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County grounds

I’ve played on a few county grounds, by which I mean grounds where county cricket is played. Broad squares and unvarying outfields to chase a ball across. Empty seating, tiered in and around the grander than usual pavilion, and in long, white single lines, like the teeth of a vast mouth, curving around the boundary. The dimensions don’t quite seem to take account of the greater power and speed of the players who appear on days that the seating isn’t left vacant. But, I suppose tennis courts are the same size at Wimbledon as at my local club, despite the gulf that separates their users’ physical abilities.

My county ground experiences came during a couple of seasons as a marginal second XI pick playing in the Kent League in the early 1990s. Not once did the environs inspire me to raise my game. At Maidstone’s Mote Park, my only memory is of standing at slip being taught Gujarati expressions by the wicketkeeper to shout at our opening bowler. (What was I doing at slip in my twenties? Was I considered a specialist close catcher, or a liability in the ring?) At Dartford, I think it must have rained, although we were lucky to get there as the skipper’s mini metro vanden plas had sudden engine failure climbing a hill on the A2 with a juggernaut on our tail.

Both years, I was in line to play at THE county ground, Canterbury, but had to make myself unavailable because of friends’ weddings. Then there was Cheriton Road, Folkestone, which finished me off as a regular club cricketer in my twenties.

My home ground in those days, Blackheath, had until twenty years before my membership hosted the county team once or twice each season. In 1956 Tony Lock took all ten wickets in an innings there for Surrey and 16 in the match, three weeks before he more famously managed just the one in an Ashes Test at Old Trafford. But by the 1990s, our ground-share cousins, Blackheath RFC, were in the ascendancy. The toll their play took on our outfield meant we referred to the Rectory Field by an anatomical name that shared the same first syllable of its official title.

I had one other near miss. On tour, my college old boys side were due to play at Basingstoke. Having talked up the opportunity to play on one of Hampshire’s out-grounds, we faced a little disappointment to find the club had two pitches and we were on the second of those. Pudsey St Lawrence, also on tour, deservedly played on the main square. That afternoon did provide a little brush with greatness as each our batsmen found themselves being sledged by the 12 year old grandson of a West Indian Test player, who kept wicket for the club’s Sunday seconds.

These experiences of sharing space – if not cotemporally – with professional cricketers came to mind again this week, when no.1 son let on that he would be playing for his school team in a competition at Old Trafford. ‘I’ll see you a county ground and raise you an international venue’, he might have taunted me. But my disappointments looked likely to settle on him as the forecast for Friday was late September, Manchester, grim.

The forecast proved accurate, but Lancashire were very accommodating and turned over the indoor school to the competition. At lunchtime, he sent me a text: “..we’re into the final. Do you want to come and watch?” Wrapping up work for the week in mid-afternoon, I arrived and picked out no.1 son through the netting at the far end of the hall, fielding at third man. I watched the innings unfold, amongst students and school masters, parents and LCCC staff. After 20 minutes, I realised I had no idea of the state of the game. “Nearing the end now,” I was told. The team batting were losing wickets regularly and presumably shedding runs in the way of indoor match scoring. Finally no.1 son came on to bowl. The batsmen were in reckless mode. Two catches taken off successive balls. The next ball, straight and on a length, met by an outrageous attempt at a ramp shot and so, a first hat-trick. He finished his over and the match was done – a comfortable victory.

Hat-trick ball

Players and spectators were invited to the pavilion for food and presentations. Multiple apologies were made for not being able to allow play to take place on the ground. No.1 son received the man of the match award for the final (he’d also “batted ok”, he said) from Lancs Head Coach, Glen Chapple, and his school team collected the trophy. 

By way of entertainment, Warren Hegg interviewed Glen Chapple about coaching, what makes a cricketer, toughest opponent (Darren Lehmann) and why he’d been so difficult to captain – the former seeming far more comfortable in his role. “Wonder if any of the lads know who these two are”, whispered Umpire Rob. Probably not, I concurred. And perhaps that ignorance of who and what were in his surrounds served no.1 son well on his first time playing at (if not on) a county ground. 

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Keep on keepin’ on

23 July 2017. 38 not out. Dropped three times. A single boundary. Some edges. Several leg-side full-tosses swiped at and missed. A contretemps with their wicket-keeper over a supposed leg-side edge. The winning runs paddled behind square from a long-hop off my splice. The most assertive action I had taken while at the crease had been to step to short-leg, requesting quiet before the game restarted, while the ‘keeper continued to mutter about me.

