August 10, 2013

Keeping score

For some, there's a particular satisfaction derived from generating league tables and scorecards

Can more pleasure be derived from noting down the minutiae of the game than from playing it? © Getty Images

I've become used over the past few weeks to standing alongside Jon Hotten in this section of the ESPNcricinfo site. Last Sunday I did it for real, fielding at backward point as he stood at gully in a game for the Authors CC away to a team made up of teachers and other hangers-on from Eton College. Earlier in the day, we'd shared a stand of 100 - he watchfully, chancelessly elegant; me lucky and frenetic - to rescue the Authors from a perilous position of 22 for 4.

I realise I said about two months ago that I suspected I'd never pick up a bat again, but my cricketing career has had a sudden and unexpected resurgence. After an eight-year hiatus, I've played three games this summer, been on the winning side in all of them and, thanks to the vagaries of statistics in the face of not-outs, I'm averaging an implausible 57. Much as I'd like to describe every dab down to third man in my epic 39, each nurdle off my pads, each hoick through the leg side, I recognise that would be self-indulgent even by my standards, so I'll confine myself to the implications of an exchange that took place with the score at 117.

I'd checked with the umpire what the score had been when we'd come together, and as I chatted to Jon at the end of the over, I mentioned that we were just five from the century partnership. "Like batting with bloody Boycott," he muttered (it really wasn't, unless Boycott has developed a dominant bottom hand, a propensity for swishing at wide ones and a habit of charging ten yards down the pitch every time he hits the ball before actually looking to see where it's gone), at which I was confronted, once again, with the realisation that not everybody is as obsessed with statistics as I am.

But for me sport has always largely been about the generation of statistics: not necessarily in the Andy Zaltzman or the Numbers Game sense of quirks, or in-depth analysis to reveal deeper truths, more in the simple sense of league tales or scorecards. In fact, I'm pretty sure I learned the word "analysis" from looking above the bowlers' stats on scorecards. I certainly recall the flash of illumination watching the John Player League one Sunday afternoon when I finally grasped the point of division: it would tell you, with a couple of prods at a calculator, how many runs per over were required.

Chatting about this in the pub afterwards, I realised that the vast bulk of my waking childhood was spent inventing sport that could then be analysed afterwards - by me. I remember, for instance, setting up Emlyn Hughes International Soccer in an eight-team league, then watching the matches - commentating rather than taking control of either side - for no reason other than to generate league tables. The only computer program I ever wrote - although wrote may be a generous term there - was to be able to display those league tables. I wrote article after article, even started books, to explain those seasons.

But far more time was spent in the garage, endlessly throwing a ball - a plastic dog's ball, firm but light so it couldn't do any damage - against the wall and trying to hit it as it bounced back, all the while with a notebook on the step by the kitchen door to keep track of the score. I remember clearly the day I realised that if I rolled my fingers over the ball it would angle in off the wall and then straighten up: I was reduced to 17 for 5 (thank goodness the bloke at the other end was just straight up and down or it would have been carnage), although I suspect the second lbw was probably just angling down the leg side.

I realise now that all those hours have had a profound effect on how I play (nobody who has ever seen me bat will be surprised to learn I haven't had a second's coaching). On the debit side, if I'm striking the ball rather than guiding it behind square on the off side, my back foot rarely moves, because the act of throwing at the wall took my weight on to my front foot; as a result I tend to play a strange walking cut. On the plus side, though, for all the years of being out dumbly caught lobbing balls to mid-off or cover, I don't think I've ever been out caught at midwicket, because to hit the ball uppishly on the leg side was to risk clattering the tumble dryer, which sat on the coal bunker, and my mam would have killed me if she'd found a mark on that.

There's a theory in football that modern players - from Britain at least - are becoming homogenous, all quite good at everything but with few idiosyncrasies because they have all been brought up in academies on perfect pitches rather than learning the game in the back alleys of old. I have at least avoided that fate, but I wonder now if it might not have been easier if I'd generated copy by simply rolling dice. After all, the main thing was not the game but noting it down.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here

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