A Team Game?

A number of years back I received a call from one of my kids who was outraged because he was down to bat at Number 10. Never mind the fact he was an Under 15 playing in an Under 17 game. Or that he was a relative beginner having taken up the sport a little more than a year previous. He was boiling at the injustice of it, positively steaming, when all of a sudden thereís a cheer in the background and he says, Great, someoneís out. At least thatís one of them out of the way.

It brought me back. Because I was the same growing up. At night I would lie in bed and dream of playing a stylish matchwinning innings and then as soon as I reached the ground the following day the first obstacle to overcome was all those ahead of me in the batting order. The sooner each was dismissed, the sooner I would be allowed to bat. It was a very simple equation. I played cricket because I desperately wanted to bat and to bowl, not because I wanted to sit on a bench and applaud my teammates.

Unlike my son, however, I had learned to hide it. Good luck, guys, Iíd wish the two openers on their way out. Loads of time, remember. Shot, Oscar! Iíd shout from the touchline but really Iíd be thinking why donít you have a nasty slog and get out, Oscar, Iím growing old here watching you. It didnít matter who you were; if you were ahead of me in the batting order, I wanted you gone. The ball hit in the air and it was always the same thing running through my mind, catch it, catch it, catch it, oh no, howíd you drop that?

Make Ďem pay, Oscar, make Ďem pay. Loads of time. Nothing rash now.

Nowadays some coaches insist that the kids sit like a row of milk bottles on a bench and offer vocal support to the two in the middle. When I was a kid I certainly didnít sit on any bench. As soon as I could persuade anybody to accompany me Iíd be in the nets playing stump tests and wishing ill on my teammates until Iíd let a silent cheer and go barrelling off to stick on the pads myself. I had come here to play, remember, not to watch Oscar compile a patient and resourceful fifty. If I wasnít getting an opportunity out in the middle I was damn well going to find somewhere else to play.

As for the result of the actual game, I couldnít have cared a jot who won or lost. Nothing could have been of less interest to me.

Maybe the star players cared. Maybe knowing that they would definitely be offered an opportunity to bat and to bowl and understanding that their path was already mapped out in the game this was a luxury they could afford. But I doubt it. They always seemed the most selfish of all. Get caught in a mid wicket mix up with one of these guys and youíd soon find yourself flat on your back with studmarks on your sternum. Anyhow, for the rest of us it was dog eat dog, teammates in constant competition with each other, all vying for prime spots in the batting order and for overs to bowl.

And how could it be otherwise? In what other sport could a group of kids be expected to wait on the touchline for an opportunity to take the field and even shine and not to wish for that moment to arrive more quickly. It goes against every basic human and sporting instinct. Eleven year olds, I would hope, are generally bursting to get out onto that pitch, to bat and to bowl and to take stunning catches in the deep. They should want every ball to come to them. If a kid is ever going to be any good as a sportsman he will need confidence and courage and a hunger to learn. And heís not going to learn a damn thing sitting on a bench clapping Oscar, thatís for sure. A real sportsman doesnít care how quick that bowler is, heíll think; Iíll go out and face him. I have pads, donít I? So what if some six foot four goliath is whacking them into the gardens. Give me the ball and Iíll get him out. Come on, hit me a catch, hit me a catch, doesnít matter how hard and Iíll take it.

(John Daly, Alan McClean and Peter Prendergast)

You find any elite athlete and I guarantee they possessed something similar to this mentality growing up. And yet we expect children to sit and encourage and not to wish ill on each other. To be honest Iím not sure how any competitive, ambitious child could possibly think that way. And cricket, remember, can be the cruellest of games. Hit the ball in the air? That could be the end of your day. Bowl a few wides? Head on out to deep square leg there, pal. Hard luck, thanks for coming, whoís next? So who could blame a young player for thinking of himself. He is desperately finding his way in the game, trying to learn a skill that will sustain him. A team victory is at this stage an absolute irrelevance.

