy, I used to follow the County Championship and read the county cricket reports in the Times and Guardian, which were often among the best-written pieces in those newspapers. Many cricket writers were also belletrists, such as the poet Alan Ross, a former editor of the London Magazine, and many of the contracted cricket correspondents were deeply knowledgeable about and located in their regions.

Nowadays I have no idea what’s happening in the county game and care little about who plays for which franchise in which country. Cricketers have become hired guns, following the money, whether it’s in England, the Indian Premier League, Australia’s Big Bash, the Caribbean Premier League or even the Bangladesh Premier League.

Next season, in its wisdom (and desperation to emulate football), the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) is introducing the Hundred, a 100-ball domestic league featuring eight city-based franchise teams that is meant to be the centrepiece of the cricketing summer. Does anyone care? And do we need another – and even more radically truncated – format?

But I cared that day at the World Cup final at Lord’s. England have been the dominant side in 50-over white-ball cricket for four years. Under the leadership of an Irishman, Eoin Morgan, the team began to modernise and innovate, playing an aggressive, high-energy game that took them to the top of the world rankings. As hosts they were favourites to win the World Cup for the first time. Yet they struggled in the group stages and only reached the final after consecutively defeating India, New Zealand and, in the semi-final, Australia.

The final was shown live, free-to-view, after Sky, the exclusive rights holder, struck a late deal with Channel 4, responding to public demand. Cricket has become increasingly marginalised in recent years – essentially a game of the fee-charging public schools. This marginalisation has coincided with its disappearance from free-to-view television (like the top players, the ECB follows the money).

As it turned out, the World Cup final, with an estimated UK televised audience of 8.5 million, was a nerve-shredding tied match. It was ultimately won by England after a super-over play-off (also tied) because they had hit more boundaries. The atmosphere in the ground during the closing overs was unlike anything I’d ever experienced at a cricket match. Nearly everyone was standing, including the conservative MCC members, and I shouted myself hoarse. During the final moments one experienced something rare and valuable, a kind of enraptured sociality with those strangers around you.

This is what fandom can offer: a sense of living intensely, in and of the moment; a sense of being part of something larger and more communal. It doesn’t happen very often. But when it does, you experience a kind of secular rapture that makes all the years of frustration seem worth it.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman