September 24, 2013

When dream dies, fantasy takes over

What men in lycra who believe they are pro cyclists can teach us about cricket fandom

The fantasy in part sustains the desire to get out there © Getty Images

The shaded lanes and tree-lined avenues of dreamy Surrey are the setting for a strange and very modern war, or according to the Daily Telegraph they are, anyway. A reporter dispatched to the roads around Box Hill that made up the Olympic cycling course in 2012 came back with an intriguing dispatch about "the army of amateur cyclists" laying siege to the area every Sunday, clogging roads, spitting at drivers and upsetting the locals as they live out their sporting dreams. They wear replica kit, ride expensive bikes and take to their arena with the same gladiatorial mindset as Wiggins, Cavendish and a bunch of other pedal-pushers we had barely heard of just a few years ago but who are now, like their acolytes, ubiquitous.

They even have an acronym, bestowed by the Wall Street Journal no less: Mamils - middle-aged men in lycra. What's interesting about them is not the endless and apparently intractable argument over who should cycle where, but the psychology, the collective culture. There's a distinct element of fantasy to it all.

It's something all amateur sportsmen are prone to (and I'd love to know if it's as prevalent in the female psyche). I've played cricket with a couple of people who have admitted to commentating on themselves while they bat. Most club cricketers will come across the ersatz pro several times per season, the guy with his mannerisms stolen from the TV, the big sledges delivered with apparent seriousness, his vocabulary packed with the jargon of the elite dressing room. He brings a mood of deathly earnestness, or even worse humourlessness, to the crease, lost as he is somewhere inside this entirely constructed version of himself. You get the feeling he'd quite like to be interviewed out on the pitch at close of play, even if it involved talking to Nick Knight.

We're all guilty of it to some degree, because it's the fantasy that in part sustains a desire to get out there. No one sits at home dreaming of a scratchy 20 or the three-over spell that gets carted around the ground. In our minds we need to feel at least slightly heroic. It's when the balancing self-awareness drops away that the fantasy takes over.

The game provides its own checks and balances too. Its hierarchy is well defined. It's harder to tell yourself convincingly that you're Kevin Pietersen when you're in the Sunday thirds. The bar for entry to the fantasy is set quite high. The Mamils, by contrast, can cycle along competing only with themselves, a far more fertile mental landscape.

Apart from the usual dog-walkers and attendant family members, cricket is usually conducted as the world passes by elsewhere. You can't just pitch up at Lord's and play your club game there. The Mamils are out on the roads in exactly the same arena as the pros.

The manufacturers of guitars, bikes and all manner of sports gear, including, I'd suspect, cricket bats, know that the real market for their top-end product is the middle-aged man. He's usually the one most able to afford it, and also the most likely to have that strange hankering after it too. Garage bands are full of aged guitarists noodling away on their Fender Strats, just as the Mamils bestride their two-grand bikes and I in turn wield my rather fine piece of Sussex willow, a bat that has far more in it than I am capable of getting out.

The saving grace in all of this is the ability to laugh at it, to realise how ridiculous it is, while simultaneously enjoying it. The dream may have died, but the fantasy stretches out in front of us, as alluring and seductive as ever.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here