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Cricket is unique in as far as in many cases a playerís chance to shine will arrive only once his teammate has failed. In almost every other team sport players perform simultaneously and are mutually dependent; an out half finds the game very difficult if his prop forwards are getting killed; a central midfielder will flounder if every time the ball goes over his head the centre back misses it. The better my teammates perform the easier it will be for me to shine; when I perform to my best I make the game easier for my teammates. Thatís how it works. And of course well functioning cricket teams can reach this point too. Middle order strokemakers depend on solid openers to blunt the attack who in turn depend on the strokemakers to provide impetus to the innings. Bowlers depend on each other to apply pressure. Each playerís role is clearly defined and valued by his teammates and each in theory complements the other.

Not all adult cricket teams work like this, however.

And youth teams certainly donít. They canít and nor should they be expected to because no oneís role as a cricketer is clearly defined. Each child wants to bat and each child would like to bowl. Nobody is willing to give up on anything just yet.

I began to play on the adult teams in Clontarf when I was around 11 or 12. I would pack my gear and count the selected players through the gate in the hope that some catastrophe or other might have befallen one of them that morning and I would be asked to play Ė food poisoning perhaps or a dead relative or maybe a minor prang at the traffic lights. I wasnít fussy. Then once we reached the ground I was hoping for a nice injury in the warm up, a pulled hammy or a broken finger, anything that might necessitate a trip down the batting order.

Once we had taken the field my adult team mates were happy to leave me large areas of the field to patrol. I would charge about and will the action to come to me. I would hare after the ball in the outfield and fire it in as hard as my tiny frame would allow. My team mates would offer encouragement and praise and in return I would watch them eagle eyed for any sign of discomfort, a false step maybe, something tweaked or a ball to the top of the thumb. After tea I would lay my batting gear out next to my bag, ready for a quick promotion up the order. Always stationed relatively close to the captain, I would do the scorebook badly and wish every sort of cricketing misfortune on my teammates. Injury or freak dismissal; no matter, it was all the same to me. I just wanted them out of the way. In one particular match our opener managed to run out both of our strongest batsmen and then, unable to live with the remorse, he charged down the track and lost his off stump. What a performance! 10 for 3, the two best players back in the hutch, and a whole 36 overs left in the innings. The dismissed batsmen were seething, the skipper was fit to be tied. I, of course, was fighting the urge to jump up on the table and cheer him the whole way off.

Kids leave cricket in increments; three under 11 teams teams drops to two at Under 13 and finally youíre left with a group of Under 15s who divide their cricketing lives between schoolboy and adult cricket. Often they are both friends and rivals. Yes, I want my friend to do well enough that he will keep coming to the club but do I really want him to be selected on a team higher than the one I am playing on? What was it Gore Vidal said: every time I hear of a friendís success a little part of me dies. Too right it does. All those North Leinster squads my teammates were picked on; all those extra practices I would have loved to attend, the trips away, the attention and congratulations of older club members Ė was I happy that others were availing of all this? Like hell I was. I wanted all the company I could muster on my side of the fence so we could sit and gripe about the selectors and the lousy players who had been picked ahead of me.

(Peter Prendergast and Alan McClean)

So of course a teenage cricketer experiences a silent guilty thrill when his friend is dismissed cheaply. How could it be otherwise? Especially if the friend has been doing exceptionally well of late. In other team sports such as soccer or rugby comparisons are hidden; teammates combine and co-exist in combinations few people understand, all towards the good of the team. The team wins so we all win since everyone has contributed. In cricket, however, there is a measurable unit of achievement for each kid to contend with, the number of runs and wickets next to his name, and based on these numbers teenagers are scattered amongst the adult teams. And here is the hard truth of it: It is impossible to watch people of the same age flourish without somehow experiencing the feeling that you are floundering. It is difficult to sit on a tree stump in a public park in Lucan with a duck to your name and hear that your friend is the talk of the club, having stroked an elegant fifty back on home soil. Bitterness and jealousy and disappointment are the most natural of human emotions and probably the ones which most drive the urge to learn and improve.