The club steward had walked the boundary with his dog while I batted. In the bar after the game, he commented how poor the opposition bowling had been. “Brought you down to their level,” he observed. I wish I could have concurred.

My highest score since 2014 according to the ECB’s cataract-ridden panoptican of the recreational game, play-cricket.com. I wouldn’t dare disagree and surely I would remember if it was wrong.

Afterwards, I was subdued. I felt embarrassed, unsettled. Top-scorer, but undeserved. Not the cricketer I believe myself to be, to have been, to want to become.

So, if this was it, the thought crossed my mind, I should call it a day, give up on these half-dozen games each season. 38 not out would be my retirement innings – undistinguished, but undefeated. There were certainly retirement gifts. Three drops, none of them particularly demanding of the fielder. Loose bowling from the young and the old. Muted, yet correctly pitched, congratulations from team-mates and opposition for taking the team to its victory target.

I once had a team-mate, Andrew P, who retired mid-match – mid-bowling spell. I can’t recall anything he did that day, before his abrupt decision to release himself, that departed further from the norms of acceptable performance than I had.

I slept badly that night. Re-playing images and incidents from the innings. Wrestling with its meaning, trying but failing to ‘put it to bed’.

Keep-on keepin’ on. 

Mike Brearley hummed Beethoven while he batted. Since the mid-1980s, I have silently but tunelessly repeated the lyrics of music far more proletarian (and much briefer) than the former England captain’s choice: the Redskins’ agitprop pop song. Not with their revolutionary intent, but as a reminder to myself that once out in the middle, any dilution of my focus, any dulling of my desire to continue to be right there, facing the bowling, would bring dismissal and disappointment. Batsmen get themselves out most of the time. Don’t gift the bowler though a lack of the asset you are not inherently less endowed with than other batsmen: concentration.

In the days following my 38*, I have reshaped my understanding of that innings. I’ve not denied the generally dreary quality of the opposition, or exaggerated the standard of my batting. But I’ve found many connections between my innings and cherished cricket. There were a few decent shots: a straight drive for three and two leg-glances where the bat gave the ball the merest kiss on its way to long-leg. 

More than that, though, it was the endeavour of an innings that lasted 20 overs. A succession of challenges, an evolving state of the game. Responding to the loss of an early wicket… seeing off the opening bowlers… shifting pressure to the fielders by running singles… becoming the ‘senior’ batsmen when joined by a new partner… continuing to accumulate, not getting over-ambitious, as we approached our target.

Yes, there was dross. I contributed a fair amount of it. But it was a cricket contest with its phases, varying tempos and psychological engagement in which I played a central part. Being out in the middle, making choices, sometimes trusting and other times falling prey to my own instincts. This is the sporting thrill that I hanker for most of all and is unmatched in any of the other activities I take part in.

Yesterday I completed the ECB’s cricket playing survey. Under the heading, ‘Playing Habits’, the ECB ask how much the respondent agrees or disagrees with the following statements (1): ‘I intend to play cricket for as long as I am physically able to’. I selected, ‘Agree strongly’.

Keep on keepin’ on.

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Footnote 1: A later question was, ‘I worry about looking like a fool when I play sport/exercise’. I selected ‘Disagree slightly’.

Victim of Jadeja

Embed from Getty Images

He clasps the ball in both hands beneath his chin. It’s a devotional gesture from an often profane, exultant cricketer. A step forward, left arm swings down then back up again, briefly into his meditative pose. Then a transformation: his left hand close to his mouth, head turned with eyes following his right hand as it stretches out in front of him. The archer’s stance, the bow at maximum tension, an arrow about to be loosed with the deft flick of his fingers. But this archer is not still. The left arm drops, before being drawn back and up and over in an effortless swing, propelling the ball at the target fixed by his stare.

Watching England fall to defeat after defeat against India in late 2016, I became mesmerised by Ravindra Jadeja’s bowling. Gentle bobbing to the crease, the bowman’s coil, and best of all the fluid sweep of the left-arm. Time and time again, that easeful swing of the arm sending deliveries that zeroed in on pads, the stumps, the edges of bats. When Jadeja is to be memorialised it should be as a fountain. A tight, twisting jet of water flowing from the statue’s high left arm, landing hour after hour, day after day on a length, eroding the hardest of stone surfaces, with its insistent, repetitive delivery.

