|'Country Cricket', by Christine Atkins|
The mysteries of the passions. One day, the thing that you’ve been doing – and looking forward to doing – for the most part of your life suddenly feels like the thing you least want to do. Like a trip to the dentist, a physics exam, some bespoke phobia or other.
It’s hard to put a finger on the exact point that such a transformation happens – almost impossible, in fact, when you’re in the middle of it all, much as you wouldn’t see the point when you become bald by looking in the mirror every day – but the point when you realize it has happened is as clear and unambiguous as dropping a frying pan on your toes. You simply cross a threshold of patience and what only the previous day was tolerable suddenly becomes unbearable. In an unsurpassably wise text, F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work – the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside – the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within – that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.”
I remember well the moment when I realized my elastic had snapped, the moment that the various lines of pressure – lines that were muddied at the time but, looking back, have become clear – suddenly overwhelmed me. I was on the toilet one Saturday morning, usually an exciting time (the morning of the match, that is, not sitting on the toilet), but cricket had become the thing I least wanted to do in the world, a monumental chore. I sighed a few times, shook my head, put that head in my hands, may even have sobbed (thankfully, the tears didn’t come), and slowly came to the realization that there was no getting out of it – well, I didn’t think there was.
How did I get there? After several weeks of poor results, several weeks trying to man-manage a team with a few personalities that were not disposed to the selflessness and generosity of spirit required in team sport, several weeks of having to arrange sub pros (to go with long stints in the previous two years) and actively loathing one of the sub pro’s we did sign (which I have written about previously), I’d reached my tipping point. Looking back, though, I know that these flannelled factors comprised only a fraction of what had shoved me to the brink. See, cricket had always been an oasis away from real-world stresses, as I’m sure it is for many who play the game. A place to switch off. And although there’s a certain (self-imposed) pressure to perform, ultimately you enjoy the game, the challenge. When it starts to become a pressure in its own right, however, it stands to reason that it can no longer function as that valve. That was true with me, but the greatest pressures by far lay elsewhere…
At the time, I shared a two-up, three-down in the middle of Stoke with a good mate in bad nick. Our neighbours were a pair of bickering, sleepless old alcoholics, housed there by social services, and their every ‘conversation’ – each one a pool of petrol in a flame-thrower shop – could be heard through walls thinner than French pastry. They were not particularly house-proud people, either: once, they blithely set fire to an unwanted settee that had been loitering awhile in their rarely visited back yard; on another occasion, they couldn’t find it in them to remove a sizeable dog turd from their front doorstep, so it sat there for a whole month (basically, until it had dried out and perished, as though they were preparing some Chinese medicine or other). The only time they would venture out from the murky shelter of their boozecave was when DTs forced them to procure more bottles of White Lightning, sending them shakily up the street like stick insects learning how to roller-skate.
We never did invite them round for tea, not even when a weasely little heroin dealer named “Cookie” moved in (I knew his name because that’s what clients would shout at 4am when throwing stuff up at his window looking for a score). Nor when Cookie’s prison acquaintance – who we called “Tattoo Man”, on account of the large tattoo covering the left-hand side of his face – turned up with his late-night disco blaring through the walls, advising Cookie to tell us that he was going to “come through their fucking front door with an axe” when we complained. I even started to feel sympathy for Brian and Dave’s race to drink themselves to death having been inconvenienced by this psychopath. No, we never did invite them round for tea.
All of this – the cricket, the neighbours, the skintness – was played out against the ongoing saga of my PhD, which was the real gnawing, chafing, heavy presence at the centre of things. I had been burgled in Nottingham in 2006, lost my laptop and, in this pre-Dropbox era, the majority of my work (15 months; 65,000 words). Benefiting from a huge and timely stroke of good fortune, I took a year out, selling advertising to property firms in Europe, North Africa and the Caribbean, and then had to settle back into writing, from scratch, a long, abstract and very, very theoretical piece of historiography (185,000 words reduced to 120,000 in the final eight days of furious editing). A comedown, to say the least. And once the funds from the advertising jaunt had dried up, it became increasingly difficult to get motivated for each day’s slog. The mind wanders, the internet swallows time. Each morning – or, often, afternoon – you wake up alone and in a desert, knowing you must push forward those few steps. Meanwhile, every fortnight I had to fabricate a jobsearch to keep the state happy (getting a part-time job would have used up time I didn’t have, and probably would have made me poorer). And while all that was happening – that, and a mother dying of primary biliary cirrhosis until a life-saving liver transplant (and she didn’t go anywhere near White Lightning, nor anything more refined) – you’ve got to keep yourself together for the cricket team. Be El Capitán.
Anyway, as I sat there on the toilet that morning, the prospect of donning the captain’s hat and giving the team-talk seemed impossible. If you feel like throttling three or four of your team (literally, in one case, metaphorically in the others), it’s quite hard to be convincing when it comes to the motivational pep-talk. This was not a time for Henry V’s “Once more unto the breach, dear friends”; it was a time to go to a spiritual retreat in the hills of Sri Lanka and have nubile women rub coconut balm over your body. But PMT had recently discontinued the Potteries to Colombo service, so that was no longer a realistic option. Yet neither was the “Come on today, fellas!” pretence. I was cracking, as slowly and inexorably as a WACA pitch.
