Pre-match nerves


It was April. I walked out of the conference hall into the bright spring light. No sooner had my mood been lifted by the warm sun on my skin and the beginnings of thoughts about the summer to come, than my stomach churned. The drone of a lawnmower and the scent of the grass it cut triggered associations that caused an anxious response.

I was on a work trip, attending an event designed to enthuse me about an IT system. The conference had broken for lunch and I had headed outside for fresh air, rather than into the dining room. I wasn’t, you see, about to play cricket.

But those indicators of late spring/early summer connected me to the many days over the last 35 years when I have been going, later that day, to play cricket. The game that obsesses me, that has from time to time been so rewarding, that I very rarely ever regret having spent any time playing, makes me uneasy in anticipation.

School matches used to eat into the afternoon lessons: a release from desk, blackboard and text books. From mid-morning on the day of a match I would be distracted. Lunch would be uncomfortable. The looming match drew from me nervous energy, preventing me concentrating on schoolwork, playing at break-time or simply relaxing.

At college and then as a club cricketer in my 20s, I would wake early, missing out on the recuperative sleep student life or weekends could have given me. My mornings were unproductive as I would try to get studies or chores done but be forever calculating and recalculating how much time there was until I needed to leave to catch the bus or walk to the ground.

Playing evening matches in my most recent cricket-playing phase, I learnt to schedule busy days at work, to crowd out the anxiety of a match and an innings at the end of the day.

Interspersing my nervous preparation for each match, was one clear and ever-present thought: I hope the match is called off. A rainstorm, illness in the other side’s ranks, an unfit ground, a mix-up in preparations, a coup d’etat were all summoned as interventions. Some of these, at least, would occur with some regularity and I would feel relieved – even when a full afternoon of lessons was the consequence.

I can’t quite define where the source of this game-day reluctance to play lies. It must have something to do with the fear of failure. Cricket is a very exposing sport with the individual’s performance stripped bare. There’s probably an element of imposter syndrome in there – I’ve have not always felt comfortable that what I bring to the team merits my selection. I also detect a tinge of idleness – not wanting the exertion of a whole match.

Over the years, I have gradually learned that these pre-match nerves have no relationship at all to the enjoyment I get when I am playing. However sincerely I hoped for a crater in the centre of the ground to prevent the game happening, I have been pleased to be playing once the game is under way. I am, on the whole, a happy cricketer, maybe quiet and preoccupied, but generally content to be playing and sometimes, especially when batting, exhilarated. I have learnt to disregard my negative thoughts ahead of a match and find distractions.

Last August Bank Holiday, I was on tour for the 21st and final year with my college old boys team. Sitting around our tour base on the morning before our last ever match, a teammate looked out of the window and said, “Why can’t it rain?” For years, as fewer and fewer of the team played regular (or indeed any non-tour) cricket, there had seemed to me, while I struggled with my own game-day reluctance, a delighted determination amongst the team to get on the field to play. But last August, there were murmurs of assent for the wish for rain. Then more amazing still, my teammates began confessing that for years they had come on tour and in the build up to each game hoped the weather or some other factor would intervene. It’s not just me, I realised.

Earlier this summer, several weeks after the IT Conference, I drove no.1 son to our club’s second ground, where he was making his debut as a paid scorer. I was to stay with him for an hour or so, making sure he could identify our players, interpret umpiring signals and keep the book and scoreboard up to date. On arriving, I found our team was one short. I got back into the car, drove home, changed, loaded my cricket bag and was back in time for the fifth over. I had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon’s cricket, my day completely unimpaired by pre-match nerves. Finally, I had found the solution.

Not long after my surprise appearance, I was helping out at an under 9 fixture, where no.2 son was making his competitive cricket debut. I was running warm-up drills to keep the boys occupied while everyone gathered and final ground preparations were made. A late-comer charged across the grass, clasping a bat. He ran up to me and bouncing up and down in front of my face, shouted: “Hello, my name’s Sam. This is my first game of cricket and I’m SO EXCITED.” I may not be alone in experiencing pre-match nerves, but it was a good way to be reminded there are others with no such inhibitions.

