When Geoffrey Boycott retired from first-class cricket, he retired from cricket for good. As a batsman who had competed against the very best, he could not bear to track the decline in his powers by playing his beloved sport into middle age. Even picking up a bat caused him anguish. “I would exchange the rest of my life,” so he once confessed, “for five more years of playing for England at the height of my form.”
I am now 45 – one year younger than Boycott when he retired. A decline in sporting ability, though, is not a problem that I face. I never had any in the first place. Boycott signalled his tryst with greatness by scoring prolifically at primary school. At the analogous moment in my own cricketing career, I was making daisy chains on the boundary edge. Most sports left me indifferent – but cricket I actively detested. Hopeless though I was at every form of physical activity, my inability to bat or bowl plumbed spectacular depths of incompetence. All cricket had to offer, it seemed to me, was tedium, interspersed with the odd moment of raw terror. It was like serving in the trenches.
Damascene conversions do happen, though. My very hatred of cricket ended up a kind of obsession. In 1981, it proved Benedict to my Beatrice. Like so many others, I watched the astonishing, Ashes-winning heroics of Ian Botham, and was seduced. Perhaps no love blazes more strangely than one that takes delight in what had previously provoked dread. Time was when the smell of freshly mown grass on an outfield, or of mingled leather and dust in a pavilion, could cast a chill over even the warmest of summer days. Now, in the grip of my new-found love of cricket, they were transformed into the sweetest of scents. I still have only to breathe them in, and all at once I feel happy.
I remained, though, the very opposite of a natural sportsman. Although, by dint of sheer effort, I did manage to haul myself up from uselessness to serviceable mediocrity as a bowler, batting was a different matter. Shortsightedness and a total lack of reflexes are handicaps not readily overcome when standing at the wicket. Facing a bowler who is anything more than military medium, I still feel a physical fear. To bat as Boycott batted, to build an innings, to subdue great bowling, to unfurl an array of perfect strokes, to score a century – these are joys that I will never experience.
Yet moments of triumph, when they do come, are all the more precious for it. Last summer, at the age of 44, I hit my first six. The context was less than heroic. A grey drizzle was falling; the match was already lost; I was out a few balls later. Even the six itself was an ungainly shot: a wild heave that brushed a fielder’s fingers in the outfield before dropping beyond the boundary rope. For me, though, it was one of the greatest moments of my life. Ever since 1981, when I watched Botham hit the ball into the confectionery stall and out again during his legendary century at Headingley, I had dreamt of hitting a six. Now, 31 years on, I had finally done it. Not the least of cricket’s many glories are the rewards it can offer patience.
Boycott knew all about that, of course – none better. Yet in one way, and one way only, my own patience on the cricket pitch will prove more indomitable than his. I will carry on playing into my dotage. This is because, having no particular peaks to look back upon, the troughs are more easily borne. Whereas a great sportsman will reach middle age and know with a chilling certitude that his best days are behind him, I feel the opposite. I have still not had my fill of cricket’s delights.
Four months ago I had my first taste of international sport. Thanks to the literary agent Charlie Campbell, who has resurrected a venerable literary team named the Authors, I went on a cricket tour of India. Just writing that makes me smile in disbelief. It was, admittedly, in many ways a sobering experience. The Indians, it turned out, tend to presume that if you play cricket then you must be good at cricket. The teams we came up against were often terrifyingly out of our league. There were times when I would feel relieved to have bowled a wide – on the grounds that at least it had not gone for six. Yet our tour was also as rich in experience as any 10 days I have ever spent. In Mumbai, we played our first match on the oldest Test ground in India, and our second under lights. In Rajasthan, where the wicket was a makeshift strip of matting laid out in the middle of the desert, we were greeted with garlands and a brass band. In our last match, Charlie rode out to the toss on a camel.
And me? After five matches, my predominant memory was of watching my bowling scream very fast and hard to the boundary. Then, in the last over of the tour, I conjured up a wicket – and what a wicket! Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar was not only a batsman of near international class – he was also a prince, no less. The son of the Maharajah of Udaipur – and I had bowled him! Just one ball – but all the indignities, all the humiliations of what had gone before were salved. The memory of bowling Rajput royalty, like that of my six, is one that I shall take with me to the grave.
That I wish I had been blessed with a fraction of Boycott’s ability goes without saying. Nevertheless, I still love cricket for all that it has given me – improbable sportsman that I am. There are times, it turns out, where being a journeyman can bring its own compensations, its own memories, its own joys.
Tom Holland is author of ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’ (Little, Brown, £10.99).
‘The Authors XI: A Season of English Cricket from Hackney to Hambledon’, by The Authors Cricket Club is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)