Short pitch: Play the game to be a better spectator of the game
When I first coached young cricketers, I used to get frustrated that some of my team would forget where they were supposed to be fielding.
Then on one of the occasional weekends that I had time to play, an availability crisis and the need for a scorer (no.1 son), saw me elevated to the second XI. It was my first county league standard cricket in twenty years. We fielded first and it felt as though afternoon had already passed into evening by the time the fifty overs were done. During that innings, while a left hand/right hand combination was at the wicket, I had had to be reminded of my fielding position five times. I was culpable of the very thing that irritated me when coaching kids who were brand new to the game.
Since then, I make the point to those of my coaching colleagues who don’t play regularly at the club, that playing a match, even just every now and then, is an important part of understanding what to expect of the kids for whom we run matches and training.
I also believe that playing cricket, even at the recreational end of the spectrum, helps the viewer, the follower, the blogger better appreciate the sport. I don’t mean it gives a better understanding of the technical side of the game. I do think it ought to develop an awareness of the tactical dimension. But the facet I’m thinking of is more nebulous and I can best sum it up with the statement that ‘a cricket match rarely follows a straight path’.
I have played matches where our opening bowlers are zipping the new ball past the edge of bats, but where the edges that are made fall to ground or the pads that are rapped are not quite in line. After a tasty ten overs of upbeat fielding, the same batsmen are still at the crease and starting to middle the ball they hadn’t looked capable of finding.
I have seen slow bowlers hit to the boundary three times in an opening over and made to look impotent. Gradually though they gain a foothold and then a stranglehold, so by the time they are toying with your tailenders that first over seems to belong to a different game.
These are entirely routine occurrences and don’t describe the more extreme swings of fortune that will happen in a match. What playing the game shows you is that the change doesn’t come about because of an heroic intervention. It takes hold with a combination of good luck, nouse, application or perhaps a change in the wind or a bruising of the ball.
Watching professional cricket there is a preference for explanations of agency: cricketer A did this with match-winning effect. There is also a narrative habit that chooses a particular point as the outset: from that position, mid-afternoon, team B should have scored 600. Of course, what has gone before must influence what happens next on a cricket field. But if you play the game, you are so aware that every ball is a new contest and that the state of the game at one minute is at best a partial predictor of what may happen later. Playing the game can make you more patient, more philosophical, more prepared to wait to see how things pan out in the game you are viewing.
There’s one other type of appreciation that playing the game gives the cricket follower. Sitting now, typing this post, after an afternoon of cricket, much of it simply spent crouching at gulley, I am nonetheless very aware of how physically demanding and exhausting cricket can be.