Fit in my 40s: learning the cricket basics is full of surprises

Cricket, like all team sports, has suffered an epic hiatus over the past 18 months. It was for this reason, and not because I was shy, that I opted for a one-on-one coaching primer in the cricket nets in my local park, rather than joining the beginners’ team at the nearest club. They’re all extremely welcoming (they say, on their websites), but the raw fact is that “beginner” in local teams just means “less good than the main team”. It almost never means “complete novice”, as I’ve learned from bitter experience of ruining other people’s korfball and netball evenings.

It was actually two-to-one: a groundsman-cum-gentleman-amateur and a sportsman-of-all-trades who once taught me tennis. There is a vast array of starter exercises in cricket, which aren’t really about your technique; they’re there because of the huge number of laws in the game, which ultimately have to reside not just in your brain but in your eyes and your muscles. For every one thing you could guess you’d have to learn (how to bowl, how to bat, how to catch), there are two others you couldn’t. How do you run with a bat? Well, don’t start from the starting line: what are you, an idiot? You can start in front of it, so long as your bat is still touching the ground behind it. How many metres of distance should you keep from other players? What is all the mad stuff about the wicket? If you’re having to think about all this during a match, you’ve already lost.

Expect a fair amount, therefore, of sitting around getting hay fever, bending your mind to the fact that this is a noble and complex pursuit, not just rounders with a stick up its arse. Yet when it comes to your own technique, there is actual exercise involved. It takes an amount of time just to bowl overarm reliably so that the ball bounces once and then approximates the middle of your partner’s bat. For every limb and digit, there is a fresh rule. Don’t hold the ball like a ball, hold it with your two swearing fingers, your thumb gripping from the side, and your remaining fingers clenched just to look pro. Don’t stand front-on, stand sideways. Don’t dangle your other arm, lift it high in front of your face, but not so you can’t see. Don’t just stand there. Lift whichever leg corresponds with your non-bowling arm, like a warrior. Then crash down on it, as you release the ball. Who knows where it might go? Certainly not me. I hit the nets far more often than I hit anything else.

This is all far more dynamic than it sounds, and has a bunch of mechanical surprises: if, by some miracle, all your limbs are in the right place, and the timing is right, you will simply propel the ball to its destination without realising how you did it. Years ago, ineffectually battling the weight I put on through two poorly timed, too-close-together pregnancies, I was complaining to an aerobics teacher about my pathetic, invisible triceps, and she said, “Realistically, when do you ever use those muscles, except for washing your hair?” Well, lady. Overarm bowling, that’s when.

What I learned

When you’re running, you’re running hard; when you’re not, you’re concentrating to an almost meditative degree.