Jesse Ryder's suburban fairy tale
Jesse Ryder is smiling just before he strolls up to the wicket.
There are many things that tell you this is not a Test match you are at. The small crowd is one. The smaller ground is another. But nothing says it more than Ryder's ten ambling paces. A dawdle up. Every leisurely step is a soft reminder that we're not at a Test match. This is county cricket, where a slow-medium seam bowler can bowl attacking, prolonged spells with a geriatric club cricketer's run-up.
Just over two years ago, Ryder was in an induced coma in Christchurch. There were serious concerns over his health. Serious concerns over his career. Serious concerns over his future.
Ryder hadn't played for New Zealand for a year. He had decided to take a break from international cricket. His body often wasn't right, neither was his mind. Even as he found form, and smashed everyone everywhere, he decided to stay out of the limelight and work on his own problems.
Instead he was knocked out and almost killed.
Yet, by Boxing Day of the same year, Ryder was back playing for New Zealand.
A week later he made 100 off 46 balls as Corey Anderson broke the world record for the fastest ever ODI ton at the other end. It was a modern cricket fairy tale. The reformed bad-boy franchise batting prodigy had overcome a near-death experience and his own never-ending demons and was back. And still brutal with the bat. Martin Crowe said, "He has gone through hell and he has returned a richer man."
On February 4, 2014, Ryder said, "I am just loving life at the moment." It was less than a year after his coma, and he was in the squad to play India in a Test. His first in over three years.
On February 10, 2014, he was dropped after being caught in a bar on the eve of his comeback Test against India.
Ryder has not played international cricket since. And he probably will not ever again.
International cricket is where we all want to end up. It might not be why we picked up the bat or ball in the first place. But once we did, that is what we thought about. A daydream. A nightly dream. Playing for our country. Playing the best cricket there is. Winning a match for our nation.
But the dream is one-dimensional. It involves timing that near-perfect yorker back over the head of the world's best bowler to win the World Cup. It doesn't include having a reporter trying to talk to your ex-girlfriend, or people speculating on how much money you earn, or what your intentions are, on a day-to-day basis.
It's all these things you don't dream about that that really are tough. The press is constantly asking questions. Or worse, making assumptions. Your new public personal life. New, previously unknown drains on your time. The need to be a role model and a professional. The different way you are seen by people you know. And the fact you now belong to a group of fans who all think they know you.
You can't truly prepare for these things. Most cricket boards don't even truly try to prepare you for them anyway. There is media training, the act of saying a whole lot of nothing. You will be told about your new responsibilities. But you are still you, just more famous, more of a target, more of everything.
A simple beer once you become a known international player is a whole different world.
Ryder's problems are often beyond a simple beer. His story, history, is long and damaged. Many people who don't know him at all, and some who know him quite well, have talked about it on an almost endless loop from the first time he arrived on the scene. Ryder's name brings on so much chin-scratching and finger-wagging.
But Ryder is well aware of how others perceive him - how could he not if he has ever picked up a New Zealand newspaper - and of his own problems. He has seen psychologists, flown mentors around with him, and taken breaks from international cricket to set himself right.
So here he is at 30. He's a year out of international cricket, and in his last chance to make a comeback, it was he who shunned them. Perhaps when he was asked to play for New Zealand A, he wasn't ready. Perhaps it was more than that. From the time his name was mentioned again, the Ryder media sideshow started again. The history was repeated, the concerns were aired, and maybe Ryder didn't want all that again. He pulled out of the A tour. He gave himself no chance to make the World Cup squad.
Not just any World Cup squad, but for New Zealanders the home World Cup squad. A little boy's dream. Probably, at one stage, Ryder's dream. But he walked away from it.
That side of his life, the drama, being owned by other people, being one mistake away from a headline, a dropping, more bad history, it's just no longer worth it to him. There is no doubt that Jesse Ryder is just not cut out for all this attention. Being good at batting isn't the same as being good at being a famous athlete. They are different skills. There are times when it looks like there is nothing Ryder can't do right on the field. Off the field it's as if there is nothing Ryder can't do wrong.
Does he have to put himself through it? Does he have to keep pushing himself to be the best player he can be, play at the highest level, put himself through things he hates just to fulfil his natural talent? Many will say yes. He is not making the most of what he has.
