Guts, Konjo, Spirit

The idea of ‘fighting spirit’ is common to much more than martial arts. In most sports there’s an idea of ‘grit’ or perseverance. I’ve heard it said that military basic training is designed to push the body and mind beyond its limits, to produce toughness and resolve. If you’ve seen the Simon Pegg movie Run Fat Boy, Run (or actually run marathons) then you are familiar with the idea that long distance runners hit what’s called “the wall” at some point, and must push through the physical and mental exhaustion with force of will. Aside from these more physical exercises, there are plenty of other disciplines which require a high degree of commitment, precision and dedication in order to become proficient. I reckon it’s just as rigorous an exercise to write a good novel as it is to complete any of the above mentioned challenges. So, because it’s a cool and wide ranging thing, I’ll write a little about having guts and resolve, or as those in Japanese martial arts might say Spirit or Konjo (which I believe translates more or less directly as “guts” in the “gutsy” sense [not the viscera sense, I think]).

At Exeter Aikido we have an exercise known as taninzu-dori or just ‘taninzu’ is what we usually refer to it as. I don’t know the kanji so I can’t actually tell you what it translates as, but the form is basically a multi-man attack with the catch that the tori, the one who is being attacked is limited in the techniques they can use. Or rather, they can use almost no techniques whatsoever and effectively cannot use their hands to parry, block, or halt the motion of an attacker. The point is that the Aikido practitioner has to learn to move amongst three, four, or five attackers who will increase the speed and ferocity of their attacks proportional to the practitioner’s ability. Once basic movement between attackers is ok, then the practitioner should begin to move to positions where he or she can use attackers to block each others’ lines of movement and from there continue to use attackers as shields against each other. Ideally, the Aikido practitioner can continue to move indefinitely without getting struck, but usually, if you can make it three or four (quite slow) attacks without getting hit, then you’re doing pretty well. When you get hit in the chest three or four times in a row (and usually because your attackers are choosing not to hit you in the face) then it gets immensely frustrating. The exercise refuses to allow the practitioner time to recuperate. After being hit, there is no “stop, wait, let me focus”. You are constantly under the cosh and if you can’t weather being hit without breaking your composure then you will be hit again, and again, and again. For the first year or so of trying this thing, taninzu just made me mad because I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t sense any improvement, and I couldn’t figure out what I was learning from it. Of course, what I was really learning from my leaden attempts to lunge out of the way of attacks and having fists plough into my ribs was Konjo and the kind of focus that comes with the resolve to continue moving no matter what. Quite honestly, despite knowing it was good for me, this lesson was an absolutely unpleasant experience.

To those who know me as a gamer, it is common knowledge that I am a fan of the videogame Dark Souls. If nothing else, this game is about guts and perseverance. Like taninzu-dori, the game is designed to deal unrelenting punishment to the player who makes mistakes. If the player refuses to learn the game mechanics through observing enemy movements and correcting mistakes, it is very likely that they will never complete the game. There were plenty of moments when I played through the game first time when I felt that I would never be able to beat a boss, clear an area, or escape a trap. If I may be somewhat melodramatic, I think I felt as close to despair as is possible in a videogame. The game demands and trains the player to persevere. Through the infuriating and indeed, sometimes tedious grind of running through a part of the game for hours on end, just to progress to a boss you cannot yet beat, with equipment which you do not know is adequate or not, the game teaches commitment, dedication, and discipline through the very simple method that if the player has none of these traits, they will never advance. Sure, it might be ‘just a game’, but that makes it no less trivial a pursuit if you intend to pursue it fully. And if you do, I think you learn just as much about mental strength as anywhere else.

In the dojo-kun or training-hall code of Shotokan Karate, there is a verse which reads “doryoku no seishin wo yashinau koto”, which I believe roughly translates as “to foster the spirit of hard work” [or sometimes the more fancy but perhaps a little less accurate; to foster the spirit of endeavour]. This part of the code captures one of the key tenets of karate practice as I knew it, and that is the ultimately dull practice of the same kata or forms over and over and over and over and over again. Certainly Karate as I experienced it was composed primarily of the repetition of movements without any instruction whatsoever except the count: ichi, ni, san, shi! It was left up to the practitioner to extract meaning, to extract learning from the movements, which is a stretch that perhaps does translate better as “endeavour”, rather than “hard work”. The value in this training style is that it forces the student to learn their own body through rigorously examining their movements by repetition before any of the techniques can be at all effective. In this way, Shotokan Karate teases out the spirit of Konjo through, of all things, boredom avoidance. It never forces you to persevere or push through with guts. You can happily just do the movements lazily, or if you’re bored, quit. But in order to gain from the training, however, the discipline that one must learn is the discipline to simply do terribly repetitive and at times esoteric to the point of inexplicable exercises which is certainly a good skill and a good piece of spirit to learn I think.

