First date nerves and bouncy nets

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Starting a new cricket season is like getting a new girlfriend. When you’re with her, you’re trying so hard that you don’t actually enjoy yourself. You fumble, stutter and fidget awkwardly, eager to impress, constantly aware that you’re not showing your best side. But then you head home, and realise you’ve had a wonderful time. The adrenaline is flowing through your body, you’ve got a smile on your face. This feeling will last a few days as you look forward to seeing her again, unable to concentrate or think of anything else.
But when it goes wrong, it goes spectacularly wrong. Your emotions fluctuate like a hormonal teenager’s, you become grumpy and irrational, making all sorts of sulky vows that this is the end, you will never go back, you’re sick of it all.

Once, when I was about 16, I tried to hold a girl’s hand in a cinema and she recoiled. I did the mature, sensible thing and ran away as soon as the film had ended. Dropping a catch or getting out first ball provokes a similar sensation, a deep sickness in the stomach, a feeling that if you wish for it hard enough that crack in the pitch really will open up and swallow you whole.

Ok, enough of the romance metaphors. Perhaps a rusty early season is like an illness that hangs around your immune system, no matter how much vitamin C you ingest there’s just no substitute for patience. Or maybe it’s like sitting an exam where you know all the answers, but when you put pen to paper nothing comes out. The harder you try, the worse it gets. Good players hit decent-looking balls for six, throwing you off your rhythm and making you try things you normally wouldn’t dream of.

This feeling is not exclusive to club cricketers. When Brian Lara regained the highest individual Test score in 2004, all attention was quite rightly on the Trinidadian master. Few spared a thought for the man who delivered the historic delivery that got him there. Most people have probably forgotten who it was. “It’s not what I want to be remembered for, being the bowler when he achieved the record,” said Gareth Batty, for it was he. “I am not one of those who stays on the canvas. I wanted to get back up and bop him on the chin.”

On Wednesday we were due to play a Twenty20 match, a warm-up for the forthcoming evening league which starts next week. But a scheduling mix-up left us without an opposition, so a few hardy souls staged an impromptu net session, battling mist, drizzle and blustery wind. At least the sun which shines directly into the striking end and blinds the batsmen was mercifully absent.

The matting in the nets, which seems to have a split personality all of its own, decided that tonight, Matthew, it was going to be Sabina Park circa 1998. Length balls reared up to head height, even the spinners extracted exaggerated bounce, and the single orange traffic cone posing as stumps took its fair share of body blows from our cobbled-together collection of red, pink and blue balls.

Still feeling the effects of our first full matches on Saturday, we discussed the differences between practice in the nets and a match out in the middle. It’s the pressure, said Steve. It’s the people watching, reckoned Bill. All I know is that it feels like an entirely different game. The dimensions of the pitch, the texture of the grass, the atmosphere, all your senses become heightened when what you’re doing actually starts to matter.

As ever, it’s all fantastic fun. But unfortunately the club’s current player shortage appears to be worsening. There are whispers of crisis meetings, of calling long-lost former team-mates out of retirement. It’s not just us, there appears to be a general feeling around the county and beyond into Devon that cricket is taking a back seat in many people’s weekend schedules. We can only hope that as the weather warms up more players will venture back and rediscover the nauseous thrill which only comes from this infuriating, intoxicating, beautiful sport.

Sam Blackledge

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