You’ll find Ostuni at the ankle end of Puglia, the heel of Italy, about five miles inland from the swaggering, frankly show-off turquoise-ness of the Adriatic. Sat atop a rocky outcrop that peers down on the flat carpet of olive farms below, Ostuni is one of those places you see sploshed all over the travel supplements of a weekend newspaper. Skies bluer than blood in a Bowes-Lyon vein contrasting with artful stacks of white-washed buildings – it’s not called la città bianca for nothing. There’s a citadel. Check. An old town. Check. It has hazardous marble cobbles coming out of its ears.
The surrounding countryside is dotted with masseria, grand old farmhouses that date back to the 16th century, many of which have been converted into accommodation for visiting tourists. In the grounds of one, in a wooden hut nestled away under the shade of a near 3,000-year-old olive grove, I fell back in love. With cricket*.
My girlfriend “T” and I had jacked in our jobs at the end of 2018, tired of London and life. Sticking one straight in the eye of Samuel Johnson, we sub-let our flat and went in search of adventure. Ending up at the end of the earth. Or near enough. In the first part of 2019, we hiked glaciers in Argentinian Patagonia, yomped around the Torres del Paines in Chile, gazed at waterfalls in Iguazu (Did they film Moonraker here? Yep) and were violently sick in Colombia, a chapter filed away in the recesses of my mind under the heading The Hostel in Medellín.
After a few months of backpacking, the vast expanses of South America started to take their toll. Wearied by 48-hour bus journeys, terrifying internal flights and the malaise of our peripatetic and, let’s be honest, largely pointless existence, we decided to find a place to stay put, to find purpose.
T spotted an advert on a website called workaway. Of course she did. In truth, she sorted everything for our trip while I dawdled and daydreamed. Without her the “great adventure of 2019” would not have gone any further than me sat on the sofa in South London, tapping “travelling” into Google and getting in a tiz.
The advert was placed by Leonard and Dina, a couple of artists and former lecturers who had upped sticks and swapped an English university to running “art holidays” in Puglia. They needed a couple to work as gardeners, to help prepare their restored masseria for an influx of guests who had forked out for a week of art lessons and home-cooked Puglianese cuisine. “Italian speakers preferable.” Ahh.
We fired off a frankly deceitful email. I over egged my student summers of strimming the grounds of a stately home and made sure to crowbar in the Latin names of a couple of plants in a manner similar to Boris Johnson when faced with a tricky question. T downloaded Duolingo. We fell asleep in the departure lounge of Bogotá airport, dreaming vaguely of La Dolce Vita. Or at least a safe flight and the promise of some clean pants.
A few weeks later and we received an email back. We’d got the gig; the lies had paid off. Leonard and Dina invited us to spend the summer living in a hut on their land. We’d have bed and board provided, and would earn our keep by working in the gardens and helping out with the art holidays. Pruning some agave here, shifting an easel there.
We were on a cushy number. Up early to get ahead of the heat of the day, we’d work through our list of jobs till around 10am when Dina would, resembling a dignitary on the opening day of a Lord’s Test, clang a big bell. This was to signify it was time for a coffee and some sustenance. We’d return to work until 1pm, when – CLANG! – the bell would summon us again, this time for a long and decadent lunch. After a few weeks we were firmly Pavlovian, chucking down our tools and running to the main house whenever the bell tolled.
The afternoons were ours, spent snoozing off the feast or squeezing into our swimmers and piling into our hosts’ battered old Nissan Serena van. A tempestuous heap, she only worked in fourth gear but was just about able to trundle us up to the beaches of Costa Merlata and Santa Sabina along the coast road to Villanova and a bakery that sold focaccia the size of a hub cap.
Nearly 1,000 words and no cricket? In truth, over the last decade cricket had settled into a back seat in my life. Gone was the childhood obsession, the teenage competitiveness. The players you idolised as a kid retire and then you’re left with players your own age and then younger. Something shifts, you grow up, life intervenes.
I’m not sure I really even twigged there was a World Cup on until the day of the first game. I remember firing up the 4G in the hut and watching Jonny Bairstow bowled first ball, Imran Tahir wheeling away in celebration. A wry “here we go again”, there was no real investment from me in Eoin Morgan’s team. Still, T was heavily invested in another audiobook and so there was no harm in tuning in from the beach, waves lapping and TMS burbling away.
