Nightwatchman declares war on the off-season - Kia Oval Skip to main content

Our friends at the Nightwatchman have plenty of fantastic writing to keep you occupied over the long winter months, not to mention distracted from events on the field in Australia.

To whet your whistle, here’s an article from the Nightwatchman Oval special in which Daniel Norcross declares war on the off-season. 

Happy Reading and Merry Christmas.

HAVE YOU WINTERED WELL?

If you live north or south of the tropics you will be only too familiar with seasons. These unequal quarters of the year bring with them, we are told, their own distinctive charms, inspire a wearying abundance of metaphors and even determine an entire poetic form, the haiku. For Keats, autumn was the season of “mists and mellow fruitfulness”. Edith Sitwell, somewhat preposterously in my view, thought “winter the time for comfort… for the touch of a friendly hand”. “Spring is the time for plans and project,” as far as Leo Tolstoy was concerned, and Henry James declared: “Summer afternoon… the two most beautiful words in the English language.”

Vivaldi revelled in the four seasons, TS Eliot hinted at them in “Four Quartets”, the quattro stagioni has become the king of pizzas, and Donald Trump’s legal team chose the car park of a landscaping company named in their honour as base camp for an attempted coup.

But as every decent, northern-hemisphere-living, cricket-loving monomaniac knows all too well, there are not four seasons; there are two – the cricket season, and the enervating void through which we must glacially pass until the next cricket season. “Mists and mellow fruitfulness”? Pull the other one. What the ignorant call autumn is, for the rest of us, the first thousand years in purgatory, and if winter must have a name, it should be “the even colder, initially darker bit whose sole merit is that it is nearer April than October is”. Bit of a mouthful, I grant you.

The challenge then becomes how to negotiate the dark, wet, cold and immiserating chasm that separates the final match of the County Championship in late September from the first match of a new season the following April.

First of all we need to clear up a couple of issues. Just because you can listen to or watch matches from abroad, wrapped in a blanket or snug beneath a 20-tog, duck-down duvet, do not kid yourself that you are in any way experiencing the cricket season. You are experiencing someone else’s cricket season. For sure, it is a very handy way of diverting yourself from the quotidian misery of your cursed existence, and it helps wile away some of those hours of torment. But you are still firmly mired in the off-season. The sight of gaily prancing Australians with fast-food buckets on their heads, leaping across three rows of seats in an undignified scramble for a few hundred dollars and 30 seconds’ drunken incoherence on the telly, can be a momentarily soothing balm. A full Test series played through the night, having as it does the concomitant benefits of rendering you numb with tiredness in between the close of one day’s play and the start of the next, is even better. But you are treating the symptoms, not the cause. You are downing gulps of morphine (a perfectly reasonable stratagem) but the tumours are going nowhere.

The second issue is that you must acknowledge that the off-season, which we will define as 1 October to 31 March, is, metaphorically, much like Anne Elk’s Brontosaurus. That is to say, thin at one end (early to mid-October), much, much thicker in the middle (late October to early March), and thin again at the other end (mid-March to end of March). Those early October days are a deceptive breath of fresh air. A chance to broaden your horizons. Maybe hire a cottage on the Isle of Skye. See those friends you haven’t spoken to for six months. Watch that French series everyone has been banging on about. It’s almost quite enjoyable. And again, from mid-March the days are getting longer. The clocks are about to go forward. There have been a couple of occasions on which the sun has sent the temperature soaring to nearly 20 degrees. You know the fixtures. You’ve even booked your four days in Scarborough. It’s basically already the cricket season. Only it isn’t. Those days of relative warmth will soon be replaced by an icy easterly wind, and your shorts, prematurely worn, will remain forlornly crumpled on your bedroom chair for a few weeks yet.

Armed with these twin acknowledgements, you now know a) not to delude yourself into imagining you can escape from the colossal task at hand through magical thinking and b) that some periods will present greater challenges than others. But you need a structured, fool-proof and repeatable method that will get you through not just this close season but every one of them for evermore.

Fortunately for you, I have found that method.

