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Eastern Promise


Neil Pickup | 9:17pm gmt 05 Nov 2009
Eastern PromiseA couple of years ago, I read a book called "The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which talked - to put it in layman's terms - about the ideas that Donald Rumsfeld had infamously termed "unknown unknowns" in a garbled press briefing on the Afghan war. In short, the theme is that the biggest impacts on your life are the things that you have absolutely no idea about until they happen. Take the bloke who steps off the pavement into the path of your car, for instance, or the power lines collapsing in a storm, inches from your front door.

In my case, last Monday afternoon contained the e-mail saying, "Neil, someone has had to pull out of the school exchange trip. Do you fancy coming to Tokyo on Thursday?" One of my rules for working at the place I do is "never be surprised by anything", but this rather stretched the bounds of credulity. Ignoring the fact that I didn't own a suitcase, and spoke as much Japanese as I did Tagalog, I decided that saying no would be an utterly stupid thing to do, and signed myself up for nine days of chopsticks and subway trains.

Aside from trying to figure out why Japan's maths curriculum appears to be at least twelve months ahead of our own, I had very few ideas to contemplate during my week - aside from trying not to think too hard about what exactly it was that I'd just eaten ("that tasted a bit, erm, cartilagey" was one particularly accurate verdict I delivered on a piece of yakitori). So, I wondered, what could I learn that I can apply to cricket? How could I explain to my County Youth squad that I decided to go to the other side of the world instead of meeting them as a group for the first time? For some reason, "I've seen you lot before and I've never eaten cartilage" didn't seem like it would convince nine-year-olds too readily.

Working in a boarding school with increasing links to the Far East, I'd already begun to notice that even the smallest, weediest-looking Japanese boy seemed as if they could throw something far further than his Saxon classmate (who, half the time, would end up flapping his arms in a manner more akin to a one-winged sparrow). It couldn't be genetic - all Japan produces on the world stage is increasingly insane Formula One drivers, after all - so was it cultural? If it wasn't that, then what was it?

On Tuesday afternoon, I discovered an awful lot (including the fact that fried squid is good, and raw squid is bad). On Tuesday afternoon, our Year Eights joined their Japanese host children in our partner school's games and activities circus. From a distance, it looked much the same as any English school sports session. Close up, it was anything but. We are, like most English prep schools, currently midway through the rugby term, so our boys didn't expect too much of a culture shock as they joined in with the oval ball practice. It was news, however, to play full contact on a surface that was half-mud, half-sand and far more reminiscent of the mudflats of the Humber Estuary than any rugby pitch I'd ever seen before. It also seemed that the idea of the mouthguard hadn't quite made it to Tokyo, either.

Skipping over the fact that the football session took place on the roof (ground space is at a premium, after all), the best stories were told the following morning by the children who'd taken part in the climbing activity. Now, we're incredibly fortunate to have a full climbing wall attached to one of the external walls of the gym, and I know that many other schools around the UK use facilities inside sports halls and specialist centres. I don't know of any British schools that wander down to the local park and shin up the nearest tree, apparently in complete disregard to the warden on duty. We need two pages of risk assessments before children are allowed to enter a classroom ("risk of injury on sharp corners of tables", "risk of trip over electrical wires", "risk of display falling from wall") - we would be looking at War and Peace before anything like that went ahead... which, of course, it wouldn't.

Meanwhile, back in the first-grade playground, we were treated to a game of "throw the ball as hard as you can at the other team from as close as you can get", in which the response to getting smacked in the head from two yards wasn't to run off crying, but to pick up the ball and chuck it back...

Not for a moment am I championing the idea of official neglect: countless Channel 4 series have shown us what happens if you let go of somebody without fitting a safety net underneath - but as I remembered the rugby team's warm-up (well-drilled, disciplined and focused... and led by one of the sixth-grade boys), I asked myself why only a small fraction of my games group could manage that.

Maybe we live in a system where excuses are the norm? It's always someone else's job, someone else's fault, someone else's responsibility. If I trip over the pavement because I'm playing with my iPhone, I'll sue the local council rather than hold my hands up and admit that I should have been looking where I was going. If I'm 38 not out, it doesn't matter if I fritter away my start playing an aimless waft outside off stump, because someone else will score the runs. It's no wonder the national side is full of South Africans: men who've travelled 6,000 miles to seize hold of an opportunity in their lives, rather than boys who've spent their formative years having their hands held and hidden from responsibility.

We live in a system where risk-assessment and paperwork have taken the place of judgement and responsibility: a system where the ECB's Administration Administrator can tell me that my coaching qualifications are invalid because I attended an NSPCC workshop instead of a UKCC version. I wish I'd made that last part up. Perhaps the balance is shifting: the ECB's fast bowling directives, the rules that limit the length of U19 seam bowlers' spells (but perversely never applied in the first-class game), are being revised upwards to allow younger bowlers an extra over from next summer.

Six balls here and there are not a solution: but hopefully they are the first steps to bringing the culture of responsibility and accountability back into English sport. Now, how am I going to phrase this so that the Under 10s know what I'm talking about?

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