The gentle, economical back and forward of Jadeja’s bowling, tracing the same path through the air, again and again, lulled me and stole my consciousness. Hypnotised by its simplicity, an action shorn of any extraneous motion, I began to tell myself that I could bowl like that. A little forward motion, feet providing balance, a turn of the arm – each could be imitated, albeit in mirror image. Jadeja had crept inside my head, where he had occluded my great cricketing anxiety: bowling in the nets. Forty-five minutes of purgatory is the deal I must strike in every net session for eight minutes of release spent batting. Jadeja had shown me the way to fulfilment. I would be like him.

The days between Christmas and New Year were dry and bright. I committed to visit the nets each day the weather allowed, having leafed through Amol Rajan’s Twirlymen to remind myself of the required grip and practised around the house, whenever there was nobody watching, my Jadeja-inspired pure delivery.

I was alone on my first net trip. I channeled Jadeja, but found the connection to be poor. Rather than delivering jets that honed in on the crease, I sprayed it around, most humiliatingly sending the ball looping into the netting roof. Briefly I abjured Jadeja and tried seam-up, but found control, when holding the ball conventionally with fingers either side of the seam, impossible. Returning to the true and right way, I tossed out a couple of half-decent overs of finger-spin, enough to encourage me to return.

My second trip was with no.2 son. My dreadful, looping lobs had done nothing in the past to develop his batting as the slow and high bounce confounded him and discouraged him from playing forward. Here was the incentive to send darts down. Success, if measured by my son’s pleasing strokes into the off-side, was mine. A dewy track and sopping balls may also have played a part.

On venture three, I was accompanied by both sons. No.1 hadn’t touched a ball since September, yet when encouraged to try his arm at spin, put my efforts in their place. I asked him for some feedback. “Well,” he said, “your action is fine, it’s just so slow that imperfections have time to creep in.”

I had my inspiration, but realised that autodidacticism (even when leavened with no.1 son’s observations) had very severe limits. I needed a coach. The Old Trafford Indoor School provided one. I was hoping he’d find all the fundamentals in place and with a couple of expert biomechanical tweaks show me how to fire in a good offie.

Coach Andy watched me bowl a few deliveries. He talked me through the mechanics of the off-break then for 15 minutes we chucked balls at each other, all snapping wrists and illegal elbow straightening. Every one of Andy’s flew with red and white hemispheres distinct and jagged nastily on bouncing. Mine were a blur of pink and offered the subtle movement of my hero bowling on a day 1 track.

I tried to put the lesson into practice and Andy made some encouraging noises about my progress. Satisfied that he had identified a fault and a method, through extensive repetition, to address it, he suggested I have a bat. Twenty-five minutes of floaty bowling machine deliveries were enough to undermine my confidence in what should be my stronger suit.

Coach Andy repeated his advice as we left the net, but he asked, was there anything else he could help with? Jadeja’s sumptuous darts that I so coveted flickered in my mind’s eye and prompted a smile and a burst of confidence. “Yes, what can I do to get a bit more pace, more oomph into my bowling?” It was, surely, within touching distance.

Andy chuckled. “One thing at a time. Just work on that release. Keep practising the basics. It won’t happen in a hurry.”

Deceived. Made to look foolish. Just another victim in these last few months of Ravindra Jadeja.

A ringer for Jesus

I have been a ringer for Jesus. Not in the sense of having a resemblance through beard and sandals; nor have I chimed the bells at my parish church. I was a ringer by playing cricket for a team when not qualified to do so – for Jesus College, which neighboured my college.

Jesus College had organised an end of term tour of Manchester, but found their cricket playing resources stretched. Four players from my college were drafted in: Captain Dunn, the Brummie Dreamboat, Sophisticated Simon and me. With the role of ringer comes an expectation – of competence and performance. How did we live up to expectation?

Captain Dunn opened the batting in the first match. It was an evening game, played in Mancunian drizzle on a pitch that a lanky left-armer made spicey. Dunn took a blow from a lifter on the end of the thumb of his bottom hand. He retired hurt from the match and competitive duties for the tour. The broken thumb meant he missed a university representative tour the following week and cancelled his bank cards when presuming them missing; they lay at the bottom of his cricket bag, which his injury made too painful to search thoroughly.

The Brummie Dreamboat was one of a number of promising young batsmen that our college turned into quick bowlers. His tour was distinguished only by antics in a Manchester club car-park that have been know to lose an England captain his job.

Sophisticated Simon bowled leg and off-cutters that were suited to the damp wickets, but excelled as always off the field with charm and a nicely turned anecdote.

On this occasion, I came closest to fulfilling the role of the ringer. A chancy 50 in that opening match seeing Jesus to victory in the loaming.