I used to play chess in school. I believe when I was fourteen or fifteen, I played one of my friends a lot. He and I were roughly even in terms of matches won and matches lost, but I think that overall he was (and probably still is) the superior chess player. Towards the end of that school year, he and I happened to be drawn to play a match to effectively decide the rankings for our school year. Towards the end of the game, he was ahead by a couple of pieces and I felt that based on our skill levels alone, I would not be able to outplay him unless he made some sort of grave error. So instead of taking him on head on, I played an exceptionally boring and defensive game. The resolve or ‘guts’ I think I had to use there were not the kind of guts which let you push through something physically or stretch my stamina to its limit, but rather I had to be resolved that in a contest of pure skill, I would be at a complete disadvantage and therefore have the discipline to null any sense of pride I had in my style of play and shamelessly try to bore him out of the match. In the end I stalled him long enough that the match timed out and the judge decided that our match would be called a draw which would, according to the points system in this particular tournament, place me higher in the rankings than him and make me officially the ‘best’ chess player in my school year, a title I was somewhat proud of at the time. I’m sure he resented me robbing him of the small accolade which I thoroughly didn’t deserve.

Once, I tried to write a novel. For three or four weeks, I think it was, I wrote a thousand or so words every day. The story was an imagining of what divinity may have been like before the war in heaven. There are plenty of well known texts about what happens after that (Paradise Lost, all of the bible, etc.) but I thought it’d be cool to imagine how it was before Lucifer led the army of traitor angels against God, was defeated and cast out of heaven. I very much enjoyed writing it, but damn, writing every day was harder than I had ever anticipated. Plenty of times I just didn’t want to. Major props to people who manage to write a whole novel at any point because it takes more resolve than I reckon I ever managed to muster. I never finished the story. In the end, I had three or four characters who I thought were really interesting, but not a very well written story to link them together. Besides that, the other characters were kinda drab and I just petered out eventually. That’s more a story about a failure of guts than anything else.

In a class while we were practising a technique known as katate-dori iriminage, or the entering throw from same-side wrist grasp, the head of our school at Exeter Aikido came over to my partner and I and invited us to attack him. He threw us both two or three times each and I recall being struck in the mouth (it is a common thing, I find, when taking sincere and non-preemptive ukemi against sincere and committed atemi). I expected his demonstration to end there, but he invited us to attack again; “keep going, I’m enjoying this”. He continued to throw us for a number of minutes. The physical challenge of continuing to get up and attack while exhausted took a fair degree of guts, but even moreso was overcoming the fear factor. Certainly for the first year and a half or so of training at Exeter I was afraid to take falls for our head. Not because I did not trust his technique or his conscience, but because I did not trust myself to keep up with and respond to his various unbalancing strikes and checks. I still find taking ukemi for him intimidating because I have to commit to my attack wholly to have a chance of responding to his movements without premeditating my fall, but at the same time committing puts my safety entirely in his hands. That kind of resolve is the resolve to trust another person with what is effectively the potential to severely injure or kill you and also to trust your own judgement and your own abilities. It takes a good deal of guts, I reckon, to overcome the sweaty-palm fear that makes you want to hesitate or keep lying on the ground after being thrown and get up and throw your safety to the wind and attack again.

When I was 15, I was in the Leicestershire Under 15 county cricket squad. In our winter training sessions, we occasionally were made to run the bleep test. For those unfamiliar, a bleep test is basically a very long set of short runs of increasing speed. You have a set distance, I believe roughly 20 metres, which you have to run before the cassette tape makes its next ‘bleep’, hence the name of the test. I seem to recall that there are ten runs at each bleep interval before the interval shortens, at which point you’ll be told you’re at “level 2” or “level 3” or whatever. The point is to make it to as high a level as you can. Of course, the only way you can get yourself any rest is to beat the bleep, but then you run the risk of getting a stitch from changing your pace too rapidly, so it’s meant to be better to try to match the bleep as closely as possible, if you can consider non-stop running of constantly increasing speed “better” than anything. Anyway, in this particular session, we were running the bleep test, but for whatever reason, everyone was just on poor form. Maybe it was because it was a particularly cold day and our muscles were seizing up, or perhaps we’d all just had a lazy off season and were unfit. Whatever the reason, most people were out before level 9, which is pretty poor, considering that you need to run a 13 to make the academy squad which all of us with professional aspirations were aiming at. I remember touching down behind the 20 metre mark at 10.3 and turning to go for the next sprint and thinking that my lungs would give out and that I should just give up. It’d be nothing to me to just sit down and take it easy like most of the rest of the squad were doing. I’d already outdone most of them anyway. But then I saw out to my left my friend Tom Wells, a lovely chap well liked for his pleasant manner and well respected for his all around fitness and strength and not inconsiderable technical skills. When I saw him begin to pull away from me, I can’t explain why, but I absolutely did not want to lose to him. I believe I was told afterwards that I looked somewhat possessed on the last two turns of that bleep test and I remember very clearly raising my fist and striking myself at least twice in the stomach to give myself an extra burst of adrenalin. I did indeed manage to beat Tom on that occasion, I think I made it to 10.6 after he pulled up at 10.5 then promptly packed it in from exhaustion. I’m not sure if this really counts as guts, spirit, and resolve so much as manic competitive spirit and a mildly psychotic desire to prove myself to the selection panel and coaching staff at the time, but either way, I thought it was a decent story to drop in there.

