I would have come to cricket eventually, but the path was hastened and eased by my Father. By the time I was twelve I had been to four days of Test cricket, a World Cup Final, and seen in the flesh tons scored by Viv Richards, Graham Gooch and David Gower. There was a specially mown strip in the garden and a half-length net, where he would coax me to play forward. He had several shelves of cricket books, enabling me to be probably the only eleven year old reader of ‘Sort of a Cricket Person’, EW Swanton’s autobiography. The book meant little to me, but more than David Niven’s ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’, read at about the same time.
My Mother deserves credit too. She let me spend my summer holidays watching cricket on TV, which I did while annotating the current Playfair Cricket annual to keep players’ best performances up to date. She didn’t inflict me with any Why don’t you turn off the telly and do something less boring instead kind of nags. I used to relish the seven day marathons. Thursday, Friday, Saturday: Test match days 1-3; Sunday: JPL match; Monday, Tuesday: Test match days 4-5; Wednesday: B&H quarter final.
All very natural and it has persisted as a cherished, life-long connection with my Father.
When one of my friends became a Dad, before I had children, I saw the potential for this Dad-Son shared interest to go awry. Andy used his paternal influence to make his son, in his image, an Arsenal fan. They went to their first match together when Charlie (named after a former Gunner) was three. What I could foresee was a 12 year old turning on his Dad and shouting ‘I hate Arsenal. I hated all those afternoons at the games. It was rubbish! I’m going skateboarding.’
So, I made a note to myself that I would let cricket come to any sons I had, not take the game to them. (I should have thought this about daughters, too, but I won’t pretend that I did).
My older son was born in 2001. The Ashes series of 2005, and my reaction to it, alerted him to the game and we began to play in the garden. I hacked him a bat from a piece of wood, not wanting to spend money and feel as though I was investing in his keenness to play. In retrospect, buying a bat from Woolies would have been a more disinterested step than making one. It may be the only thing I’ve ever made.
No. 1 son’s interest grew. If he asked to play, we did. He demonstrated a natural, fluid bowling action – strong evidence that I wasn’t intervening. Late in summer 2009, I took him to the third of three net sessions I had bought for myself with the club coach. We were going to have 30 minutes each, but once he began bowling (‘he’s faster than you’, the coach noted), I stepped aside and he had an hour of quality instruction and fun.
2010 saw no. 1 son attend junior indoor nets and then practice sessions through the summer. On his competitive debut, he took two wickets and held a catch on the boundary. We called Grandad from the car park. The season ended with a hard-ball game within the squad. It was a turning point. He had never worn pads, gloves, helmet, let alone box, before. Walking was a challenge, running out of the question. A ‘teammate’ made a comment. The covers went on, so to speak, and cricket was off, except in the garden, for almost a year.
There was one exception. I had accepted an invitation to take a course and then to join the club’s junior coaching staff. This I did, initially unaware of no. 1 son’s determination to avoid the game. The final assessment involved an observed coaching session. The course participants were asked to provide the coaching fodder. No. 1 son agreed to help me out and accompanied by his friend, spent five hours being ‘coached’. Through some poor ‘shot selection’ on the part of the organisers, they learnt the backward defensive four times that morning. I passed the assessment; he was one of the most able youngsters there. I went on to spend a lot of time coaching other people’s children that summer while the covers stayed on.
Not wanting to pressure him, I delegated to my wife any discussion of his intentions towards cricket. And so it made sense that when he decided to push back the covers, I didn’t learn it from him. The club coach, running a multi-sport camp in the summer holidays, had taken no. 1 son to the nets and kept him there. The club coach told me that play was back on.
So, the need to equip no.1 son has featured prominently in his Christmas presents this year. He’s had some practice running in his pads and quickly forgot how ‘weird’ they feel. Yesterday, we went to buy him a bat. This afternoon, side-by-side, father showed son how to rub linseed oil into the face and edges of the new bat. A rite of passage, a homecoming, choose your favourite sentimental model. Then no.1 son dropped the unsealed linseed oil bottle, whose contents oozed around the room.