April 15, 2013

The joys of pre-season nets

The time to dust off the winter, warm up creaking bones and get ready for the cricket is always a special one

The nets can feel like a reassuring ritual © Getty Images

A few weeks after I moved to Sydney - in 2000 - for my post-doctoral fellowship, I "had a net": a practice session in a cricket net, available for use by the average recreational cricketer, at the Waverly Oval (within walking distance of Bondi Beach). It was a typically beautiful spring day in Sydney, sunny, cool, and bright; rugby teams featuring young, loud schoolboys practised nearby, for the footy season was still on; a father and son pair went through their batting and bowling session in the net next to us. I had not played cricket for years; my bowling and batting skills were rusty; my body found the strains and stresses of bowling unfamiliar; my batting lacked timing and seemed, at first, to consist merely of a series of cross-batted swipes. The first toe-in-the-water welcome to the cricket season was under way, humbling and alluring in equal measure. The summer lay ahead, holding the promise of weekend after weekend of encounters with suburban cricket warriors.

Over the next few weeks the nets sessions continued. I discovered that my bowling run-up was full of stutters and needed ironing out; that I could not consistently maintain line and length for more than a couple of overs (thus making it possible for me to relieve my captain of the awesome responsibility of wondering whether to keep me on for more than short spells); that batting improved if attention was paid to the basics (like keeping an eye on the ball). The nets reassured me. They provided fodder for dreaming about the season yet to start. I dared imagine that I would contribute to my team's fortunes in our summer competitions that included one- and two-day variants.

Because I was joining a new team, my first nets session with my new team-mates was a crucial one. I would interact and become familiar with those who would be my companions in cricketing battles, my partners in calls for runs, the fielders who would protect my bowling figures and hold catches for me. They would call out encouragement every time I turned at the end of my run-up, threw in from the boundary or was parsimonious with runs in the field. They would want to size me up too, this new entrant to their fold, their band of brothers. Our meeting went off well. I got a few "well-bowleds" and dished out a few myself. I was whacked on the thigh by our quick. I felt for our opponents who would face him when he was firing on all cylinders. I tried out all the bats available in our equipment stores and settled on one for the summer.

The pre-season nets became a ritual from season to season. As I became a returning veteran to my team, the nets became the opportunity to meet and greet old friends, to settle into new pacts for renewal of the quest for cricketing fortune. Sometimes they took place in venues more exalted than the humble council net; sometimes we practised at the SCG, which made available nets for hire by local teams. Here, we could watch cricketers considerably more accomplished than us. One day, the New South Wales Colts graced us with their presence. I stood awestruck, watching a young star bat against an impossibly quick lad. The pleasure of watching such skill at close range was immense. The pre-season net was a laboratory too; a safe space to experiment and investigate a change in cricketing style, methodology or tactic; a place to explore safely variations on the established.

During the pre-season nets sessions we still felt like outsiders; cricket was not fully upon the land. But all around us, it was stirring to life. The pre-season net was a reassurance that cricket was not gone; it had gone into hiding for the winter, but was now re-emergent. Last season's disappointments were done and dusted; the dropped catches, the first-ball ducks, the infuriating run-outs. New scoresheets would be filled out; new variations on familiar themes would emerge. Soon, the time for practice would be over, and the game would begin. Till then, the nets let me dream.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here