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Captaincy

Exhausted. Seven overs under the belt – consecutively. It’s 27 degrees and as far as I’m concerned it could be 40. The ball – which has just trundled along the ground to cover – is being thrown straight to the next bowler. Fine leg is the destination for me – but not until a minute of shouting at fielders, trying to plan for a leg spinner who does spin it but doesn’t yet have the control. And there are looks of confusion from my team – one of them is paddling from midwicket to deep square leg to midwicket again and I am so very, very tired.


Captaincy of the fourths at my cricket club has taught me more about myself than almost anything else I’ve experienced in life. I am a fairly hopeless cricketer. I can barely hold a bat; anyone who bowls it full and straight, especially with any speed, has me for breakfast. My bowling is, to put it mildly, pedestrian – the one thing I bring is accuracy, unless I’m really trying to up the speed, which is when it flies around (and the speed doesn’t really go up either). Fielding is frankly a competition of mind over matter in which often neither wins and the ball just flies straight past before I’ve noticed it was in the departure lounge, bags packed and had its shades on. 


But despite all of this – good God, I love it. 

* * *

The team I manage is an ever-changing, mixed bag. Usually it sees a smattering of under 16s, taking their first steps into adult sport; a couple of mid-20s who really can’t be bothered with the competitiveness of the top level; and one or two who fall heavily into the ‘dads or other assorted other-the-hill types’. I’m firmly in the last category, but my hill looked pretty different to most. I played no cricket at all between the last appearance for school, aged around 13, and my first appearance for Chorley St. James 2nds, in a field in Lancashire, a fortnight before my 32nd birthday. 
Memories of the final game before the hiatus are stronger than the return, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise given the tricks the mind plays you on as age advances and shifts sap the spirit. Wielding my trusty Harrow-sized Gunn and Moore, which still lies in the back bedroom at my parents’ house, I managed to score – well, I may not have scored at all. But, facing a bowler whose name is still seared in my head – Martyn Dobson (who it turns out has a wikipedia page!) – about whom I’d only heard the words “England player. Spins it a mile. Great.” I strode out to face my grisly fate.


A non-selective local authority comprehensive would be the official description for Huntcliff school then; for us, it was just the nearest place we could go to without sitting an exam. It meant being with your mates, getting the death-trap old double decker in the morning and freezing your knackers off when they made us do swimming lessons in the pool once ‘kindly’ donated by the sadistic parents who sent their charges to the place in the 70s. It wasn’t a bad school when I went – the teachers generally meant well, and the high jinks were pretty mild; but achievement and attainment, along with facilities, were at best limited. There were rugby posts on the field behind the rural studies department/shed; there may have been a football team, but I don’t remember it; and there was no cricket pitch. There was the village pitch, the other side of the maths department, outside of the school – but I don’t ever remember playing on it, or seeing anyone else play on it either. Put simply, this wasn’t Whitgift, Bedford or Radley, and I don’t ever remember a net session – or indeed, any sort of practice.


Martyn Dobson bowled spin. The Wikipedia page tells me it was an off-break, but as far as I was concerned when I went in, he was Shane Warne, bowling the ball of the century with every twirl of his arm. I know only that I went in in the lower middle order; and everyone else had got out to him. It was an inter-schools tournament, held at Sir John Nelthorpe school in Brigg, in leafy North Lincolnshire. The sun was shining. I was still a boy (hence the Harrow bat); I was also a bit fat, rather unfit and frankly not very good. It is fair to say not a great deal was expected of me.
First ball. Straight. Something akin to a forward defensive greeted it. Over after over went by. I promise you – I tried to hit it. I tried with all my pathetic might to smash that ball to the boundary. But all I recall is really middling one – or so I thought – and short cover picking it up and sending it straight back to the bowler. I couldn’t score, but he couldn’t get me out either.
Eventually, I left the pitch (I have a sneaking suspicion I was retired after facing too many overs, rather than being out – but that may well be my rose-tinted reminiscences of youth). A Test watcher from my earliest days, I reasoned that I’d done alright. OK, I didn’t score much, if at all; but he hadn’t got me out, and I’d held up an end…


Dog’s abuse followed. 

“Why didn’t you score?”

“That was shit”“

We’ll never fucking win now”

“You’re useless”

“Lost us the game”

And so on.


I didn’t play again for about 20 years.

