December 21, 2015

Talking shop with a pro

The perils of getting into a detailed discussion about your technique and game with an expert

Vic Marks: amateur spinners, please go away © PA Photos

"If you can't turn it in Galle, you can't turn it anywhere," Vic Marks said, wisely.

I can't turn it anywhere. I know that. I don't try to. Turning the ball is dangerous. It goes all over the place. But that wasn't really the point. The point was that here I was, a couple of glasses of red into a newspaper's Christmas lunch, discussing the mechanics of my bowling action - or, perhaps more accurately, my "bowling" "action" - with a former England spinner. Hilarious tales of abjection I might have got away with - anybody can laugh at failure - but this had got worryingly technical worryingly quickly. Genial as Marks is, this was excruciating, like a man discussing his rancid home brew with Jean-Charles Boisset.

This is a danger of media events: there are always talented people there. I still shudder with mortification at the thought of reeling up to Barry Davies at a book launch and launching into my full repertoire of Barry Davies impressions. "When will they learn, Barry? When?" He finished his pint and left.

At least this time it wasn't my fault. Even though I'd worked out just that morning that my figures for my last five games were 29 overs, 9 for 109, I'd managed to restrain myself. We'd actually talked about somebody in professional sport I'd despised at school: the sort of man you want alongside you in the trenches because then you might see him get shot.

But then a colleague who had to leave to go to a nativity play wandered over to sort out details of a net the following day. Marks looked incredulous. "It's December," he pointed out, so I had to explain the Authors are off for a week's tour of Sri Lanka next month and he asked what I do.

"I was a terrible batsman," I explained, "but now I'm a very bad spinner." At least I didn't say "an offspinner like you".

My colleague, very generously, said that I got dip, although I suspect at our level that's just a way of saying I bowl so slowly that two-thirds of the way to the batsman the ball loses the will to keep going forwards. I began to mumble about having three paces of delivery, but even as I said it I knew how ridiculous it was: three paces as in slow, slower and slowest. The one I think of as my quicker ball, the one that makes a pleasant pinging noise on the odd occasions it hits the stumps (okay, the one that made a pleasant pinging noise on the one occasion it hit the stumps), would probably still be regarded as preposterously slow even at league level.

But halfway through the sentence I checked myself. Why on earth would Vic Marks care about that? He must have thought about adjustments of pace millions of times, discussed them with people who actually knew what they were talking about, tried them out in nets against good batsmen, tried them out under pressure in real matches against professionals. Why would he want to know about how I got out the most belligerent librarian in the Bodleian's lower order with the quicker of my two quicker balls (which is still so slow a professional could lap the square between me releasing it and him clouting it for six)?

And behind it all was the thought that Marks' 12 not out against Pakistan at Headingley in 1982 was the first time I remember being genuinely nervous while watching cricket. England, chasing 219 to win the Test and the series, had collapsed on the Monday evening from 168 for 1 to 190 for 6, bewilderingly undone for the second successive Test by Mudassar Nazar's gentle medium pace, leaving Ian Botham and Marks at the crease as the light closed in. In brighter conditions on the Tuesday, Botham was out early but Marks and Bob Taylor saw England home.

Should I mention it? There's a fine line to tread between appropriate respect for a greater authority on a subject and sycophantic grovelling. Besides which, a lot of sportsmen are genuinely bored of talking about themselves (and, by the same token, the last thing I want at a party is to talk in depth about football). So I held off, and we got back to the more comfortable ground slagging off people I'd been at school with.

As it turned out, the net session never happened: one possible venue wouldn't pick up the phone and the other was fully booked. An attempt to rearrange for later in the week was scuppered by the sacking of Jose Mourinho. That's the curse of the amateur cricketer, particularly in winter when outdoor public nets are so often unavailable. As a result, I feel thoroughly undercooked for the tour.

Although, on the plus side, if things do go badly in Sri Lanka, at least I will have anecdotes I can use at the Christmas party next year.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. @jonawils