None of us came close to the ringer faux-pas of being just too good; being the bloke whom no-one knows, who dominates the match and destroys the contest. A team-mate, Mr October, played a match at a public school last season. His side was bolstered by a recent New Zealand Test batsman. The erstwhile Black Cap faced the first ball of the second innings, with 250 the distant target. He drove a length ball to the right of the cover point, who got a strong hand to the ball, from which it ricocheted to the backward point boundary. The fielder was still wringing that hand 20 overs later when the match was done. That fixture might not be renewed this year.

Cricket habits and traditions tend to trickle down from the first class game to the club and recreational sport. The ringer, in recent years, seems to be percolating upwards. As county cricket is increasingly run to the convenience of ‘Team England’, international players have started to be placed in teams that they are not ‘qualified’ to represent. Andrew Strauss, as England captain in 2011, played for Somerset against India to help prepare for the Test series. For other authority-approved ringers, the opportunity has been less propitious. Nick Compton top-scored for Worcestershire against the Australian tourists in 2013, but was dropped from the Test team. James Taylor made an unbeaten hundred in the colours of Sussex against the same team three weeks later, but has not been selected for an England match since.

International cricket also has the ‘ringer-esque’ movement of players between nations – a subject that gets ample exposure everywhere else. The 2014 Under 19 World Cup brings the story of Zimbabwe and its overage players. Administrative error, the ICC has clarified, when confirming that the five not under 19s can continue to play.

Returning to ringers in club cricket, their presence in touring teams and recreational sides has a strong tradition. Competitive, league cricket is altogether different. Players are registered to clubs and fielding unqualified cricketers is usually proscribed with matches or points forfeited.

I have come across one sanctioned use of ringers. Relatively recently, Lancashire would release players not in action for the county to play top level club cricket. Clubmates tell me of turning up at the Sale CC home ground for a match to find Ian Austin sitting on his cricket bag. “Who are you playing for?” he was asked. “Don’t know, just told to be here by midday.” He bowled for the visitors and predictably took wickets.

Other than that, the use of ringers in club cricket competitions is cheating. So, not only have I been a ringer for Jesus, but also a cheat. A couple of years after the Manchester tour, Captain Dunn and I headed to the north-west again, this time to help out our former Number 4, now skippering a club team, who found himself light of players for an end of season fixture. The opposition had won the league the week before, but a strong finish would allow our adopted team to claim second place. Batting first, the Captain clattered a half-century that had our team being very careful to be nonchalant and familiar in his presence at tea.

The champions lost wickets regularly in their reply. Our adopted club had the chance of a victory to cap their season. With nine down and an over to play, a ball was hit high to a ringer on the boundary. With hardly a step required, the ball fell to hand, but didn’t come to rest there. The catch was dropped and the match drawn.

It was my worst ever moment on a cricket field. If a team mate drops a catch, there’s an easy empathy. We all know if could have happened to us and it probably has during the course of that season or ones before. But if some bloke you don’t know, who was brought in because he’s ‘a useful cricketer’ drops the catch that denies your team the match and second place in the league, it’s different. That’s what I felt, not what my temporary teammates actually said or intimated to me.

I knew I had been one devil of a ringer.

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Photo credit: George Franks, GGF Photography (george.franks@O2.co.uk)

County nets

indoor nets14 May 1981 was a big night in English sport. Tottenham Hotspur played and defeated Manchester City in the FA Cup Final replay. Ricky Villa scored twice, his winner that celebrated mazy, slow-motion dribble into the penalty area and shot past Joe Corrigan.

I wasn’t at Wembley that night, but another notable English sporting venue: Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre. I was taking part in Buckinghamshire schools under 13 cricket trials.

I related the story of that evening to no.1 son on our way to his first session of county advanced nets this week. It’s not much of a story as so little of it has stuck with me.

We netted indoors in one corner of a sports hall able to accommodate a full size football pitch or several tennis courts. I was asked to pad up early. I was bowled first ball (just as I had been at District trials the previous summer), but must have middled a few as at the end of the evening when the team  for the first match of the season was read out and my schoolmate Dave apologised that he couldn’t play, I was drafted in as his replacement. That match, against Northants, was the scene of the missing socks incident and cause of many cold sweats since. The other memory of that night that has, oddly, remained live is of the master reading out the fixture list, which included the adventurously sounding, ‘Stowe Away’.

My son is also taking part in some form of trial, but an extended one – eight weeks – and the onus is on coaching and improvement. He was very nervous beforehand but emerged from the hall, of which I had only been able to glimpse snippets of activity, and declared the evening “good fun”.