For some years now the UK has been crippled by an unhealthy fascination with the Second World War. And by some years, I mean about 75. It has, quite appropriately for a war, been further weaponised over the last decade by “patriotic” culture warriors seeking to root out treacherous, leftie milquetoasts who would gladly have sold Douglas Bader and Vera Lynn to the Cubans if it meant a regular supply of cheap avocados to crush onto their neo-Marxist sourdough of a morning, washed down with an oat-milk, fairtrade, decaf latte. Indeed, I confess to recreating the war over a cooked breakfast most mornings. The toast (or fried bread – I consider myself a full-fat patriot) becomes Germany. The egg is France. The bacon is, of course, plucky old Blighty. The bread invades the egg, and it requires the bacon to sort out the mess. The last mouthful therefore is always the final forkful of bacon. Marvellously, this is the gift that keeps on giving. Get a full English from a hotel buffet and you can convert sausages into the Russians, baked beans into the Japanese (so hard to finish off), hash browns into the Americans (obviously) and the tomatoes into Italians (you have to eat them quickly before they get cold).

So it came as a most welcome revelation that of course the Second World War lasted for, near as damn it, six years. Hang on, I thought. Six years. What if I convert each of the six months of the off-season into one year of the war? October becomes 1 September 1939 to 31 August 1940, November is 1 September 1940 to 31 August 1941 and so on. As these thoughts whizzed round my (largely otherwise unoccupied) brain, the astounding parallels between the greatest self-inflicted tragedy ever visited on humankind and the tortured agonies of the off-season became impossible to ignore. So here, for the first time in recorded history, is your handy-to-use, cut-out-and-keep, month-by-month guide to the off-season, as described through major events of the Second World War.

OCTOBER (1 September 1939 to 31 August 1940)

Those first couple of weeks in October are fine, really. The weather is still mild, it doesn’t get dark until around six o’clock, and there is even a moderately welcome novelty to rejoining the vast bulk of the human race; those heathens and deniers who know nothing of cricket except that it stops for lunch and tea. This is the “phoney war”; the eight months or so when the allies are at war with Germany but doing nothing much more than marshalling troops, mocking up a few posters, carting children off to Shropshire and generally hoping it would all go away.

Suddenly, though, the whole scene gets ugly. The British and French sustain multiple losses in France, with the British being driven into the sea at Dunkirk on 26 May. The following day, would-be appeaser and foreign secretary Lord Halifax, clearly channelling his inner Gubby Allen, threatens to resign from the war cabinet as Britain finds itself on the brink of losing a conflict that’s barely started. Halifax is talked down from this act of epic feebleness and a week later, on 4 June, thanks in part to German prevarication, Britain has evacuated the vast bulk of its defeated army.

In our timeline, each day of October equates to 11.81 days of that first year of the war (366 divided by 31). The day of 4 June 1940 therefore becomes noon on 24 October. And you know what happens on 24 October? It’s the earliest day the clocks can go back. Yes. Just as Britain is coming to terms with the enormous task at hand in 1940, so we, back in the real world, face the crushing truth of our predicament. The sun will be setting no later than 4.15 for the next 11 weeks. Sod the Isle of Skye. No friends can console you, and the subtitles on that much-acclaimed French drama are indecipherable through your tears of self-pity.

NOVEMBER (1 September 1940 to 31 August 1941)

October ends, appropriately, just as the Channel Islands have been occupied and the Battle of Britain has begun (both in August 1940). The war is now on the home front and our very darkest days lie ahead for it is November, a month without parallel in the pantheon of awful months before us. The days are short but getting shorter. The weather is grim but lacks the spectacular uplift of snow. There is nothing but wind, rain, blocked drains and international football friendlies. Ah, the humanity.

As luck would have it, this is pretty much how the war plays out for Britain between September 1940 and August 1941. On 7 September 1940 (noon on 1 November in our world) the Blitz begins and continues until 11 May 1941 (21 November). How I now feel a kindred spirit with my Londoner forebears as I hunker down for these 20 days, intermittently jolted into terror by the sound of fireworks going off for a week either side of Guy Fawkes night and, shortly after, for the five days of Diwali. The Battle of the Atlantic has also begun and rationing is in full flow. No more takeaways or discretionary restaurant visits as we save all our precious pennies for the onslaught of Christmas. On the plus side, the Battle of Britain is won around 11 November, so we can relax from the fear of impending invasion. But if you were thinking of one last European jaunt, perhaps to Cyprus or Malta for a tepid autumn getaway, forget it. Britain retreats from Greece and Crete in April 1941 (18 November) and from then on in we’re stuck at home with nothing but blacked-out dance halls for entertainment (Strictly Come Dancing anyone?).

