To read Emma John’s Following On is to willingly send yourself to a time when England’s cricket team were, as nobody got tired of saying, terrible. Cricket was on the TV all the time – every test, every one day international, every kind of county game – and yet with the biggest audience the game would ever have looking on its national side slumped again and again … and again. And yet Following On is not a chore. It is a loving, and lovely, homage to the time, to the game of cricket, and to the people who play it and support it.
By my rough maths I’m probably about two years ahead of the author. I also went to a substantially crapper university and am not female. So whilst there’s a staggeringly high tally of shared experiences there’s more than enough beyond that to turn it from one of those “Heh, remember when …” type talking head experiences. I’ve also not got in touch with 11 cricketers and asked them about the past. It’s these conversations which form the spine of the book, from which the memories and up-to-date analysis of life and cricket follow.
It’d be a bit of an unfair spoiler to say which players and which matches get the in depth treatment – beyond the obvious that Michael Atherton and that day in South Africa. I remember watching he and Jack Russell defend like heroes via the medium of a small set in the university’s TV room. A bunch of us roaring (and I suspect though have forgotten, roaring drunk) by the end. That and other occasions are well observed and enriched by the anecdotes of players from the time.
What also comes through is family. Cricket is not a game you can instinctively follow. I remember, many moons ago, staying with an American family (I was so cool I’d travelled by myself to watch Chicago Cubs baseball) and I said that I’d picked up enough about baseball inside a game and a half just by watching and listening to the commentators. But that’s impossible with cricket. Baseball may have a complex set of stats to boggle the noobs but it has nobody standing at Silly Mid Off. Emma’s mum, the introducer and explainer, features often – the bond of cricket keeping them going. I had a bit of a gulp at it all. My grandad used to perch the portable TV set up in the kitchen and it was he who started me on my understanding of the game – beginning with England’s extraordinary failure in the 1989 Ashes. But he died within 18 months and I never got to experience being at a game with him. I think he’d have liked that I spent yesterday with my own son vaguely trying to explain Duckworth Lewis – a concept which didn’t even exist back then, but which is as fiddly and incomprehensible as anything the evil gods of cricket have created since Thomas Lord laid out his field in Marylebone.
There is so much here to like. Emma John is an engaging and charming companion with the right eye for the whimsical – and Following On is as good a personal fan’s eye perspective on sport as I’ve read since the much copied, sometimes derided, but not really ever bettered Fever Pitch which, worryingly for how old I feel, must be getting on for more than 20 years old itself. Possibly 30. I’m not sure that Following On makes me want to go back and relive all those middle order collapses but it does make the memories bearable – and certainly makes me feel kinder to the players who were part of them.