For The Nightwatchman (www.thenightwatchman.net)
Alex Book on self-doubt and the space where cricket and life collide
There he stands, at the top of his run. Gathering himself. Sizing me up. Picking his spot.
I’m feeling pretty good. Practising well, moving well, and despite a string of low scores I feel like runs are around the corner. Then again, I’ve felt that way for a few seasons now. But this time will be different. I will succeed. I must succeed. How can I not?
Here he comes, accelerating towards me. I can see the ball, bright red, gripped loosely in his right hand. I think I can even see the shiny side, set for away swing. Everything is under control.
You’re going to get out this ball.
Ah. Here we go again. That bloody voice. That cocky little voice. He’s been with me for a while now. Doubting me. Slowly, relentlessly, viciously wearing me down. Breaking me.
I try to concentrate harder, to put him out of my mind. I talk to myself:
Watch the ball. Play straight. Watch the ball.
But the voice knows I’m only doing that so I can’t hear him.
You’re only doing that so you can’t hear me. Pathetic.
Maybe he’s right. Maybe I am pathetic. Maybe I will get out this ball after all.
A boy! A beautiful little boy! My second. A few hairy moments during delivery, the crash team summoned, but by the time they arrive he’s breathing and all is good.
Except, as the weeks and months wear on, we learn that all is not good. It turns out that while still in the womb he was affected by a virus most of us have never heard of called cytomegalovirus, or CMV. We discover it is surprisingly common but dangerous only when contracted for the first time during pregnancy. Its effects are various and usually unique to each individual. In Toby’s case they are profound deafness, a significant left hemiplegia – making it very difficult for him to control the left side of his body – and a ‘global development delay’, meaning his general cognitive and physical development is far behind standard norms.
It’s a lot to take in. It is crushingly, devastatingly sad. For him, for us, for the future we imagined but will never come true. We grieve for the little boy we lost, while trying desperately hard to love the little boy we have. It is not easy.
When people at my club are asked to name the batsman they most enjoy watching, I’m often up there. When asked whose contribution is furthest behind their potential, it is generally a unanimous decision: me. Why? What’s going on? What can I do about it?
I will try harder. I will focus more. I will practice more. I will be more determined. To score. To succeed. To win.
To be honest I thought I was doing all those things already, but they clearly aren’t enough. So I will double my efforts. Because I have to win. I need to score runs. Otherwise I am a failure, and I’ve been a failure for far too long. In case I ever forget this, the voice is there to remind me.
You’re a failure. And you’re going to fail again. You’re going to get out this ball.
So, of course, I don’t win. I don’t score runs. I do often get out that ball. I shout, I swear, I hit things, I throw my kit across the changing room. I go for furious marches around the ground, angrily berating myself for failing again. My average in the low teens becomes a source of mirth; if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. I think my teammates know how frustrating and soul- destroying it has all become. They try to help with extra throw-downs in the nets or good- natured piss-taking, but it only makes things worse.
Yet I persist. Season after season, every time starting with an optimism that inevitably drains away, to be replaced with angry resignation. This cruel, stupid game, which I love. Which I hate. Which I love.
We are blessed with incredible medical support; amazing teams who do amazing things to help him. Cochlear implants: he can hear! And he is happy. Smiling, giggling, he fills the room with sunshine. He is adored.
But I can’t stop my mind wandering. Mostly into the future. Yes, I am still riddled with regret and sadness for what might have been, and although I’m getting better at keeping those thoughts at bay they do still intrude. But as these four years have gone by, more and more I focus on the sadness for what will be.
The voice doesn’t say anything out loud, but I can feel him there. Not laughing – I don’t think he’s that callous – but staring at me, quizzically, as if there’s an obvious truth that I’m trying desperately to avoid.
I know which truth he means. He and I can both see the future, and it is a bad place. A place where my cute, giggly little baby is now a big, growing teenage boy. Still not walking. Still not talking. Still so in need. Looking after him today is already much harder than it used to be; he is heavier, stronger, more wilful – and that will only get worse. How will we cope? How will we take the strain? How could anyone? It must be impossible.
It will be impossible.
