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,