I told my Dad about no.1 son’s pending involvement in the county nets on a visit last month. The next day, driving into Oxford, he said that he had lain awake in bed piecing together his own schoolboy experience of county nets. “You know the story, don’t you?” is the familiar formula for getting permission to roll out a family anecdote. I did know it, but inspired by his grandson’s progress the story was much richer in detail than the versions I had heard before.

surrey centenaryMy Dad’s story, he now recalled, began with a man who lived in the same block of flats in Stockwell, South London. This man was a steward at the Oval and asked my Dad if he would like to help sell centenary brochures at a Surrey match. This places the story in 1946 and my Dad 15 years old. He turned up at the Oval, completed his assignment and by way of thanks was asked if he would like to come along to a net session one morning.

So Dad returned to the Oval the following week on a non-match day, carrying his cricket gear. He made his way to the nets at the Vauxhall End, where he was spotted by the Surrey Coach, Andy Sandham, and told to get himself a ball and get bowling. In the nets were Laurie Fishlock, Alf Gover, the Bedser twins and the rest of the county squad. Dad bowled – quite well, he thought, without really troubling the batsmen – until Sandham told him to get padded up. He took strike against the Bedsers, both of whom were decent enough to keep the ball pitched up.

Dad was the only schoolboy there until, with the practice in full swing, another youngster arrived. Coach Sandham gave the lad a voluble telling off for being late, in full view of the players, then ordered him to get booted up and bowl. Dad remembers being beaten time and again by the flight and turn of this left-arm spinner. It was Tony Lock, who made his first-class debut aged 17 that summer.

Dad went back the following week and perhaps, he thinks, one more after that before this schoolboy dream-come-true ended.

There may be a greater narrative to these three stories of the increasing professionalisation of talent spotting and junior development in English county cricket. My son, one of over 100 boys having eight weeks of coaching before a much reduced playing squad is selected; me, recommended by school for a trial net alongside a couple of dozen other boys; my Dad, given the nod for a try out by a neighbour who was a ground steward.

But, on the other hand, as I said to my Dad the other day,

“Are you sure you weren’t invited just to watch the nets?”

“No, I’m not sure,” he conceded. But my word, didn’t he do the right thing, taking his kit with him and doing just as Mr Sandham told him to.

Catches rhymes with matches

Folkestone's Cheriton Road ground

Folkestone’s Cheriton Road ground

The outfield at Folkestone was bone hard and sun seared. Hot and weary we made our way across it to the pavilion. Tea, the innings break and shade were all welcome. As our fielders funnelled together over the last 20 metres, a teammate spoke at me, over my shoulder: “Catches win matches.”

It was an accusation, not acclaim. Early on I had dropped the opener at second slip. But that had been a good effort. Four runs saved. An over or three later, the same batsman had got a leading edge, sending the ball spiralling up and in my general direction at point. I shuttled to my left, backwards, turned, stretched and got the barest scrape of the fingers of one hand on the ball. I thumped the ground, picked up the ball and flung it to the keeper. A teammate pointed at the sun and nodded. Yes, the sun had got in my eyes, as it inevitably would at some point when you do a pirouette with head tilted skywards on a clear day. The batsman went on to score 80, playing barely another false shot and providing the backbone of the Folkestone 2nd XI total.

The exertions of fielding and bowling had wilted us. We never challenged the total, but took the game deep before losing. I don’t remember my innings, but it must have been brief. Ready for an early night, I was tied to my lift and eventually made it back to London at 11pm.

Contributing little; taking no pleasure in the company of my team; and seeing a whole Saturday pass without reward; that day, 19 years ago, sealed my disenchantment with regular club cricket. I played the last couple of league matches of the season and didn’t return.

Even now, if I hear the phrase, ‘catches win matches’, it triggers uncomfortable associations with that Kent League fixture. Putting aside the discomfort, however, the phrase intrigues me. It sits at the centre of the great unresolved quandary of cricket selection: how does a player’s fielding ability balance against his or her batting and bowling contribution?

An answer (not necessarily ‘the’ answer) is provided in a piece of research, ‘Do catches win matches?’ (1) carried out by Seamus Hogan, economist at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Hogan’s work looks at one day internationals and analysed every opportunity for a fielder to make a dismissal in 122 matches, using Cricinfo ball-by-ball commentary. Fielders are scored for their performance. A strong fielder is defined as one with a score one standard deviation above the average. Their contribution is compared to that of the strong batsmen and bowlers – each defined as performing one standard deviation above their respective discipline’s average. The superior fielder is found to contribute less than two runs per innings, well below the equivalent bowler (six) and batsman (eight).

