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Preparing for the upcoming cricket season by dusting off my kitbag and getting back into the swing of things.
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Preparing for the upcoming cricket season by dusting off my kitbag and getting back into the swing of things.

The ball is unfamiliar in your grasp. Has it really been five months since you last threw it? Are you confident you still have the ability? The unused muscles in your back and shoulders tense up with fear. You are aware that this will cause pain tomorrow.

Take a deep breath and reflect on happier moments. Remember the sunny day when you took five wickets three seasons ago. Imagine the perfect delivery that defied physics as it curved through the air before landing perfectly on the ground. Recall the sense of euphoria when you create something stunning with your fingertips. The sound of victory, the congratulatory pats on the back, and the loving smiles from the spectators.

As you propel your chilled body forward, you make your way awkwardly towards the line to throw your first ball of the year.

Winter practices perfectly capture the conflicting nature of cricket. On one hand, they offer boundless hope and potential for improvement. This could be the season where everything falls into place. Where your aging body keeps up with your mind’s demands. Where you have a phenomenal streak that your children will beg you to recount. But on the other hand, these training sessions in a rented gym or muddy field may only confirm what you already knew. That your prime days are in the past. That your peak performance is now just a memory. That the drive for greatness is now a faint reminder of what could have been if you had taken this game, and yourself, a bit more seriously.

Primarily, it is the dive into unfamiliar territory that brings together skilled experts and passionate novices. Prior to the opening of the first match in April, we all find ourselves in a similar situation.

“I think it’s a distinctly human thing to carry both of those contrasting emotions at the same time,” says Ethan Bamber, the Middlesex opening bowler who, along with three other teammates at Lord’s, is a proud product of North Middlesex Cricket Club. “You’re just trying to control that excitement as well as the nerves. You’re hoping you can replicate all the good stuff from the previous year and get rid of the bad stuff. It’s important to let yourself dream. I think we can all relate to that.”

The connection stops there. Bamber’s muscles react quicker than at least 97% of the 350,000 registered cricketers across England and Wales who belong to 5,000 clubs. This is not a narrative about the elite players who have access to top-of-the-line equipment, on-demand physiotherapy, and specialized training in Dubai. Rather, it focuses on the majority of us at the bottom of the pyramid. In an attempt to find common threads between cricketers from Taunton to Staithes, I reached out for anecdotes. The stories came from seven club WhatsApp groups that I am a part of. Although the specific details varied, a few recurring themes emerged.

A cricket kit drying in the longed-for warmth.

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There’s the classic tale of the “gun” new signing. Sometimes from a rival club, often from Australia or South Africa, this toned maverick arrives with the promise of runs and wickets. In winter nets they look like a dream. All flashing blade and whirring arms. You can tell they’re a cut above by the sound the ball makes off their bat or as it thwacks into the netting behind you. Except you’ve seen this before. As one message read, “Nine times out 10 they either never actually play or it turns out they’re a bit shit.”

To be fair, it’s far easier to look like a prospect in February and March. More than likely you’re bowling indoors on a surface that is hard and true. This is as close as you’ll ever get to the lightning quick strip that is found at the Wanderers or old Waca. But that doesn’t stop you from bending your back and unfurling bouncers you could never execute on grass.

No one is upset about this. You are not quick enough to make opponents nervous and just being there is a plus for the team leaders who are trying to get the rest of the team to the field. At least you are not the type of player who arrives late, gets dressed, and only spends a short time practicing before spending the rest of the time whispering to others.

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As you glance around, you come across familiar faces: The experienced player, known as “The Reverend”, who hasn’t been on the field in three decades but still makes their presence known; the promising young talent who has yet to realize they will eventually need to pursue a different career; the player with the custom-made bat and unique style; the skilled batter from New Zealand; the intimidating fast bowler from Pakistan; and the Canadian player who may struggle to get the ball to the opposite end but will always be present for away games.

The group gathers for a cold weather practice session, with your back aching and toes feeling cramped. This did not go as expected. You struggled with your bowling and batting, feeling like a fish out of water. Perhaps this won’t be your year after all? But you brush off those thoughts and head to the pub. Anything could happen between now and the first game in April.

  • This is a segment from The Spin, a weekly cricket newsletter from The Guardian. To sign up, simply go to this page and follow the steps.

Source: theguardian.com