Peter Prendergast, November 2020
I remember nicking a delivery in an Under 15 game almost forty years ago now, the faintest of edges, inaudible to all but the wicketkeeper whose emotions seemed to run in short order from delight to bemusement to frustration. It was close to the end of a nothing game, I remember this, against the league’s most unfashionable opponents, a small junior club situated in one of Europe’s largest public parks, one or two decent cricketers, sure, with proper cricket boots and whites but mostly just a motley gang of kids in white t-shirts and black runners. The wicketkeeper himself was performing in what were unlikely to be anything other than his school shoes and I expect that this is why I stood my ground. Who would believe him after all? In my whitened cricket boots and flannel trousers I somehow understood that I held more moral credibility - and so it proved. The umpire raised an eyebrow, a couple of fielders laughed and the wicketkeeper finally shook his head quizzically and tossed the ball towards extra cover. Then he muttered an apology in my direction and I, in the spirit of true sportsmanship, assured him it was quite all right, that he was not to give it another thought.
That, as far as I remember, is the only time I didn’t walk. There were many times I would have liked to have stayed, that’s for sure, when I would have enjoyed nothing more than to tap my bat a couple of times and resume my innings. But back when I started playing senior cricket, word rapidly spread about a player who was rumoured to have stood his ground. His integrity would be brought into question and not just as a sportsman- was this really someone you could trust in business, in love, in any other facet of life? Things began to change a little as professional players were employed in the Dublin leagues in the late seventies, hardened, pragmatic men, with kids’ clothes and schoolbooks to buy but until that point the non-walker was regarded as something of a pariah. Yet something in me admired him. The chutzpah, the disregard for the prevailing norms: perhaps we most respect in others those characteristics we ourselves lack. Much as I would have enjoyed such a reprieve there was not a doubt in my mind as to how it would turn out; embarrassed to still be there but too mortified to walk off having initially hesitated, I would protest my innocence, understanding that no one in the ground, not even my own mother, believed that the ball had not made contact with my bat. Then of course, a couple of balls later, riddled with guilt and anxiety, I would lob tamely into the covers and troop morosely back to the pavilion.
Here is my favourite non-walking story:
Back in the mid eighties YMCA were young and brash and arrogant, the strongest team by far in our league, louder in the field by some distance than anything we had previously experienced. Anyhow they’re playing away one day, all over their opponents, really hammering the crap out of them, when there’s a huge appeal against this guy, Aidan Kelleher, one of those appeals you can hear a couple of parishes away and goes on and on and on until it finally closes down. Only there’s not a budge out of the umpire. Nothing. The whole YM team has come barrelling in and they’re all congregated in the middle of the wicket to join in the congratulations. They’re disappointed at the decision but what can they do so the wicketkeeper shrugs and hands the ball back to the bowler and as he heads back to his spot he asks, “Jeez, what did that hit, Aiden?” “My bat,” says Aiden and he settles himself to resume his innings.
I remember an experienced Dublin umpire being interviewed for a match programme some time back in the eighties. A couple of players were singled out as examples of good sportsmanship and my name was sitting happily in there. Obviously, at some stage, I had stuck my bat under my arm before he had the chance to send me on my way. After that, I used to joke that I had built up enough credit for one whomping non-walk when I really needed it. Only of course I never used it: to foster an image in the mundane league matches and then stand your ground in a cup final has always seemed patently dishonest to me. Then again, I expect the selective walker probably files that under gamesmanship. In all of these matters there is a line to be drawn and probably the only question is where you draw it.
Whatever the case the cricket season would finally close and I would root out my football boots and return, generally late, to pre-season soccer training. Starting out in the League of Ireland as a nineteen year old what shocked me most of all was just how unsavoury an environment this was: leave yourself exposed and you were likely to be injured deliberately and sometimes seriously. Often playing on bog standard pitches there was a nasty undercurrent of violence and retribution, skill at a premium, and I have memories of being kicked, pulled, dragged, threatened, insulted and even spat at. It was a harsh and cynical and often brutal place, the toughest of learning grounds, and the weak and the naive were quickly forced out, their ligaments torn or their spirit damaged or often both. In truth I was not sorry when illness forced me into junior soccer a couple of years later. However, the lessons I had learned at that higher level held me in good stead. Drifting between midfield and attack, leggy and skilful, word soon spread not to go near me in the penalty box. My view of this could not have been more clearcut: if an opponent was foolish enough to put his leg across me in the box was I really obliged to hurdle it? And if I was clever enough and skilful enough to engineer that situation why would I not do so?
Here is an interesting one:
A striker finds himself clean through either by his own or his team’s ingenuity leaving the defender a yard behind on the run in to goal and with a tricky decision to make: let the striker go and a goal will surely result while an attempted tackle will mean a penalty kick and a red card. Hobson’s choice, no doubt about it, so he goes for Option C, he grabs a hold of the striker’s jersey then lets it go immediately, holding on just long enough to disturb the striker’s stride and equilibrium but not long enough to drag him to the turf. Cheating or gamesmanship, take your pick, or maybe just the law of the jungle but it leaves the striker with an equally tricky decision to make. Does he soldier on towards goal, his chances of scoring diminished by his opponent’s skullduggery, or does he fall to the ground as soon as he feels the tug of the jersey? Is he a fool for staying on his feet or a cheat for going to ground?
Yes, this is how it was for me: regarded as a paragon of sportsmanship by the cricketing community during the summer, exploiting the rules of soccer to the limit during the winter. But is either description really accurate? Soccer, or indeed any sport which involves physical contact, is not played within the rules as laid down by the rulemakers. Nor is it completely lawless, however. Rather, an accepted version of the rules establishes itself over time, unspoken and understood by all who play, the cynical yet safe tactical foul which stops a quick breakaway falling on one side of the line, the straight leg tackle over the top of the ball falling on the other, each equally illegal, players jostling and tugging and deceiving the officials all the while understanding what is taboo and what is not. Other sports such as golf and snooker operate a rigid code of honour, not because golfers or snooker players are by nature more honourable but simply because these sports would not survive without such a code. A golf course is too vast to police: there are so many opportunities for small time chicanery that there would be no point in taking part if players could not trust each other, while the consequences of even a one millimetre shift in a snooker ball could change the frame completely, not to mention the arguments over trying to replace an inadvertently moved ball. How do you cheat in tennis or squash? Bad calls presumably or blocking your opponent off. In rugby players lounge offside or sometimes the loose head prop and the hooker force the opposing tight head’s head downwards. In all sports, a player’s conduct is determined not by the rules of the game but by how they are interpreted by his peers and so it was with me: during the summer, terrified of any damage to my reputation I would stick the bat under my arm and head to the pavilion and yet in wintertime it was most certainly an opponent’s problem if he was foolish enough to approach me from an unwise angle inside the penalty box. In each different sport there is a spectrum, I suspect, and the best we can do is to find the spot along that spectrum which best suits our personality.
But what of cricket? Players don’t walk anymore, that much is clear. If an umpire is paid to make a decision then let him make it, that seems to be the attitude. But what about other decisions that are to be made? For years just as golfers have had to police themselves because of the impracticality of introducing an alternative system, an honour code always existed amongst fielders, operating in areas where the umpires have a restricted view, signalling four once the ball or a foot brushed the boundary rope, never even considering claiming a catch once the ball had bounced. Only that too has changed. Even in this time of video replay and smart phones players have been spotted blatantly cheating, pulling the ball back from beyond boundary ropes or claiming catches which have clearly touched the grass. In cricket, unlike soccer, there is no room for interpretation. It is either four or it is not, either the ball bounced or it did not. Which of us at a crucial time in a big match has not had the urge to scoop from the ground the ball we have just dropped and to pretend that this catastrophe has not occurred? But we don’t do it. And it is more than our own moral compass which stops us doing so. Just as for years it was the fear of having my reputation tainted which stopped me pretending that I had not nicked behind, it is partly the fear of being exposed that keeps players honest in the field, of having their reputations sullied and the subsequent shame of not having their word accepted on such incidents. How do you look your teammates in the eye after claiming a catch on the half volley? Have you not damaged the reputation of your team and your club along with your own? And here is where the greatest change may have occurred: just as my teammates on the soccer field regarded my capacity to win favourable decisions as guile or canniness, maybe some cricketers now file a teammate’s chicanery in the field under the same umbrella, as merely a crafty act which aids the team’s effort to win. Without the opprobrium of teammates, perhaps cricket is destined to move from being one of those sports which is played strictly by the rules to one of those like soccer or rugby or Gaelic football which is played by a version of the rules, one which is likely to constantly change.
It can be very difficult to advise our children as to how they should conduct themselves on the field of play. We all like to imagine our kids as impeccably behaved sportsmen or women, finding that perfect balance between competitiveness and courtesy. But it can be a very uneven road to get to that point. I remember my daughter when she was six maybe, certainly no older than seven, objecting to a refereeing decision (mine!) in a game of back garden football, stomping onto the nearby decking whereupon she proceeded to demolish all before her. Garden tables and chairs, potted plants, dustbins, sweeping brushes and mops weren’t just overturned, all were lifted overhead and hurled onto the playing area. It was as though a whirlwind had hit the place. At one point a recently purchased clematis went whizzing past my ear; we had guests over to the house and they were ducking and diving too. I can still picture her trying to rip the pipes off the wall so she could throw them at us too. Our guests watched openmouthed and aghast, appalled no doubt by this behaviour, watching this miniature tornado obliterate the garden before she ran out of things to throw, offered a thunderous glare and tramped straight up to her room.
