Big Game Players

Cricket lies on the back burner for this week’s entry, as there’s only so much vitriole one person can bring himself to spew about Ian Bell’s incessant tendency to look a million dollars and then play a shot straight from a Closing Down Sale. So I’m saving myself from recycling any number of cliches about choirboys and headlights, and wondering about what, in general, contributes to skills either thriving or disintegrating under pressure.

For a sportsman with a severely stunted career peak, moments of intense pressure come few and far between. Those nine overs mentioned in the profile box to the top right sit squarely alongside playing in a six-a-side tournament against the manager and assistant manager of Exeter City, and one outrageously fortuitous hole-in-one on a pitch and putt course in Sidmouth nine years ago. Last Wednesday, then, elevated my sporting career to a platform that, if not equal in stature to those mentioned above, contained far more potential for embarrassment.

This event was the annual Staff against First XI football match. Now, for a team of grown men against a group of thirteen-year-olds, there ought not to be too many physical impediments to competing. Glossing over the inches that I give away to a number of Year 8, I think it’s safe to say that, no holds barred, we would happily deliver a sound stuffing, having initiated proceedings with a montage of tackles from the Ashley Cole handbook. However, there are a rather large number of reasons that prohibit that sort of behaviour – so the fine line of measured competition, ensuring a close game, not injuring anyone, and not easing off to the extent wherein you look a tit, needs to be trodden.

A 25-yard free kick within five minutes of taking over custody of the staff goal wasn’t entirely within the best-case scenario planning, but I was both delighted and more than a little stunned to find myself pushing it out of the top left-hand corner with one hand. I’m the sort of goalkeeper whose mistakes are prone to being spectacular ones (see David James or Scott Carson), and the spectre of disaster, acted out in front of 200 children who’d like to see nothing more than a Maths teacher getting his angles completely wrong, was something that had been playing in my mind, even as the 1st XI strikers stood over the ball.

So why did I manage to pull off what is probably the best piece of goalkeeping of my (admittedly limited) career? Why did my goal kicking, which so often ends up skudding flat across the outer reaches of the six yard box, reach the halfway line and beyond, almost without exception. Why did it take the ball to ‘fall’ to a striker, eight yards out, for me to beaten. Why, two summers ago, did I enter the crease with 18 runs required off five balls in a six-a-side match, and somehow lead my side to victory? What is it about having 200 children intoning the well-known drone of ‘aaaaaoooohhh…’ as I approached a dead ball that actually made me focus?

I’ve read literature on high-pressure sporting situations that suggest that it’s tightly refined techniques that thrive under pressure, and loose ones that fall apart. Yet Daren Ganga has one of the most beautiful techniques in world cricket, and can’t score an International run. Is it simple techniques that succeed? Perhaps – but Lara and Chanderpaul were never straightforward, were they?

Perhaps it’s just understanding of exactly what you’ve got, who you are, what you want to achieve, and how you’re going to achieve that. Being at one with the situation, with the moment, the edge of the six-yard-box and the baying crowd. No consciousness of the individual ten-year-olds standing beside the left-hand post, dissecting each of your moves, nor of the identities of your targets or their obstacles: no focus on anything irrelevant to the immediate task. Maybe that’s what Ian Bell seemingly cannot achieve: the scenario grows to dominate the situation. I wonder what I would average in Test cricket if I had his ability. I wonder if he’d be teaching Prep School maths and writing for Cricket Web if he had mine.

I wonder if, given that chance, whether I’d swap?

In other news, I have this week been appointed as manager of Oxfordshire’s Under 10 squad for the 2008 season. I thoroughly look forward to experiencing another level of representative cricket for the first time. I wonder how difference it feels to know that the guy you desperately want to trip over his shoelaces on his way between the wickets has a Northamptonshire shirt on rather than one saying “Upottery”. Probably much the same…

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