Exactly three years ago, I drove across South Manchester in the dark one evening to find a sports hall. I would have been relieved to have got lost, or to have been unable to find the hall. That way I could have satisfied myself that I was at least making the effort.
Displays of courage have been neither frequent nor prominent in my life. It’s not with any great pride that I reckon one of the bravest things I have done as an adult is to have gone into the sports hall, said a few ‘hi’s’ and put myself forward as a cricketer.
I know I nearly turned back to the car as I approached the net, which was busy with the sounds of 20 unknown cricketers practising hard. When I pulled back the heavy green curtain to enter the practice area and walked forwards it was just to see through what I had set running, not that I was doing something I would enjoy. The cricketers I joined were young, nonchalant with their strength and so much taller than I.
This, aged 40, was the beginning of my comeback. I had last played regular cricket 14 years before in London. A diet of one or two matches each season had kept my cricket metabolism ticking over. The year I turned 40, I had a personal incantation: Jack Hobbs had scored 100 hundreds after his 40th birthday. And I scored a few runs on my annual college old boys tour. I stayed long enough at the crease (with bowling friendly enough) to feel I had an ‘innings’, where choices could be made over shots, some momentum built, not just reflexive responses to a blurred ball.
At the net, I stood against the green curtain for three-quarters of an hour. I didn’t have a ball and wanted even less to have to bowl. I would rather be seen as a little odd, than humiliate myself, send my confidence plunging before doing what I had really come to do.
Eventually, I was invited to pad-up. I borrowed a bat and made my way down to the end of one tunnel. The first ball was bowled by one of the very tallest of the cricketers, a medium pacer. I lunged forward, ball taking the inside half of my bat. A start. In the next 10 minutes, I played enough shots to send my spirits rising. I was also tied in knots by a young and very talented leg-spinner (the U18 wicket-keeper). The Saturday XI captains quickly saw that I would not be skewing the average age of their teams, but a playing role would be found for me in a large club.
I was back at the sports centre every week. The 10 minutes of batting were a highly distilled physical challenge that inhabited my mind through the following days. I was exhilarated. By week three I was trying to bowl.
Pre-season practice for the fourth season of the second half of my career is about to start. Winter nets still excite and make me nervous. I adore the intensity of the experience they provide, but more broadly wonder about their value. Just as taking exams is perfect preparation for.. taking exams, so indoor netting is its own activity with questionable transferrable value. Here’s my stock-take of the good and the bad: