Benson, in the combi on the way to a midweek game: “Ag man, don’t worry so much. They don’t get it. I mean, unless you’ve swung for the fences, how would you know?”
I mean: you just won’t get it unless you’ve been there. Unless you’ve taken a pace delivery to the box, and your eyes watered as you walked it off, fighting to keep your face neutral, to give nothing away.
Of course – of course – everyone will resonate with the writing in their own peculiar way, because how could I possibly know how these words will ring against your experiences, the way it feels in your head when you read them?
The way it feels to hit a six. Now that’s quite something.
The way it feels to be the opening batsman, who tells himself he’s one of the best in the team, but he’s scared to hit lofted shots. He always angles the bat down, settling for fours, avoiding the risk of being caught out. Tells himself his responsibility is to stay in as long as he can, that his job is to keep the scoreboard ticking over until the fast bowlers have expended their overs.
He’s watched the other guys slogging and been jealous, even though they only made ten runs (a four and a six – then out after an over), even when he made it to twenty-seven (mostly singles, one two, a four – but it took him half the innings).
He has the grudging respect of the guys, but never their admiration like Benson did: “I always block the first ball. Then I try to hit a six.”
Summers click by, measured by the scorekeeper’s sheets, and on paper he’s not bad, he does a decent job, opening for the A team year after year – he’s not bad, not bad – but he wants to hit a six and in the nets at practice after school he smashes them but then in the matches he’s always too scared because then it’s real and you only get one chance, besides, he has tried a few times but he’s never strong enough, always gets caught on the boundary and they say it’s all about timing but inside he knows that to hit a six takes more than that, it’s about strength too and how hard you can swing and he’s short and he never seems to hit it hard enough and then one day in a round robin tournament where each team only gets ten overs each he knows he can’t block so he must slog like Benson and he faces a seamer who bowls a half-volley down leg and he pulls it, gets a top edge, and it goes for six.
It’s a six, and the guys clap hands like for any other. He is intensely happy. He goes out soon after but it doesn’t matter because finally he’s done it, he’s hit a six.
To the guys it was just a six, they’ve seen so many versions of it over the years and it doesn’t matter how you hit it just that you did, but to him in his heart it was his first one and it stands for something, it’s tangled up with who he is.
And then he thinks this thought: it was a top edge, my six, a fluke, and the boundaries are shortened because of the tournament, so it wasn’t a real six.
And then oh so sneaky this nasty thought slides into the subjective happiness of his heart and mixes with the objective fact that he’s just hit a six and the umpire raised both his arms to signal it, the guys all saw it and clapped, and yet, and now…
Now he knows what it is to have ‘mixed feelings.’
So he smiles quietly to himself because he knows next time he straps on his pads this mixed feeling will surface again, stirred in with the butterflies, the truth of the fact that he hit a six, and the truth of the doubt of the fluke.
He laughs at himself, but only afterwards. At the time he just withdraws into himself, angry. Angry at being short, at getting a top edge, for not hitting a real six like Benson does every other innings.
And years later as he writes this down he smiles because even as he writes it he relives it a little and he realizes again what he’s known all along, that this is life; you never dispel your fears, never fully, you only face them over and over again and sometimes you conquer them and sometimes you don’t and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose and of course that’s why his father insisted he play sport at school because why mess about with words when you can just go out there and experience it, all those ups and downs, safely, and have a laugh with the guys while you’re at it?
Such simple wisdom, that of a father encouraging his son to play cricket (just like he did, and his father before him) because he knows really it’s a microcosm of life.
Hoping one Saturday afternoon in the February heat his son might learn his lesson, might realize he already knows all he’ll ever need to know.
A father’s patient smile as he throws ball after ball at his little boy who is eleven – twelve – thirteen – fourteen – fifteen – sixteen – seventeen – eighteen years old, ball after ball in the nets over weekends, and on all those hot afternoons after school. He could be playing golf.
“Practice makes perfect.”
Come on, son.
“You’ve got to step with your back foot first, like this.”
Dear God please, this time, come on boy…
And years later as he writes this down he smiles, again, to himself, because he realizes with an ever sharper clarity how the first time he had sex was exactly like hitting that first six, how he felt ‘mixed feelings’ and how a voice in his head told him it was a fluke and it wasn’t really sex because he didn’t cum.
How his friends thought he did it, but inside to himself there was that voice, that voice that still gnawed at him: yes, but, it wasn’t not really because…
The godawful power of some words.“Virgin.”
And as remembers he swears he hears the snide rippling of teenage laughter seared into the tail of that thought.
Or did he just imagine it?
Or did he just imagine it?
Because as he writes he remembers: he used to be a bowler too. An adequate one, according to the scoresheets. Not bad.
Yes – first he was a spinner and then he tried his hand at medium pace, but he never really got into bowling the way he obsessed over batting. Secretly he admits he only ever bowled to avoid fielding.
Man, how he used to hate fielding.
All that waiting in the sun, how bad he was at it – the stuff of comedy – and how he never cared for it even in those embarrassing moments where he misfielded or fumbled the ball or dropped a catch it didn’t bug him the way batting poorly did (but of course it bugged the hell out of his teammates who defined themselves as bowlers).
He knows now that this writing is the same obsession; the same depth of feeling that compelled him to strap on pads and hold a thin piece of wood between himself and all those hard round Red Devils summer after summer; it’s the transference of that same obsession that makes him hunch over his keyboard day after day.
He can’t help himself, really, it’s in his nature.
He laughs at this shade of himself, and at all those nasty vestiges of self-doubt, at the childish voices wishing him ill.
Just like when the fielders from the other team are hemming you in.
He thinks about this, and he thinks how to respond, and then he says to himself: fuck ‘em, I’ve got a job to do. I’ll block for fifty overs if that’s what it takes. But I’ll hit my six. A real one, from the meat of the bat. I’ve been practicing all along.