Marc Ellison (CricketEurope)
February 18, 2006
In the stinking hot sauna that is P Sara Oval in Colombo, Sri Lanka, it’s 35 degrees and the humidity is around 90%. The Plate Final of the 2009 Under 19 Cricket World Cup is taking place. I’m the captain of a New Zealand team that has underperformed and finds itself outside the top eight in the 16-team tournament for the first time in the history of the event.
As if that’s not embarrassing enough, I personally have underperformed, scoring 79 runs in five innings. My only saviour is that my strike rate is high at 91%. I had been batting well and hitting the ball cleanly, but taking one too many risks and finding a way to get out. I had decided I’d had enough of giving my wicket away softly and that in the final I was going to bat with more responsibility and be more selfish to ensure I get a good score, lead by example and finish the World Cup on a high.
We are taking on the heavyweight sporting nation of Nepal. Jokes aside, they had beaten a decent South African side in the Plate Semi Final to advance through, while we had taken care of the United States. I arrive at the crease with the score 12 for two in the third over. The ball is swinging around like the new ball has all tournament. I set up my stall, sticking to my mantra I had decided on before the game – to be more selfish and bat for a long time.
93 balls later, I’m out caught and bowled prodding at a good length ball against a left-arm swing bowler who I’d normally be trying to dominate. I’d added 48 runs with our opening batsman and future Black Cap Todd Astle; my contribution: 6 runs of 50 balls in 58 minutes.
After just under an hour of determination, I’d exhausted myself mentally and played a tired stroke to give my wicket away. I walked off the pitch and sat in the players viewing area for the rest of the innings, wallowing in self-pity at my poor performance, while also trying to muster the strength to encourage the rest of my team to put together a competitive total. The boys mustered a reasonable score of 204 (given I occupied 16.5% of the innings all on my own while adding the measly sum of six runs), giving the bowlers something to defend.
In the break between innings, I was absolutely shattered. The mental energy I had exhausted over the previous two to three months had caught up with me. I recall my head was resting on my forearms as I slumped over my knees and I was dozing in and out of consciousness. The coach came to me and in no uncertain terms, suggested I sort myself out and start leading by example because the team were concerned at my state of being.
I look back now and shudder at the thought of my body language. I was the leader of my country showing I couldn’t handle the weight of expectation and responsibility. What I also didn’t realise at the time was that I was suffering the ill-effects of a gluten and yeast allergy. Two weeks of curries had taken its toll on my rear-end and so I’d resorted to a staple diet of bread and ice cream over the last few days leading into the final. Not some of my finest work.
As it turned out, Bas Regmi played the innings of his life, striking 66 off 73 balls, after Nepal had slumped to 75 for six in the 27th over, to single-handedly win the game, much to the jubilation of his teammates and a high proportion of the crowd that had come to watch on the day.
The scenes of the wee Nepalese lads celebrating on the pitch, to the hand-shakes and the after-match press-conference was like living a nightmare. I was in shock and at an all-time low in my 19.33 years on the planet. I didn’t know how to cope. My confidence took a hammering. I’d let many people down, but most importantly myself.
I’d been so caught up in the fear of getting out that I’d forgotten to focus on my strengths, bat to a plan and trust that if I watched the ball onto the bat every single ball then I’d give myself the best chance of success. These weren’t things I knew much about until fairly recently.
Over the following years, my dream of becoming a full-international was given a number of reality checks. Having been successful at club level, I played provincial second XI cricket for Otago, Wellington and Auckland and while I showed flashes of ability at times, I was too inconsistent to be selected to play a higher level. I failed to bat for long enough to make the large quantity of runs required to play first-class cricket, let alone international cricket.
I questioned my ability to deal with the quality of bowling at that level and my mental capacity to handle the nerves and anxiety that come with the pressures of performance. I thought I had a fair handle on my failings; as I look at it now, I really didn’t.
At the age of 26, and with a young child, I decided to give up on my professional cricketing ambitions, get a full-time job and just play club cricket for the fun of it. The subsequent lack of time available for training and the stresses of family life (I’d had another two children by the age of 31) at home impacted my ability to be present mentally in the middle and so my form and confidence, even in club cricket, dipped substantially. I’d taken a season off club cricket in Auckland, playing the far more social Last Man Stands league on a Monday night instead.
Then the opportunity to move to the UK (Northern Ireland to be precise) came about and slowly my love for the game came back. After arriving in Belfast at the end of the summer, I was added to the Northern Knights winter training squad. It was the first time in my career I’d been able to train with professionals on a consistent basis. I thrived in the competitive training environment.
I had decided that if I was to achieve my goal of playing first-class cricket, my attitude needed to change. I needed to rid myself of fear and completely open myself up to feedback with the idea of trying to become the best player I could be (I know, a little late for this, right!?). I asked my fellow teammates for a range of information that I had previously been too scared to ask: how were the bowlers trying to get me out? Who were the best batsmen they had bowled to and where did they score runs against them? What did they think of my batting plan against them? How do they play a particular shot?
The new mentality was invigorating and while I wasn’t always batting at my best in these sessions, I could tell I was making gradual progress which was really encouraging. I had an energy about my training which I’d never had before; because I knew I was learning a heck of a lot, I was enjoying training like never before.
I wasn’t focused on being too judgemental about how well I had batted each session, I simply tried to ensure that every session I put myself under pressure and was outside my comfort zone; whether that be facing the bowling machine at 85 miles per hour, facing our fast bowlers with new balls in their hand or trying shots that I’d never practiced before.
I began well with my first hit in pre-season netting a run-a-ball 70 but then had a couple of low scores. In the past, this could have impacted my confidence, but I just tried to reinforce the idea that if I kept ticking all the right boxes with my preparation, then the outcome would take care of itself. I then made a couple of handy contributions finishing not out chasing some low scores and, in the process, proved to myself that my instincts that I’d been training all winter would serve me well if I trusted them.
It all came to a head on Saturday 19th May when, in the first round of the Irish Cup, my team CSNI travelled to Derry/Londonderry to take on Bready. They had started their League season exceptionally well with their two experienced bowlers (one a full international and the other a provincial player) skittling a couple of their local rivals.
Fortuitously, our match was played on a good batting wicket and everything came together for me. I hit the ball out of the middle of the bat from the very first over and ended up with a run-a-ball 131 as we enjoyed a comfortable victory.
What that innings did was give the Northern Knights’ selectors a reason to pick me. Within a week, I’d been told I was to make my first class debut against Leinster at Comber on May 29. It was satisfying to know that all that toil over the years of standing in the field waiting for my turn to bat, all those training sessions and all of the disappointment I’d experienced had been worth it in the end. I could finally call myself a first-class cricketer. I had ticked one box on my list of goals that I’d had in mind since I was 12.
However, as anyone who has played first-class cricket knows, playing a game is only the beginning. That’s when the real work begins. There’s no point being content with having played first-class cricket, the next step is playing at such a level that ensures you’re helping your team win games (something the Knights don’t have such a strong record with and something we’d like to change!).
With a goal of becoming the best player I can be, there was still a heck of a lot of work to be done. Especially when you feel a little out of your depth in your first two innings…
# Stay tuned for my next piece, where I’ll share my experiences of playing my first few games of professional cricket in Ireland against highly-skilled and highly-experienced players.