A summer with and without cricket
Yesterday’s net had the feel and the taste of an ending. As we stepped onto the outfield and across the newly painted white goal line, no.1 son purred about the conditions for playing football. He shaped to curl a pass that would drop into the path of a team mate.
The wind tugged at both boys’ lockdown locks as we crossed the field to the nets. But the pleasure no.1 son had taken in the feel of the grass under foot disappeared when he knelt to feel the net surface. The gusts had done little to lift from the astro the moisture from the overnight rain. We dug deep into our bags for old balls, but these were so distended by earlier wet practices, we settled on a couple of pinks, seams raised and colour flaking.
We batted in turn, each soon swiping and thrashing, eschewing the seriousness and urge to improve. Even no.2 son, as angry as a wasp under a glass, when bottled behind helmet and grill at the far end of a net lane, was relaxed.
Barring us, the nets, the field and the clubhouse were empty. Low grey clouds hastened the evening light. In a day or so, no.1 son returns to university. One of his first tasks is to greet the freshers as college cricket captain – skipper of a side he has never played for, its season never having troubled the groundsman, let alone the scorers.
Our protective family bubble has already burst with the return to school of the 1&onlyD and no.2 son. For the male triumvirate, though, this is another cleaving. From mid-March, we have played, laughed and worked out the frustrations of living together with bat and ball. It began with garden cricket, intense and, fierce. In late May, with the back lawn and neighbours’ patience with returning tennis balls, pushed to their limits, there came the blessed relief of nets reopening. On-line booking, hand sanitiser, limits and rules on participants’ relationships, key codes. The very good people of my club doubled down and gifted us, its members, this precious freedom.
Twice weekly, the three of us have netted. The hours of my pre-pandemic commute, recycled into cricket practice. We have contrived matches, set challenges, used video to work on technical details and drifted back to free-form. In forty years of playing, I have never practiced so much.
I must remind myself of the intrinsic value of this experience, because there’s very little to show in terms of improvement. Second ball, yesterday, no.1 son yorked me. Minutes later, I leaped at a half-volley and placed just the finest outside edge on the ball. My younger son later pinned back my off stump, with a ball that (I hope) held its line. No.1 son feels the same about his bowling and his brother’s batting still vacillates. As one shot comes, another goes. It’s some weeks since we last spotted his square cut.
We are fortunate that cricket has been such an active presence this summer. But its absence in other ways still jars. No.1 son, 19, has over-hauled me in his passion for the game, and hasn’t played a single match for college or club. No.2 son was drawn back into cricket’s orbit by the World Cup Final and played at the tail-end of last season. He trained through the winter, netting with the seniors, calculating his chances of a regular fourth team spot and what his playing role might be, eager to make up for his lost season in 2019. Instead, he has two lost seasons, managing just one match last month, when his exposure to school made avoiding cricket matches unnecessary. I don’t have the records to prove it, but I may have broken a streak of 29 seasons, by not taking the field at all this year.
The other absence playing on my mind is no.2 son’s first visit to Lord’s, planned for the Saturday of the Pakistan Test. Our – his, his Grandad and my – intention that this can be rectified in 2021 feels very much in the balance.
That Test was played ten minutes up the road from us, not 200 miles to the south, but would not have been easier to attend if played in Pakistan.
Six Tests in seven weeks might have felt like a feast after the famine of the early summer’s absence of cricket to follow. I really did enjoy both Test series and the white ball stuff that followed it. What puzzled me at the time and still does, is that through May, June and the first week of July, I felt no longing for cricket to view and follow. Like everyone else, I’ve rarely needed the escapism of my favourite sport more, but I adjusted to its absence in the way an addict is not supposed to be capable of doing. I did watch the replays of last year’s World Cup Final and Headingley Test which the broadcasters used to fill hours empty of live action, and experienced again the thrill, but not the frustration of the wider narrative of the game being stalled. When the cricket did return, my old enthusiasm, perhaps buoyed by the presence of both sons, was quickly stoked. The summer with and without cricket has clarified something about my relationship to the game. I feel less dependent, but no less capable of finding profound enjoyment there – Woakes and Buttler, Anderson and Broad, the astonishing Zak Crawley.
In one respect, this summer has done damage to my engagement with the game. I am fortunate to have been able to work from home, maintaining our family’s protective bubble. The keyboard and screen that are my connection to my professional duties are the same that I use to drum out this blog. Returning to the desk at which I have sat all day has had little appeal and so Declaration Game has drifted. I am grateful that it is the only casualty here in this summer with and without cricket.
14 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.
My 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.
A special feeling
There 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.