* * *


“We’re short a player. Are you free?”
I was standing by the desk of my rather excellent colleague Paul, in the office.
“Well….”
“Go on. You don’t have to do much. You might get a bowl if you want… but you don’t have to…and we can have a pint after…”
I don’t remember turning up, but I did. I don’t remember batting first, or what happened when. But I do remember the captain turning to me, and saying… “fancy a bowl?”
In for a penny, in for a pound. I did warn them, after all… Standing at the end of what I thought was my run-up – I mean, who knows? – I remember a sinking pit in my stomach. 
“Just get it near the wickets…”


If this were a movie, I have no doubt I’d have taken a five-for and been held high on the shoulders of my adoring teammates. Sadly, I am no Ryan Reynolds – or indeed James Anderson; and they were not weightlifters. There was no five-for. There was, however, 3 overs, 10 runs… and a bloody wicket. Thank you, eternally, to Dag Griffiths, whomever you are, for nicking one off to the safe hands of Jonny Davies for a duck. With that small act of glorious incompetence, you rekindled my love for playing, and not just watching the game; and for that I shall be forever grateful.
As for Paul, the man who bribed me with a beer; well, we will get another net in very soon. I still enjoy getting him to nick off. But this isn’t about him; it’s about Phil; the captain who gave me an over, kept me on when it went better than we all expected, and taught me, probably without intending to, that getting people to have a go is the most important bit of the job.

* * *

                                                                                                               
The last few years have been hard. Not by any sort of metric; not to look at from the outside, no doubt; not by those for whom life is actually a struggle. But, by my own reasoning, it’s been a difficult time. 
I spent more than two years doing night shifts, partly to give myself ‘regular’ hours; partly to hide from life. The dark was my space; where I could immerse myself in American Football and carve out my own niche.
Yet through all of that, all the sleeping and insomnia, the disconnectedness and the isolation of the early hours, those cricketing Sundays acted like a rope to a drowning sailor. Standing in the field, sun on my face, it felt like life itself was enticing me back.

 
Cricket is my religion. I am an evangelist for its power. The light of the summer, the camaraderie, the skill, the enjoyment of finally taking a wicket, of hitting a great on drive, of just being, of standing outside on a beautiful summer’s day and realising how extraordinarily lucky we are to have life. It is frustrating too; a great reminder of one’s limitations, of the feeling that talent and success is just beyond the reach of your fingertips. But during the summer my week is lived Sunday to Sunday – the time in between games; the work, the nights out, the long evenings – they’re just filler until the first ball of the next weekend.  As for the winter – that splits into three parts. There’s a month recovering from the exertions of the summer, and grieving for the time gone; then the dark times, between October and January, when the mere thought of summer and cricket seems aeons away. Finally, the hope and light – the new year, and the suggestion on the Cricket Club group WhatsApp, from someone even more desperate than me… “Anyone fancy a net?”
And I smile again.

* * *


“Just rip it”.
I wasn’t – for many years – someone who attacked life. Those halcyon days where you’re meant to get up to all sorts and be at your physical peak – your late teens or early twenties… they didn’t really happen like that for me.
I’ve always preferred a quiet pint in a nice pub, talking bollocks with a couple of excellent friends. Looking back now, I think I was for many years someone who let life happen to them, rather than taking it by the horns. Less on the edge, more on the side – looking in. 
We read so much about age being a limiting factor in life. Physically, the older you get, the more constrained you are – or, perhaps, simply the more aware of your own bodily limitations.
Mentally though, I’m just getting to a stage where I think I’m starting to bloom. Yes, I am tired, and yes, I am definitely still broken by too many late nights and lost hopes. But I know myself better than I ever have, and I am definitely less worried by what others think of me.
That feeling – probably, just the advance of middle age – is liberating. Now I understand that failure is the most important ingredient of success; and that you need to gamble to achieve.


We have two young spinners at the wonderful club I now play at in the Manchester suburbs; leggies both, and very talented. 
Managing the spinners is the bit of the game I enjoy the most. I know if they get carted around, we might lose. But they need to learn, and most of all, they need to learn to gamble. 
So when I throw the ball to either of them, I do it with the same words, every time.


“Just rip it”.

I am not worried if they throw a couple up, or don’t pitch it right, or get belted by a fat bloke with no discernible talent but with a big bat. I tell them that too.

“Don’t worry about the runs. Your only job is to spin it hard”.

If they can do that; beat the bat, worry the batsman, then they’ll be fine bowlers for years to come.
When you’re captaining a 4th team, the end result is always more important than the win itself. The game is a mental one; the best bowlers and batsmen are the ones who are willing to risk everything to go that bit further. Now I’m old, and I realise I didn’t do that, I hope those who follow me don’t make the same mistake. 

* * *


Some may see captaincy as a limit on their own ambitions; that the organisation of lifts and remaining overs and batting lineups and field placements is all hard work they don’t need. There are times when I would heartily agree. But in the end, the hassle is worth it; when I decide on a fielding change and it works immediately, or a bowler who’s been struggling turns the corner and the weight of the world visibly lifts from their shoulders, or an out of form batsman who I’ve stuck with makes a score and they start to smile – suddenly, their joy brings me my own rewards.
And then, every so often, I get the best honour of all. To pass on the game I love to someone else, and hope the bug bites them hard too.


