The golden land of pre-season
We are here. Finally. After the winter of our cricketing discontent, it is the English pre-season, a golden land of hope and optimism.
Okay, I'm writing this the day after the English rose wilted before the Dutch tulip, but the sky is blue, and for most club cricketers, nets have just started. We have burrowed through a long, dark winter to emerge blinking in the sunlight above the square.
First, there was the post-season, with its injury-healing properties, along with the repairs to any romance that hasn't been mortally wounded by 16 consecutive Saturdays of apologies to our partners about that weekend away, is a restorative period.
Then the dreaded close-season. The cold gun barrel of cricketless months pointed between our eyes. There should have been comfort in following the Ashes, a respite from the eternal wait for a new season. Hibernating under the duvet with a radio and listening to our heroes battling for victory in the burning sun, we'd hoped to live vicariously in their shoes as they stepped out and played another glorious series. What we got was a moaning Agnew and Co waking us from our dreams with the clatter of wickets and cheering Aussies.
My own club's Sri Lanka tour, carefully scheduled for the meanest, frostiest month of January, was strategic therapy. Two weeks of cricket and sunshine could relieve even the most debilitating Seasonal Affective Disorder, whereby sufferers exhibit depressive symptoms at the onset of winter and, one would argue, a lack of cricket - and the tropical memories maintain sanity until the start of April.
Now, and not soon enough, we have the bullish optimism of the pre-season. And this year it times gloriously with a dazzling World T20. The textbook-defying shots of a Hales, Dilshan or de Villiers have helped us believe/fantasise that this will be our time. In the dreamy pre-season all our inabilities are fiction. The forthcoming summer is a land of promise. We have forgotten the miseries of previous campaigns, that run of ducks, the dropped catches, and that nightmare over where that tubby hoicker put our length balls in the next field. No, this is our year. And until that first training session, where the new bat doesn't ping quite as you imagined, and the inswinging yorker you've been watching Malinga bowl, and have convinced yourself that you too can bowl, carroms into the side netting.
Perhaps not all cricketers expect so much out of the coming season as I do. But this is a period when both pros and club players bubble with possibility. Such is the dedication of England fans that already some of us see the Dutch debacle as a catalyst for change - and optimism about what we are capable of this summer.
That optimism simmers in the determination of Michael Carberry, despite his mute treatment from the selectors as reported this week by Donald McRae in the Guardian. Rather than bitterness at his snub, Carberry says he's "excited by the next phase" of his career, and that "the best thing to do is to start the season well and give myself the best possible chance".
This sunny disposition is how we should all turn up for that first match, whether on the rain-sodden park or the gleaming county ground. And although I say pre-season has just started for the average village team, or may not even start until that first ball in the middle flashes past the outside edge, the pro pre-season quite possibly started back in November.
Writing in the Independent, ex-England fast bowler Angus Fraser recalled the 1985 season beginning at the start of April, and training consisting of five-a-side football and press-ups. Long-distance runs in the afternoon would be skived, with layabouts like Phil Tufnell smoking crafty fags behind hedges as the keen players jogged on. Comparing then and now, where "the sofa, slippers and Sauvignon Blanc have been replaced by weight benches, trainers and protein shakes", Fraser wonders how long Ian Botham would have lasted in a modern regime. No surprise, he also chuckles about Mike Gatting huffing and puffing through fitness tests.
But the modern game requires modern athletes, and the pre-season is a time for honing skills rather than fitness - the pain and gain was achieved months ago. April is also a time for savouring cricket, when the hunger to be at the crease has not been put off by injury and form, that bad decision or the dropped catch.
Some of us will realise those lofty dreams, while others will indeed end the season despondent. This is the nature of sport, whether professional or amateur. But there will be surprises too. Our own little innings that will carry the team to victory. It might be a single run scrambled off the pads to win a game, or the magic ball that swings and seams and the star bat nicks you to first slip. There will be cricket in the sun.
Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky, was nominated for the IMPAC literary award