A healthy interest in cricket? More like an insomniac's addiction

At night, with your ear jammed to the radio, dark forces prowl the perimeters of your mind
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Found myself strolling through Green Park on a deceptively sunny morning last week talking to the trees. Nothing unusual in this for mid-February. You start looking up at the bare branches, imagining them heavy with life again, and you suddenly grow terrified that you will miss it, that you will end before the winter does. The park was full of men my age, doing the same. Imploring the trees to get a move on. Bud, you bastards!

Found myself strolling through Green Park on a deceptively sunny morning last week talking to the trees. Nothing unusual in this for mid-February. You start looking up at the bare branches, imagining them heavy with life again, and you suddenly grow terrified that you will miss it, that you will end before the winter does. The park was full of men my age, doing the same. Imploring the trees to get a move on. Bud, you bastards!

Nothing unusual about it except for one detail: it wasn't just summer I was looking forward to, it was cricket. How many weeks, I caught myself wondering, before England was in action again.

Now, it is important you know, if you are not a cricket watcher, that England have only very recently been in action. Last weekend, to be precise. Last Sunday, to be preciser. In South Africa. The final one day international of a series of seven one-day internationals, following five Test Matches. This - the morning of my invocation to nature in Green Park - was Tuesday. In other words I had been without cricket for a day and a half. A mere 36 hours without cricket and I was already suffering withdrawal symptoms. And I don't even like cricket.

Let me put that differently. It isn't that I don't like cricket, it's that cricket doesn't like me.

At school I believed I had it in me to be a good and maybe even spectacular middle-order batsman. I was a flamboyant stroke-maker in the nets. Out of the nets was a slightly different story. Out of the nets there were fielders taking catches and throwing down my stumps. Whereas in the nets - the nets being virtual reality cricket - every ball I hit had six written on it. I square cut, I drove, I even leg glanced for six. I moved better in the nets, too. I felt compact and impregnable in my pads and box. Out of the nets, though, you have to run, you have to calculate distances, it's you against 11 others. And 11 seemed about 10 too many to me. In the nets it was one against one, which was how I liked it.

"If we had matches in the nets I'd have you opening the batting and captaining the side," the sports master told me. "But as we don't, you're dropped."

Those words were cruel, but not without their consolation. It hurt not to be batting for the school, but it would have hurt more to be fielding for it. That was the downside of cricket for me. You couldn't bat and then go home. You had to field. And I was the wrong religion to field. A cricket ball coming at you at a hundred miles an hour is like an Exocet. In my faith it is forbidden to knowingly put yourself in the line of fire.

I did open the batting, years later, when teaching briefly at a school in Manchester. Staff against pupils. I was out first ball. In the nets it would have been a six. Straight over the bowler's head. But on the field, sides cheat. They put a fielder behind the bowler. The sound of 800 schoolboys roaring on your first-ball dismissal - to a loosener, at that - is not something you forget easily if you are given to self-doubt. I am not saying it is the reason I went from being a good, even spectacular sleeper, to a poor one, but it contributed.

Sleeplessness is a terrible thing, but it would be worse without cricket to listen to on the radio. My first bout coincided with an Ashes tour to Australia, the year Lillee and Thompson broke English hearts. I listened to every ball of every test. The timing couldn't have been better. Round about midnight English time I'd switch on, and round about four in the morning English time we'd be all out. This gave me time to feel my way to the kitchen and make tea before we put them in. By end of play on day one the Chappells were 200 without loss, and I could fry myself some breakfast.

Whatever the subsequent disappointments of the day, there was always the greater disappointment of English cricket to look forward to at night. It acted as a sort of blotting paper, soaking up all lesser griefs and irritations. Looking back at that period of my life now, I can't remember what I did or who I did it with. Was I employed? Married? Happy? Silly question - you don't lie awake night after night listening to cricket if you are happy. But the atmosphere of those years as I recall them is not "unhappy" exactly.

More suspended. As though the life I was living did not quite belong to me. In the despondency and failure of others I succeeded in forgetting all about my own.

You need to be in bed for this to work for you. Go out and watch cricket with your own eyes and the morbidity is harder to sustain. At night, with your ear jammed to the radio, dark forces prowl the perimeters of your mind, the catches that they take the very proof that evil reigns. But in the daylight they are just men, running hard.

I like to think it's a sign of my maturity that I have now factored in, as they say, real as opposed to phantom cricket. And what is more can love the game even when England isn't losing. That's progress, I would argue - actually to want to win.

But that it's all still pathological, I don't have the slightest doubt. You might call it taking a healthy interest in sport: counting the hours until the season starts, wanting to see the game in the flesh, wanting to watch it on television, wanting to hear it on radio, wanting to read about it in the papers, needing - "needing" - to know that it is simply out there in the world, happening, as though one's own life happening is not enough - I call it barking.

Comments