Sunday 26 May 2013

Letting go

Prompted by a request from my friend Tom, a cricketer whose threats of retirement come as frequently as Ronnie O'Sullivan's urges to quit the baize, I read over the chapter in Leo Mckinstry's Boycs that deals with Boycott's final day of cricket on 12 September 1986, and its aftermath.

Geoffrey was playing at Scarborough for Yorkshire against Northants. I've blogged before about his last few minutes as a professional. He'd needed to score eight more runs for his thousand for the season, something he'd achieved every year since 1962. A follow-on prevented him from returning to the crease, much to the distress of the crowd.

'Something had come to an end, something wonderful,' he said. 'I just thought, this is it then. I waited for the ground to clear. then I wondered around on my own among all the newspapers and food wrappers and tin cans.'

Thirteen years afterwards, Boycott wrote in an autobiography: 'Even now... I miss playing to such an extent that I can honestly say I'd exchange the rest of my life for five more years of playing for England at the peak of my form'. He kept one of his bats at home but tried not to pick it up because 'it stirs the memories'. His wife Rachel talked about him 'welling up' when those memories became overwhelming.

To an outsider, there might appear to be a simple solution: some club cricket, some charity games, a few knocks to ease those feelings of loss. That wasn't possible for Boycott because the love was too great. A pale reminder would serve only to reinforce the fact that it was gone.

It's a fascinating dichotomy. Tom's question was about sportsmen who had never played again in any capacity since retiring. It's not really a choice a boxer has to make: no-one fancies having their face caved in when they don't have to. An F1 driver can't really enter a local Grand Prix. Footballers and rugby players might be inhibited by injury or lack of fitness. Golfers don't have to worry about the question; theirs is a golden twilight of monied senior tours and ceremonial glory.

Playing cricket is perhaps more nuanced psychologically as well as physically. Mike Hussey, whose childlike enthusiasm bestowed the 'Mr Cricket' nickname, spoke of the overwhelming relief he felt at giving up the international game. Boycott played his entire career with a terror of failure, and according to Mckinstry, 'any bowler who dismissed him cheaply [in a charity match] would be able to dine out on that story for the rest of his life. Once again he would sense the eyes of his critics, watching for any error...'

Then there were the almost impossible standards he set for himself. When he was bowled by the final delivery of Michael Holding's famous over in Barbados in 1981, Boycott wrote in his tour diary: 'for the first time in my life, I can look at a scoreboard with duck against my name and not feel a profound sense of failure'. He was almost 40 years old, and made a century in the next Test.

When a friend asked him to appear in a charity XI, he wrote a letter explaining his reasons for declining. 'I have played with the best, for the best, against the best. Only the best will do'.

As ever with Geoffrey, it was complex and self-involved, but it's easy to see his point. Few men have loved the game more, or given more of themselves to it. It wasn't until his bout of throat cancer that he found a different perspective.

A while ago, I heard a radio discussion on the retirement theme. Darren Gough, who plays a lot of charity cricket in the same good-hearted way he did for England, said that if Alec Stewart ever accepted an invitation to play again, 'he'd probably have to have an all-day net before it'. Stewie, like Boycott, was a man of method who set himself the highest standards.

On the other side, I remember seeing Viv Richards play in a legends game in Australia. He barely hit the ball off the square, but the entire crowd rose to applaud him in and back out again, and the noble head was held as high as ever. His great pal Botham headed for the first tee and the salmon river without a second thought.

In cricket and after, each man must be an island.

Monday 6 May 2013

Cricket and sadness

Somewhere within it, cricket has a deep, maybe unending, payload of sadness. It's there in its history, in its psychology and perhaps more than that, it's part of what the game acually is.

By sadness, I don't mean melancholy or unhappiness: they are something different. It's not about tragedy, although the game has had its share of those. Rather, it's an emotion that cricket in some way seems designed to evoke.

The late Jonathan Rendall captured something like it when in one of his books he described a man he'd seen sitting in a bar on his own, a drink in his hand and a tear running down his face. "He just needed to let something pass through him," he wrote. Having done so, he drank up and left. That's sadness.

As a writer, Rendall had that exquisite sadness to him and in Twelve Grand he has some wonderful passages about cricket matches at school. The game attracts many people of this character; they see something they need reflected in it. There's a German word, sehnsucht, which is hard to translate exactly. It means hunger but also longing, and describes an emotion both positive and negative. It's there in the first lines of John Arlott's poem about Jack Hobbs:

There falls across this one December day,
The light, remembered from those suns of June,
That you reflected, in the summer play,
Of perfect strokes across the afternoon.

Arlott knew the sadness of the game as well as anyone, and how closely it was linked to the joy and fleeting moments in time, too. At the end of his career, he was visited at his home on Alderney by Mike Brearley for a TV interview, and there are passages of great tenderness and poignancy. Arlott is at times wordless in it.

There's something about the vastness of cricket's interior landscape that can absorb emotions as ineffable as this. In Bret Easton's Ellis' novel Imperial Bedrooms he writes: 'sadness - it's everywhere'. He's right, sometimes it is.

Playing Japan at cricket

They say that international cricket is no place for the forty-something player, but then Sachin's taking no notice of that. Forty is the new thirty, anyway. So what about the semi-international game?

Having been ignored by the England selectors for my entire career despite repeatedly stressing my availability, I've played for the last season for the Authors XI, a team that once featured Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle and PG Wodehouse, but that fell into inactivity until its revival in 2012 by the captain, Charlie Campbell and novelist Nicholas Hogg. results are best described as patchy, so the news that Hogg had somehow arranged a fixture against Japan, the 37th ranked team in the ICC international list, had been met be equal amounts of incredulity, excitement and fear.

The venue was Chiswick House, the match the first that Japan would play on a tour to mark the 150th anniversary of cricket in their country. While the Authors arrived in Chiswick via the usual combination of scrounged lifts, delayed trains and reluctant WAGs, Japan came on a coach. They looked chillingly young and they immediately embarked on proper fielding drills with those flexible plastic stumps and tiny traffic cones, apparently oblivious to the lumps and bumps of the early season outfield.

Japan Cricket's 150th anniversary only came to light last summer. Until then, they'd thought it was next year, but a historian had chanced upon a line in the Wisden obituary of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson that referred to him taking part in 'the first game of cricket ever played in Japan', between The Royal Navy and a team of civilians in Yokohama in June of 1863.

A trail that led to the Harrow school archive and the British Library, and then the MCC Library at Lord's produced sepia images of both teams and papers that told the story of the game, surely the only match in the history of cricket in which both sides were armed.

This is the first part of a post for Cricinfo's new blogger's section the Cordon. You can read the rest of it here.