We all like our friends to do well, I suppose, just not as well as we are doing.

When I look back on those teenage cricketing years I can scarcely remember making a score of note. I recall feeling profoundly jealous of other kids - those on higher teams, those selected for interpro matches, those who had cracked the mysterious code of how to put a score together. Most of all I coveted the Leinster Schools cap. It was a striking royal blue, fashioned from thick, deep fabric with a gold harp on the front. Beyond beautiful, this garment marked its owner out as a player of class, of distinction, of endless promise. Some boys in our club had represented Leinster Schools and possessed one, occasionally leaving them haphazardly visible in open kit bags. I never brought myself to touch one for the simple reason that I did not trust myself not to steal it.

(Leinster Schools cap)

Yet somehow, scarcely meriting any promotion whatsoever, I was ushered along those adult teams, generally moving up a team per season, until I found myself opening the batting on the second XI. I was eighteen I think, had just completed my first year at university. It surprised me that anyone could demonstrate such faith in me. I had only ever scored one fifty in my life, after all, and that was in an u13 game. Once there, however, I managed four scores in excess of eighty in five or so innings.

I had grown late and tall, with long levers, and balls that up to now had landed in mid offís hands were suddenly clearing him comfortably, deliveries previously rearing towards my throat were now sitting in that arc to be swatted over mid wicket. Cricket had become a very different game for me. Club members even began to suggest that I might be selected for the First XI. I was happy of course, to engage in these conversations, probably even initiated a few of them. A week or so later I remember standing in the hallway at Clontarf Cricket Club staring at the notice board. The team lists were always hand written; captain first, then vice captain, then the list of players in alphabetical order. Prendergast, beginning with P was near the end. I stood, stunned, left and came back again and stared some more. Many of those clubmates, whose runs and caps and representative honours I had coveted for so long, were scattered amongst the Second and Third elevens. Unwilling to disrupt a much vaunted and supposedly impenetrable batting line up, the selection committee had dropped the wicketkeeper and handed the gloves to another. My name was there all right. I had been chosen to represent the First XI.     _________________________________________

Here is the question of course: would you prefer to score a hundred or for your team to win?

Really? Well, I donít believe you. Is that team victory going to keep you giddy as hell for the next month or so? Is it going to have you dropping around to Ed Sports to pick up a new pair of batting gloves or will it have you playing shots with a rolled up Irish Times in the office a week later? I didnít think so. Will the memory of that team win give you that sudden warm feeling the following November on a short drive home from a dinner party when you and your wife are all talked out and youíre left to your thoughts and your mind drifts to the shots you played, shots you never thought you could play and you wonder if you have ever been happier in your whole life than on that particular day?

And if you are still sticking to your guns, why donít we stretch the argument out a little further? Would you rather your team win the league and for you to have a horror of a season or for your team to be relegated in spite of your heroic efforts?

Well, Iíve experienced one of those choices and my advice is to go for the other. 1995 maybe, or 96, somewhere in and around there and Clontarf cruised to the Leinster Senior League without a jot of assistance from their opening batsman. Where is that medal now? Or any of the others for that matter? I genuinely have no idea, buried in the attic maybe but if I do come across that one thereís only one place it needs to go Ė right in the nearest river. I never want to see it again. To me it represents continued hurt and anger and disappointment; it represents long hours spent trudging around the boundary watching other people bat and the feeling of contributing nothing to a shared cause. Perhaps my teammates possess something similar, hoarded away somewhere in their own homes. Maybe they too have a memento from a miserable time in their lives or maybe itís already sitting at the bottom of a river.

(Peter Prendergast, Lenny Dexter and Brian Bunworth at Man O'War)

It is impossible, I believe, to survive youth cricket without experiencing these unworthy thoughts, thoughts better left submerged, thoughts which if revealed would lead to a young man either receiving a stern lecture on team spirit or else being treated like a pariah. But yet when we reach adult cricket do we suddenly change? Does a psychological rewiring take place or do we each have an epiphany and become devoted solely to the team cause? What do we suddenly do with the raging self-interest that has allowed us to stay in the game this far?

