January 27, 2014

Down and out in Galle

One of cricket's great attributes is that it has room even for the not-so-competent. Sometimes, though, that allowance does not seem to apply

There's always some level of cricket that'll take you in © Getty Images

There was, in retrospect, always something incongruous about me, at 37, just back after a decade-long break from cricket and not ever having been any good anyway, setting off for a tour of Sri Lanka. To say my technique has been exposed over the past few days doesn't begin even to hint at the prodding, poking humiliation that has been the nine balls that have comprised my two innings so far. It turns out there is no technique, merely a vacuum in pads that somehow manages to hold the bat. I began the tour hoping I could nurdle and greeble my way to a couple of quickish 20s or 30s; now there's a serious possibility I may go home having failed to score a single run.

Part of the problem is the outfields, which have both been slow and spongy: I'm just not getting full value for the outside edge through third slip that's my main scoring shot. It's also taken the confidence-building diving stop out of my fielding. In both games there has been a moment at which I've hurled myself to my right to intercept a drive, only to find the ball slowing dramatically, barely trickling into my chest. Both times I've batted so far, I've been batting with one of the more senior members of the side, which has eliminated the quick single that's usually my prime (only?) weapon. And, of course, when you're feeling a little down on yourself, a steepler plummets from the sky in front of you, you run in, lose it in the sun, and end up dropping the catch, bruising your knee and dragging your self-esteem even further beneath the surface.

The heat and the humidity, the sheer unfamiliarity of the surroundings, have been issues, but essentially we're struggling on this tour because the notion of hapless amateurism seems a very English one. I can compete at home because most English sides will have a player as bad as me. I can look at the opposition, pick out one player and if I score more runs than him and field more enthusiastically, I can feel I've done my job.

Here there's no chance of doing that. There's an assumption that, having flown halfway round the world to play seven games in ten days, we must be reasonably good. After the team lost five in five in India last year - before I'd picked up a bat again - we stressed how poor we were, trying to find teams of similar standard, but the hopeless Sri Lankan cricketer doesn't seem to exist. There's nobody who bowls loopy non-turning offspin, or waddles to the crease at No. 7 hoping his wild swishes might connect a couple of times, or stands exhausted at fine leg, hoping against hope that the ball won't come to him.

Everybody's been very welcoming and friendly, but you can sense the puzzlement: why are people this incompetent bothering?

What's hard to know is whether it's just that all Sri Lankans are good at cricket and we really are playing sides that are the equivalent level to us, or whether any Sri Lankan as bad at cricket as I am simply doesn't bother. I hope it's not the latter, for one of the great beauties of cricket, it seems to me, is the instinctive protection of the game, that captains modulate their approach according to the level of the opposition: there's little point bowling the hulking quick against a timorous, technically hopeless No. 7.

The amateur(ish) game almost has predesignated phases: the opening part of the innings in which the best bowlers bowl at the best batsmen, followed by the lull as lesser batsmen face lesser bowlers, followed by the denouement as the better bowlers return: the total set in friendly games often seems set as much by consensus as by ability. And that, of course, is why a cricket team can happily accommodate players of a far greater range of ages and abilities than any other sport. It's just that in Sri Lanka, there doesn't seem to be a player quite as pitiful as me.

We've left Galle now to head up into the hills and the first grass track of the tour. It should be cooler there and there's talk that our next game represents probably the best chance of a win on tour. At the moment, though, I'd take scoring a run.

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