I have realised that this is not just about cricket. It’s about life itself. My middle aged quest for a maiden century has made me learn about the character of my 53-year old soul and there is an awful lot at stake.
Having been coached all winter and learnt how to play strokes which previously I thought only Michael Vaughan could execute, I have built up a confidence I have never felt before. I am going to approach the crease with a totally different attitude. In the past, the bowler was the boss. If he were a pre-shaving callow boy, then I thought he must be an up and coming buck who has been passed the ball by a captain with enough nous to cultivate youth. If he were grey, portly and ponderous, then I would watch out for the wicked inswinger or the canny variations in pace and direction.
Whatever way I looked at the bowler, I was inferior. If he were dressed in smart whites, then he must be an accomplished cricketer, but if he had dirty trainers and a T shirt, I would imagine he was a past star who had just returned to the field. If the first ball was a long hop which I despatched for four, I would still think that this was just a loosener from a skilful bowler. Even if I became sure that the fellow was a pork pie merchant, my thoughts would then turn to the potential humiliation of getting out to a rank bad ball.
Where did I get this terrible sense of insecurity from? I had a brilliant older brother who was better at everything than me, both sporting and academic pursuits and I lived in his shadow during my youth. He starred in the school play, skied brilliantly and got to Oxford. I was mediocre academically – though if I had done any work, it might have helped – was an athletic goalkeeper but with a kick that barely reached the edge of the goal area, and scraped into Warwick University, then a new institution desperate for recruits. But this inferiority should have long passed given that I have been reasonably successful in my chosen profession while my poor brother was thrown out of Oxford after a year and never recovered sufficiently to get himself a job.
The new found confidence I feel about my cricket is translating into the rest of my life. I talk to women I meet at parties as if my conversation really sparkled with scintillating wit, as well as being laced with the profundity that my years should engender. I know I am fooling myself but that is not the point. My newspapers articles are dashed off with a flourish, my fingers seemingly pre-set to find the right words themselves.
Now, though, the whole enterprise has to be put to the test and there is the awful possibility that I might fail disgracefully. I might be reduced to a quivering wreck after a few innings, not even able to average the 20 or so I managed last year and then my whole new-found persona will be deeply damaged. It will not only be my cricket that will suffer, but the rest of my life may slump as well. Perhaps I will get writer’s block and be unable to work. I may find myself lost for words on the radio and my partner may finally up sticks, despairing of ever having a conversation that is not about cricketing failure or the causes of it.
There are some worrying signs. Indeed, the coaching has not all been smooth. Yes, I have hit some sterling cover drives, but there has been a weakness around the off-stump that has resulted in the blue plastic of the fake wicket get a pounding.
All too suddenly, it is summer. None of this really mattered in the nets but the first test – well my first test – is upon me. The opening game of the season has traditionally been scheduled for the end of April but this is a mere fiction, a line in the fixture card that never translates into a game because of the weather. Indeed, in the whole week running up to the game for my renamed team, the Beamers against an ominously name outfit, Black Rose, has been spent checking the weather on Yahoo. Clouds and rain are forecast, so that’s OK. The moment of destiny is to be postponed.
Except it’s not. The rain is forecast for lunchtime Sunday but it does not arrive. Instead, unable to focus on anything but an easy crossword, I steadily get my whites ready and pack them into the car. Lunch is a boiled egg, all I can face. In a flash, I find myself at the crease, the skipper having won the toss and elected to put me in to open the batting. The bowler is little, in his twenties and fit looking. The ball is shiny and very red. The pitch is bumpy and very green. So is my stomach.
I am cherishing, for the moment, the feeling of nervousness. It takes a lot to make me scared these days in my middle age. I used to throw up all the time in dressing rooms in anticipation of batting or speaking in public but now nothing seems important enough. But this does. I swallow hard as the first ball sails past at chest height and is called wide by Barrie, our umpire. At last it is game on.