Once, I tried to tell a girl I had feelings for her. On the monday of that week I chickened out. The day after I had an even better chance to speak to her alone and I chickened out again. On the wednesday evening I managed to go ahead and say what was on my mind, but holy crap that shit’s terrifying. Ain’t no volume of physical and/or psychological training that’s ever gonna make that easy. Or maybe I just don’t talk to girls enough? Either way, she didn’t in the end say whether she requited my feelings or not (which I assumed meant she didn’t, because I was pretty sure she didn’t beforehand anyway) but she did say words to the effect that she thought well of me for telling her straight up to her face even though I knew it was a bit of a lost cause. If by some chance she ever reads this then I hope she doesn’t mind my paraphrasing her. So much for guts eh?

So the moral of the story is, there are a ton of things which require resolve, discipline, commitment and perseverance, which I have broadly put under the term “guts”. I think it is good to do all of these things. If it takes guts, I think it’s probably a worthwhile pursuit for that reason alone. And much as people in the martial arts and people of an academic bent like to harp on about technical precision and beautiful form and the minimalistic elegance of Aikido like good poetic imagecrafting, there’s a lot to be said for straightforward fighting spirit.

Anyway, thanks for reading~


How I came to study martial arts (and why I still do)

Upon observing an Aikido class for the first time and hearing my decision to take up the art, my father’s only counsel was; “This stuff is very dangerous. Be careful.” Which I initially took to mean I should be sure to take care of myself when training and not get hurt and only later figured that he really meant I should be very careful about injuring other people.

At the end of the day Karate is just hitting people. This is what I thought after training in the Shotokan style from fifteen til eighteen and proudly tying a strip of black fabric around my waist and calling myself shodan. Is this all? I felt that there absolutely had to be more. I was restless and would not be satisfied. I attended competitions and freestyle classes and talked to people who I knew who trained in other styles. And I watched an awful lot of youtube and read an awful lot of wikipedia. A teacher once complimented me on my double jump kick. It made me happy that I had taken the time to watch all those Jet Li movies. But I was not as good as Jet Li, and I wanted to be. There has to be more than learning variations on the 540 crescent kick. Martial arts has to contain more than adding an extra 180 degrees onto your spin every time you advance a grade.

When I was 13, a large rugby player and his mates the year above me in school threatened to throw me through a window. I don’t recall exactly what for. I don’t recall exactly what happened either, but I have the suspicion that at some point I punched him in the balls. I did not get thrown through the window. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was unhurt at the end of it. But I did not want to have to rely on ball-punching for the rest of my life if someone nastier came along.

At some point between the ages of four and seven I watched Jackie Chan’s drunken master. As a kid I found it hilarious, even though I had no concept of what it meant to be drunk. It was just funny to see Jackie drink from his gourd and act a bit silly while at the same time laying the smackdown on the bad guys. I did not grasp that the striking sound effects were clearly fake, nor that Jackie Chan was not, in fact, an amazing ventriloquist who spoke English without moving his lips at the right time. Nor did I grasp that at the end of the movie Jackie straight up kills his opponent by crushing his larynx and twisting his head off his shoulders. It was just Jackie Chan being cool.

I do not remember how old I was when this happened, but I used to play a game with my dad. We would sit cross-legged in front of each other and he would tell me to prod him in the chest. Then he would block me and prod me instead. It made me giggle, but it also made me want to win. I loved this game. We played it a lot. I suspect my father let me win from time to time to keep me interested.

In my first year of uni I got into a fight in the student guild club. There was a group of young males who were merrily hurling themselves at the other dancers on the floor. That is, properly taking run ups at us. It annoyed me and I was drunk. With not half a year’s experience in Aikido in me, I had a go at applying one of the basic techniques I had learnt. By some miracle of chance and to my great surprise, it worked and my assailant who had collided with me sharply went flying. It had not occurred to me that his mates would pick him up and he would come back for more. The rest is a bit blurred out, but I know that I kicked one person in the groin, I struck at least one other, I kept moving and I did not get hit. One of my friends swears that I chopped one of my attackers in the neck and he dropped to the floor like a sack of bricks. I think he misremembers the event somewhat. My other friends just told me that I was very frightening. At the end of it I know that on something of a combat-high I danced for the rest of the night and when I got back to my room I felt immensely guilty for getting in a fight that I thought in hindsight was almost entirely unnecessary. I was also disappointed. After all this time is it still just hitting peopleHave I not advanced at all? I did not tell any of my martial arts instructors about the incident.

