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.