After identifying some caveats to the findings, Hogan concludes:

the “catches win matches” cliche should be put to bed.

Then in response to a comment to his piece, Hogan placed the cliche in its context:

it would also be true that “groundsmen win matches”, “tosses win matches”, “boundaries win matches”, “singles win matches”, etc. I do think there is something about a brilliant catch or a horrible drop that sticks in the mind more than any single cover drive or or even a seaming jaffa that earns an LBW, leading to the importance of catches being overstated in people’s intuition.

And catches happens to rhyme with matches.

Nearly two decades on and 300 miles north-west and I am back in club cricket. Drawn into the world of club administration, I find the work continues after the playing season has finished.

I attended a local club forum last week. The ECB’s club cricket survey results were the headline item. The presenter, from the county cricket board, noted that participation rates stayed constant for players at all ages between 26 and 56. It was in the ten years up to the mid-20s that saw a steady decline as youngsters left cricket. The presenter regretted that the full results of the survey were not yet available, but he was anxious to see the feedback from this crucial age group. Match duration, start time, travel distance, pitch quality, competitiveness of fixtures, umpire reliability and that malleable notion, the spirit of the game, were all independent variables that could be evaluated and changes made to accommodate the game’s younger players.

The discussion took me back to my withdrawal from the game, that hot day in Folkestone, the ball looping out of my reach, the teammate pointing the finger of blame at me and the late return home after a day wholly wasted.

Just as the result of a cricket match cannot be distilled into something as simple as which team takes its catches, the players’ survey results won’t be able to single out just one step that will keep more young men in the game. But there is a factor, in the hands of the players rather than the administrators, that my experience suggests does determine whether members return year after year. It’s not the format of the game, the competition, where or how it is played. The key ingredient is that teammates enjoy each others’ company.

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Footnote 1: Do Catches win Matches (UPDATED) was published by Seamus Hogan on the Offsetting Behaviour website on January 31, 2013. http://offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.co.nz/2013/01/do-catches-win-matches.html

A special feeling

4th & 1st Sale 058There is nothing that feels like building an innings. The conjunction of raw reactions and thoughtful adaptation. Respect the straight ball, don’t chase the wide one outside off are my starting mantras. Which works unless something is floated up under my nose and instinct takes over: a step forward and a lash of the bat.

As the overs pass, other scoring opportunities open up; a clip off my pads, a push towards mid off where the cricketer making an occasional appearance is drifting out of position. Defence is savoured. A forward defensive to a delivery that earns the fielders’ applause but didn’t trouble me.

A battle won as the opening bowlers are replaced and new flights and angles to deal with brought on. Constant assessing: do I have the better of this bowler, or am I in trouble if he gets it in the right place? Was that over a loosener, or can I expect more easy pickings.

And always the run rate, the state of the game – is it time to open up or should I be building a platform for the team? A false shot. Do I analyse my mistake or let it drift past me in case I break my own concentration. A couple of twos in an over and I’m puffed. Control my breathing for the next ball.

At the other end there are shots and runs; wickets and new partners – advice, caution and bonhomie. Is what’s happening at that end making my job easier or more difficult?

Ever present is the risk of getting out. In an instant the world I’m immersed in is over. From being the protaganist, the focus of every player’s attention, I could be sidelined in the second it takes to draw the bat across, not down the line of the ball; to bring bat to moving ball at slightly the wrong angle and send it upwards. The contest is over. Someone else gets to revel in this exquisite challenge of batting.

Last week, I experienced the closest pleasure yet to batting. No.1 son, already an accomplished bowler at 12, had his first substantial knock. That his team had a chaseable target was in a large part down to him. He had started with a double wicket maiden, knocking over two of their top batsmen with full, swinging deliveries. No.1 son’s team also lost a wicket in the first over of their reply, bringing him to the crease.

He and his partner got the innings going with some well-judged singles. But he batted patiently, respecting the straight one and stroking full balls into the V. A couple of plays and misses outside off-stump and a middle-stump yorker dug out. The short and ill-directed stuff came, as it always does, and on this evening, no.1 son was still at the crease to cut and steer these for runs. Mini-partnerships with three teammates; support and reminders shared to back up, to run the first one hard.

The opposition had held back their leading bowler. Big and strong – at least a head taller than no.1 son – he bowled lively left-arm seamers. This was a test. He pitched the ball short and no.1 son stayed in line and defended, was hit on the thigh, grinned, kept his nerve and his head in line with the ball and pulled another short delivery behind square. I made a mental note to buy him a thigh guard.

