What If and If Only

The sad news of James Taylor’s retirement due to a heart condition has cast a shadow over the start of the English season. Spring should be a time for optimism and bright beginnings, not elegies and endings. Taylor’s retirement is particularly untimely given his recent success for England – a career that, for all his domestic runs, had failed to live up to its evident promise was finally coming good. He had made runs in Sharjah and Durban, against high quality spin and pace. He had captained England in Dublin last summer, and made a fine one day century against Australia. Now his dextrous batting, belied by those Popeye arms, and his elastic short leg fielding, a highlight of the winter just gone, are just memories, tinged with the melancholia of what might have been.

Counterfactual history is often, rightly, scorned by historians as simplistic and misleading. It avoids the structural and overemphasises the individual. But whilst it might be bad history, it is also beloved of sport. Nothing gets fans going like the question, “what if?” Perhaps it’s because sport still focuses on the individual over the social, players’ careers offer a structure for speculation, and matches are marked by clear results. What could have been different? What if that chance had been taken? What if they’d picked him instead? What if she hadn’t been injured?

Cricket’s history is full of players who never achieved what they seemed capable of, for reasons tragic and not. Think of those left unselected by chance or by circumstance, from Andy Gateaume – one Test innings, 112 runs, never picked again – to Barry Richards and Mike Procter, banished from Test cricket for the racism of the nation they represented. There are those who flickered and faded, like Vinod Kambli, the man who could never be Tendulkar, or Ajantha Mendis, who was left a sphinx without a riddle once his variations were deciphered. Others, like Taylor, have suffered from the vagaries of health and fitness. Lawrence Rowe, the Jamaican virtuoso, made a Test triple century, but, in a magical realist twist, was allergic to grass. Mohammad Zahid was a Pakistani fast bowler of almost mythical pace, but only played five tests due to injury. Finally, there are those are tragically denied a career by death. The late Phillip Hughes, the tubercular wunderkind Archie Jackson, and the numerous cricketing victims of the world wars, their runs left unscored, their wickets untaken.

Unrequited talent always invites introspection, and cricket, a sport prone to nostalgia at the best of times, can often colour these careers with both gloom and glory. Replaying the memories of what might have been becomes a way of coping with the looming uncertainties of the future. The past offers comfort, and seems to offer answers, even if only in the form of impossible alternatives. The memories of unfulfilled talent  are often changed through hindsight as well – would Simon Jones’s signature wicket, Michael Clarke’s off stump detonated in the Manchester sunshine, remain quite so iconic if he had gone on to play more than just a single Test after it? These moments remain sharper for their unfortunate scarcity.

However, the counterfactual is not simply a trigger for memory. Sporting fandom works through unbridled optimism, and the question “what if?” supplies that. If they’d scored, we’d have won, so we can win next time. The counterfactual is hope against hope, a reassurance that it could be different, that next week we’ll turn up and see a win. It’s a salve against the pain of defeat or of loss, of profligate players and those you’ll never see again. It’s a coping mechanism, a simple way to process what has happened. What if, and if only…

None of this will be much comfort to James Taylor right now, and I wish him the best of luck for now and the future. Cricket fans will look back on when they saw him play differently now, and some might think of what might have been, the runs he might have scored, the games he might have won. Imagining a different future helps in the here and now. But perhaps we should channel some of the disappointment and melancholy into thinking about what we did see. We can allow the sadness to illuminate our memories.

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