We hide it, I expect.

The 4th XI left arm spinner, for instance, who didnít get a bowl at all last week since the captain seems to have an absolute obsession with right arm over military medium. What goes through his mind when a wristy opener flicks four of the first six deliveries of the day into the bowling green? Does he experience a sudden fit of panic about his teamís chances of winning? Or does he perhaps let a little sigh of enjoyment and begin to loosen up?

Or the chap with the pads on watching two teammates tonk sub standard bowling around the park. Is he really thinking, fantastic, weíre going to win today? Or might he perhaps be thinking, I wouldnít mind getting out there to whack this garbage around.

The best we can do, I expect, is to cover our true feelings, disguise them, hopefully align them to the needs of the team. This is not always easy. Like domesticated animals we are forced to curb our baser instincts and conduct ourselves according to a common norm. We donít rip off our pads once we are dismissed early and climb into our cars and drive away. Though Lord knows we feel like doing so. We donít clamber over the wall at fine leg and stomp away down road once the captain decides to try a little of his own leg spin. We experience these feelings, of course we do, but we check ourselves and allow them to pass. Slowly, I learned to deal with my disappointment. Cheaply dismissed, I would remove my batting equipment and walk to the other side of the ground where I would quietly come to terms with the passing of my wicket. Here the feeling of having let either my teammates or my captain down seldom crossed my mind: awash with self pity, my thoughts were invariably focussed on myself, on how my day, eagerly anticipated and previously full of hope, was now royally screwed. Often I would guiltily wish for a flurry of wickets, six or seven would do nicely, letís get this whole farce over with and we can all get the hell out of here. But slowly the hurt and the shock would pass, if not completely the disappointment, and after thirty minutes or so I would pick myself up and return to be with my teammates.

A batsman plays to make runs, after all.

But hereís the funny thing: Runs are runs, people will tell you when youíve played a particularly unattractive innings and if they are right at all it is only in the narrowest sense. Because runs are not runs. Runs that drive home a victory are gold dust, runs that donít are still welcome (better against my name than anyone elseís) while runs that come at a cost to the team effort are dirt, absolute filth, beneath the regard of any proper sportsman. A batsman doesnít just want to make runs, he wants to make the right sort of runs, the best sort of runs, and itís often only your teammates that really understand the distinction. And because of that that there is nothing in the world like the respect of your teammates, that moment when you walk into the dressing and others look at you as if to say, Iím glad heís on my team today. I held that respect for long enough to understand its inspirational value, then had to live without it through loss of form and confidence for a significant enough period to bitterly lament its absence.

Strangely, in spite of all the unworthy thoughts rampaging through my mind I think that I was regarded as a good teammate. I certainly hope so. Small things make a difference Ė offering throw downs to the Number 9 batsman just as he offered them to you earlier in the day, for instance, or saving all the runs you can in the field, even when the game is dead and done for since runs saved still mean something to a bowlerís figures. Ensuring that quieter team members are included in the conversation, inviting them along on the lap or maybe listening to a struggling playerís woes. Why not? Iím stuck there for the day, after all, nailed to a post. Always tactically clever I would assist the captain once the game got away from him, generally through the vice captain, just a suggestion and let the two of them mull it over, maybe convince themselves that it was their idea. I always had a serious objection to that guy who doesnít want to do the work organising the team during the week but then wants to take over once the game gets tight. First team players who drop down the leagues can be awful for this. They always do it at the top of their voices, just so onlookers are in no doubt as to who is really in charge. They put it down to a fierce desire to win honed by years playing at a higher level. I put it down to being a disrespectful prick.

