Watching Other Peopleís Children Play Cricket

All in all, it must be said that I have a pretty decent deal. Each Saturday and Sunday through the summer months I leave my house sometime in the early afternoon and spend my day at various cricket grounds, stopping to chat before moving on again, utterly at home and accepted in the Dublin cricket world I first entered almost fifty years ago.

Chat and move, chat and move, thatís my MO, not wishing to overstay my welcome, but also wary of becoming entrenched in a conversation I might not enjoy. No one is offended when I shuffle along as no one expects me to stay. My wife, delighted no doubt to be rid of me for the day, also seems happily reassured to see me roll back in once play finally ends. Of course, as is the case in many relationships I expect, my general doziness seems to irritate less intensely once I have been out from under everyoneís feet for a reasonable period of time.

Iím probably the furthest thing you could find from a cricket snob. Men, women, youth matches, the First XI to the Fifth XI, I will watch pretty much any sort of cricket Ė anything as long as my own children are not batting.

This is a policy I adopted some years ago partly because my daughter found my presence a distraction, but mostly because, letís face it, seeing your child walk to the wicket is by and large a gut wrenchingly unenjoyable experience. Imagine watching your son play soccer knowing that the first poor pass he made would result in his being substituted, or your daughter play tennis knowing that the first serve she hit long would lead to her being replaced. Why put yourself through this awful tension? Spelling bee parents must walk the same emotional tightrope - but beyond that?

Things become a little easier perhaps, once your children have moved into adulthood, their place in cricketís pecking order already established and a little more resilient to the cruelties of the game. But until then it is a very different matter indeed. Whatever is going to happen will happen, that is my view, and I donít need to be around to see it. And I certainly donít need to be around to deal with the fallout either.

Unwilling to deal with my own agony I have instead acted for years as witness to other peopleís discomfort. I attend matches in which my children are not participating. As parents we set minimum baselines and offer silent prayers. 15, we say, just let him get to 15. Our demands are not astronomical; all we ask is enough success to encourage our children to keep coming back. I understand better than most that learning a sport is a process, that no one match is important in and of itself, that cricket is a game of the most brutal ups and downs. No child is immune from its cruelty. I also understand the ephemeral glitter of underage representative honours and how, as some players develop late while others fade away, each successive season renders the previous ones irrelevant.

I understand all of these things on the most abstract level and yet as soon as a delivery is bowled and careering towards the stumps one of my children is currently defending, my stomach ties itself into an involuntary knot, tightens into extreme discomfort and then releases a little as the bat comes down straight and in line and I let the most silent of gasps, inaudible to all around me. Sometimes the tension is so immediate and so unpleasant that I crave the release of a single run to take my child off strike Ė a momentary respite as the agony will of course ramp up again a minute later.

Then sooner or later the dismissal will arrive and you experience a sudden blow somewhere deep inside you. Sometimes you canít help but swear aloud; most of the time you manage to contain it. Sometimes stupidly, irrationally, an irritation swells and you mutter in the direction of your devastated son or daughter who thankfully is the guts of a hundred yards away. How the hell can you not keep that out? Or Keep the ball on the ground, for Christ sake! Then simultaneously with that final twist deep inside your gut all the tension suddenly leaves you and you feel a relief mingled in with the disappointment, yes you actually feel a relief that your child has been dismissed and your own personal suffering is over.

In that moment, your mood settles into something else. You have been waiting for the worst to happen and now it has. This is nothing more than the most miniscule of tragedies but a tragedy nonetheless and you experience it just as your child is experiencing it. As someone once said, You are only ever as happy as your least happy child, and at this particular moment your least happy child is by some distance the one trooping morosely towards the pavilion. So I donít attend. Which doesnít mean that I donít experience tension as I am always aware of the potential for low grade catastrophe that accompanies a game of cricket.

For years on match day I would hear the ping of my phone as I drove and I would often swear aloud and pull over. ďGot a duck,Ē it might say, or ďOut for 2Ē and, though removed from the action itself, I would simultaneously experience both the disappointment and the strange easing of tension that accompanies your childís dismissal. I would then compose a text telling my son or daughter not to worry, that it was only one game and that there would be many more opportunities as the season progressed, that better times were on the way.

The best advice I ever came across on sports parenting had nothing to do with parenting but rather came from the ex-Rangers and Everton manager Walter Smith. When players did well, he claimed, they immediately thought they were better than they actually were; when they did poorly they assumed they were worse than they were. The managerís role was to keep an even keel, not to get too excited by success, too downhearted by defeat. This applies doubly for parents. Kids need ballast as they find their way through youth sport; they need to step into a car where the atmosphere is roughly the same whether they have performed exceptionally or poorly. Learning a sport is all part of a process, after all.

