Jon Hotten reveals cricket’s dirty little secret: nobody likes fielding…
In a game at the start of the season, we fielded for 47 overs in the bone-deep cold. The distant pavilion glowed like a cottage in the paintings of that old fraud Thomas Kinkade. The grass on the outfield was thick and stringy, the ground soft and heavy underfoot. I was wearing trainers following a pre-match incident with the sole of my boot. We didn’t even get drinks, but then they would probably have been brought out by a St Bernard. In the warming clatter of the pub afterwards, a team-mate said that he thought that the moments that the field came together after the fall of a wicket were a way of reconnecting with the game after the solitary time spent in one position or other. That seemed true.
No batsman goes to his grave thinking, ‘I wish I’d spent more time fielding’. Time in the field is the other side of an unequal equation. No-one can really like it can they? The only similarity between the two is the sense of absorption, although it is absorption of two different kinds. Batting really well (admittedly more of a memory than anything else these days) induces an interior state that you don’t really want to come out of, because when you do you have to confront ordinary life again. It is not something that you want to end. Fielding for long periods is about introspection of another kind, starting in bursts of claps and shouts and then slipping gently into fairly eventless solitude as the overs tick past.
In Netherland, Joseph O’Neill describes the ‘pulmonary’ rhythm as the field walks in and out. It’s a lovely image, but a little too lyrical for the aimless trudge it becomes after an hour or so. Fielding’s tasks are essentially menial: returning the ball to the bowler, stopping the odd one, hoofing after the ball when necessary (and what fresh hell is this relay throw – two of you chasing it now, can’t just leave it to the other bloke who’s you know, nearer…). The chance of a catch is a hiding to nothing, and a drop often reminds you of how withdrawn from the rest of the game you’ve become; its shame and embarrassment and exposure.
Not liking fielding is one of the game’s dirty little secrets. You have to pretend it’s alright. It’s a team thing, and more than that it’s a game thing, because if you didn’t field there wouldn’t be one. It’s different for bowlers, because it’s their arena and time in the field will be punctuated by what they do. But for batsmen it remains a deal made in order to play the game. It’s a deal that feels slightly different every time. Fielding before you’ve batted is different to fielding afterwards, and fielding after you’ve scored runs is different to fielding after you haven’t.
Most of all though it’s a mood thing. Sometimes, on a beautiful ground it’s just too churlish, too ungrateful, to do anything except be thankful that you’re there. Other times it’s about smothering anxiety, killing boredom, finding humour and life in the little things. Occasionally it’s just about getting it over with, and every now and again it can be extraordinary. The art is to do it while not doing it, to let it wash over you, its lulling effect opening the window to an implacably calm interior state that can resist its length and its demands and takes you somewhere else until you come up smiling.
Even so, 47 overs. I mean, come on…