There’s a theory in cricket that all wicket-keepers are slightly mad. It’s certainly true that batsmen are often more than a little bit superstitious: it’s the precarious nature of batting. With bowling, you get umpteen chances to take a wicket. But, one mistake as a batsman, and it’s all over. It’s no surprise the sound of a cricket ball cannoning into a batsman’s stumps is known as the “death rattle”. By the standards of professional sport, rates of depression and even suicide are notably higher in cricket, and it’s the batsmen who suffer.
As we may see when post-lockdown Test Match cricket returns to our screens this week, it takes mental strength to accumulate runs. Inevitably, some luck too. Hence the superstitious practises. Stories are legion. Batsmen clutching ancient “lucky” tokens. Dressing in a certain order every time they get ready. Forget LBW (Leg Before Wicket). It’s all very OCD.
We live in a world where world where sport is decreasingly Corinthian and increasingly about performance, personal bests and winning at all costs. – Colin Brazier
South African batsman Neil McKenzie had to check that all the loo seats in the changing room were down before heading to the crease. Numerology plays a part, as you’d expect in a game where there are – well – so many numbers. English cricketers grow nervous when the score stands at 111. Umpire David Shepherd (not to be confused with David Sheppard, the former England captain who became Bishop of Liverpool) would always lift a foot when a team reached that milestone. Australia’s “unlucky” number is 87. Nobody knows why for certain. But it may be that 87 is 13 short of a century. Thirteen being a number that is only now – in our secular age – losing the stigma stamped on it by the infamy of Judas.
In the absence of “live” cricket, I’ve been watching re-runs of famous matches. The much-toasted Ashes series of 2005 has been a staple. Against the odds, England narrowly vanquished the world-beating Australians. Part of England’s success lay in undermining the confidence of the Aussie’s two opening batsmen, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer. In the first test match of the series, Hayden was hit early on the helmet by a vicious delivery and, when the Australian captain was later similarly struck – and with blood pouring from a gash to his cheek – not a single Englishmen offered words of consolation. It’s a tough, kinetic contest, cricket, belying the impression outsiders have of a world of cucumber sandwiches and summertime conviviality.
No other game encodes mental fortitude into the DNA of its practitioners more than cricket. – Colin Brazier
Hayden and Langer, coincidentally, are both Catholics – Hayden demonstrably so. Whenever he scored a century – which was often – he would make the sign of the cross. Langer, who now coaches the Australian national side, was inscrutable at the crease, though equally devout in private. A father-of-four, who married his childhood sweetheart, Langer has written five books including Seeing The Sunrise. It’s described as a “handbook for overcoming self-doubt”. I wonder how much the faith of both men helped them conquer doubts about their abilities as batsmen. In particular, did it help them cope with the inevitable sequences of bad fortune that can ruin careers that don’t deserve to be ruined?
These are questions which cricket-lovers rejoice in. And, by the way, no sport (save, perhaps, baseball) has so rich a catalogue of literature devoted to its study. In my (massively biased) opinion, no other game encodes mental fortitude into the DNA of its practitioners more than cricket. No other sport imparts as many aptitudes for life as does this strange game, impenetrable and deathly-dull for some, a subject of near religious devotion for others.
It’s not just the moral courage required to face a piece of hard leather heading for your head at motorway speeds. Nor even the ability to ignore the “sledging” of fielders who are quick to welcome an incoming batsmen with words of discouragement (the Australians were historically very “good” at this). It’s the other stuff, the soft-skills. The things we sometimes lose sight of in a world where sport is decreasingly Corinthian and increasingly about performance, personal bests and winning at all costs.
This is cricket as a school for life. Learning to walk off the pitch with equanimity even though wrongly dismissed by an errant umpire. Not carping when sent to a lonely fielding position because a captain whose judgement you value not, doubts your competence as a bowler. Moments of quiet contemplation as you potter in the bucolic outfield, only to be disturbed any second now by the terror of a ball that has been sent into low-earth orbit by a batsman who is praying that its descent will yield stinging palms and a dropped catch.
The pavilion of a village cricket club is a place where the intergenerational transfer of knowledge has been a given for two centuries. – Colin Brazier
Most of all, and most pertinently during this Age of Corona, cricket – at the grassroots level – is vastly social. Well, so are many sports, you might argue. But cricket stands out, partly because of the time it takes, and the pauses for socialisation it offers, but also because of the age spread of those who play. The pavilion of a village cricket club is a place where the intergenerational transfer of knowledge has been a given for two centuries.
Sadly, many of these small clubs face a future that has been rendered more uncertain by Covid. Playing recreational cricket is a time-consuming habit in a world where time is short. Will coronavirus break that habit for cricketers, just as it may for devotees of other physical institutions, including churches? It’s hard to know for sure. But, in the meantime, thank God for the return of cricket and maybe, as a fast bowler launches the first ball of England’s international season down towards an opening batsman, we might say a prayer for his survival – and that of the game itself.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.