Essays, reflections and more

Back in ten

A one-time cricketer gets into whites again, and lives to tell the tale

Sam Blackledge

March 25, 2012

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Sam Blackledge
Master Blackledge tries on a pair of pads during his formative years © Sam Blackledge
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I am a journalist. I spend my days making phone calls, chasing stories, following tip-offs and generally making a nuisance of myself. It is an exhausting, exhilarating and all-consuming profession, leaving very little time for anything else. But last year I decided I needed a hobby, something to take my mind off the daily grind. So I joined my local cricket club.

As a teenager I was a decent player. From the age of about 12 I would go up against senior teams, men three times my age and twice my size, and every now and then my looping legspin would get the better of them. It certainly bamboozled my peers when I played for my school team.

I had tentative trials for Warwickshire but drifted away from the game as other interests took over - college, university, relationships and then the world of work. When the 2011 season started, more than ten years had passed since I last hung up my whites.

The first net sessions were eye-opening. Though my passion for cricket had remained strong since I stopped playing, I had forgotten about the senses of the game. The hot, sweaty smells of kit bags, the echoing acoustics of the indoor school, the weight of the bat, the hardness of the ball. Everything was alien, like relearning a language I had been listening to all along.

As a naturally shy person, banter has never been my strong point, and sports clubs are not the most welcoming environments for people like me. I decided fairly early on to keep my head down, concentrate on my cricket, and made half-hearted attempts at small talk whenever the need arose.

Quickly realising I no longer had the control to bowl leggies, I switched to offspin, although there was precious little spin as I struggled with my action when practice moved outdoors. As a schoolboy it took all my effort and concentration just to get the ball down the other end. But now taller, older and uglier, I was dishing up all sorts of rubbish, unable to find my radar or settle into a rhythm.

My first match came along soon enough, a friendly fixture for the Sunday team, and I was a bag of nerves as we fielded first. No matter how much you practise, nothing can prepare you for the moment when you are standing at mid-off and a ball is cracked in your direction. Time slows down and speeds up all at once. It's fight or flight. Every bit of my instinct was screaming: "Hard ball. Very fast. Get out of the way."

To simply move, of course, would spell disaster. Quite apart from conceding a boundary, I would have been marked out as a problem fielder, a weak link to be hidden away. All these thoughts were racing through my head when the ball slammed into my ankle, looped behind me and the batsmen scampered a single.

Over the next few months things got slightly easier. My first wicket came with a neat caught-behind in my second game, and I celebrated a bit too enthusiastically. I soon realised that no one really celebrates on Sundays. Towards the end of the season we arrived for a Sunday home game to find one of the opposition players warming up by running around the boundary. Our laidback captain looked on, incredulous. "What's he doing?" he spluttered. "It's Sunday."

 
 
As a schoolboy it took all my effort and concentration just to get the ball down the other end. But now taller, older and uglier, I was dishing up all sorts of rubbish, unable to find my radar or settle into a rhythm
 

My bowling was improving in fits and starts, but batting was a different matter. I scored seven runs, with a top score of 5, at an average of 2.33. Chris Martin, eat your heart out.

Many cricketers claim that they can remember every shot, every run and every moment of their greatest innings. I never quite believed it, thinking the statistical detail of their autobiographies came not from memory but from carefully studying the pages of Wisden. Now I am beginning to catch on.

That glorious 5 - a career best - came in my only match for the Saturday second team. It was a warm afternoon, FA Cup final day, and we endured a crushing away defeat - conceding 278 and managing just 106 in reply. I came in at No. 10, with the game in its final throes, the opposition's two spinners bowling in tandem, and survived 27 balls before being caught at silly point.

It was great fun and summed up everything I love about the game. Nothing seemed to matter - the hopeless match situation, the fact I hardly knew which end of the bat to hold, the agonising cramp in my legs from 50 overs in the field - and yet it mattered more than anything else. I was in my own little world, battling my demons, playing a sport I cherish and that I had thought I would never play again.

After a couple more wickets, a shocking dropped catch and a fair bit of rain, the season ended. My statistics tell the story of an expensive part-time bowler and tail-end batsman with a tendency to get out clean-bowled. But my memories are of so much more than that.

I recently returned to winter nets ahead of the coming season. It is still awkward, terrifying and challenging. My bowling is slightly better, my batting seems to be getting worse. I still have trouble working up the courage to talk to anyone. But it's great fun. I'm doing it for my 12-year-old self. I think he would be proud.

Sam Blackledge is a journalist with a local newspaper in Surrey

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by tusharkardile on (March 27, 2012, 1:07 GMT)

Nicely put. I wasn't going to read it, but when I started to, I had to finish it. Thanks.

Posted by dinosaurus on (March 26, 2012, 23:36 GMT)

I've made two comebacks, though the most recent one was pretty short. I played third grade summer cricket at University here in Brisbane, then A2 grade winter "warehouse" cricket in my late 30s. And last year my son's winter team was short one man for a Sunday game. I'm in my seventies now, and of course the plan was for me to field (batting only if absolutely necessary). The trouble was that I never had a good arm - and now was pathetic. So our plan was for us both to field in adjoining positions on the offside, and he would race over to support me if I had to chase, so that he could throw in from the deep. We managed OK, at least I wasn't a total liability. The thing that interested me was that you kept some of your bowling but the batting deserted you. I'm just the opposite. Something of the batting remains, but the bowling is dreadful!!!

Posted by chicko1983 on (March 26, 2012, 8:23 GMT)

awesome article. I too began playing cricket again this year after a 10 yr hiatus. Somehow in that 10 years, my bowling became bad (I used to open the bowling in high school) but my batting and legspin improved 10 fold. I even managed a half century when I opened the batting! I cant wait until next season and your last sentence summed it up perfectly. I am doing it for my 12 year old self, who once believed I would play for australia.

Posted by   on (March 26, 2012, 6:57 GMT)

Nice read.. Says so much about the love of game and the professional life of non-sportsmen. We yearn so much but sadly work, family, etc. doesnt allow us that pleasure. Kudos to you and i am sure, with more hard work you shall get some promotion in batting too..

Posted by IndianInnerEdge on (March 26, 2012, 1:25 GMT)

Nice article Sam, enjoyed the read! captures the passion we have for the gr8 game, even though our age and our abilities might be inversely proportional to the passion. In the rat race of office-work-eat-sleep etc, these are moments when u are ur own man, and am sure that 5 u made - would have been more satisfying than maye some of your work tasks achievements. Keep it up, there's more to life than trying to earn at least $1 more than one's bills!

Posted by   on (March 25, 2012, 14:18 GMT)

I simply luved ur last line..nt 2 mention dat d whle article was nyc..

Posted by   on (March 25, 2012, 14:13 GMT)

I am jealous. I miss it since I 'retired' 30 years ago and wish I had the ability to restart the 'career'. Good luck.

Posted by   on (March 25, 2012, 11:45 GMT)

need it desperately, the cricket, can't live without it

Posted by ARad on (March 25, 2012, 5:05 GMT)

Good luck and have fun! Better late than.....

Posted by akshay1994 on (March 25, 2012, 3:38 GMT)

That's what cricket is about in the end, just having fun. Sometimes people need a reminder.

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