I donít usually watch my kids play. I throw balls during the week and occasionally advise on technical matters but I think my children are by and large better off learning and enjoying their cricket without the watchful eye of their father. Iím never too far away if one is upset or having a hard time. A tube of wine gums was always good for this when they were younger, along with the reassurance that it is only one game, one innings, one bowling spell, and that no one game is important in and of itself. Learning a sport is a long drawn out process, after all. Sometimes the game wounds them so badly, cuts them so deeply, just as it had the capacity at times to shred me to pieces. But itís no harm that Iím not around to watch since I would no doubt be wishing ill on their team mates. Shot, Oscar, super stuff, Iíd be thinking, but thatís enough from you now, laddie, time to get back in the hutch. The cricket pitch only takes up a percentage of the space in many grounds so maybe some equipment could be left out Ė kids enjoy those fielding aids: that orange ramp thing, the spring back stump and Catchit nets and the like. Plastic bats and Incrediballs in the nets are a must, I believe. A couple of padded up batsmen is surely enough to cheer Oscar on in his batting endeavours. Or if they would rather silently hope for his dismissal, that should be just fine too. __________________________________________________________________

Iím in my fifties now and crippled with injuries. Soccer injuries mostly, but some from cricket too, a shoulder and wrist which would have healed long ago if they were ever likely to, a cracked rib which still lets me know when the weather is about to change. Those other mementoes, the medals and the trophies have long since disappeared from my life, but my cricketing memories remain, intertwined as they are with my teammates, many from that period in the early nineties when I was young and fit and confident and my form was at its best.

Sometimes you can just get lucky, I suppose. You can end up playing a sport which brings out the worst in you in a team that brings out the best.

(Clontarf, 1992 Senior Cup winners with Irish President Mary Robinson)

We played in many cup finals and semi finals through that time, many ferociously fought league deciders. I remember those Irish Senior Cup battles, journeys into different cricketing heartlands with their noisy partisan crowds. Back then 260 or 270 was a huge run chase, long before one day wides and fielding restrictions, before mammoth bats and covers that actually kept the rain off the pitch. The briefest of settling in periods, I remember this, then we would tear into the opening attack, the short pitched stuff despatched, hammered, slip fielders scampering to the covers, sweepers posted along the boundaries. The opposition quiet all of a sudden, the previously raucous crowd quieter again. With my usual opening partner, of course, the one I accompanied through schoolboy cricket, we take everything that is going, ones into twos, twos into threes. We are strong and smart and fit, not gym fit like players are these days but fit from playing winter sports. Each call is trusted completely; we know each other too well, have been doing this for some time now. This is a batting line up which chases long and hard and deep, remember, right to the wire with numbers 9 and 10 often bringing the game home and this is the first stage of the chase, ahead of the rate now, always ahead of the rate, generally by two or three overs, because no one down the order ever has to clean up after us. Never!

That is simply not how it works. Increasingly we apply pressure Ė to the bowlers, to the fielders, to the captain Ė that huge score not looking so formidable now. Spinners up next and we pin long on and long off right back onto that sightscreen and we are going harder and harder at it, relentless, both murderously fast between the wickets and with varied boundary options, impossible to contain, impossible to set a field to, dragging that huge total into sight and it is thrilling, the fight of it, absolutely thrilling because itís in you, this fight, youíre not sure where it has come from but itís there, it always has been, it is what has allowed you to remain in the game, and youíre immersed, completely immersed in what youíre doing and thereís nowhere else you could possibly wish to be.

Thatís what I remember best and most fondly from my playing days.

It was wonderful and exciting and thrilling. It was all any sportsman could wish for and yet, strangely, without the other nine on the sideline it would have seemed irrelevant and pointless and barely worth doing at all. Because thatís the craziest thing in all of this. Decades now since I last stepped to the wicket, I never consider the act of batting or the heat of competition or the excitement leading up to a game. The routine and the preparation to play have faded to distant memory. Yet I frequently think of my teammates, recalling them clearly because bizarrely, thatís the only thing from my sporting life that I miss, the one thing I expect I will always miss, that unique feeling of being part of a team.

This article first appeared in The Nightwatchman and is reproduced by kind permission of the author.