Growing up in England in the 1980s and 90s it was still just about impossible to escape cricket, although the numbers that tried were growing. My grandfather had played for a decent club side in the 1950s, and once managed to take all ten wickets in the match, after which he was presented with the ball. I suppose I knew about cricket balls before I knew what cricket was, as he had it mounted on a plinth on top of his television, with a small bronze shield attached recording his feat. Over the years, it had been polished regularly to a very deep patina, which I vividly remember staring at for hours as a young boy of four or five. In retrospect, this was probably good training for the long periods at New Road, or Chester Road in Kidderminster, watching Worcestershire grind out fourth day draws...
Cricket has always played a part in England's sense of self, or at least, it has been used as a form of shorthand for whatever point the writer wishes to make: for John Major it was part of his appeal for a return to decency and fair play; for, say, AG Macdonell in "England Their England," it is an archetype of the English capacity for eccentric time-wasting.
Last week, the ECB announced that a deal has been signed to keep Test Match Special on air at least until 2019 - to general cheers and sighs of relief all round. TMS is an integral part of national life, it's measured commentary perfectly suiting the ebb and flow of a five day match. Over the years its commmentators and summarisers have become household names (well, in certain households), and judicious recruitment has seen gaps gaps filled by a succession of characters, from a seemingly never exhausted pool of talent.
Of course, the doyenne of TMS voices was Brian Johnston, who for so many years simply was cricket. The three ring circus that is TMS had Johnners as its ringmaster, struggling masterfully to keep control over such diverse personalities as Don Mosey and Fred Trueman.
In his 2010 book, "Thanks, Johnners," what Jonathan Agnew has done is essentially bring him back to life in a small way. Part biography, part memoir of his own early years in the TMS commentary box, Aggers provides a window into the workings of a small part of English culture. Derek Birley set cricket firmly into its position in English life, but Aggers goes a little way towards illuminating its place in the national soul.
At a time when the England side are experiencing a bit of a wobble at the pinnacle of world cricket, and it's still too early to think about sitting on the boundary at the Parks, huddling for warmth as Oxford University struggles to give some second string county side a competitive game, it makes sense to revisit past glories. It's a good time to close the curtains against the January dark, throw another log on the fire, and drift away to a time when Johnners made cricket commentary seem effortless, even as Chris Tavare, say, made playing the game itself seem infinitely harder...
Indeed, to shamelessly plagiarise PG Wodehouse on "Love on a Branch Line" - itself home to one of the finer literary cricket matches;
"Reading it is like drinking champagne in the open air on a sunny morning"
Johnners has been very lucky in his memorialist, as we've all been in his successor at the centre of the TMS circus.