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As any village cricketer knows, preparing to bat doesn't begin with the clearing of the throat and the tremulous request for "middle-and-leg, please". It doesn't begin with the palpitating padding up or the fretful pacing that precede it, nor with the half-arsed throwdowns on the outfield.
It doesn't begin at the breakfast table that morning (or, if it's a Sunday game, with the all-day breakfast baguette and Red Bull purchased at the bargain price of £8.70 from some unlovely petrol station); nor even the night before, when, daydreaming in the shower, you find yourself thrusting the back of your hand out in an imaginary extra-cover drive, finishing with arm at full extension in a position that looks like a horny bird-of-paradise or Billy Bowden's version of the Nazi salute. It doesn't begin with the ominous stomach-churning tensions of the midweek nets - that flustered twilight swiping at the knackered opening bowler's legspin - or even with the anguished aftermath of your previous dismissal.
No, for the village cricketer (perhaps for them all), it begins at the moment your youthful heart is first sent soaring by a genius, a hero, and is thereafter tantalised by the possibilities of batsmanship - possibilities that are, for you, impossible (if only your heart could face up to it). Whether daunting or inspiring, this is the true beginnings of the innings - the imaginnings - an emotional wellspring that gushes every time the glory-addicted village batsman strides out to the middle in his weekly bid for transcendence, his ritual accommodation of death.
Each cycle begins with the "five stages of grieving" over your previous innings. Optimism replenished, you head to the nets an hour early, commandeering the wife to load the bowling machine for offspin practice. She'll inadvertently nudge the speed dial up to 85mph, hitting you midships and bringing a premature end to things. All sorts of things.
As a result, you're too queasy to claim your first-come-first-served seven minutes' batting at official practice, so instead have a beer and go over the tactical work: "That big Stevo's useful."
The next stage of preparation is Friday night's psychological build-up. Unsheathing the willow for a few jerky strokes in front of the patio window, your clammy hands and perished old rubber mean a flying blade and smashed heirlooms. And more grief. So off you skulk to the pub (half-wondering whether anyone will have a bat cone in their kitbag; or a spare grip). Six beers later, having been reassured (unreassuringly) that you're the next Ramprakash, you go home to read a paragraph of Bradman, watch a few clips of Lara on Youtube, then call a shrink, a priest and an astrologer.
Some time later, it's breakfast. Those curlicues of imagined glory have to penetrate a hangover's fug and the dread prospect of a day coming, literally, to nought. You whiff some linseed oil to get the juices flowing, but it only makes you woozier. Resignedly you pack your skeleton kit (the bat, part-relic, part-fetish; the stiff pads and stiffer shirt; the moth-eaten jazz hat; the third-generation hand-me-down gloves) and the journey to the game comprises a struggle to tune into Radio Self-Belief through the hiss and crackle of self-doubt (and thus a struggle not to drive off the road).
Arriving at the ground, you march straight out to examine the strip, offering a sage nod or two before finding out whether the bar is open. You have a steadier, then a loosener.
Six beers later, having been reassured (unreassuringly) that you're the next Ramprakash, you go home to read a paragraph of Bradman, watch a few clips of Lara on Youtube, then call a shrink, a priest and an astrologer
After throwing up on the outfield ("Nerves, skip"), it's throwdowns on the outfield. Here's how that goes, however fine your fettle: you, keen to feel leather on insulation tape, ask, "Anyone fancy chucking us a few?" Unfortunately the person most ready is an old, round-armed guy of limited accuracy. Off you troop to a part of the outfield that's reasonably flat and free of animal droppings, where he flings away. Invariably they'll be a foot too wide, inviting a shot square on the off side, which you have to fight the urge to play (you've only got one misshapen ball and Colin - yes, let's call your bowler Colin - would take well over a minute to retrieve it).
So you flat-bat them back to him, a kind of squash shot that bears zero resemblance to anything you're likely to want to do during the game. Out stumble the rest of the team in dribs and drabs to line up sheepishly on Colin's flanks, and before you've faced even a single useful warm-up delivery, they're a ten-man cordon and your throwdowns have mutated into an equally rubbish fielding practice.
However the game unfolds, the prospect of your innings - your failure - never leaves your thoughts. Stirk-on-the-Crease need you to step up, but you're fretting about the Panwick attack. "Has Stevo lost his nip?" You have a nip. (Good enough for Sobers…)
Now you're strapping them on, in order of protective importance: "cup", pads, beach towel as proxy thigh pad - an indulgence, albeit about as likely to stay in place as a hyperactive four-year-old during a game of musical chairs.
The wicket falls. The preparation is nearly done. You take a final triple-pull on a cigarette (Whose cigarette? You don't smoke) and then mouth some stoically defeatist phrase like a latter-day Oates to Scott, an anti-Antarctic: "I'm going out, and I may not be very long…"
Then it is down to things: to another unfurling of Britain's great pastoral tapestry, to the crucible of your selfhood - the innings.
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