Back when I was a 2nd or 1st kyu in Karate, I fought a yondan in a local competition. I lost and I was outraged. Being a hot-blooded seventeen year old, I was certain I had been robbed. I had landed a firm side kick under my opponent’s guard into his ribs which I thought surely qualified for an ippon. Both myself and he knew I had landed the kick. Indeed, we both stopped and looked to each other, the referees, and back, waiting for a call of some sort. None of them made any response except to indicate we ought to continue the bout as if nothing had happened. My opponent landed a clean reverse punch on my stomach and it was called ippon and the match was over. Afterwards I bitterly called foul play behind closed doors, blaming one of the referees for being biased against me for dispatching one of his students in an earlier round. Honestly speaking, my opponent just had better Karate than me and beat me because he struck me with a well timed precise attack which I failed to defend. In hindsight, his form was excellent. After I had had some time to cool off, I thought about the match again. The first line of the dojo-kun or code of Shotokan Karate as it was taught to me reads: hitotsu, jinkaku kansei ni tsutomeru koto. This translates as something like “to strive for the perfection of the self”. I did not think my attitude towards this competition embodied this part of the code. I thought about what I should do. How am I to fight someone with many times my experience in the same martial art? I had always relied on being young, fast, and flexible in Karate matches. How am I to win when I cannot outpace my opponent? How am I to win when my speed cannot overwhelm an enemy’s technique? If my Karate up to this point had done nothing more than accentuate and make use of a talent already natural to my body, what ought I to do to go beyond that? What ought I to do to go beyond the limits of my body?

I once took classes at the school Karate club, set up and run by one of my schoolmates, who gave me permission to fill in for him and manage the club while he was busy studying for his exams. The things I taught were not at all similar to the style which he taught. In fact, I am sure most of the things that I demonstrated were quite useless in terms of learning quick self defence (which I suspect a number of students were there for the purpose of). In truth, plenty of the things I taught were experimental to me too, I wanted to test out techniques which were ‘beyond my grade’ according to my school’s handbook and whatnot, which meant that really, I had no right to teach such techniques at all. But I did it anyway, and by god was it immensely enjoyable and a great deal of fun. Not least because the teacher who supervised us ask me to teach him too and I got to chuck him around the room as a sort of payback for all those triple chemistry Wednesday mornings.

My university’s Jujutsu club has an exercise known as ‘the V’. You, as the V candidate so to speak, stand at the point of the V shape. The supervising instructor stands in front of you and manages two lines of potential attackers which form the ‘arms’ of the V, armed or unarmed based on reasons. The instructor sends attackers from each line at you in ones, twos, threes, etc. and you are to dispatch each one as they approach. It is similar to what in Aikido is generally known as randori or jiyu waza. The V is part of every grading test at this club. I recall the first time I took a V in a grading I was so excited I almost forgot to bow to the grading panel and wait for the call ‘hajime’ (begin). I also recall having to consciously insert four syllabus techniques into the flow of attacks and defences. The rest I barely remember apart from moving forward, the sound of breakfalls, and the ‘encouragement’ which the teaching staff at the school are assigned to administer which primarily consists of “come on!”, “you can do it!”, and above all “KEEP YOUR GUARD UP!”. In the pub afterwards when we were all congratulating each other, one of the girls came over and told me that she had been heavily winded after taking a throw from me in the V. I apologised profusely and felt quite bad about it. She didn’t seem to mind and bore no hard feelings. I wondered if anyone else had fallen heavily during my V. In my feedback, the instructors gave a somewhat backhanded compliment about my spirited efforts: “You were very fast, and you had this slightly manic grin on your face. We thought you were going to kill someone”. I took it as a compliment anyway… They also praised my footwork.

The first time I graded in Aikido the headmaster of our school told me “you’re very fast”. He did not mean it as a compliment. I have been told to slow down in every grading since then.

“Zanshin” in the Japanese martial arts is generally translated as ‘awareness’, but I think I am right in saying that it should more accurately be ‘lingering spirit’ or ‘lingering mind’. I suppose the distinction is that ‘awareness’ can be interpreted as just remaining alert to things around you, whereas  ‘zanshin’ is meant to contain the idea of exerting a kind of constant psychological pressure. Not necessarily by mystical means or anything like that, but perhaps just through maintaining a good posture and a sort of ineffable relaxed focus which most experienced martial artists I have met seem to exude. It could just be one of those words which ends up being a bit lame in translation. Like how tattoos of chinese and japanese characters can seem cool, but if I just had a normal font English word written on my left shoulder blade it’d look dumb.

