Back in the game: returning to the strange world of village cricket

by Sam Blackledge

I AM a journalist. I spend my days making phone calls, chasing stories, following tip-offs and generally making a nuisance of myself. It is an exhausting, exhilarating and all-consuming profession, leaving very little time for anything else. But last year I decided I needed a hobby, something to take my mind off the daily grind. So I joined my local cricket club.

As a teenager I was a decent player. From the age of about 12 I would go up against senior teams, men three times my age and twice my size, and every now and then my looping legspin would get the better of them. It certainly bamboozled my peers when I played for my school team.

I had tentative trials for Warwickshire but drifted away from the game as other interests took over – college, university, relationships and then the world of work. When the 2011 season started, more than ten years had passed since I last hung up my whites.

The first net sessions were eye-opening. Though my passion for cricket had remained strong since I stopped playing, I had forgotten about the senses of the game. The hot, sweaty smells of kit bags, the echoing acoustics of the indoor school, the weight of the bat, the hardness of the ball. Everything was alien, like relearning a language I had been listening to all along.

As a naturally shy person, banter has never been my strong point, and sports clubs are not the most welcoming environments for people like me. I decided fairly early on to keep my head down, concentrate on my cricket, and made half-hearted attempts at small talk whenever the need arose.

Quickly realising I no longer had the control to bowl leggies, I switched to offspin, although there was precious little spin as I struggled with my action when practice moved outdoors. As a schoolboy it took all my effort and concentration just to get the ball down the other end. But now taller, older and uglier, I was dishing up all sorts of rubbish, unable to find my radar or settle into a rhythm.

My first match came along soon enough, a friendly fixture for the Sunday team, and I was a bag of nerves as we fielded first. No matter how much you practise, nothing can prepare you for the moment when you are standing at mid-off and a ball is cracked in your direction. Time slows down and speeds up all at once. It’s fight or flight. Every bit of my instinct was screaming: “Hard ball. Very fast. Get out of the way.”

To simply move, of course, would spell disaster. Quite apart from conceding a boundary, I would have been marked out as a problem fielder, a weak link to be hidden away. All these thoughts were racing through my head when the ball slammed into my ankle, looped behind me and the batsmen scampered a single.

Over the next few months things got slightly easier. My first wicket came with a neat caught-behind in my second game, and I celebrated a bit too enthusiastically. I soon realised that no one really celebrates on Sundays. Towards the end of the season we arrived for a Sunday home game to find one of the opposition players warming up by running around the boundary. Our laidback captain looked on, incredulous. “What’s he doing?” he spluttered. “It’s Sunday.”

My bowling was improving in fits and starts, but batting was a different matter. I scored seven runs, with a top score of 5, at an average of 2.33. Chris Martin, eat your heart out.

Many cricketers claim that they can remember every shot, every run and every moment of their greatest innings. I never quite believed it, thinking the statistical detail of their autobiographies came not from memory but from carefully studying the pages of Wisden. Now I am beginning to catch on.

That glorious 5 – a career best – came in my only match for the Saturday second team. It was a warm afternoon, FA Cup final day, and we endured a crushing away defeat – conceding 278 and managing just 106 in reply. I came in at No. 10, with the game in its final throes, the opposition’s two spinners bowling in tandem, and survived 27 balls before being caught at silly point.

It was great fun and summed up everything I love about the game. Nothing seemed to matter – the hopeless match situation, the fact I hardly knew which end of the bat to hold, the agonising cramp in my legs from 50 overs in the field – and yet it mattered more than anything else. I was in my own little world, battling my demons, playing a sport I cherish and that I had thought I would never play again.

After a couple more wickets, a shocking dropped catch and a fair bit of rain, the season ended. My statistics tell the story of an expensive part-time bowler and tail-end batsman with a tendency to get out clean-bowled. But my memories are of so much more than that.

I recently returned to winter nets ahead of the coming season. It is still awkward, terrifying and challenging. My bowling is slightly better, my batting seems to be getting worse. I still have trouble working up the courage to talk to anyone. But it’s great fun. I’m doing it for my 12-year-old self. I think he would be proud.

This piece first appeared at Cricinfo.

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