53. Balls and bails

Writing the last blog brought me down. I had forgotten what an isolated and lonely time that was. Never anybody to confide in. Physical intimacies with girls rare and never of any comfort beyond ‘well at least I’ve done that’. And male friendships felt shallow. Most of my peers seemed to be having a better time than me. But I couldn’t acknowledge that without shame. The energy to put one foot in front of the other carried me along. There had to be a better horizon.

The one thing I excelled at was cricket, due to hundreds of hours of practice in our back garden. Aged 15, I knocked up my first half-century for the school. 52 not out. Even then I was afraid that the calling out of my name in the subsequent Monday morning assembly would trigger some kind of teasing.

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I was selected for the school first team at the age of 16, when most of the lads were 17 or 18. Opening batsmen. My technique was simple. Let the bowler generate the energy and wait to hook or cut to the boundary those balls pitched short and off target, effortlessly redirecting the flow.

Sometimes Eric would come to watch, driving his van into the school grounds and sitting in his navy blue overalls. He had encouraged me to be wicketkeeper when fielding, so as to be involved in every ball. I captained the team in 1975, my last year.

Best cricket snapshot: we played Upminster that summer. Facing the first ball was the nervous moment. I watched the bowler pace out his run, turn around and head back in. In the second or so after he released it, my instincts from the garden took over. The thing was flying directly at my face, not the ground. I stepped slightly to the right and hooked it from near the bridge of my nose. Up, up and away it soared, over the boundary, over the school fence, over the trees in the lane outside. To cheers from our team, I turned back and looked at the bowler. A broad-shouldered little fucker. What a pleasure to send his intimidation where it belonged.

Cricket was also the dimension where sport and data collection first came together in my head. Aged 12, I kept records of Essex County Cricket club’s batting and bowling performances. Copied painstakingly from my parents’ Daily Telegraph into exercise books. That was extended to soccer and then, over a decade later, to horse racing.

One last school story makes me smile. After I gave up rugby, and switched to hockey, in the sixth form, we were practising one afternoon over on the large playing fields north of the school. My side lost possession, and the ball went to Dave Baldock, who was goal-hanging in our half. There was 20 yards between us.

The only way to catch him was to throw away my hockey stick and run like the wind. As he approached the penalty area and prepared to shoot, I threw myself through the air and brought him down with a spectacular rugby tackle. Everybody fell over with laughter except Dave, who I never liked much. I was sent off and trotted back to the dressing room happily breaking into a chuckle every few yards at my anarchic behaviour.

But the best years of your life? Not for me. Thankful that I got away. And never any inclination to go back.

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