Some years back I was obliged to attend a Leinster Cricket Union disciplinary meeting with my younger son who was charged with deliberately bodychecking an adult almost twice his size, then hitting him for four and telling him to shut his mouth and go fetch the ball. Unsurprisingly, when the umpires intervened he had words for them as well.
And these two have always been the better behaved of my children. It is perhaps my elder son who is the most interesting. Ferociously competitive and at times wildly temperamental through his childhood, I now watch him negotiate adult football, operating in central midfield, tall and skilful as I was, never arguing with team mates or coaches or officials, seldom speaking other than to call for the ball, always available to receive it, cold eyed and determined in his positioning and tackling. Anyone watching him now would see a player who is conditioned to playing the game the right way, hard and fair but in a sportsmanlike way. How could it be otherwise? Yet that is only partly true. Because as much as anything else he is making sure that he doesn’t collect an early booking, in case he needs to take one later on, a fast break most likely, needing to be stopped at source when he is out on his feet. He is very clear minded about this. He is willing to block or impede or grab hold of an opponent’s jersey if it aids his team’s chances of winning. He will not however kick or trip them. He would foul rather than lose; yet he would rather lose than expose an opponent to potential injury.
He has, I suppose, found the point along that spectrum which best suits his personality.
The other two, I expect, will find this as well.
Many children understand instinctively that sport is not really such a big deal, that everyone has to lose at some point and that defeat is to be accepted with equanimity. Kids like these can be a joy to deal with. They are invariably friendly and co-operative, mature beyond their years and the only problem with them, however, is that they frequently accept defeat half way through the contest. To tell the truth I was by no means unhappy to watch my little daughter thrash her back garden. Nor did I mind attending my son’s disciplinary hearing. Both had behaved outrageously, true, but kids grow out of these excesses, I believe, and what’s left is a quieter rage, not against opponents or refereeing decisions or against teammates, though these things can still irritate, but against losing. Slowly, as the years pass, this fire finally settles into a refusal to be bullied or dominated or intimidated. It is what that picks you up off the ground when you have been repeatedly kicked; it is what keeps you running though you are simply too exhausted to; it is what pushes you to find a way through a defence that seems impenetrable. It is what keeps you at the wicket in the most hostile of atmospheres, the ball moving all over the place or rearing off a length, your timing and judgement awry, the fielding side at your throat. It is a characteristic which is simply in some people and not in others and without it the higher echelons of sport can be brutal and unforgiving. This is what I recognised in my young daughter that particular afternoon as I followed her to her room and held her close while she sobbed her rage away. I remember telling her that there wasn’t a single word in the English language that could come close to describing how much I loved her. Then I returned downstairs, marched out into the back garden and announced, “Well, that’s that dealt with and I certainly don’t think we’ll be seeing any more of that behaviour around here. Oh no, not by a long shot, let me tell you.”
Leinster cricket in the lower leagues has changed hugely. An attitude of mistrust has prevailed for a time now, official umpires not available for all fixtures, teams complaining about decisions not being given in the first innings, then declining to give any in the second. There is a huge mix of players, all from different cricketing cultures with different cricketing norms, all coping with a constantly changing sporting climate. Frequently games are held up while arguments ensue. I often hear my sons in another room roaring with laughter as they relive incidents from games they have played in - players declining to walk after they have been bowled, sit down protests, lengthy arguments, offers to settle the issue once and for all off the premises once the match has ended, one umpire being removed from the field at the request of the fielding captain only to be replaced by an even more impartial one. My boys have managed to build up a stock of stories which they now carry into adulthood. When playing together, each would volunteer to umpire while the other was at the wicket. In this regard they were also very clear - out was out, same as with anyone else, but if there was a lousy decision going around in the midst of this cricketing chaos, with no prior agreement necessary, each was making sure his brother wasn’t on the receiving end of it.
As I have mentioned before I seldom watch my kids play. Other former cricketers seem to want their children to be pushed quickly through the adult teams, up to where there are official umpires and manicured outfields, to a more orderly game which they themselves recognise. To me, there will always be plenty of time for that. I could only go on the evidence of my eyes when I would see my kids playing without a jot of stress, bursting with excitement on the morning of a game. I’m not sure what they were learning from these wild, often unruly and fractious cricket matches. It may or may not have been something important. At the very least they found them splendidly entertaining. From my own point of view, it is as clear to me now as it ever was that I need to let them at it: the world of sport is now theirs to experience, to enjoy and they will find their own way through it. Slowly, cumulatively, after many wrong turns, they will finally understand who they wish to be on the playing field. At times they have no doubt behaved poorly and probably will do so again but they always have other adults present to look out for them, to advise them, to reign them back in from their excesses.
As one of my sons told me some years ago when I decided to treat him to a nugget of parental advice: “Until you’ve experienced the chaos of Division 13, you’re not really entitled to comment, are you?”
In this matter he was of course right.