Batting with his friend, captain on the night, there was a surge of runs from more positive shots, aggressive running between the wickets and the team was on the verge of victory. Light fading and one last push from the left-armer. He fired a ball across no.1 son who sliced it to the third man boundary for the winning runs.

So many of the shots and techniques he had practised in the nets came off. He had worked hard for those runs since indoor practice began in February and had to work for them all over again on the night. Sweeter still for being telling, match-winning runs.

And now when I burble on about the unique pleasure of building an innings, I’ll have someone close who will know what I mean. Someone who can contrast the early dismissal to the lengthy knock, the disappointment of the former with the exhilaration of the latter. A special feeling – in person, and as I have now experienced, by proxy.

Pre-match nerves

groundsmen

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.

Can a bowling attack bowl as a unit?

New Zealand's Wagner celebrates with team mates after dismissing England's Pietersen for a duck during the second day of the first test at the University Oval in DunedinI was the top wicket taker in my first year at college. I bowled filthy, loopy slow lobs. Early the next season, we were knocked out of the Cup when a potentially close game was blown open by three consecutive sixes hit off my bowling and out of the ground. Bowling and I have never really been reconciled. Nets can be a torture, either side of the intense pleasure of a turn batting. So, there’s lots I don’t understand about bowling.

For example: Why can’t professional bowlers deliver a consistent line and length? Why do quick bowlers pitch short when conditions are favourable to seam and swing? What words would a bowler find helpful to hear from a teammate when he or she is struggling to direct the ball? How can a bowler carry on playing after being hit for six sixes in an over (three did for me)?

I also don’t really understand what ‘bowling as a unit’ means. Ian Smith said it of the New Zealand attack that has kept such pressure on the England batsmen in recent tests. I’m not clear how bowling as a unit is any different to all the bowlers bowling well.

To act as a unit means to co-ordinate efforts to work together. I infer from it that the sum is greater than the parts. It’s a familiar phenomenon in sport. A football team, say, when defending will combine to deny the opponents space and to pressurise the man on the ball. To some extent, it’s apparent in fielding as players back-up and support each other to deny the batsman opportunities for runs.

In these examples, the activity of the players making up the unit is happening simultaneously. They are interacting in real time to exert a combined influence on the game. Bowling is different to this: it is asynchronous, or more simply, each bowler takes their turn to deliver an over.

I understand well that bowlers have different roles. A stock bowler may be tasked with keeping an end tight, while strike bowlers attack from the other end. Alex of Lines on Grass has pointed out to me that some bowlers appear to have the ability to get wickets for the bowler at the other end. He cited Gavin Larsen; I would name Andrew Flintoff.

I can also see a bowler having a more specific role at a particular moment. For example, denying a front-line batsman a single towards the end of an over, to expose his partner, a tail-ender, to his fast bowling team-mate.

These practices seem to me more about all bowlers bowling well, than any heightened teamwork. Is there more to it than this? There could well be and I would like to be informed.

If there isn’t, I think we are in the territory of the tactical post-hoc rationalisation that Ed Smith wrote about recently. In trying to explain an outcome in sport, as in other areas of life, we seek a cause. Taking England’s lean spell in the 1990s, and the multitude of aspects of the game and society blamed for the national sport’s predicament, Smith notes:

The point, of course, is that causes are being manipulated to fit outcomes. They weren’t causes at all, merely things that happened before the defeat.

I speculate that the ‘bowling as a unit’ causal explanation arises when the bowling team has gained an advantage, without one of the bowlers ending up with an outstanding analysis – say, a five-for. Our personality-led preference for a ‘hero narrative’ isn’t available. In its stead, perhaps influenced by the culture of management and performance improvement, commentators and cricket fans may identify the ‘bowling as a unit’ cause. It’s much more purposeful and, superficially, more constructive than saying, “all the bowlers bowled well.”

But, I reiterate, I don’t know a great deal about bowling.

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Alex at Lines on Grass has written a response to this piece, Hunting as a Pack,  which I recommend.

Sleepless (in seat L)

A gentleman dozing in the sun is a popular image of the cricket spectator. The image conveys the tranquility of the sport, or less generously, that it is a game that moves so slowly that sleep takes hold of the viewer.

With England playing in New Zealand, and the guts of the day’s play happening after my bedtime, I am reminded that cricket has caused me more sleeplessness than sleep. I can pinpoint the very first night that my rest was disturbed by cricket: 30 December 1982 – day five of the fourth Ashes Test.

