Cricket, the old adage goes, is a team sport played by individuals. When it really comes down to it, you are on your own. The bowler standing at the top of their mark is as lonesome as the batter waiting in the crease. Each delivery is a tiny drama: dot ball, play and miss, a solid defence or nudge for runs, a caressed four or a hoicked six. Each ball a petit mort for either player and not in the sexy French way.
Those split seconds are a battle between two individuals. Until bat hits ball and a member or two of the cream-clad chorus are invited to get involved. If leather doesn’t meet willow then the ball might sail through to the wicketkeeper, the ghost at this particular feast, and another lonesome role (ask anyone who’s ever done it; ask James Bracey) burdened by each delivery being loaded with the potential for success or failure.
Some like it this way. The game allows those who want to pursue individual glory the space to do so, the team sport tag a shroud for their messianic quest for personal glory. In the amateur game these types are often easy to spot: they are the ones reeling off impressive personal statistics in the quiet moments after defeat or looming over the batting column in the scorebook, phone out and poised, ready to take a picture of their tally. All the better for some social media-based humblebragging when the dust has barely settled.
Despite the placid soundbites and chummy bonhomie that surround the professional game these days, reputations and livelihoods are on the line. Places in England teams are hotly contested in every format. One man or woman’s success is another’s misfortune. It’s a Groucho Marx version of team spirit where “no one is completely unhappy at the failure of his best friend”.
All of which means there’s no lonelier place in cricket than when you are out of nick. Spare a thought for Zak Crawley, whose run of Test scores since making 267 against Pakistan last August make for grim reading. In six matches Crawley has crept to a total of 123 runs in 12 innings, an average of 10.25. Ollie Pope, another white-hot hope of English batting, isn’t faring much better. His last Test half-century was a 62 against Pakistan almost a year ago. They are undoubtedly fine players and will probably come again; they are simply mired in a bad run of form. It happens to the very best.
Form is a fickle thing. Nasser Hussain had a runnus horribilis in 2000. He turned around the fortunes of the England Test team as captain, all the while looking about as likely to get a run as the Millennium Dome was to becoming the eighth wonder of the world.
Hussain wrote in his autobiography that the bad form seeped into every aspect of his life. He couldn’t sleep, became uncommunicative at home and started to obsess over his bats and equipment. Fetishising equipment is a familiar trope at all levels and batters in particular will do almost anything to keep luck on their side and poison form at bay. During those desolate moments at the crease, a faithful bat or a familiar pair of gloves is a mast on which to cling. It’s all they have.
Denial is another tool at a batter’s disposal. How many “unplayable” deliveries there must have been in all forms of cricket. Ian Botham was a master of this Teflon approach to batting. Rather than contemplate his demise being in some part a fault of his own he would always chalk it up to a moving spectator, a low-flying bird or Jupiter aligning with Saturn. Anything, really. That way he could move on and not be weighed down by the failure, working a sort of kidology on himself if not others.
Viv Richards used to ostracise himself from the failed batter he was due to replace in an attempt to not let the waft of excuses or bad advice engulf him on the way to the crease. This often meant he would approach the wicket from different areas of the ground, appearing like a gum-chewing Hannibal from wide long-on, untarnished by what had happened before.
If livelihoods and entire reputations aren’t quite at stake, the amateur player can still be deeply affected by a fallow period. Marcus Berkmann’s Rain Men is the wry look at the characters that are rife in recreational cricket, its pages awash with humorous tales of ego, hubris and tantrums. Berkmann is in his element, chuckling as he reels off tales of teammates’ woes down the line. One of the worst he can recall is his own, as a spell as a makeshift opener brought one run from seven innings.
“I’ve managed to block most of it from my memory, my teammates were more supportive than piss-taking, which is always a worry.” Berkmann mentions he was at a party full of fellow writers and while everyone else was busy talking about their current projects, he was locked in conversation with Anthony McGowan, recent Carnegie prize winner, whose current batting slump was the main thing on his mind. Perfect.
In McGowan’s words he is an “OK” batsman and in “a genuinely terrible run”. He’s got his scores to hand. “I’ve scored 69 runs in 12 innings at an average of 5.75.” He puts it down to bad luck and a few dodgy lbw decisions. There’s mention of body language that starts to “exude failure” the opposition and umpires can detect, a self-fulfilling prophecy, the raised finger to send him on his way an almost merciful act.
“There’s a stench of failure that hangs around me. I need a quick 20 or a ‘daddy-35’ to get myself going again,” he adds. “For us amateur cricketers, one reason we play the game is that while we are playing the rest of the world disappears for a bit. That’s the beauty of it. But when things go wrong, it contaminates everything else. It makes you feel like not just a cricketing failure, but a failure in life.”