And that was it. The passion that had sustained 21 years of first-team cricket had vanished, as quickly as a puddle in the tropical sun. I played on for a few weeks, maybe six, until three or four weeks from the end of the season a nagging knee injury gave me my reason to free myself from the torture. I had no idea the end of my cricket-playing days would be as sudden to arrive or as anti-climactic as that, but as the start of the following summer came around I realized beyond all doubt that I’d fallen out of love with the game – ironically, around the same time as I started to write about it, and to watch more of the professional version than I had in the previous two decades combined.
|Eve of Ashes 2013: even this didn't get the juices flowing...|
As well as watching Notts a fair bit in that first, cricket-less summer, I also popped down a couple of times to watch Wollaton, the club in Nottingham for which I played in 2006 and 2007. I swung over to Staffordshire to see how Moddershall were doing on a few occasions, and a few more in 2012. I reported that year on Test matches against West Indies at Trent Bridge and Edgbaston, a T20I against the same opponents in Nottingham, and an ODI there against South Africa. Still I had no real desire to play. I saw Graham Onions take his 9-57 against Notts, covering the game for The Guardian. And last summer I was in the press box for the opening exchanges of the Ashes, as well as Jos Buttler’s ODI savaging of New Zealand. I still didn’t feel like playing. Slowly, slowly, however, I was becoming aware that I might have an itch to scratch – the feeling of wanting to hit a spanking cover drive, or to skip down the wicket and loft a spinner back over his head – although I didn’t really feel I could face the sacrifice (as it had become) of fielding.
Nevertheless, just as imperceptibly as it had disappeared, the passion was starting to swell. I still can’t put a finger on the exact reasons – and maybe I haven’t yet had the moment when I know, definitively, that the passion has returned, the frying-pan-on-the-foot moment – but I was definitely inspired by seeing a club that had endured such a torrid couple of years slowly rebuild itself, but on much more secure foundations. And I was inspired by seeing an emerging crop of youngsters not only dominate at junior level (with those unprecedented back-to-back trebles) but also make real contributions to senior cricket. And then there was the Staffordshire Cup final: the ground looking a picture, the pavilion buzzing, a young side doing themselves and the club proud.
Yes, the passions were stirring. The sacrifices of fielding began to pale alongside the possible pleasures of batting: possible – because the possibilities encompass glory and humiliation, and everywhere in-between. By Christmas, with the persistent nudging of one or two good cricketing friends, I’d made the decision to give it another crack. I now needed to commit, mentally and materially, the time to playing, and to commit some to shifting a bit of timber. After a couple of rust-coloured nets – finding myself padding up again was weird (weird in the way that certain victims of stroke can no longer recognize their own face) and I had more or less forgotten how to do it – the skeleton of an idea was starting to acquire the flesh of reality.
|Plenty of flesh on this (old) reality...|
Sadly, I then had to go to Cyprus for seven weeks – well, not sadly, but you know what I mean – and cricket training opportunities are pretty thin on the ground over there. Nevertheless, the juices were now flowing, and one of the first tasks was therefore to find a household implement that could double as a bat for practising shadow strokes. First, I found a broom with a long handle (and everyone in cricket knows that you sweep with a short handle) before stumbling across something more wieldy in the form of a sponge-headed mop of approximately bat-length, the only problem being that if you didn’t align it properly you’d thrape yourself on the back of the calf when playing a cover drive – oh yes, it had started to feel familiar!
My shadow-batting elicited a few curious glances from passing Cypriots, that’s for sure. Still, no mither: I managed to average 734 for the winter, with a strike-rate of 167 per 100 balls, two triple-centuries and three double, so I felt in reasonable nick coming into the season, despite not having hit a non-imaginary ball in a competitive match since August 2010.
Tomorrow, I step in from the wilderness to play a friendly, and then it’s into the league campaign.* I know that, in a cricketing sense, Fitzgerald was right: I’ll never be as good a man again. Even so, a writer – an aspirant writer – can be consoled that the passing of what physical prowess there was is often accompanied by the arrival of intellectual acuity and, more importantly, emotional balance, a wilting of the go and with it all the clamorous interiority of the young, vain and anxious. Fitzgerald was also convinced that “a man does not recover from such jolts – he becomes a different person, and, eventually, the new person finds new things to care about”. Six months ago, I would have agreed without hesitation. But the old passion – if indeed it is the same old passion – appears close to having returned.
Hopefully, then, a metaphorical frying pan will fall on my foot. Hopefully, I’ll feel the simple delight you get from hitting a ball, from chipping in your efforts for the team cause, and from watching a young player have a light-bulb moment. Hopefully, what had once brought me so many joyous, sun-kissed afternoons, so many different types and tones of pleasure, so many thrills and spills, can be fully restored. And hopefully, that unmistakable sense of Saturday-morning anticipation – whether sat on the Great White Throne or elsewhere – will bring its blue skies and butterflies once more.
* I made 38 (4 fours, 1 six), against bowling that wasn’t, to be honest, too challenging. I hit an extra-cover drive for four that gave me a Ready Brek glow of satisfaction and had me hold the pose for a few instants … until an opposition fielder made some wisecrack about getting his camera! I told him it had been four years and he shouldn’t begrudge me the moment. We smiled – at cricket, probably. I ended up being too delicate with a shin-high full-toss and steering it straight to long-on.