Having resumed my cricket career after a long hiatus recently I’ve noticed a few things that have gone missing in the intervening years: my old cricket bat – inadvertently flogged during a parental car boot sale, it seems – and the ability to stop a full, straight ball from knocking back my middle stump, for example.
But as I walked out to bat for the first time in more than two decades on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Chiswick last month I realised that something else had vanished in the meantime. Something significant was missing; something that I’d carried through every cricket match I’d ever played up to that point.
It was only as I strolled towards the crease through the drizzle in borrowed pads and carrying a borrowed bat that it dawned on me how my entire cricketing youth had been played out with an overwhelming, dry-mouthed, ice-in-the-pit-of-the-stomach sense of mortal terror.
When fielding I’d spend the whole session convinced that every ball would come fizzing towards me off the middle of the bat and smack me right between the eyes, leaving the words ‘Alfred Reader’ imprinted in reverse just above the bridge of my nose and rendering me unconscious, or possibly dead.
Waiting to bat I’d sit padded up, whimpering inaudibly to myself, the palms of my gloves soaked with sweat, until the inevitable cheer of the fielding side and sight of my predecessor beginning the long walk back to the pavilion would cause a yawning black chasm to open in my soul and any remaining moisture in my mouth to evaporate.
I’d mark my guard hoping the bowler would take pity on me and lob a few gently dobbers down instead of charging in and flinging the small, rock-hard red sphere in my direction at a velocity and trajectory sufficient to facilitate an early meeting with my maker. They never did, the flinty-hearted blackguards.
Whether turning out for school or club I’d spend every game in this manner, consumed by terror for almost its entire duration. Not only that I’d spend the intervening weeks nursing a growing ball of fear in my stomach at the prospect of the impending weekend’s matches.
Yet I professed to love cricket. I wasn’t even that bad at it. If I was so frightened, why was I putting myself through these summer-long ordeals of sheer mental anguish?
Thinking about it, I realise now it was because my entire childhood and youth were spent in a permanent state of sphincter-clenching, yellow-bellied terror.
Nuclear war was the most consistent drip-feeder of my status as a committed scaredy-cat. I grew up under the perceived threat of total nuclear annihilation and it terrified me. I’d look out of our bathroom window, which offered a spectacular view of the London skyline, certain that at any moment there’d be an almighty flash and a mushroom cloud as London – and, most importantly, me – was reduced to atoms in the space of a heartbeat. I was convinced this moment, played out daily in my mind, was entirely inevitable, nay, imminent.
Then there were ghosts, especially poltergeists. I’d read somewhere – possibly in The Unexplained, easily the most terrifying publication ever to grace the shelves of John Menzies – that poltergeists were a particularly common phenomenon among kids between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. I read this when I was eleven and hence spent the next two years dreading the arrival of my thirteenth birthday. When it came, I passed the ensuing three years hiding under the bedclothes every night convinced that my books were about to start zinging off the shelves at my head and my bed was about to commence spinning around in circles four feet above the ground.
Oh, and don’t forget dry slope skiing lessons. When I was twelve my parents decided that it would be good for me to join a skiing trip arranged by the school. I didn’t want to go for the obvious reason that I’d either be killed in an avalanche or fall off the side of a mountain to my death, but they insisted. Maybe it was to take my mind off the poltergeists.
A course of lessons at the dry slope in Woolwich was organised ahead of the holiday; a Saturday morning ritual that possibly made me more scared than anything else, ever. I don’t know why I found the prospect of snowploughing across a slight incline of little bendy plastic spikes at a speed that could have seen me overtaken by a glacier so mortally terrifying, but the drive to Woolwich every week felt as though I was being escorted to my own execution by my own father.
The fact that I’m sitting here writing this shows that I was never killed by a cricket ball, vaporised as a result of nuclear fission, decapitated in my bed by a satanic flying Big Country LP or garrotted in an unfortunate accident with a rented ski binding. In fact, when all’s said and done I survived childhood and youth relatively unscathed.
But it was only when walking out to bat for The Authors the other week I realised that I wasn’t scared any more. I even hit my third ball to the boundary in a frankly exquisite manner and when I was out I felt an intense disappointment, when as a youth I was more likely to feel relief that my ordeal was over for another week.
I don’t know what happened, or even when, but after all those years as a yellow-bellied scaredy-cat, today I can hold my head up and say I’m not afraid of anything any more. Except heights. And snakes. And phone calls from the bank. And those YouTube videos of Russian kids doing pull-ups hanging off the tops of cranes hundreds of feet up. Oh, and our flat door buzzer is so loud that whenever it goes off I have to be peeled from the ceiling.
But apart from those, I have the heart of a lion. A lion, I tell you.