“Fancy a bowl?”


And I smile again.

Too much love will kill you

These first few words are being written as Jason Roy faces the opening ball of the second game of the T20 series against Australia. It’s 8.40am on a random Wednesday in early February 2018, and only about four hours of sleep has been managed so far; somehow, it seems a reasonable amount. Outside, the early morning sun is shining brightly, even if those ambling past the window look like they’ve taken a trip into their local butcher’s walk-in freezer.

I love the morning light at this time of year. The snowdrops are ready to bloom, and finally it seems like the long dark of winter is drawing away. Best of all, this coming weekend sees the first net session of the new year — that wonderful mixture of the dreams of the impending summer and days spent wistfully wandering around a boundary, and the expectant agony of turning a shoulder over for the first time in months.

Roy out for 9.

I am just about old enough to remember when cricket used to be played in the summer, with the occasional sound of TMS to keep you company under the sheets in the depths of December. That was it. Tours were long, summers were longer, and Octobers were full only of Saturday afternoons and the classified football results.

Cricket now never ends. I am, for my sins, a Lancashire member (my younger self would be mildly horrified, but life takes you in strange directions — in my case, over the Pennines) and have had numerous emails from the club in the last week alone reminding me of ways to watch Red Rose players in their various tournaments. BT Sport and TMS mean I’ve missed barely a minute of the winter’s Ashes series — despite the untold misery it’s brought. In the few moments it’s been fallow, the BBL has filled in. If both are off, there’s been untold hours of YouTube highlights of David Gower innings in which to indulge.

While the mood is low here, and the days short, cricket is, for me, a glimpse to a brighter time. The sunshine is real, the sound of never-met friends on the radio a beckoning into the spring and summer of old mates and familiar frustrations at the crease. It is the light at the end of the long dark.

Hales gone for 22.

The new membership card for Lancashire dropped through the letter box the other day — another reminder of what is to come. One of the aforementioned emails tells me that Jos Buttler is about to start for the Rajasthan Royals in this season’s IPL. He’ll play (in theory) alongside his England colleague Ben Stokes. Another England man, Chris Woakes, has made more than £810,000 with his purchase by the Royal Challengers Bangalore. It all starts in April, and sometimes, I have to admit, I think less might just be more.

Woakes was part of the England squad for the Ashes. The all-rounder managed 25 on the first day of the tour, in Perth. That was back on the 4th of November, against a Western Australia XI. I don’t have access to his itinerary, but given he plays in all three formats for England, he may have spent more time in the air around Australia than at the crease in the last three months. His tour down under — as far as I can tell — is scheduled to end on day five of the second Test at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch. On the third of April.

Morgan goes. England are collapsing.

I do not feel particularly sorry for Chris Woakes. He is an international sportsman. He’s worked particularly hard to get where he is. He’s representing his country at the top level, and spending his permanent summer reaping the rewards, both on the pitch and in his bank balance. But I am concerned for him, and for his colleagues. I am concerned that there is simply too much cricket, and not enough Chris Woakes to cope with the demands. I am not sure I can keep up with it, and more importantly, I doubt the poor lad remembers his address.

It seems sometimes that there have been complaints about the cricket calendar since the game was invented. You think the situation when Australia played a Test in India and a T20 at home against Sri Lanka in the space of 24 hours in 2017 is unusual? In January 1930, two England sides managed it on the same day — one in Christchurch, one in Bridgetown:Playing two Tests in a day1930 In the first month of 1930 England found themselves playing simultaneous Test series in New Zealand and the…www.espncricinfo.com

For what it’s worth, I suspect even WG Grace probably moaned about having to face a few pie chuckers around 1890, when he’d much rather have been chucking down a few lunchtime pies.

That said, I have a nagging suspicion that today’s version of ‘too much cricket’ isn’t healthy for spectator, player or coach. Players cannot recuperate, coaches are burnt out, and fans have to try to fit in their lives around keeping up their interest in the game. The genie, though, is unlikely to get back in the bottle. TV money is too appealing. Gate money too necessary. Schedules — and seats — must be filled. More is needed… always.

I love cricket. But there’s too much of it for me, and I’m not sure any of it matters any more. Why should I care about the Kolkata Knight Riders in the upcoming IPL if I don’t recognise any of the players — as the team’s changed so much since last year? I’m currently watching David Willey rip through the Aussie top-order, and the utter frisson of joy that should bring is missing. The game is only worthwhile if it brings meaning. If there is no value, no story, no drama… there is only a fleeting excitement, a cheap trick… a meaningless flirtation. Oh, and while the customers are being rinsed for every penny and waking moment, the players are being put through their paces again for every last sinew of effort in exchange for a few coins.

Sometimes there are too many sixes, and not enough nurdles into the leg side. Cricket — perhaps for its own good — needs less, not more.

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