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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

4 responses to “Pre-match nerves”

  1. Gerald Dunn says :

    Opening the batting adds extra frisson to game day nerves. Depending on the toss you can go from nervous anticipation to embarrassing feelings of inadequacy in 4 or 5 minutes with only the prospect of dropping a catch to look forward to. I spent 15 years being unable to distinguish between the nausea of nerves and the nausea of the pre-match celebration. For me the nerves set in late..on the walk to the wicket ….box..yes…laces…tied…trouser legs securely in sock…..ask for “middle” …oh that was a bit falsetto….calm calm calm calm….edge…drop short…other end…chat to the ump…right we are away.

    Under 15 saw extensive pre-match preparation the night before. Dabbing whitener on the pads and piecing together a run a ball 50 and acceptance from the posh kids. One day that happened
    and the memory is vivid 30 years on. I now realise acceptance brought 50s much more than the reverse.

    University – couldnt wait. Lie in to reduce the sensation of delay. First hour of the test. Sandwich lunch. Bus. Match. Runs (more often than not and more often than before or since). Drinks. Mates. Carlsberg dont make cricket matches but if they ever did there are about 30 back in the late 80s they could lay claim to. What was there to be nervous about?

    Army. Bloody hell – having to shave before cricket. Guards cricket club and the band of the household division under the trees. Back to acceptance or lack of it. MCC, Free Foresters, I Zingari. There had been a page of club ties in my Observers book of cricket. And now I was playing against these….real….people.

    In later years…old boys tours and a return to acceptance. Never nervous though conscious that bad weather would simplify the situation. Self esteem would remain intact as would hamstrings.

    Retirement – and the nerves are back. Why?? Because those feelings of acceptance and satisfaction and delight in friends’ achievements rare, and expressed through children. I haven’t yet watched my son open the batting but I have sat through gymnastics and music recitals. And there’s a thought….for all the nerves and ups and downs….my own performances never brought tears.

    • chrisps says :

      Ged, that’s marvellous – a career boiled down to different brands of anxiety. Nerves when about to bat or at the very start of an innings are, pretty much, universal, I’d guess. That’s the pressure of performance; the cliff you teeter on when batting – such a vantage point on the world, but one mistake and it’s over.
      It’s the pre-game nerves that make one wish the game off that I both experience and struggle to understand. But I do think you have a point with your observation about acceptance.
      Watching your children perform – well that’s not just a different blog post, but a completely different blog.

  2. backwatersman says :

    I suspect this is something that affects batsmen more than bowlers. If seamers don’t fancy playing, it’s probably because they’ve got hangovers or they don’t like the look of the wicket or something semi-rational like that. I don’t think they have the same fear of failure that batsmen do, which I’d guess is at the root of this syndrome. A seamer can bowl overs of filth and still end up with 5 wickets (or bowl well and end up with nothing) – if a batsman plays the wrong stroke that’s it.

    I think there is something interesting to be written about the relationship between different roles and different psychological types. I’d say batsmen are more likely to be neurotic, anxious, superstitious, whereas seamers tend to be fatalistic and phlegmatic. Batsmen have to believe they’re masters of their own fate (and if they fail it’s their own fault) – seamers know they’re not.

    On the other hand, presumably, people adopt different roles because they have some innate physical talent for it (I started bowling seamers because I’m tall, for instance) rather than because it suits them psychologically, so perhaps it’s the role that influences the temperament rather than the other way round?

  3. Martin Moseling says :

    Retirement – early or otherwise – adds perspective to this particular dilemma, particularly if one still watches club cricket. A couple of years after I decided to call it a day, I was still watching some fairly decent club cricket on Saturday afternoon. I eventually decided that I could still “do this” and made arrangements to attend the following weeks nets.

    I duly arrived and found the net strip a bit more than spicy due to some recent rain. I couldn’t hit the ball off the so called square and after 15 minutes, my concentration went completely and I had my stumps rattled more time than in the previous ten years put together. I decided I couldn’t “do this” after all went home and gave all my kit away!

    I still miss playing more than I can say and my advice is – no matter how awful the prospect of playing cricket might seem, it is still better than not playing. Ugly runs are better than no runs at all!

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