The rewards of mediocrity
Published in the Journal of the Cricket Society December 2023
Some are born mediocre, some have mediocrity thrust upon them but some achieve mediocrity only after a lifetime of hard work.
That is the central message of my intended autobiography as a bowler. It is to be called Six And Out, after the role I was usually asked to fill on the school playground of inducing the retirement of the best batter who kept hogging the strike. Over the roof… no need to waste a review there.
I did not get where I am today (no mate, yours is Pitch 94 on the other side of the Marshes, this is Pitch 67) by just rocking up and turning my arm over. It required days and weeks and years of constant practice, sometimes in nets empty of human life, before audiences of bemused bees abandoning their search for nectar in discarded sweet wrappings. At a very rough estimate, I have attempted 18,347 deliveries in some setting or other. These do not include the dead balls resulting from the low roofs of many public nets, which are responsible for the death of flighted spin bowling in our country, but I certainly count my the experimental deliveries on either side of the Equator in the Arcadian Atlantic archipelago of São Tomé e Príncipe. I fully intend to reach 20,000 next year, which will represent my Platinum Jubilee in our summer game.
Of course all these deliveries were self-taught. It would be cruel not to say defamatory to attribute them to any coach.
Another calculation suggests that I have given close to a year of my life to those deliveries. They therefore carry a huge opportunity cost, a term I remember from the rare attention I gave in my old Oxford college to the Economics section of my course. Had I used that time differently, I might have completed the Great Novel whose detailed plot and notes were lost on the memory stick which my cat used as a plaything, or possibly ingested as a snack. In either case, he has yet to return it.
My bowling career had a number of formative events.
The first ended the early career of flighted orthodox legspin. It was the fielders’ collective mutiny by my team mates when I purveyed it on a small rural ground. After only the fourth six they declined to hack through any more nettles and brambles or climb over any more barbed wire to retrieve any others. If I wanted to continue it would have to be in another style. This experience converted me into a workaday slow-medium (well, with a following wind) dibbly-dobbler who could (punches cliché button) “keep an end going” until the captain thought of something better.
After many years in this style and visits to several continents I reached the summit of a mediocre career and made an important discovery. Batters out of form are best served, in the recovery stage, by reliably mediocre bowling. This is far better for technique and confidence-building than feasting on lollipops or facing totally random dross. With this discovery, I had built up a small part-time business as a batting therapist. The therapy consisted simply of bowling at the customer and letting him or her discover that with concentration and appropriate shot selection my deliveries could be hit very hard at or above me. With young customers I made a point of pretending that their straight drives really stung my hands when I tried to catch them or intercept them. (I learnt this from an inspiring early coach of my own, a ”resting” actor who eventually came to permanent rest as a games master. I recommend this to others. Just remember to control your language when the sting is for real.)
This phase was ended by an onset of the Yips, the mysterious and deeply depressing condition which strikes not only at cricketers but also tennis players and golfers, a total memory loss of how to perform a normal but routine action. In my case, the ball simply refused to leave my hand, as if in terror of abandoning its sanctuary. When finally compelled to, it went absolutely anywhere, sometimes at my feet, sometimes backwards imperilling the umpire. For two (punches cliché button) wilderness years, I bowled nothing to any real batter, only in rehearsal to my image in the long mirror at home. No memory of better things returned, and I eventually gave that long mirror to the local poor. It has since assisted a long line of dapper dossers.
This nightmare was ended by unusual means: having a stroke. It was not much of a stroke, more a push to midwicket and a scrambled single than a lacerating square cut, but a real scoring stroke nonetheless. On recovery I discovered that I could bowl again, although far slower than in phase 2. My consultant suggested that the stroke had wiped out the part of my brain which had told me I could not bowl and that I was now using another part which had no memory of this. This is a drastic remedy for the Yips, and has yet to appear in any sporting manual.
I began a third and final phase of slow flighty stuff, taking the opportunity to invent a series of new deliveries. In imitation of Shane Warne’s supposed mystery ball, the zooter, I gave them all names beginning with Z, thus the zombie, the zamboni and the zorker. I am at work on the ultimate mystery ball, the zarathustra. I achieved a new summit of mediocrity and was able to resume my part-time career as a batting therapist. The zombie, the zamboni, the zorker initially flummoxed some customers, especially young ones, until they realized that they need not bother to decode them and that simply getting to their pitch would empower the same satisfying straight drive.
Through all the phases and their plateaux and summits each delivery has required a mighty whirl of the right arm through 540 degrees, about 1 ½ times the normal maximum. Pro-rata, compared to a normal bowler, I have attempted 27,521 deliveries, rather than the officially recorded total, while my right shoulder is consequently 114 years old compared to the birth age of 75 ½ for the left.
Were they all worth it? Yes, on watching one of my recent customers, grandson 2, now aged 11, compile 30 in a competitive match before being compelled to retire (a problem which has never affected me). His innings included several straight drives
Prodnose (the pedantic tormentor I have inherited from the great Beachcomber): No, no, these were surely no ordinary straight drives?
Myself (chastened): So sorry. (Punches cliché button) Several booming straight drives.
I was able to murmur to other admiring onlookers “I taught him those.” I did not of course reveal my methods.