May 2, 2014

The first ball of the season

Why a ton of history, dating back to childhood games in the backyard, is necessarily tied up with thoughts about the beginning of the cricket season

It begins in childhood Paul Kane / © Getty Images

Next weekend - weather permitting - I shall bowl my first ball of the season. A simple act, surely, after nearly 30 years of running up to the wicket, taking aim and getting it to the other end - sometimes without the batsman stopping its progress.

Alas, it's not quite as simple as that. And while I mostly blame age for complicating the act, it's hardly ever been a direct process. So before I release that red projectile on Sunday, I should acknowledge the many battles fought to allow that five-and-a-half ounce sphere of dye and stitching to (hopefully) start just outside leg stump, swing late, pitch around middle and veer off the seam to hit the top of off stump. Only when the bails fly is the battle over - until the next batsman gets to crease.

Firstly, the human body is not constructed to hurl an object with a straight arm. We have an elbow for a reason, but not, as the rule-makers decreed, for bowling a cricket ball.

Thus the beginning of this eternal war between ball and stump began in the back garden with my father. Standing side-on, then toppling over with the instructions to copy a windmill, is not child's play, as I'm sure any parent who has tried to teach their little one to bowl would agree.

However, my father's persistence paid off, and the battle against being a chucker had been won. I could run up to the crease and, with an arm extended, get the ball to at least land on the wicket.

The next skirmish was convincing the lads on my housing estate that cricket wasn't an upper-class sport for ponces. Walking across the local park, past the breakdancers and the glue sniffers, before following the paths across the cow fields to a quaint village with a cricket field, was a dangerous journey.

And then playing for a working men's team as a penniless youth caused its own economic conflicts. Subs, though reduced for juniors, were tough to muster when I was being paid a pound an hour to pull weeds out at a graveyard. Still, counting coins to play cricket was a worthy reward for my labours.

Vital as these early victories for my cricket were, it is the current campaign that seems to be developing into something more and more intractable.

The week before a match is a key time frame. Unless I get to the gym and writhe around on the floor in agony, rolling my stiff limbs on a foam massager, I'll step onto the pitch like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz come game-day afternoon. If I'm really motivated - or injured - then I'll go to yoga. Contorting and sweating in a hot basement gym is not something I'd do unless it made me a better cricketer - tennis ace Andy Murray and journeyman footballer Ryan Giggs both credit maintaining their skills by practising yoga.

So once the battle for my body has been quelled - never ended, for this has been a war of attrition since turning 30 - there is the tricky business of a Friday night to negotiate. What could be as simple as going to bed early? Spending the evening cooking a well-balanced meal and preparing my kit for the weekend?

Living in the thriving capital city of London, walking home past pubs full of hard-working commuters letting off steam on Friday night is a trial. The barmen sing like sirens on the rocks, and if that swift half turns into five pints, the bowler will be scuppered. There must be a direct equation between alcohol drunk versus run rate/wickets not taken.

Any subsequent damage from a Friday night can be nominally repaired with a protein shake and a swim on Saturday morning. Refreshed(ish) and ready for action, there is now the journey to the ground to navigate. The nearby hub of London Bridge station should provide ample routes to any far-flung village green in the land, but with kit bag stowed and feet up, the prospect of a ride into the English countryside can be scuppered by four words dreaded by all travellers: Rail Replacement Bus Service. I bet Jimmy Anderson doesn't warm up by sitting on a cramped coach with a cricket bat wedged between his legs.

Satnavs and GPS systems have made those winding lanes to the ground-by-the-dell-next-to-the-brook-by-the-pub-covered-in-ivy less like exploring the Amazon, but mobile-phone networks in these forgotten idylls are patchy at best, and getting to the ground in time may still rely on directions from cider-pickled yokels.

However, I've made it to the ground. Outfield mown and wicket rolled, all I need now is to mark out my run-up - adjusting for the crater dug out by the local bowler, as well as the drain cover and the molehills. For the non-bowler these complaints might seem like fussy quibbles. But rhythm and footing bring line and length. Bone-hard pitches at the height of summer might not take a stud, and early-season quagmires are better suited to a pair of rubber boots.

Then finally, after all that childhood coaching by my patient father, car journeys to the edge of nowhere, chases across housing estates by cricket-hating yobs, broken limbs and dislocated joints, endless washing of mud-stained whites, I shall run in to bowl and, if I manage to avoid the minefield approach to the wicket, deliver that first red cherry of the new season. Victory.

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