I reach a low. Irritable, angry, frustrated. If I’m honest, I think I’m scared. Actually, I think I’m completely terrified. In the face of this awful, inevitable future I am utterly helpless. Where I should love my son unconditionally, instead I feel a burden which I do not know how to bear.
Eventually I am persuaded that talking with someone might be a good idea. I am introduced to a slightly mad Israeli man who I am told may be able to help, and we talk. We talk about many things, and in the second or third session he says something particularly interesting. He tells me that, by and large, life is terrible.
Well, he says, it’s just that things almost never work out the way we imagine. We all end up having to deal with unforeseen tragedy, in big or small ways. The future is, by its nature, uncertain. None of us can know what it will hold. And if that is the case, he argues, why bother worrying about it at all?
The worst thing we can do is to need a particular version of the future to come true because invariably, he says, we will be disappointed. We set ourselves up for failure. We can prefer that something happens, and we can absolutely try to create the conditions for it to happen, but we must know that it might not. And that has to be ok.
Hmm. That’s interesting.
So... if I’ve understood this right, the future can be a preference, but never a need. We can prefer for Toby to walk, but there is no point demanding it. We can prefer for him to talk and can help him in every way possible but what will be will be, and we will deal with it. We have to try to forget about the future and focus on now, with a positive attitude and an open mind.
Ok. I think I understand. There’s a part of me that instinctively wants to reject it. Is he talking about giving up? About sitting back, shrugging our shoulders and accepting our fate? Surely we need to be more committed, more focused on bringing about our positive future, through sheer determination and force of will? Don’t all successful people – in sport, in life – talk about visualising what they want, believing in it and not stopping until it’s become a reality? But despite all these thoughts, I have to admit that something about it instantly seems to make sense. As I start to think about what it might mean, I feel an unexpected sense of positivity and calm. I think I’ll give it a go.
I even find myself wondering if it could help with any other parts of my life...
It’s mid-season. I have had a few starts but not converted. The previous week, on a flat track against a decidedly average bowling attack, I played a terrible shot and was out for four. I punched the changing-room door. The voice just laughed.
This week, I relax. I don’t need to score runs, I think to myself. Of course I would prefer to, but I don’t need to. I don’t need to!
I can tell the voice isn’t convinced, but he keeps his opinions to himself for now.
I hold my beautiful little boy.
The point, I’m coming to realise, is that it doesn’t matter who he could have been, or even who he could become. All that matters is who he is. And if we do every single thing we can for him, from each day to the next, he will be nothing less than everything he can be.
I like that.
There is no voice. Not here.
Cricket, or maybe life
An actual, genuine hundred! I bat with a smile, that day and for the rest of the year. When I score runs I’m happy and when I don’t – which is becoming rarer – I’m happy. An award- winning season with the bat, for the first time since forever. How odd that by removing the need to get runs they have finally begun to arrive. Occasionally I wish I’d known that when I was 20 but, as I’m learning, there’s no value in regret.
The voice still pipes up now and again, bless him, although I think he must be getting a cold. He sounds a bit distant, a bit cracked, a bit wheezy.
You’re going to get out this ba-
I smile. Oh no I’m not.
And anyway, so what if I do?
I have no idea what the next ball holds, or the next day, or year, or decade and, as I have come to realise, nor does the voice. It turns out that neither of us can see the future after all. I might hit a six; I might get out. I’d prefer the former; I may have to live with the latter. My life probably won’t be what I dreamed it would be, but whose is? It will be different, that’s all. Ups and downs, wins and losses, hundreds and noughts. We are strong enough to cope with what comes. We will find a way.
The voice may still try to convince me that bad things are inevitable, but I just don’t believe him anymore.
That is not to say that everything is fixed. This is a work in progress, and probably always will be. Of course there is failure, but there is also contentment. Of course there is sorrow, but there is so much love. And I am a better person.
Thank you, Toby. I love you, son.
This article appears in Issue 21 of The Nightwatchman, a quarterly collection of essays and long-form articles from Wisden by novelists, historians, poiets, journalists, students, or indeed anyone with something interesting to say about the beautiful game of cricket. It is available in both digital and print versions from www.thenightwatchman.net
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