Once upon a time, when Sundays were as cloudless as our clarity of purpose, we would have donned our whites and taken to the field, and there the modern world would be held at bay for a few sweet, sweet hours by its great antidote, village cricket. But the wheel of fate is ever spinning and before long we slid off the teamsheet, distracted by family, work and the myriad other calls upon our time. Sulking in our tents like so many modern-day Achilleses, we could only slowly appreciate when the game might fit back into our lives, or we might fit our lives back into the game. And when, finally, we are tempted back into the fray, we search for our old armour in vain.
And there's the rub: what do we do about equipment? Do we kit ourselves up to the eyeballs or just stroll out with the barest of bare necessities? There's a fine line to be walked here, and it's the one between the pavilion and the middle. And back.
As we all know, cricket is played largely in the head (certainly my best innings have taken place there), but it's not just our attitude or expectations that count: the opposition has a part to play here, too. No one wants to be that player, do they? The one whose journey to the middle (and back again) is accompanied by the fateful words "all the gear, no idea".
But if we judge a player by the gear they sport, or their journey to the crease, we are fools and may well end up hoist by our own petard.
I am told that when I walk out to bat against a new team, they can be somewhat worried. Not because my swagger is akin to that of some legendary Greek warrior, my bat cutting slices in the air like a demiurge's scimitar, but because my gait is, well, I'm not sure how best to describe it, other than to say it wouldn't strike fear into your average penguin. Teams have been known to ask the umpire if they should bowl "nicely", and how the hell I'm going to run between the wickets.
But my problem with cricket isn't Parkinson's
, it's lack of talent. Of course, it doesn't help that my bat shakes, my feet won't move and my left-hand grip is fast diminishing, but once I'm out of the blocks, I'm plenty quick enough to steal singles. My appearance makes expectations dip, however - and my life in the middle somewhat easier (sometimes). And my kit?
I have a good bat - a very good bat, in fact. Every so often I play a shot that is almost worthy of it, causing one or other of the fielders to ask me what it is. I reckon it's worth 20% of my runs over the course of a season
As Nicholas Hogg pointed out recently
, cricket can be an expensive pastime, but then, what hobby isn't? When I was 21 I taught at a contemporary-music school, and my evening classes were full of middle-aged men who, finding that they were suddenly richer in both time and money than they had been in 20 years, decided to revisit their youth in the shape of the electric guitar. You think cricket's expensive? Try catching the guitar bug. These men would often show up to class with a different guitar each week, each worth more than my entire rig, while I was still playing the guitar I bought for £150 when I was 17. And you know what? These uber-axes didn't make them better guitarists, but they did have two very positive results (apart from keeping guitar makers in business). The high-quality guitar not only allows the player to squeeze that little bit more out of their ability, but, perhaps more importantly, it makes them feel good. And that, for me, is the point of the exercise.
If there's a pastime more perfectly tailored for good-old-days romanticism than cricket, however, I've yet to discover it. "He'd never have got away with that if he had one of the old bats", "It's all the fault of helmets", "DRS is ruining everything", hang on, no, "T20 is ruining everything", oh, wait, "Covered pitches are ruining everything", and so on and on. The image of the old-timer with his fraying, ill-fitting pads and 20-year old bat coming to the middle and showing up the middle-aged arriviste with the hand-shaved wand and moulded thigh pad is as seductive as ever it was. But it's not only a daft image, it's unfair to both parties.
We've all played that shot before. You know, the one where body, bat and ball become one for a split-second and your spirit is electrified. You enter the realm of the truly sublime as you transcend time and space and the ball, oh, the ball. No one moves in the field, because everyone feels what you feel. Perfection. The nature of a really good bat is such that using it increases the chances of experiencing this harmonic convergence.
Now, you're not going to tell me that our mythical old-timer isn't going to get more value from his shots using a good bat.
I have a good bat - a very good bat, in fact. Every so often I play a shot that is almost worthy of it, causing one or other of the fielders to ask me what it is. I reckon it's worth 20% of my runs over the course of a season, and more to the point, if I time a "worthy" shot early enough, my confidence soars. If I'm out early, no one's any the wiser. (I'm, ahem, between sponsors)
The same goes for protective gear, except that not only does well-designed, well-made kit help you function better, it protects you better. As a keeper, I want the best gloves I can afford. They feel better, help me take more catches, and protect my hands better. In fact, I want fitted gloves, because my little finger never quite sits right and it's vulnerable enough as it is. (If anyone fancies making me a pair, drop me a line.) I often see other, better keepers with greatly inferior gloves, and after getting over my embarrassment wonder why they don't step up a gear... in gear.
What matters most in the professional game is results. There is no Armenian judge giving extra points for style, just a scorer marking down the result of each ball. Of course, pretty runs have a different psychological impact on the game than ugly runs do, but no team worth its salt picks a player who makes elegant 20s over one who makes ugly 60s. Do they? But we don't play the professional game. We play real cricket, recreational cricket. We are the giants on whose shoulders the professionals stand. In our game, it's all about feeling good. It's a game we play for pleasure, and if it makes you feel good to play with a £400 bat, and you can afford it, then you just go for it. After all, you're effectively subsidising the whole cricket industry. And it's almost Christmas.
Don't forget, however, that while an awesome bat may allow you to get full value from your shots, it might just make a bowler take you more (or less) seriously than they ought, and it will certainly allow the opposition to get full value from your feathered edges.