The suburbs of the world are filled with people who are perfectly happy, who have already retired from their dream jobs, and just enjoy their very mundane life. Working for a big-city law firm is a high-flying job, but you can make a good living from a smaller suburban law practice and not have the same kinds of pressures. Some of the people are in the suburbs just because they are not good enough, but there are others, heaps of them, who are good enough but just found that the dream job wasn't really their dream anymore.
Make no mistake, county cricket is like the suburban law firm of professional cricket. It's a day job, there are no business-class flights, being pampered by CEOs, or thrill-a-minute takeover deals. You still need your skills but you can coast much more. A mistake is still a mistake, but it's probably not a million- or billion-dollar mistake. It's a job, a good one.
For Ryder, there is probably no better place now than county cricket.
There is something calming about county cricket, first-class cricket. The crowds often look near-comatose. People are knitting, reading, chatting and sleeping as you play. The cricket has international players and club players, the grounds are small and cosy. There is a feeling you're almost in a dream sequence backyard cricket match. It is a very pure form of cricket.
Sometimes only one fan will notice a partnership milestone. And that one fan will clap so long and hard on his own, it's like the landmark happened just for him.
It's nice. And it matters, but no one is going to get their house stoned. No one's mistake will end up as a worldwide meme. Politicians don't interfere. The press don't cover the players' private lives. The fans don't crowd the players. It is just a cricket match, with a few people who really enjoy it.
If you love the game but hate the fame, this is the place to be.
Ryder could have played for his country; he didn't want to. Ryder could have played in the IPL; he didn't want to. Ryder chose county cricket. Maybe he is giving up on a dream, but it's probably someone else's dream now, not his.
And he is happy; just one day of watching him at the Essex County Ground and you can see how happy he is. He looks slim as well, as slim as any time he has appeared on the cricket field.
He's bowling as well. Ryder seems to like bowling. In international cricket, and even in New Zealand domestic cricket, he doesn't get to do much of it. For Essex he is a proper allrounder. So far he has not given Essex the sort of runs they would expect, but he's given them wickets they never asked for.
There is no way not to be lulled by his bowling action. It's tranquil and soothing, and even at release there is no huge effort or scream, just a delivery with the seam in the right direction for a ball that can nip in either direction, seemingly at the will of its master. The lack of pace is so tempting that the batsman's hands cannot do anything other than be lulled into the new line. In most countries on earth, it's change bowling. In England, it's last-chance and new-hope bowling.
A player who can move the ball like Ryder, and hit the ball like Ryder, who is free for six months of the year, is a ten-year county cricket player. This could be Ryder until he's 40. And by the look on his face, he'd be very happy with that.
After several lbw shouts, Ryder and the umpires share laughs. On Sunday, day one of the season for Essex, he looked like a kid who was still surprised he could take that many wickets, as he claimed the fifth five-wicket haul of his career. Last year Ryder took 44 wickets at 18 for Essex from his 12 games. In his previous 85 first-class games he had 60 wickets.
On day two, when Darren Stevens and Sam Northeast were taking the game away from Essex, Ryder stepped up. The first ball nipped back off the seam. The second nipped away, which led to Stevens getting a leading edge that might have been caught had Monty Panesar not been the poor unfortunate soul beneath it. The next nipped in. The next nipped in, and was then smashed into the BBC commentary booth by Stevens. The final ball nipped away, took the edge, and broke the partnership.
Ryder stood in the middle of the wicket, howling, as Stevens trudged off. Straight afterwards Ryder was joking and laughing with his captain, James Foster, seemingly reliving his golden legcutter for the entire next over.
Later, in the press box, someone said, "Did Jesse send off Stevo?" That was answered with, "I wasn't really paying that much attention." That was the beginning and end of the discussion. There are no editorials. The incident wasn't shown endlessly on TV. Social media commentators aren't discussing the finer points of Ryder's behaviour. It was just a county cricket wicket.
On day three he makes a few county cricket runs. The last one is a single. It happens to be the winning run of a match in which Essex had flirted with losing.
No fireworks go off at the Essex County Ground. Ravi Shastri doesn't go out to give anyone a giant cheque. There will be no million-dollar contracts. It is just a few happy players, a few hundred happy fans, and a ground announcer almost prosaically delivering the result.
It's not every kid's dream, winning an early season game at the Essex Cricket Ground, but it's Jesse Ryder's real-life fairy tale right now. A different kind of modern cricket fairy tale.
Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber