I have been failing at cricket for 35 years. There is no game that measures failure as harshly as cricket. Every time I bat, I fail. Sure, there have been relative successes but with very few exceptions such as hitting the winning run, the last ball I have faced in an innings has got the better of me. Or, more usually, I have made a hash of it and allowed some cocky bowler an undeserved victory with a long hop or full toss that should have been thrashed for four.
Other games are more merciful. If you hit a triple bogey at golf, the next hole can be a birdie. At tennis, the double fault can be – indeed often is – followed by an ace or an elegant passing shot. Batting, though, is merciless. Not only is there no second chance, but the result of one’s efforts is cruelly recorded in a score book for posterity. And most of the time, of course, that represents failure.
At the age of 53, I intend to remedy this. I am setting out to succeed at cricket. I am not a bad cricketer. Indeed, sometimes I even perform above the mediocre, scoring the odd fifty and executing the occasional perfect pull shot, but the feeling after 35 years of toil, batting and wicketkeeping is one of great underachievement.
I intend to triumph not only over the iniquities of the game but over my own failing faculties. I have set myself a challenge, one which I will be able to share with my grandchildren as I sit next to them at Lord’s. I want to score a hundred.
I am not sure where my obsession with the game comes from. It is, perhaps, a result of the precision with which one can measure success or failure, which appeals to my trainspotterish brain. It can hardly be genetic. My father was a Russian émigré, a member of the small bourgeoisie, who in his teens fled the revolution in 1917 and certainly never wielded a willow at school, and my mother was Swedish. Moreover, they sent me to a French school, the Lycée in South Kensington, cricket was regarded as a distinctly alien activity and I played just one match.
To make up for it, I joined a club, The Polytechnic, created by Quintin Hogg, where they treated tyros in a way the old man would have approved.. They put me to bat at no 11 for several years and encouraged me run about usefully in the field. Consequently, it took me three seasons before I got into double figures as I crept slowly up the batting order, six before I managed 100 runs in a season (when, in a false dawn, I suddenly scored 80*, a feat I have not equalled since) and my first 1,000 runs took an astonishing 188 matches spread over 11 years. My average by then was – I have never revealed this before to anyone, so bear with me – a quite dreadful 8.32. Even Phil Tufnell does better than that.
And yet I persevered turning up most Sundays, ‘wet or shine’ as the little selection slips from the non-playing Poly secretary put it. Despite my passion, I set about it in a very British amateurish way. Instead of getting coached and learning the rudiments from the experts, I tried to develop the skills on the job.
Those years of ducks and ones and 3*, all faithfully recorded on tattered sheets of paper which inexplicably are still in the filing cabinet next to me as I write this, have left me psychologically scarred, but also strengthened. I might know about failure, but I have also learnt the virtue of perseverance.
And now the days of amateurishness are behind me. Instead, I am going to set about this aim with all the professionalism of an England cricketer – or perhaps more so. During the whole of this close season, I am going into training with the help of a coach, my friend James, and his bowling machine which unaccountably I have dubbed Elsie, although she has 25 balls, about which more in the next issue.
Lest you should feel this is a completely crazy and hopeless exercise, let me add that my recent experience is rather better. Since 1984, I have played for the New Statesman and my average is creeping up annually and last season was a respectable 21.17, top score 62. Frustratingly, my last two knocks were 41 and 48, but even such good efforts are less than half the target. I will need a lot of training to turn such efforts into centuries.
In order not to torture myself for the rest of the days, I have set a deadline I am 53 now, and will be 54 midway through next season. Realistically, if I do not achieve my goal by the time of my 55th birthday, it will probably never happen. As a journalist, in any case, I know deadlines focus the mind. And I have never broken one. So far.