Junior Cricket

With the sun beating down on the wall at Sydney Parade and cold pints available the Pembroke 5th XI often draw a decent crowd. A close finish is a close finish, after all, with the same drama whatever the level, the same direct individual contests and the same escalating psychological pressure experienced.

The bowling is slower down the leagues, true, and contains less deception while the batsmen strike the ball with significantly less power and placement. But it is still effectively the same game, eminently watchable for those of us who have little else to do on a weekend evening, the balance shifting ever so slightly with each ball bowled and each run scored, moving inexorably towards a finish which may or may not contain some late drama.

And of course that drama is experienced just as keenly by those involved as though it were an international match.

While watching these games it is hard not to be struck by the inclusivity of what is occurring before you. Junior cricket simply does not discriminate, not even by competence. A 16 year old can accompany a 65 year old out to open the batting against a Kiwi/ Sri Lankan opening attack with every age, height and shape dotted around the outfield. All are welcome.

The only requirement is to be reckless enough to sacrifice your day to a game which can at once be both remarkably beautiful and unbearably cruel. Because the junior cricketer should not expect cricket to treat him well. It simply will not do so.

The best he can hope for is a type of unrequited love, full of longing and frustration and disappointment, punctuated by random moments of the purest joy, just enough to keep him hanging on, moments which often appear when he least expects them to.

That cover drive, for instance, the one you barely feel on the bat before it is gone, half way to the boundary before you are fully sure that you have made contact. Or that spell of bowling when your body feels a rhythm you never knew it possessed and it is hard to believe that it is actually your own hand guiding each delivery. Or maybe even that innings when you play shots you never even imagine you could play and you wonder if you have ever been happier than you are walking off this particular day with your team- mates cheering every step.

It is these moments which keep us coming back, which fortify us for each upcoming season. It is moments such as these which result in a grown man batting with a rolled up Irish Independent in his office on a mid-November afternoon. Or another putting his fingers cross seam on an orange when his wife asks him to prepare the fruit salad on Christmas day.

If a player is truly blessed one of these moments will arrive on Finals Day. But there is of course another group who are welcomed into junior cricket, young boys making their way in the game, just as Ed Joyce and Paul Stirling did not so long ago, encouraged and protected by team-mates and captains until they no longer need protection, kept and minded until they have found their feet and their courage and it is time for their talent to fly.

While watching the Irish team I often wonder about former team-mates of these players, members of 4th and 5th XIs all over the country who must be looking on and remembering the tiny boys in oversized pads whose careers they helped launch with their care and kindness. Junior cricket is the lifeblood of Irish cricket.

Those involved should treasure it for what it is, understanding that they have chosen a game which will always treat them with a savage indifference, enjoying the support and camaraderie of their team-mates as they wait for that one day of unrivalled pleasure which will make it all worthwhile.

But the Junior cricketer also needs to keep his eyes open. If he does and if he watches closely enough he will catch a glimpse of greatness as it passes through.

This article first appeared in the Cricket Leinster programme for the Festival of Junior Finals and is reproduced by the kind permission of the author.