DECEMBER (1 September 1941 to 31 August 1942)

So to December, and the most pleasing parallel in our timeline. The date of 7 December 1941 is etched on every WWII obsessive’s flip-top desk from childhood. Pearl Harbour. The day the Japanese drag the Americans into the war once and for all, and the day the Allies know that they will eventually win. In our world Pearl Harbour takes place on 8 December – the date on which most of the UK endures its earliest sunset. (As distinct from the shortest day. It’s all to do with oblate spheroids but this whole piece is getting so long, I don’t think I’ve got the space to investigate it fully.) Yes, like Pearl Harbour, it is a dark hour. For late-risers like me it is unquestionably the Darkest Hour, but from this point on the only way is up. We will get through this, everyone. The light will come.

But not before we get through Christmas; that terrible time of year when we throw scarce and dwindling resources at every problem. A massive gaggle of freeloaders are about to waddle into your house looking for cheese, mince pies, canapés and chocolates. And that’s before you’ve thrown a five-bird, 20-pound “Pandora’s Cushion” into the oven. So what do you do? Blow £100 on a modest quantity of every type of cheese you can think of. Days later, it’s still stinking your house out. Well, this is exactly how Britain conducts the war up until its fateful loss of Tobruk on 21 June 1942, which is, you guessed it, late on 25 December in our off-season. Money is splurged on men and bullets and boots and whatnot. And all that happens is they keep winning one day and being pushed back the next by Rommel’s Desert Rats. Enter Field Marshall Sir Harold Alexander, a polyglot renaissance man who played in “Fowler’s Match”, the infamous Eton-Harrow encounter of 1910 when Robert St Leger Fowler turned the game on its head. “In the whole history of cricket, there has been nothing more sensational,” wrote Wisden. And indeed, Alexander, presumably inspired by Fowler, is about to turn Britain’s fortunes. Following the debacle of Tobruk, on what is our Christmas Day, he dispenses with the chocolates, the cheese and the canapés, and focuses solely on the stuffed, 20-pound birds, that is to say an abundance of air support to drive the Germans back.

After that day in June 1942, the British do not retreat from any of their hard-won positions for the remainder of the war. And neither shall we. Christmas is done. The family has been kicked off back whence it came, and from here on in we will only move forward, albeit painfully slowly on occasion.

JANUARY (1 September 1942 to 31 August 1943)

January is when we should check in, most appositely, on our Russian allies. The siege of Stalingrad (late August 1942 to early February 1943) has just begun and over the next two weeks we can soak up the atmosphere of those brutal five months. Just as Russians are hiding in bombed-out apartment blocks, taking pot shots at the German 6th Army and living on a diet of barbecued rat, so are we scrabbling around for the last of the Ferrero Rocher and constructing soup from leftover parsnips and kale. It’s tough out there, but with every passing day we’re gradually getting the better of the enemy. And on the very day Germany’s General Paulus is forced to surrender in Russia, the sun rises in London before 8am for the first time in four weeks (14 January).

But January is not a time to drop your guard, as the British discover in Burma. The Arakan Offensive against the Japanese looked pretty decent on paper but by May 1943 the Allies are bogged down in mud and drenched by monsoons. They are defeated by the atrocious conditions, poor planning and multiple outbreaks of dengue fever, much like heading off for a jaunt along a pretty stretch of the River Wey in late January but forgetting to bring wellies. Those walking boots aren’t nearly as waterproof as you thought and a hasty retreat back to the car with sodden socks and an incipient head cold is the only prudent course of action.

Finally, to cap a tough, grinding month of mostly unrelenting gloom, Yorkshire left-armer and scourge of Donald Bradman, Hedley Verity, will die on 28 January from wounds he sustained in Monte Cassino. Unfortunately for Verity, he is captured by the Germans, who aren’t able adequately to treat him. The lesson here is to keep Lemsip with you at all times and not get trapped in a house owned by homeopaths.

