For those of a certain generation, the words "you have been selected" at the head of a letter meant one thing, and one thing alone... the Reader's Digest, ever the Jehovah's Witnesses of the magazine world, had gained control over your personal details, and wanted more. Everyone, but everyone, received one of these "specially selected" letters. The thrill lasted about as long as it took to register the sender's provenance.
For a cricketer, the first time you read these words marks the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the game, an affair rekindled every time the selection represents a new level of achievement.
There's a point in every cricketer's career, however, from casual Sunday player to Test stalwart, when they are no longer the first, or even the 11th, name on the team sheet. This is the point when you first fail to make the cut, and it's a little like being dumped. At least the Reader's Digest made you feel wanted, unlike the inevitable message which starts with the words "I'm sorry..."
From our tentative first net, through to our retirement from the game, most cricketers will play for several different clubs, and the relationships they build with them are in many ways similar to romantic ones. We may play the field, be monogamous (perhaps with an occasional club on the side), work polyamorously by giving several clubs equal attention, or be a bit of a player.
Most of us, however, are serial monogamists, playing the greatest proportion of our cricket with one club, until circumstances force us to move on. We might have relocated, or we might have a falling out with one or more of our team-mates. We might dislike the direction our club is taking, or perhaps take exception to a new captain's leadership style.
Cricket writing is awash with analogies relating club to family, but families have fallings out as well as providing nurturing support, and just like lovers, they sometimes break up, with one party inevitably feeling the pain of rejection.
Since I started playing seriously, and not counting one-Sunday stands (of which there have been plenty), I've played cricket for eight clubs over some ten seasons. Of these eight, I have been a regular - by which I mean I have turned out over ten times - for five. Of the remaining three, one has disbanded and another plays very few fixtures. It was for the latter club that I was awarded my official cap recently.
"There's still the end-of-season club dinner, but that would be a little like attending an ex-lover's wedding"
Since I started playing seriously, I have played one particular fixture at the close of pretty much every season, at a very attractive ground in Sussex that loiters in the environs of an old manor house. Legend has it that the strip was imported from Trent Bridge early in the 20th century. One might consider this fixture to be something of a marker - that is, the signal to hang up my boots, strip, sand and oil my bat, and confront the cricketless wilderness that is the English winter. I have played it with the same club, the club I joined when my desire to play was piqued by a jaunty knock of 64 at a casual game (my first foray with bat and ball since school, and still my second-highest score), against the same opposition, for the last eight or so years. With this club I played my first Sunday game, hit my first six, took my first catch, my first stumping, played my first game of league cricket, gained my first coaching badge, captained my first game, won my first club award.
This club and I have history.
A few years ago I stopped playing league cricket for them, however. I dropped a catch. Then I was dropped from the team and not re-selected for several games. I was approached by another club, who offered me the gloves, and after much agonising, I shifted my allegiance, albeit ostensibly for the remains of that season only. As it happened, an unfortunate series of events ensured that I would never play league cricket for my old club again. But I continued to be a stalwart of its Sunday incarnation.
These past few seasons, however, my Sundays have revolved largely around my book, The Country House Cricketer. First came the games I played, then the marketing, and the selling. It takes a whole heap of work. This has meant that I have played less and less for my alma mater. This year I turned out for them just the once. When the email arrived asking for availability for the season's finale, ever a popular fixture, I indicated that I would love to play.
Perhaps predictably, I received a response that began "I'm sorry..."
These two words marked, for me, the end of an era. I knew it was bound to happen, but the feeling of rejection was still palpable, the sting still potent. My cricketing world has changed, and like countless players before me, and the countless who will follow, I have a long winter to brood over it. Of course, there's still the end-of-season club dinner, but that would be a little like attending an ex-lover's wedding.
Now. Who's up for winter nets? I'm available.