Joe Exotic, human bananas and a confiscated shoe – Edgbaston provides light relief for joyous England fanson June 10, 2021 at 7:15 pm

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How Edgbaston resembled the world’s largest stag do as a joyous 18,000-strong crowd savoured a return to sporting normality.

For England, the 6,500 fans present each day during the first Test against New Zealand at Lord’s hinted at a romance reignited – a message out of the blue from an ex you thought you had forgotten.

The 18,000 inside Edgbaston on the opening day of the second Test was the sort of reunion you see in the arrivals lounge at an airport. A bearhug, kisses and slaps on the back.

Emotion was generated by a year of separation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and added to by a week that has seen England mired in a controversy that even the prime minister has waded into.

Pre-pandemic, the playing of Jerusalem had become part of the morning routine, a signal to be ready rather than actively participate.

In Birmingham it was a call to arms, belted out from every corner to spine-tingling effect, so moving you wondered if England’s Rory Burns and Dom Sibley would have to open the batting with tears in their eyes.

The ‘moment of unity’ stand against discrimination was poignant, a reminder of wider struggles and the difficulties of the past few days.

From then on it was a party, albeit one for which you had to show a text or email proving you had tested negative for Covid before you could enter.

The Hollies Stand was in evening form inside the first hour. A Burns edge through the slips was cheered like an Ian Bell cover drive. When Sibley, the smear on his jumper a reminder of the trench he dug at Lord’s, punched through mid-on, some gave him a standing ovation.

To take a lap of the ground was like being sucked into the world’s largest stag do, with throngs of adults freed from responsibility by the fact under-16s were not permitted at the government pilot event.

Beer could be ordered on an app, although one check suggested at least a 50-minute wait. Queues formed at bars as if water had arrived in a drought.

Naturally, there was fancy dress. Bananas, 118 runners, Joe Exotic. A coronavirus was chased by a needle, while a Gareth Southgate lookalike led the songs.

Gareth Southgate lookalike

It was a greatest hits album, a Barmy Army songbook, with cover versions thrown in. Swing Low, Three Lions, a Viking Clap. Later, plenty would linger long after play to plead to stay here rather than go to work.

A beer snake stretched from the bottom of the Hollies to the top and was paraded like the spoils of war.

One man had his shoe confiscated by a steward, New Zealand’s Will Young was taunted by a Gareth Gates song and Neil Wagner’s name was close enough to a rude word to be chanted over and over again.

Beer snake at Edgbaston

The crowd needed an England hero, but they were hard to find.

Hometown boy Sibley flickered before edging behind. Joe Root, not only a captain but also a spokesman on social issues these days, did the same.

Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope and James Bracey barely gave themselves a chance, each competing to play the most horrid stroke.

It was Burns who stood up first. Crouched in the shape of an ‘S’ with his backside pointing towards square leg, he played off-drives so handsome you could take them home to meet your parents.

Dan Lawrence took over, never failing to fidget with his box. He found willing allies in Olly Stone and Mark Wood to ensure the Edgbaston faith was just about rewarded.

It was while Lawrence was feeling his way that the Hollies chanted for Ollie Robinson, with the name of the suspended England seamer heard on at least three occasions.

It was a reminder the issues cricket has faced in the past week are part of a wider debate that is polarising society.

While football is dealing with spectators booing England players taking a knee, cricket sees support for a player facing an investigation for historical racist and sexist tweets.

That is not say Robinson should be ostracised – some believe he deserved sympathy for what happened at Lord’s and even being made to miss this Test is too harsh a punishment.

But it did reiterate that the English game is facing a huge test in a divisive area, not only in the Robinson case, but also for the other England players whose historic social media use has been highlighted, and allegations of racism that have arisen over the past 12 months.

In that sense, one day of partying at Edgbaston does not make everything OK. An England win would not answer the awkward questions that loom on the horizon.

But for now, and the weekend to come, this was glorious light relief.

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