FEBRUARY (1 September 1943 to 31 August 1944)

By now, to mix our metaphors to the point where you and I are thoroughly confused, you’ve rounded the Canal Turn at Aintree for the second time but there is a still a slew of daunting obstacles to overcome. It’s true that the British don’t retreat after Tobruk in 1942, but they make spectacularly slow progress as they wind through Italy. After swiftly capturing Sicily in July 1943, they find the going much tougher on the Italian mainland through autumn and winter. Poor weather turns roads into mud baths. It is cold, dreary and the lack of air cover, which is being used to soften up the Germans in northern Europe prior to D-Day, hampers Allied attempts at shoring up the southern front. This is essentially the lot of the cricket fan in February. Having used up most of our Test cricket in December and January, we are surviving on a diet of bilateral ODI series in between daily walks on our nearest commons, which are now saturated from the relentless winter rains. You know you are through the worst. You know you will prevail. But by Jove there’s a lot of hard work still to do. Fortunately, success in the Battle of Imphal (March-July 1944), which finally dismiss any lingering fears of a Japanese invasion of India, gives you the lift you need as this shortest of months comes to a pleasingly swift conclusion.

MARCH (1 September 1944 to 15 August 1945)

Can you feel it? The approach of spring? The daffodils are by now fully out. The odd magnolia flower is threatening to burst through its furry carapace and with a spring in your step you set out to capture a whole bunch of bridges across the Rhine, for you have reached September 1944. Obviously you’re not crazy enough to capture actual bridges. Instead you’ve decided to have an all-weather net outdoors because, while crisp and slightly chilly, the sun is warm on your back and you want the sound of ball on bat – liberated at last from the ascetic confines of the indoor school – to echo freely in the wide-open space. But beware. This will almost certainly be a Bridge Too Far. The Arnhem campaign fails because US General James M Gavin doesn’t give sufficient priority to capturing Nijmegen. Likewise, you will almost definitely fail to warm up your hamstrings, and what seemed like a good idea to finish the off-season early will end in a modest setback. Ironically, you would have been much safer visiting a Market Garden.

With that tweaked hamstring, it’s time to retreat back indoors as March conjures up a counter-offensive. The Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945), made necessary as much by your sedentary lifestyle over the last six months as Hitler’s lunatic belief that the war could still be won, will occupy you from 10-14 March. It’s a painful reminder that, even with the end in sight, you can still be waylaid by a Beast from the East. But once the Ides pass on 15 March, you are into the home stretch. Our Russian allies are doing much of the heavy lifting in exactly the same way that you’ve finally got into that French drama. Time is flying by. You can afford to raise a glass to Hitler’s death at noon on 22 March and keep the party going through the day and into the night because, yes folks, it’s VE Day. This marvellous moment happens just before the clocks go forward to liberate us from the tyranny of Greenwich Mean Time. But pay heed to the wise words of President Truman, who reminds the world on that glorious day: “Much remains to be done. The victory won in the West must now be won in the East.” This is no time to have a one-night stand with an American GI which you’ll regret for the rest of your life, so for the next week don’t be tempted to watch pre-season friendlies in sub-zero conditions, wrapped in a tartan rug and clutching a broken thermos. You will get double pneumonia which will put you out for the season. It’s still too early for cricket. Not yet. Only when Hiroshima and Nagasaki are obliterated on the 30 and 31 March can you hot-foot it to Fenner’s or The Parks for the university matches. Then, and only then, will you have emerged into the light.

So there you have it: a sure-fire solution for all your off-season woes. Feel free to tinker here and there. You may want to dwell on the siege of Leningrad from early December to mid-February (appropriately grim) or interrupt your Christmas shopping on 14 December, whack on an episode of Tenko and remember Britain losing Singapore to the Japanese. Whichever way you use it, it’s a timeline that’s guaranteed to work every year, unless a global pandemic or something similar comes along to extend the off-season. But what are the chances of that?

Daniel Norcross has Second World War historian and cricket-lover James Holland to thank for any of the passages in this piece that appear to resemble actual facts.

You can find out more about the Nightwatchman here.