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The Cricketer in Winter

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Is there anything in sport more melancholy than the English cricketer when the long winter begins? Jon Hotten – The Old Batsman himself – looks back on his efforts in the summer of 2014…

After one of my worst seasons ever with the bat last year, I began 2014 by scoring one run in May (compadres for all-time, me and that run; a prod to extra cover for a harassed single…) Something had to give. Maybe it would be me. I just wasn’t sure any more, and batting has always demanded a kind of certainty – of footwork, of judgment, of many things that I was no longer certain about.

Yet the game has a habit of turning round to face you for no reason other than it sometimes does. It’s not so much fickle as implacable, neither for you nor against in the long run. It happened for me at Sheffield Park in deepest Sussex, where Grace once turned out for Lord Sheffield’s XI and hit an old oak that stands by the pavilion on the full (the square’s been turned around since then, but it’s a good eighty yards, perhaps more, and it was nice to stand in the middle and have a sense of his power).

It was a shimmering summer’s afternoon, with clouds of midges glinting in the soft air by the edge of the woods, and we were facing familiar and friendly opponents. I’d made a few – well more than one, anyway, which was an improvement – when a ball going down the leg side brushed my heel on the way through to the keeper. There was a half-hearted appeal for a catch and the umpire gave it.

‘Oh come on…’ I said.

It was out of my mouth before I could stop it. I felt bad about that, but not as bad as I did about the decision. I was trudging away when Matt, the opposition skipper, asked me if I’d hit it.

‘No,’ I replied, completely honestly, and he withdrew the appeal and called me back. It was a generous act on his part, and something that’s never happened to me before. I got an unlovely fifty that day, and for whatever reason everything changed. Oh I didn’t suddenly become Brian Lara, but my mind cleared. In the dreaded vernacular of the sports psychologist, I got out of my own way. I forgot about the plan I had to stop worrying and play more freely, because I do worry, and I don’t play freely, at least not until I’ve been in for a while (and even then it’s debatable.) I started worrying again. It felt good, or at least it felt normal.

Ultimately, the most important thing in the mental half of batting is self-awareness. You can yearn to be the player you’re not, but it’s more purposeful to embrace the player that you are. I had a few matches in my old position as an opener, and it helped me to realise what I was okay at: reasonable defence; good judgement; I can be hard to get out; I know my scoring shots. It’s not the glorious vision of cricket that I carry in my head, but it’s something.

And I had the noble Kudos in my hand. Newbery offered it to me at the start of the season (not that I took much persuading) and thinking about not batting with it is already giving me the horrors. It’s been a while since I had a bat that I’ve really bonded with, but me and the Kudos, well… is there language to describe our love?

What a thing it is, played in now and bearing its scars – a hairline crack running horizontally across its slender shoulder, the bite marks from the seam of the ball that did it just below, the blade blushed with the remnants of dye from red leather.

I can still remember the first time I found its true middle, that deep, sweet spot where you feel only a suggestion of contact in your hands. It was a full toss from the opening bowler that I managed to hit straight to mid-off – no run, but a defining moment for me and that bat: the ball left the blade with a throaty crack and rocketed away. I got a few runs that day, but that point of pure connection with the absolute centre of the bat remained something rare and wondrous, a quest worth chasing.

I stopped wearing a thigh pad too. What a revelation that was. My team-mate Hoggy tipped me off to it.

“What’s it going to hit?” he said. “Just your muscle. And there’s no-one quick enough for it to really hurt…” So I rid myself of the cursed thing and gambolled around like a spring lamb.

It’s my final tip to anyone that wants one. Ditch the thigh pad. Let it go. Run free, my friend, and be yourself. Worry, mither, chip them runs out however you can. Let it flow, baby, let it flow…

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About Author Profile: Jon Hotten

Jon writes about cricket all over the place, is the author of Muscle and The Years of the Locust and also has his own fine cricket blog called The Old Batsman.

2 thoughts on “The Cricketer in Winter

  1. john.hh43@googlemail.com'
    John Halliwell
    November 19, 2014 at 19:04

    I’ve said it elsewhere, Jon, and I’ll say it again here: I find these end of season pieces quite wonderful: nostalgic, whimsical, yet with a grittiness and honesty that act as counterpoint and give the reader that sense of ‘Yes, I know what you mean.’ One run in May; now that would, in many a batsman, destroy completely the dream of one day, and probably for one day only, passing for a Richards, and raise instead the spectre of becoming a Steele or a Tavare.

    September and the end of the English season, and nostalgia and melancholy (are they one and the same thing?) catch me out . Why don’t I just let it go?

    In winter, I occasionally forsake the car and make a journey from Altrincham to Manchester by tram. It can be a depressing experience – gazing out on the Bridgewater Canal on the one side, and junk yards, graffiti, and mini industrial estates on the other; then James Brindley’s great waterway occasionally disappears and junk yards, graffiti and mini industrial estates are present on both sides. Best to keep occupied. I seat myself as close as possible to the cab so I can observe the track ahead and the driver acting out that fascinating ritual of acknowledging the presence of a fellow driver passing on the southbound track. It can involve a thumbs-up, a wave, a lifting of a hand from a static forearm, a pronounced nod, and occasionally a honk. But, never, as far as I know, a salute. I wonder which of those greetings are gestures of genuine affection, or respect, and which are done simply because, well, you have to, don’t you? And then the tram leaves Stretford, the place, like the voluptuous actress, famous for its end, and rumbles towards the theatre of dreams: Old Trafford cricket ground. This is winter, the season ended weeks ago, but that feeling of melancholy, of regret, of longing, force me to seek out the narrowest of gaps between the stands: is it all dead, or can I hear a distant, muffled roar: is Botham hooking Lillee off his nose all the way into Warwick Road station; is Laker walking off with 19 wickets to his name; is the mighty Dexter thrashing the Australian attack to all parts; oh, and is Statham, the glorious Statham, summer hero of my boyhood, bowling yet another batsman who unwittingly left the gate open? Then on to Manchester. More depressed. Roll on April……..

  2. Brandbarton@hotmail.com'
    Nigel Parker
    November 24, 2014 at 18:40

    I am not a cricketer, but that piece was poetry to me.

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