A few hours later and I remember jolting bolt upright on my beach towel as the commentators lost their collective minds over a Ben Stokes catch. England won the match and I suddenly felt an urge to get back to the hut and have a look at that Stokes catch. It didn’t disappoint.
The next day one of the jobs was picking the peaches from the small orchard. Our “method” – inspired by Stokes and resembling a cross between Call Me by Your Name and ITVs The Cube – was for T to use a broom handle to knock the fruit from the branches high enough for me to leap backwards, and use my wrong hand to pluck the peaches from mid-air. It took most of the day.
Leonard was a multifaceted man: part no-nonsense Yorkshireman (he grew his azaleas in red and white stripes to bring a touch of Bramall Lane to Brindisi), part thoughtful sculptor. What he thought as he peered out to see his two hired hands fooling around with his haul of fruit is anyone’s guess.
As time passed, we became a little unit and, like a well-oiled bowling quartet, we settled into a groove. T and I would listen to Dina, slurping on Negroamaro as she talked about snogging Ted Hughes when she was at art school. Now in her early eighties she was intense and unspeakably cool. The days had a rhythm and sense of achievement. Looking back they feel almost heaven-sent.
Back home, England’s men were spluttering through their World Cup campaign. As the weeks passed I found myself taking more of an interest in their fortunes. Sneaking furtive glances at the Guardian’s over-by-over text commentary between pruning palm trees. Signing up for wicket alerts on the BBC and lurching at the ominous/hopeful sound of a ding.
During England’s tense, must-win game against India I was cutting the grass sat aboard Leonard’s vintage Italian ride-on lawn mower. When Rohit Sharma, the key wicket, was snaffled I celebrated by putting the creaky machine through its paces, a series of celebratory donuts and hand-break turns, only to remove my headphones and see Leonard stood stock still staring at me. He said nothing. After a while he turned on his heels and ambled off to the next task. I swear I saw a smile twitch the corner of his walrus moustache.
Our time in Puglia with Leonard and Dina came to an end, the art holidays finished. We were booked on a train down to Sicily for a couple of weeks before journeying home, back to real life. T being T, she had a teaching job lined up in a new school. I had sorted nothing and put off thinking about it. I’d found calm, happiness and some sense of purpose in Italy, so heading home felt like a leap back into the unknown. Weirdly, the vessel for my hopes, fears and myriad pent up emotions became England’s World cup campaign.
Sat in a steamy Palermo watching Jofra Archer, Chris Woakes and Liam Plunkett dismantle Australia in the semi-final, by now T was invested too (humouring me, or maybe just concerned by how much I seemed to care?)
By the time of the final, we were on the Aeolian Islands. You’d struggle to find a more picturesque place. We spent our entire first day there indoors as the whole bonkers game played out. By the time of the Super Over I was losing it, prowling around in my pants, using a curtain pole as a bat, shadow playing every delivery from Boult. T sat on the same cushion, as long as she stayed in contact with that cushion, England were still in it. When Jimmy Neesham launched Archer into the Mound Stand it was a gut punch similar to heartbreak. T looked at me, concerned. “What does that mean?” I couldn’t answer. Couldn’t speak. And then.
Archer. Guptill. Roy, Buttler, Bails! Relief. Joy. Tears.
As the celebrations played out Lord’s, T and I walked down to the sea. Drained. Happy. In the distance, the sun was setting behind Stromboli, one of three active volcanoes in Italy. It belched a few ash clouds into the sky on cue, as if for us and us only. Maybe one of the clouds wafted into the shape of a cricket bat and ball, maybe it didn’t. But as my thoughts turned to home, I had an idea about what to do next.
* Oh go on then – and deeper in love with T, Tori, Victoria. Sharing a composting loo and a single bed in 40-degree heat will tend to have that effect. Reader, we married this weekend.
This is an excerpt from Golden Summers, in which 50 writers, poets, musicians, comedians and ex-players use the game of cricket as the backdrop to tell their own stories. Order the book for just £15 + p&p when you use coupon code GOLDGSN at thenightwatchman.