“Stretford had shown me that I was so much better than I knew. I may have hated school but I had an outlet to express myself without being punched or called names. I was so high after my first wicket that I could’ve fist pumped Helen Sharman “
As a school big shot bursts through the last line of defence I manage to stand up tall and tip his strike over the cross bar. As the football lands safely out of play I’m left in the firing line.
A vengeful dig is planted into my arm and the jock shouts “You fu**ing fat ba**ard”, “No wonder I can’t score because you’re so wide” No big deal right? A small verbal remark and a punch won’t cause any harm, and it’s not like I took a major beating or had my head flushed down the toilet.
Imagine though, the same thing happening multiple times per lunchtime or break time every day for four years.
Speaking up didn’t seem an option and retaliation would only caused further suffering. Instead I let those school bullies eat away. Any feeling of self worth dissolved away with every throwaway insult. I was like the piece of air dried charcuterie hanging from the window which gets sliced and sliced and sliced until only the hanging hook is left. Sticks and stones is the worst advice I’ve ever been given because it’s simply untrue.
One day, following yet another insult and jab to the solar plexus it all just became too much. I broke down. Tears began to roll down my face. Most people were glad it was not themselves getting sledged so remained passive. There was only one person who asked if I was OK and he took me to speak to the head of year. I advised the head of year what had happened but my earlier fears of the situation being brushed under a rug were confirmed when I was simply told “you’re OK aren’t you”.
Hope was on the horizon however and it wasn’t down to any education institution. My spirit hadn’t been totally broken by the idiots but it was in fact on the verge of being restored thanks to the sound of leather on willow.
As extra other curricular activities fell by the way side I found that I started to focus on playing cricket at my local club. I had joined with my brothers at the age of 9 after being taken down to the club by a family friend.
There was no U9 or U11 team in those days so after a few years of pottering around at the training sessions where I learned some basics I was selected to play my first game when I made up the numbers in the U13 team. I spent all Friday nervously trying to make up excuses why I couldn’t play but it was too late because before I knew it we were in the car on the way to the match.
During the game the captain had made a hash of working out his bowlers spells and it meant I got the nod to bowl. Oh shit. As my arm rolled over, sweat beads pouring off my forehead, I thought to myself “this ball could go anywhere, it could even meander into the river at deep mid wicket”.
“Walking in, on your toes” shouted the captain; a form of encouragement.
I bowled the slowest ball you could ever imagine which seemed to take an eternity to reach the other end of the pitch. It was so lacking in speed that spectators could be forgiven for thinking that I was trying to bowl spin. As the ball set off on its course; with the trajectory of a damaged Slinky, the fielders winced and braced themselves.
The batsman at the strikers end waited impatiently for the ball to arrive; his eyes lighting up like the Aurora Borealis. In his haste to smash the ball to the moon, the batter played across the line of the ball. Although velocity was not on my side I at least had direction in my favour.
“Hang on I think he’s missed it”………….the ball nudged into middle stump and the bails fell to the ground. As my team mates rushed into the centre of the pitch to celebrate the fall of a wicket my mind was taken back to what happened last time I made a save on the football pitch at school. Expectantly I tensed my arm and then,……nothing. Nothing but praise!
The sheer adulation I felt with a fleeting moment of success with a group of people who were genuinely pleased for you was totally unreal. Nobody is digging my arm, instead I’m getting pats on the back and congratulations. Maybe this club was different? It was the first place I’d gained some kudos and respect and I’d got my first wicket!
The very moment the ball struck and tilted back the stump is the moment I fell in love with the game of cricket, the club and it’s people and when life started to turn around. I may have hated school but I had an outlet to express myself without being punched or called names. I was so high I could’ve given Helen Sharman a fist pump. I actually belonged somewhere!
Cricket is very different to most sports because it’s a team game with very individual elements. Even a beginner can experience glory because just a single moment can provide a spark. Even the least talented player gets a chance; it might be a piece of fielding that helps to dismiss the best batsmen on the opposition or it could be a catch that changes the course of match. The beauty of the game and probably of sport in general is that it doesn’t matter who you are, how intelligent you are, how much money you have, what your daddy does or where you are from, if you disrespect it and the people involved it will bite you on the backside. Everyone is equal on a cricket pitch.
As I focused more on cricket I found that I improved; quickly scoring my first 25* retired, taking catches and getting wickets. All I wanted was for the school day to end so I could go to the cricket club and practice some more with real friends. It occurred to me that if I put some effort into the sport and the club that I would be rewarded.
I grew as a person and gained confidence; both my school grades and cricket scores increased as I was happier outside school. My first coach was instrumental in supporting me and was the first person to treat me as an individual person. This just wasn’t the case in any other place. I’ve taken on this mantra by trying to treat everyone with the respect they deserve and I think that attitude is at the core of Stretford Cricket Club. There has been the odd person who doesn’t follow that unwritten rule, or the odd person who tries to buy there way out of issues but they’ve fallen by the wayside.
A year after my meltdown the school finally decided to create a cricket team. The PE teacher arranged some trials and asked me to be captain. In truth the team was average but contained a few experienced players. Often the team was short and pupils who were in detention were forced to play. My football pitch nemesis who delighted in my ritual humiliation was to be our opening bowler. I wanted to give other people an opportunity so I would bat in the middle order.
Our first match came around after a couple of practice sessions and confidence was not overly high from the teachers who didnt even know the names of fielding positions let alone an understanding of the LBW Law. We fielded first and restricted the opposition to a score of 110 off 18 overs. The opening bowler finished with five wickets to his name. Impressive spell but would you expect anything less?
In reply we quickly lost wickets and slumped to 30-3. I walked in with determination and knowing that away from the school team I had already helped my club to win games from similar situations. The bowlers served up the odd poor ball which was dispatched as we inched towards the target but we kept losing wickets. We reached the final over with 8 wickets down needing 5 to win and the the number 10 was on strike. I was leaning on my bat next to the PE teacher who was simultaneously umpiring and scoring such was the disorganisation of the school. Number 10 took huge swipes at balls one, two and three and was bowled on the fourth bringing our opening bowler and football lunchtime villain to the crease.
I was now batting with someone and trying to win the game with someone who had previously demonstrated that he had zero respect for other people. You couldn’t write it could you?
“Look, just get me on strike for the last ball” I forcefully instructed.
Although initially insulted by the command he nodded and managed to nudge a single into the off side leaving me on strike for the last ball needing 4 to win and 4 to reach a half century in the match.
I scanned the field to weigh up my options; there were no fielding restrictions and every player other than the wicket keeper was on the boundary. The bowler ran in confidently but delivered a full ball which missed the difficult-to-play yorker length and I managed to smear the ball straight over the top for a once bounce four.
As we celebrated, the opening bowler, walked over and again I thought back to those moments on the football pitch. I tensed my arm.
“Really well batted mate”
This was probably my chance to unleash a volley of home truths; “mate!?, who the hell are you calling mate!? But no. It was pretty clear in that moment, Stretford had shown me that I was so much better than I knew. I just smiled;
“Thank you, well bowled”