Thursday, June 03, 2021

live well, bat often, field much

It's been delightful, over the past few weekends, as COVID-19 lockdown restrictions ease, to be able to meet up with extended family again. This has been made both easier and more enjoyable by the recent spell of sunny weather, which has made it much more pleasant to hang out outdoors in a responsibly well-ventilated manner.

One of the things you can do with large-ish groups comprising a mixture of adults and (mainly) children is play the venerable old game of French cricket. I have combined my memories of playing the game as a child with my fairly extensive experience of playing it as a parent, mainly with Nia and her cousins and assorted aunts and uncles and the occasional grandparent, and I think I'm ready to present my new all-embracing life philosophy, soon to be available in hardback and motivational DVD form, entitled French Cricket For The Soul: How It's Like A Metaphor For Life And That.

A quick preamble to outline the rules: you need a cricket bat and a tennis ball and a few people; I'd say a minimum of about four to avoid too many gaps in the field and too much faffing about retrieving the ball. Basic rules are as follows:

  • The batter stands with his or her feet together and the bat held vertically in front of the shins;
  • The fielders throw the ball at the batter's legs;
  • The batter is out if the ball hits their legs below the knee, or if they hit the ball with the bat and it is caught by a fielder before it hits the ground;
  • The ball must be thrown, underarm, from the point where the fielder picks it up;
  • If the batter has hit the ball, they may shuffle their feet round to face the next delivery, if they have time;
  • If the batter has not hit the ball, they may not move their feet;
  • Play continues, ideally, forever, but more realistically until one of the grown-ups has to go and make tea, someone has a tantrum, or someone thwacks the ball into next door's garden.

That's the basic structure, now here is the Life Philosophy section.

  • When you are a child, batting seems like the thing to be doing, and moreover while batting thwacking the ball as hard and as far as you can. But, crucially, there is no way, unless you concoct some additional rules, to actually "score" anything, so all you've done is give yourself a long wait while some poor mug has to go and dig the ball out of the compost heap. Alternatively you can just dead-bat everything into the ground to try to prolong your batting stint as long as possible, but a) this just annoys everyone else and b) can be counter-productive in that it leaves the ball very close to you.
  • If the ball does end up very close you you (less than a bat-length away, say) you also have to make a judgment involving balancing the needs of others with your own. There will be a fielder the same distance away, or even a bit closer, if, as fielders tend to do if not closely monitored, they encroach a bit while picking the ball up and if you give it the full Ben Stokes there's every chance that the fielder will get a ball or, worse, the toe-end of the bat, delivered at high speed into their face. So you have to temper your wilder ambitions with a modicum of regard to the welfare of others.
  • With age and maturity and mellow life-experience what you eventually realise is that the thing to do while batting is, sure, defend your legs if you can, but, when you can lay bat on ball, give some catching opportunities to the fielders, tailored to their levels of catching prowess. So for Nia's 14-year-old cousin (who is a freakish giant and taller than me) I might try and offer some sharp chances at ankle height, while offering some slightly easier ones to Nia (whose catching is pretty sharp) and the occasional gently lobbed chance for the younger cousins.
  • In comparison the fielding seems like a chore when you're a child, as everyone wants to be the centre of attention as the batter. Plus, of course, you're not guaranteed to be involved in every delivery as you are while batting - the person throwing the ball is involved, of course, as is whichever fielder the ball ends up going to. It might be you, but there's no way of knowing in advance. So this means that you have to make an up-front investment (i.e. your full attention on what's going on) without any confident expectation of reward (i.e. the ball might go to someone else). Obviously you could do the cost-benefit analysis and conclude that your time would be better spent daydreaming and going lah-de-dah hullo clouds hullo sky, but then you run the risk of the ball defying the odds and actually coming to you and everyone shouting at you.
  • Further to this, there's no value in getting all aerated if you haven't had a bat for a while. Have you been daydreaming in the field? It won't just magically get to be "your turn", you know. Get involved, put yourself about a bit in the field, take a one-handed screamer millimetres from the turf and you shall have not only the awed respect of your peers, but a go with the bat as well.
  • There are some calculations you can do to maximise (or minimise, depending on your preferred level of involvement) the chances of your being in line for some fielding or, better still, a catch and the associated unimaginable glory (and, of course, being next up to bat) - generally speaking the imaginary semicircular area in front of the batter is the prime catching area. But, especially when younger players are either batting or throwing, one key spot is directly behind the batsman, as there'll be a lot of slightly misdirected throws, not to mention wild swiping and missing. So someone needs to take one for the team and occupy that spot - a position where you're very unlikely to take a catch unless the batsman gets a very thin edge or does some kind of ambitious Dilscoop over their own head, but where you'll probably get quite a bit of fielding to do nonetheless. On the other hand, having done the unglamorous tidying-up duties, the whole game then turns on its head as you, the backstop, become the bowler and the behind-the-batsman area becomes the prime in-front-of-the-batsman area. And so we see the value of doing the unglamorous grafting groundwork for reaping the glorious rewards later.

So we can see, my young friends, that there is much to be learnt from this seemingly simple game, and that, moreover, he who achieves full mastery of the various physical and mental disciplines involved here will find that more general life challenges will, when confronted with a firm throw towards the upper shin area, fend it back awkwardly off the splice and offer a sharp but catchable chance at around knee height. All you have to do is hold onto it.

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