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Let's be clear from the start: I've always been crap at cricket. But that doesn't mean I don't like it. After all, I can't draw, but I still enjoy Botticelli and Poussin and Bonnard
So when I drove past the Wanderers on Corlett Drive in Johannesburg recently, I felt a real pang — just as I do when I pass the National Gallery in London without going in. The Wanderers is one of the finest cricket grounds in the world, beautifully designed and maintained, with large crowds of enthusiastic younger spectators, black and white, and sizeable numbers of elderly gents in panama hats carrying hip flasks full of something encouraging. There was a time when I fell into the first, enthusiastic category; nowadays, alas, I've become a panama-wearer and a hip-flask fancier.
In the bad old days of the 1970s, when I was the BBC correspondent in Johannesburg, I lived in a gorgeous, sprawling and now long-demolished house just off Corlett Drive with my first wife and our two charming, quirky daughters. Occasionally, when my duties permitted, I would slip away to the Wanderers, just down the road, for a couple of hours. It was unforgettable.
The fact is, Johannesburg has the finest climate of any city I know; I've bored people in this magazine before about my preference for Jo'burg rather than Cape Town. Sitting in the stands at the Wanderers, with the sensational cumulus clouds of summer piling up in a sky the precise colour of the Madonna's dress in a 14th-century Italian painting, and the white figures striking elegant attitudes on the brilliant green pitch, is quite unforgettable, all these years later.
But it's the game itself that I love; so much so, that I've sat for hours on the dusty sidelines of a grassless pitch in Kabul, balancing on an upturned drinks crate, watching the bowlers send down a ball made of sticky tape wrapped round a small circular stone, and the batsmen wallop it away with bats carved out of a length of yellowish wood off a building site.
And they were magnificent, keeping the bat as straight as if they were at Lord's and throwing themselves without fear at the painfully hard ball to stop a boundary. Weirdly, cricket was brought to Afghanistan by associates of the Afghan Taliban, who had learnt it in the refugee camps in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation. Few nations love cricket like the Pakistanis, and they taught their Afghan guests well.
For a time the arrival of cricket in a new country, where it had never previously been played, seemed to wrong-foot the international governors of cricket. But at last they began supplying bats and balls and stumps and pads to the Afghans, so the stone wrapped in sticky tape rarely makes an appearance.
Interestingly, the Pakistanis taught the Afghans the spirit of cricket, as well as the rules: the pleasure in playing the game for its own sake, and not merely in order to win. There are plenty of games where all that matters is getting a result. Football and rugby are mostly about doing the other lot down. Winning counts for a lot in cricket, but by no means everything. A fine stroke by an opposing batsman, a gutsy innings against aggressive bowling, a well-judged and difficult catch (even if it gets your own highest-scoring batsman out) — these are things to be appreciated and applauded by everyone.
We used to call it sportsmanship; that, now, is a word which only despairing headmasters seem to use. Yet it still exists in cricket: and in particular in cricket as played in the subcontinent. Recently my generous next-door neighbour offered me a couple of tickets for Lord's, to watch India play England. It was an auspicious day: Kevin Pietersen scored a double century for his adopted country, and I was there to see it. But one of the Indian fielders failed to stop a ball, and some of the more uncouth spectators sitting nearby laughed.
That irritated the fielder, and maybe put him off: shortly afterwards he failed again, and rounded angrily on the crowd — who laughed even more. But then it was his turn to bowl, and he put on a brilliant display which got one of Pietersen's colleagues out. When he came back to field again, close to his tormentors, they applauded him loudly. He, charmingly, turned to them and bowed low; and for the rest of the day they gave him their special attention. That's how cricket is still played.
Well, often. When I made it clear at the start that I'm crap at the game, I wasn't being modest. When I lived in Ireland a friend of mine asked me as a special favour to turn out the following Saturday for a club he played for. I explained that I was useless. 'Ah, you English,' he said, 'you're always so self-deprecating.' I couldn't persuade him.
The match was at a stunning country house, and as we clattered out I asked the man next to me who we were playing for. 'County Meath,' he said. 'And who are the other side?' Only, it seemed, the Irish national team. During that long and dreadful day, I dropped a catch from Ireland's highest scorer, and managed to get my captain, the only serious player on our side, run out. We lost by one of the larger margins of the year.
To call the atmosphere afterwards in our dressing room glacial would be a slander against glaciers. I dared not take a shower in case someone shanked me, as in a film about American prisons. The man who invited me took to crossing the street when he saw me coming.
John Simpson is the BBC's world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on BBC World News, available in 200 countries and territories worldwide, and on selected British Airways flights.