There are more than enough ups and downs to be experienced without burdening them with a parentís disappointment as well. That gutwrenching torture is not the only reason that I choose not to watch my children bat; it is easier for me to be the parent I hope to be if I am a little removed from the immediate action. None of which stops me enjoying other peopleís agony, however. That can be rollicking entertainment.

A couple of years back Ashley Balbirnie, father of current Ireland captain Andrew, embarked on a lap as the Pembroke innings opened then somehow got it into his head that to stop walking would break the luck and lead to his sonís dismissal. I have much sympathy here; this is precisely the sort of irrational nonsense my own mind is prone to. Anyhow the sun shone and Ashley tramped around the pitch at Sydney Parade, hour after hour, Andy compiling a skilful and unhurried hundred, Ashley looking more and more dishevelled with each lap, the thought crossing my mind more than once that if a wicket didnít fall soon a stretcher would be required to lug Ashley back along Wilfield Road to the safety of his living room couch.

On another occasion I watched a young batsman top edge a pull shot and before the catch had even been claimed his father had landed his deckchair into a nearby hedge. All of which is too funny. I have witnessed all sorts of parental excesses and have enjoyed them immensely and let me say here that there is so much to be enjoyed once your own children are not the ones involved.

The cricketing community in Dublin is a small one; and yet in the Sandymount area alone there are four clubs, all within walking distance of each other. In each there are people I would know well enough to sit with but, of course, the vast majority of my time is spent at Pembroke CC stationed along the wall which flanks one side of the playing area, or on the benches next to the clubhouse or maybe strolling around the pitch to loosen out my knee. Your kidsí club becomes your club, nothing surer, and now when I return to Clontarf CC and see a younger version of myself looking out from team photos, it is clear that I am visiting a former life.

Strangely, as it was this club which acted as a second home for me through my childhood and then ushered me into adult life, there are days when I feel oddly dislocated in Clontarf - grateful of course, familiar, always made wonderfully welcome but also expecting to feel something I no longer feel. I spend many of my visits with my former opening partner whose kids are also making their uneven way through the world of cricket. It is, of course, a privilege to be so closely connected with two different clubs but after a couple of hours of chatting and lapping the stunning Castle Avenue ground, I always understand that it is time to leave again, to head towards the East Link and back to my own club, back to where I now belong.

I really enjoy sitting along the wall in Pembroke. It is such a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. I am fond of telling people that my primary allegiance is to my own entertainment; my main hope is that there will be a bust up of some description, followed by a close finish and then a small distance behind, a Pembroke victory.

No one walks anymore. At pretty much any level of cricket. Back when I played everyone walked, particularly down the leagues where there were no official umpires but these days players stand their ground, some batting on off stump confident that any lbw appeal will be dismissed by the team-mate umpiring at the other end and an atmosphere of mistrust and recrimination frequently prevails. By five oíclock all sense of sportsmanship can be cast aside leaving the way for bickering, retaliatory cheating, and all out protest. All of which is sad, let me be clear about this, but once you place the spirit of cricket squarely to one side, it does make for some cracking entertainment for those of us with nothing else to do on a weekend evening.

I donít miss playing. For a time I was asked to, generally for the Pembroke Third XI, where there were still some players of my vintage turning out each weekend. I had too many injuries to consider returning but even without that, cricket, unless you both bat and bowl, is an extremely high risk way to spend your day. Even for those far more skilled than myself, cricket is a game of frequent failure, the odds never moving in your favour beyond a particular age and the prospect of an evening being hidden in the field becomes increasingly unappealing especially with a low score to your name.

So rather, a different cricketing life is stretching out before me. I seem to have moved into that category of older club member who finds himself invited in for tea at First XI games and it is only now that I recognise what a sweet deal these folks have. Company, a dayís entertainment, and if that wasnít enough you get your tea as well.

The only problem is that I sometimes end up pushing my dinner around the plate when I do get home and my wife is looking across the table at me thinking, Have you been stuffing yourself with sandwiches at the cricket again?

Cricket, as I have written before can be a brute of a game; pushing youngsters aside who would have loved to have remained involved, often tormenting those of us who do manage to stay. Just as schoolboy cricket operates as a funnel allowing only the select few through, adult cricket operates similarly as people drift away once they have stopped playing.

It is generally only those of us whose children for whatever reason take to the game that manage to extract a second life from it. Currently I am amongst the youth policy at the supportersí tea time sitting but hopefully this will not always be the case. I am certainly not so foolish not to recognise a sweet deal when I see it. This is all working out so nicely for me. All I need is to continue to ensure that I am absent once my children head out to bat.