Growing up, cricket mad, the professional game fascinated me. Not cricketers as people, I couldn't care less about what Sachin ate for breakfast (anyone else notice how his autobiography was all about food?) or who Ian Austin's favourite singer was. It was the cricket itself. Just how fast were the fast bowlers? Was it true that the spinners bowled as fast as supposed fast bowlers in amateur cricket? How hard did batsmen hit it?
Thanks to that British tendency, charming or infuriating depending on taste, of hallowing absurdity by calling it tradition, I had the chance to find out first hand. It was only one game, Oxford against Warwickshire, but it was first-class cricket, against real professional cricketers, Ian Bell, Dougie Brown, Ashley Giles, Mark Wagh, Neil Carter…
Even at this distance, I remember the nerves beforehand. I confusedly called my coach from school, John Spencer, who'd played for Sussex for a decade. I pretended I'd rung to speak to his son, a friend, but as soon as I could and with absolutely no subtlety I told him I'd been picked to play against Warwickshire the next day. I emailed my father. The morning of the match, I asked for a private chat with our coach. I don't remember the details, but the general panic is very clear. I wanted reassurance, but no one could give it to me. This was a world I'd romanticised for a decade, people I'd assigned special powers to, and now I'd have to confront them.
Luckily, there's no finer cure for panic and excitement than fielding. Ian Bell and Mike Powell were so much better than our bowlers it was depressing. There was initial caution, but only very briefly. After that, a bloodbath. Pretty soon we scattered far and wide, and I was at long-on to an offspinner (Jamie Dalrymple, as it happens). I hate long-on when aggressive batsmen are batting (it's good when the batsman's just pushing one to you). Bell and Powell were on the go. I was worried, initially, about a mishit, having to take a steepler, or even just an allegedly simple catch chipped down to me.
"I'd like to point out that my strike rate is 92. Virat Kohli's strike rate: 54.84. Joe Root: 54.97. David Warner: 76.83"
I soon stopped worrying. After about two overs I realised that there was no danger whatsoever. They would hit the ball exactly where they wanted, and they didn't want to hit it to me, but past me. I was just playing fetch, basically. Occasionally they weren't able to hit a boundary and then I had to sprint around and try to save two, which I rarely managed to achieve. The accuracy is the thing I remember. When I bat, sure, I try to place the ball, and success means managing to hit it somewhere to the right of cover and the left of mid-off. But Bell and Powell seemed to be throwing darts and hitting treble 20 every time.
Frankly, it was pretty boring. Sure, it was first-class cricket, but there's a limit to how long that thrill lasts when you're sweating pounds off chasing after Ian Bell's cover drives. So, when I stood at square leg I tried to engage Peter Willey in conversation. He wasn't having any of it. He did, however, speak once.
That was when I misfielded. He grunts with pleasure, does Mr Willey, and says I ought to concentrate instead of talking.
But it's about the batting, isn't it? That's what cricket is, as far as I'm concerned. Playing cricket means batting. The rest is the price you pay for being able to bat.
I had two innings in first-class cricket. I'd like to point out that my strike rate is 92. This has absolutely no relevance to the rest of this piece. But it is the most important part of it.
Virat Kohli's strike rate: 54.84. Joe Root: 54.97. David Warner: 76.83.
I could go on, but I think the point has been made. As CLR James wrote, you need not build on these figures a monument, but you cannot ignore them. Or, as Andy Zaltzman might say, you do the math.
So, batting. I have a few batting stories from that game, mainly about Ashley Giles, but space dictates I pick one. And it's got to be the fast bowling, because facing it is the great unknown.
I never faced what the pros would call genuine pace. I asked Bazid Khan about pace once, when we were at school together, and sadly he didn't say, "pace is pace, yaar". But he did say that there was a qualitative gap between 80 and 85 miles an hour, a gap much bigger than between 75 and 80. Apparently once it hits 85 you're thinking, Jesus, quick. Eighty is a doddle, at least if you had Baz's ability.
But, as I remember Jon Hotten writing somewhere, pace is a relative thing, something that exists in the relationship between bowler and batsman rather than as an independent, fixed entity. So while I don't know how quick it actually was, and it definitely wasn't what the pros would call express, it felt plenty quick to me.
It's the second innings, Neil Carter is bowling. It looked pretty quick watching, but everything looks quick watching. My heart's beating hard, I take extra long to scratch my guard, trying to buy time, to get used to where I am. He thunders one down, around the wicket, must have been going for a yorker but he gets it wrong, it's too high, and it hits my bat around thigh height. My bat judders in my hands, I can feel the vibrations through my arm. I definitely didn't hit that one, it hit me.
My heart's really going now, this is faster than anything I've faced. Carter must notice something, or maybe this is just his style, but he walks down towards me, snarling. "That's the last f***ing one you get in your half," he says. I put my head down, walk towards square leg, refusing all eye contact. He comes in again, and yep, it's a short one. I get bat on it and it goes through the slips for four. I'm calling it a late cut, he's calling it something with lots of "eff" and "cee" in it. He switches to over the wicket and announces his intention to bounce the shit out of me.
Which, briefly, he does. And then something amazing happens. Time slows down. I'm so wound up, all systems go, that my senses go to a level I never knew I had. I can see the seam on the ball. I can see the beads of sweat glistening on his face. I can see the stubble on his cheeks. My body moves without thinking about it. I don't take him on, I don't dominate, I simply survive, but it's the happiest, most serene feeling I've ever had on a cricket pitch.
It's only a few balls. Mike Powell asks him to calm down, then takes him off. Ashley Giles wheels through an over, the captains shake hands over a draw, and we walk off.