Once, I believe during a break from a morning triple chemistry class back in school, a couple of guys I knew got into a bit of a scrap. One I knew was experienced in Karate, the other knew no fighting arts or combat sports to my knowledge. He was also the taller of the two, so we shall call them tall and small (even though small is actually taller than me). Tall challenged small on the practicality of martial arts, a common “what would you do if I did this?” kind of situation. Except instead of waiting for a response, Tall just went ahead and attacked small with a committed right hand. Taken somewhat by surprise, small defended himself and neatly smacked tall in the face with his somewhat bony fist. It did not sound pleasant. The rest of the class were getting quite up for a fight, with cheers and jeers going up from the gathering spectators. Small, apparently feeling quite guilty, immediately apologised and went to see if tall was hurt, as he was crouched over holding his face I seem to recall. In an embarrassed rage, tall proclaimed “you didn’t have to hit me!” and turned and struck small, effectively repaying him in kind with a punch to the face. The crowd fell silent. Small retrieved his glasses which had fallen on the floor, and with much grace and good manners continued to apologise to tall. Though he accepted the apology, I feel there was very little face for tall to salvage in that situation. By general consensus of the boys he had gone too far. Even in the testosterone cauldron of an all boys’ school it is one thing to be attacked and return the challenge and another entirely to strike a man who is offering you his apologies. They made up before the teacher returned to resume the lesson.

One day, one of the boys headbutted the proverbial fat kid in school. It was much talked about. Everyone assumed the fat kid had brought it on himself. To this day I do not know whether the event was entirely unprovoked or otherwise.

In preparation for my Karate shodan grading, I recall drilling blocking over and over and over and over again. I wasn’t interested in the forms too much, but I was concerned with the free fighting section of the test. I would only have to fight one opponent at a time, but they would all be at least nidan and I was expecting it to be difficult. As such felt that my defence ought to be my priority. When it came down to it, I did ok. I took a backfist at one point. It hurt. After that there was a question and answer section to the test. I was glad I had memorised the names and translations of the basic techniques listed in the book. My teacher asked me what I planned to do with regard to Karate after the test. I didn’t really have an answer for him or know what to say so I said something along the lines of “I’ll continue training and pursuing Karate”. This turned out to be not long before I began searching for other martial arts.

In my second year of studying Aikido I was hit by a palm strike in the mouth. The strike caused my teeth to cut the inside of my top lip all the way along. It was painful, and eating most things, let alone stuff with any salt content was most uncomfortable for two or three weeks. I tried to block the strike the next time it happened. My teacher used my blocking arm to flip and pin me on the ground. “Don’t block”, he told me. “It’s better for your reactions if you learn to be relaxed and move out of the way. But don’t move premeditatively, you can’t move as if you already know the strike is coming”. At the time I was only really thinking about the pain and avoiding it. It took a while for me to break the habit of blocking and quite a bit longer for me to grasp the point of the lesson.

During an Aikido class, our headteacher stopped my partner and I and said to my partner “don’t worry about forcing the throw, the technique really ends here”. With me as receiver he demonstrated. He delivered a punch to my throat and as I moved to avoid the strike and recover my balance I almost ran into another strike, this time with his extended arm. The only reason the first strike didn’t drop me and the second strike didn’t hit me was because he pulled them. What. I thought. So the trick is just to hit people. Or rather hit people properly. It had not occurred to me before that there was a distinction.

When I stepped into an Aikido school for the first time there was a bald man with a beard preparing to take the class. He welcomed me in warmly and invited me to join in. I was very excited and warmed myself up vigorously. My younger brother also wished to join, but unfortunately the insurance did not cover him as he was too young. My dad sat and watched. The first technique we did in the class was called ikkyo. It is one of the most basic and fundamental techniques of Aikido. When I saw the bald and bearded man perform ikkyo I could not understand what had happened. The sequence of motions seemed unfathomable to me, not because they were long and complicated, but because it was so short and simple. In a single step, the attacker had been pinned to the floor with seemingly no exertion on the part of the bald man. I did not know what it was, but I wanted it, I must have this technique, I thought. Somewhere in between the teacher taking his first step and his partner hitting the floor I was sold on Aikido.

I graded to 4th kyu roughly a year and a half after I began studying Aikido. I recall it being the most difficult martial arts-related experience I have had. Afterwards my teacher said “you need to relax and slow down. And look after your partner. Try to find that millimetre of control in your partner’s balance”. He also warned me to keep my temper. It was good advice. The next time I graded he told me exactly the same thing. Minus the comment on my temper. I took it as progress.

