The Joy of Fielding

I was 27 or 28, somewhere in around there, when I announced to my team-mates that I was heading off to third man for the rest of my playing career. Too cowardly to sit under the helmet, too dozy for the slips, at times a little too leggy to stop that single at cover, third man seemed a more than decent option. If anyone was looking for me, I reasoned, at least they would know where to find me.

The real benefit of my new position, of course, would be the quality of sleep I could get down there. Very few catches carry to third man, not on Irish wickets at any rate, so my only real task would be to prevent that second run - charge in, gather and fire the ball anywhere in the direction of the rest of the game. Get the ball in the air quickly enough and few batsmen would be willing to risk their wicket on a run out.

Yet before long I began to discover other benefits. Firstly there is a certain autonomy at third man since the captain never remembers exactly where he put you. If itís not really working for you in one spot you can move a couple of yards to the right and see how things progress from there. Chat to lapping spectators? Sure, but only if youíre in the mood. If not, you can stride in with the bowler as they pass. A roll of Toffo never has to be shared since no one can hear the rustling of wrappers.

The real beauty of third man however is that nobody notices what youíre up to. Concentration, remember, is always focussed on the play. You might decide to be a knight on a chessboard and move three steps forward and one to the right or if youíre in more of a bishop mood you can put your hands by your side and bounce around diagonally. And which specialist third man has not at some stage spent an over or two standing on one leg pretending to be a stork?

Yet even with this extensive range of distractions available the boredom of an afternoon in the field is still going to find you. Because cricket can be spitefully boring. Beautiful, true, there is no game more beautiful or at times as breathtakingly exciting but letís not forget just how outrageously, horrendously boring cricket can be. I am talking about the most brutal type of boredom here, the type that will eat away at your inner organs, the type of boredom that can leave a normally sensible adult confused and babbling and whimpering midway through an innings as his captain moves him from cover to mid off and then out to long on for the spinner.

And so there are times when the biggest challenge facing the specialist third man is resisting the urge to just take off like a bat out of hell down the road. All eyes are focussed elsewhere, remember. In grounds such as The Hills or North County this temptation was always containable, certain as I was that I would be easily spotted and retrieved as I bounded across the neighbouring fields, but things were never so easy at other grounds, especially CYM in Terenure with its tiny 50 metre car park situated perfectly next to the wide third man area.

Sometimes the urge to bolt would be almost too much to bear. Everyoneís attention fixed on the bowler as he starts his run up, time it right and I could be gone, head down, legs pumping, elbows going like pistons, half way to the front gate by the time the ball has reached the bat and powering on from there, and if luck was with me a 16A might be passing, the driver spotting the blur of white in his peripheral vision and whisking open the side doors, one well timed dive in amongst the startled passengers and I would be away, gone, out of there. It would be cheerio, boys, and good luck with those remaining 34 overs. Iíd be off into town, to the bookshops and music stores and fast food outlets, all the things which used to occupy my mind so vividly during the long hours of fielding. This, I expect, could probably be described as the polar opposite of walking in with the bowler.

Any third man following this route will, of course, have to abandon his cricket boots. The racket of metal on concrete always gives the game away. You can toss them over the wall as you run, only no neighbour needs a set of studs coming her way as she tends to the azaleas so my own advice would be to take off in your socks, exhilaration and adrenalin diverting you from any physical pain. The empty boots might even buy you some time. Both sets of players and possibly a few supporters are likely to end up circling them suspiciously, trying to figure what has just occurred. Human combustion, they might conclude or possibly an alien abduction, by some distance the two most likely scenarios here, all those who havenít yet had a knock happy to agree that both were serious matters, none more so, but really a full abandonment? Was that not a bit drastic?

There is, however, a perfectly reasonable way out of all of this Ė out of season training. Just as athletes of all types build endurance during the offseason, perhaps the non-bowling batsman could try something similar and find a field to stand in during the winter months - beginning maybe in early January, nothing crazy, just ten minutes or so to start with, 10 moving to 20 and then to 30 and so on as we move into February and then March, graduating steadily. It is important to retrain those neural pathways and receptors after months of Netflix and other winter entertainment.

Then as April arrives and competition beckons it might be time to ramp things up and replicate match situations. A third party - a coach or a parent or maybe a well meaning friend - could come along every half hour or so and move you to a different part of the field. They might even shout, ďWicketís coming here, boys,Ē as you trudge off to your new spot. For years elite sportsmen have been advising us to train with matchday intensity so if itís good enough for Ricky Ponting and Michael Jordan perhaps itís also good enough for the average Irish cricketer.

This article first appeared in the Leinster Senior League Cup Final Programme and is reproduced by kind permission of the author.