England began the match two down with two to play. The Ashes, held since 1977, were in serious jeopardy. Australia had won the second and third tests of the series, its fast bowlers providing the more effective attack. But the fourth test was thrillingly equal, from first innings to the final margin. The four innings fell within a range of just 14 runs. Australia had been set 292 for match and series victory. Advantage through their innings swung, just as the whole match had. 39-2.. 171-3.. 219-9. The chief protagonist of this middle-late order collapse was England’s young fast bowler, Norman Cowans (a surprise quick tour pick), who took four wickets in the fourth evening, on his way to 6-77 in the innnings.

ct millerAustralia began the final day, me in bed listening to Test Match Special, on 255-9. Allan Border and Jeff Thomson were half-way towards the target for their final wicket partnership. I was tired and downhearted. England didn’t seem to be creating any chances and the runs were ticking away. I neither wanted to listen nor to switch off. After seventeen overs, Australia had closed to within a boundary of victory. I think it was CMJ commentating (do correct me) who described Botham’s delivery to Thomson, which went something like this .. edged to Tavare.. he’s dropped it.. no it’s caught by Miller. My hair prickled, I wanted to shout. I was exhausted. I couldn’t sleep.

Twenty years later, another England victory left me agitated and sleepless. The first test at Christchurch was played on one of the first ‘drop in’ pitches – i.e. cultivated elsewhere, and slotted into the ground for the match. This novel approach to groundskeeping turned upside down one of the constants of first class cricket: pitches deteriorate as a match progresses, making run-scoring increasingly difficult. This characteristic became apparent on day three as England’s sixth wicket pair, Graham Thorpe and Andrew Flintoff, set off on a partnership at odds with the low, slow scoring of the first two days. England, the radio pundits said, would manage with a lead of 250, which they were 80 short of at the fall of the fifth wicket. Fifty overs later and the lead was 460.

New Zealand were eventually set a target of 550. I went to bed with New Zealand down a few wickets and many hundreds still to get, but batting with some verve. Restless through the night, I tuned in to hear commentary as breathless as I can remember. Nathan Astle had run amok, and with Chris Cairns, a lame last wicket partner, were making the most audacious assault on the England attack. Boundaries followed boundaries. England’s attack was hapless – short balls pummelled over midwicket alternated with full balls launched straight. It was humiliating, but futile, so great was the target. Twenty minutes later, the flood untrammeled, the commentators began to consider an England defeat. Then, with the suddenness of all wickets, it was over. Astle out for 222 from 168 balls; a ‘tainted’ victory, I felt, so badly caned were England’s bowlers. Heart-racing, my night’s sleep was over.

Anxiety about my own play has from time-to-time cost me sleep. Only once have I been not out over night. Even with a fifty to rest my head on, I

Peter Sleep

Peter Sleep

slept poorly that night (uneasy lies the head that wears the lid – except I didn’t and never have worn one). The next day, my timing had gone and I slapped my way to a (still) personal best 90.

I have had an even more intimate case of cricket-induced sleeplessness. As a teenager, I played whole-hearted Sunday village cricket with the flotsam and jetsam of my Chiltern Hills village. One Bank Holiday weekend, the club steward chucking us out, we decided on some night-time japes. A visit to the churchyard was mooted, but rejected in favour of sleeping on the square, protecting the pitch for the Bank Holiday Monday’s fixture. The skipper, his girlfriend and three players headed for the middle. There we spread duvets and bedded down. I have endured some scratchy, almost painful innings, but I have never been so uncomfortable in the middle. The joking ceased, somone slept, the skipper and his girlfriend began rolling the pitch and I borrowed some car keys and tried sleeping in a VW Beetle’s passenger seat.

There is one occasion in my career when cricket and sleep fed upon one another. On tour in the south-west with my college old boys team in the early 1990s, our two fixtures were split by a rest day. While the bulk of the team opted for a round of golf, the captain and I (protecting our batting techniques from golf’s seductions) set out on a walk that took us along the south coast to Lyme Regis. In a churchyard above the harbour we found a bench and sat soaking up the late summer sun. Important context is that the day before, I had batted through most of our innings to help secure a draw against the much stronger team from Axminster, keeping out a young quick bowler seeking his hundredth wicket of the season. As relevant is that I had undiagnosed sleep apnoea. So, like a retiree at a county out-ground, I dropped off, almost mid-conversation. When, twenty minutes later, I blinked awake, the captain was eyeing me warily. I apologised. He asked if I knew what I had been doing. I braced for embarassment. He laughed and said I had been mumbling over and over again, “Get forward, get on the front foot, get forward…”