We had a visitor to our Aikido class the other week who sat and watched. Afterwards, one of our members mused that our visitor may have been put off by the idea of a class that involved vigorously throwing each other around and applying various painful joint locks. I said that, even as a raw beginner I loved the idea of a class which involved that. She said to me “yes, but you’re not normal”. I think that might be the most accurate summary of my relationship with the martial arts in the end.

And that’s it, more or less. Thanks for reading 😀


Why I no longer play Cricket

I once had the childish fantasy of wanting to play cricket professionally. Not because I had any idol I wanted to follow or because I loved the England team or anything like that (indeed, not one of the cricketers I admired played for England). Actually, it was more common for me to want the opposing teams to batter England into the ground for the reason that I felt I’d get to see much better cricket on show if that were the case. I was never a fan of any team in particular, I just considered myself a fan of cricket generally. As such I just wanted to be an excellent cricketer. In some ways, wanting to be professional was more of a side effect of a wish to be exceptional rather than the other way around. I remember between twelve and fourteen training voraciously just because I wanted to hit cricket balls for four or five hours a day. Then I grew a bit taller and became comfortable in my new proportions and I wanted to spend four or five hours a day bowling instead. And that was more or less how I felt about cricket until I finished school. Very few things gave me more joy than working on the technical perfection of my cricket at that time.

When my role was a batsman I only enjoyed the unnaturally disproportionate power of a stroke that is perfect in both form and timing. Whenever I went to bat I spent all my time meticulously working towards the moments when those strokes would appear. For me, every single contact with the ball, from defensive prod to expansive drive had to be this kind of form. To aim for anything less was, to my mind, utterly meaningless. Of course it’s not so easy to do as all that, and I don’t think I ever batted an innings which was composed of only perfectly executed movements. In fact I spent plenty of innings struggling and making “ugly” runs. But perfect innings were always my goal and something I strove for every time I went to the middle to bat.

As a bowler, in a similar way, the aesthetic I pursued was a perfect delivery, each and every ball I bowled. Frankly speaking, as a fast bowler, I looked down on players who relied on musculature or the gift of ‘long levers’ to develop speed. I only aspired towards a biomechanically perfect bowling action and came to love the feeling of the ball leaving the tips of my fingers at a pace which it seemed to have no right to possess given my stature. I also remember feeling the delicious thrill of being at my mark at the end of my run up, feeling the roughness of the seam on the ball dig into the callouses on the inside of my first and middle fingers as I tested it for grip. It was a thrill that made my body feel light and fizzy, as if I were charged with some force. Or drunk. One of the two. That feeling always projected me into the completely endless rhythm of my action. My run up was one two, one-two, one two three four, one two three four five six seven. The first two are steps, second two were like a jump and a skip which propelled the rest of the run. The next four are short, bouncy paced for acceleration, the last seven are long open strides. On the first two steps I breathe in. On the kick start and the accelerating steps I breathe out. On five, six and seven of the last phase of my run up I breathe in and stabilise my core to enter my delivery stride, which I mark at thirteen pigeon steps from the popping crease. My run up overall was nineteen strides back from the popping crease. The rhythm of running in and delivering the ball like a machine, the rhythm of decelerating down the pitch and returning to my mark to start again, and the rhythm of the ball fizzing in the air, pitching, and meeting the batsman was what I loved about bowling. It was a very zen exercise in hindsight. There was a kind of ritualistic purity to it which reminds me of kyudo, or Japanese archery. Not that I’ve ever tried kyudo, it just feels like an appropriate comparison.

And as for fielding. I enjoyed the massive space of the field. Honestly I liked outfielding better than being close to the bat I think. I liked being on the boundary and having a hard groundshot struck towards me, but far away enough that not even I initially believe that I can make it. The breathless anticipation of the chase around to cut off the ball, all the time not knowing if I can get to it even with a full-stretch dive, but pulling out the full-stretch dive anyway for good measure… that’s what I liked about fielding.

So that’s what I loved about the game. And it’s what I still love about the game in fact. Of course the question then arises that if I still feel that way about cricket then why in the world do I not play anymore?

In the last season I played there was a game at a particular club which were regular opponents of our club side every year in the league. It was drizzling on and off and was cold. It was not an especially pleasant day for cricket. We bowled first. I felt quite good. I remember being on the faster side that day from I think my second til my fourth over. I think my rhythm broke in my fifth but I regained it in my seventh and kept it til the end of my spell. Or I might be making that up. Anyway.

This particular team happened to have two members I took a disliking to. One was an overseas import from Australia and the other was an old dog who was reputed to have once played professionally or something like that. The former I disliked because I believed him to be arrogant and worse, arrogant without the skill to support the ego he brandished so brazenly. I guess the me back then would have called him scum. The me right now might say the same thing, but he’ll reserve some judgement on the matter. The latter was a man who, like the first, had plenty of ego I recall thinking, but unlike the other man, also had a great deal of talent as a spin bowler. I can understand a talented player on a sports field being a bit full of themselves. Which isn’t to say I justify or accept such a thing, but I can understand it and it isn’t exactly an uncommon thing, so what was special about this particular incidence of a widespread phenomenon? I recall thinking how bitter and cruel and needlessly spiteful this man appeared to me. How he treated the players on his own team who looked up to and respected him, much less players on our team. While I may at the time have thought the first man was scum, I most likely would have described this man as unsightly. I felt that a respected and reputable player with not inconsiderable skills should at the very least treat his team mates, opponents and the umpires with civility, much less habitually talk down to them and shower them with tokens of his spite.

Anyway. Our innings in bat went poorly (as they often did that season) so I was in the middle earlier on than I might have asked to be (as I often was that season). I went out to bat and faced both of the aforementioned characters’ bowling, the latter beginning his spell after the former finished his. The Australian was awfully angry, perhaps because I dismissed him in his innings, perhaps because he always bowls like that. Whatever the reason he aimed repeated bouncers at me, which is not in itself a problem when they all pass wide of you as a batsman. What I did find to be a problem was the tirade of race-driven hate he directed at me which, off the sports field might have earnt any normal person a beating and not an accusation or two of being xenophobic lunatic. When his spell ended, I expected the old dog spin bowler who came on to replace him to behave with more propriety. Perhaps I gave him too much credit. Of course, he continued in exactly the same vein expressing sentiments about race hierarchy which in hindsight I can say I feel belonged somewhere in the slave rhetorics of the empire. At the time it just annoyed me.

So is that it? Is that the extent of the problem? Well, no, not quite. I was quite used to what is called ‘sledging’ (and what is really just regimental group bullying) on the cricket field. I did, and I still do look down on the practice as something belonging only to the weakest players of the sport. In school I believed that any player worth their place in the team need only ever communicate through their skill on the field and I abided by that rule. I believed that sledging was the province of petty bullies, cowards, and pre-adolescent schoolboys. I came to realise, after graduating to men’s cricket from school cricket that either I was mistaken or in fact nearly everyone who plays cricket is in fact a bully, a coward, or a fully grown man who behaves like a pre-adolescent when on the field of play.

Similarly, I was quite used to extended commentaries on my being a rare sight as an ethnic chinese who plays cricket. I was quite happy to use the novelty of it to my advantage. I came to relish meeting players who looked down on me based on skin colour alone and I derived a great amount of satisfaction from re-educating such players with bat and ball. Even so, the cricket field was perhaps one of the only places where I began to make the race card an issue. I resented being looked down on. I resented being underestimated for no reason. I resented players expecting little of me before they had seen me play and I resented being snickered at for even turning up to the game. And from then I came to enjoy hurting such players. I came to want to humiliate them off the pitch when I bowled at them. I enjoyed wondering idly if I’d broken any of their fingers if I bowled a bouncer and hit them on the glove, and I occasionally hoped that the old and more prejudiced (or even the young and prejudiced) would come out to bat without a helmet so that I might gift them a more lasting injury. Usually such fantasies remained in my head and I had to be satisfied with bowling at the player normally until they were out or my spell was up. But even if the revenge fantasies were just fantasies the resentment was still quite tangible to me and it made me cruel. I remember a particular incident at another club where I dismissed a batsman who had been playing awful reckless shots against me and missing every one of them. He read like any other player who had ever looked at me and expected me to be clueless at the game. Getting him out in itself was satisfying, but afterwards, he stormed off the pitch, distraught and I saw him on the boundary, with his head in his hands, utterly dejected and I recall desperately wanting to go over to him and tell him that I pitied him. Not in the sympathetic way, the way one pities a puppy who is hungry and feeds it, but in the utterly unsympathetic way, in the way Mike Tyson might pity an opponent by breaking his jaw and laughing at his feebleness. I wanted to go over and gloat and revel in his despair. I wanted to make him believe he was somehow smaller than me and worth less than me. I wanted him to fear me and fear playing against me. Of course in hindsight I can only see this impulse as hypocrisy. I become the vicious bully who I held in contempt not a moment before. But I vividly recall at the time the enormous sense of pleasure I derived from this man’s humiliation and moreover, the overriding sense that this was somehow justice.

So back to the original story. What was different about this particular incident with our Australian and our old dog was that I could derive no sense of justice from it at all. In fact, the longer I looked at it, the more I felt the situation was profoundly unjust, and not just the situation in the game, but the situation of the cricket I played every week. For, the openly racist tirades of the two players who stood before me were completely ignored by both teams and both impartial umpires. A player once told me that I ought to “grow up, it’s part of the game” and I believe he honestly felt he was giving me good advice by such a gesture. While I am grateful for his kind sentiment, honestly speaking, I felt like staving these players’ heads in with my bat and stomping them with my spikes for good measure, but of course that’s illegal. Limited by the boundaries of the law and the rules of the game, I played a rash stroke and got out. After that I remember that the game ended quite rapidly and that more than anything else having to shake those men’s hands in the spirit of good sportsmanship and seeing them smirk and celebrate winning just galled me immensely. I barely remember the drive home but I think it likely I drove too fast on my way back. The drive seemed to have given me time to turn my bitterness into an inexplicable rage and when I got home I was beside myself. I suppose I would have called myself inconsolable. I retrieved my practice sword from my room (I had not been training long in Aikido back then) and swung it wildly about my back yard with absolutely no attempt at technique whatsoever. I remember I spent a good half hour or so believing quite sincerely that those men should die and that I should be the one to serve that death and that it would be justice if it were so. I could not in my head explain how a practice which off the field is condemned becomes permissible and even justified as “part of the game”. I felt that the only way to address the wrongs which had been done upon me would be to beat my offenders into a messy pulp, of course if it’s part of the game it’s utterly justifiable no? It would have been on the cricket field so it’s just sport banter no? I felt that between me completing me starting and finishing my fantasy double murder the two men would learn their lesson. I also recall weeping, I guess because I was just that angry.

After a fashion my dad came outside and gave me a sharp dressing down and told me to get my act together and stop throwing a tantrum. Then he told me to sit down and we had a chat. He has always been a much more patient man than I have, though if anything I feel his sense of justice is actually stronger than mine, he’s just willing to give the benefit of the doubt for a much longer period. As such, he suggested I give benefit of the doubt, but I did not feel that I could. I felt the cricket field was now a polluted space where the barbarism of “boys being boys” and little men with big egos was justified by a sporting institution which was too feeble and weak to uphold its own values and I no longer wanted any part of it. I did not want to step on the field with players who did not respect the other twenty three human beings on the field and furthermore I did not want to become hateful or bitter or a wallowing crybaby over such a thing either. I felt that the game which I loved, which involves two teams batting, bowling, and fielding in a contest of skill, was in the end not the game I was playing.

For the sake of not abandoning my club I played out the rest of the season. I dragged myself out of bed on match days and went to the field like I was going to an overtime night at the office. I felt it was a chore, an obligation, and ultimately I did not want to play. I did not look forward to batting for the rest of the season. I did not think about runs or even playing shots. I just tried not to get out for the sake of the team. As a bowler I treated it as an exercise in isolation. I took no advice from my team and I ignored any plans my captain put to me which I disagreed with. I bowled as if I were bowling at a single opponent in a net and my field was just set by me and me alone. Ironically perhaps, my detachment made my bowling very precise and my reading of batsmen more accurate. I bowled quite well for the rest of the season.

At the end of the cricketing summer I decided I would not play next season in any league games. I ended up playing no games at all. I had no desire to step on the field of play or even into a net session where I felt like I would inevitably be roped back into playing matches again.

In the end I think it likely that I was in part afraid of giving cricket another chance. I was no longer willing to commit myself to playing the cricket I was given with people I hated in order to pursue the game I loved. Much to my father’s disappointment, and admittedly my own, I have not set foot on a cricket field to play a match again.

In exchange, I suppose, I devoted myself all the more heavily to the study of martial arts. Are the characters one meets on the mat any better by comparison? Well, perhaps not. I think that taking the average of raw beginners there are just as many egos as there are in anything else. But what I have been satisfied with in the schools I have trained at is that all my teachers and my seniors have been conscientious and unrepentant about their stances on characters with ego. There is no ego on the mat, and if you bring some, your teachers and seniors will effectively beat it out of you, or beat you out of the school. It is an unspoken rule in every school of martial arts that I have trained in that your training partner is always your equal, no matter their rank, grade, age, gender, colour, height, width, strength, etc. etc. At the very least this means I can expect to be treated fairly by a partner and if I am not then it is in fact entirely permissible for me to let my partner know if I am unhappy by physical means. That said, I’ve never had the urge to physically beat anyone on the mat, which is perhaps ironic, considering how often I raged about such things on the cricket field.

As I am now, I feel that the martial arts training I have done has been far better for my temperament than cricket ever was. I have been lucky with my teachers and the schools I have trained in. I do regret not playing cricket anymore. I have been tempted on a number of occasions to give it another go recently, but I do not think I will for the time being.

Anyway, this has been a long story and it’s been very egocentric. If you have found it tiresome, please forgive me and really, I’m very grateful and astonished you read this far. If you did enjoy it, then thankyou.

The blog has been quiet for a while, I’m sorry about that. I’ve just been spending a lot of time doing other things. I have been trying to cram as much into the last few weeks as possible and have been spending a great deal of time with my housemates. Anyway, I’ll try to keep updating more regularly soon.

Thanks for reading,