Cricket’s ultimate secret — the power of turning up

Updated 10 Oct 2020

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Pakistan's Mohammad Amir (C) celebrates after taking the wicket of England's Jos Buttler during the 2019 Cricket World Cup group stage match between England and Pakistan. — AFP/File
Pakistan's Mohammad Amir (C) celebrates after taking the wicket of England's Jos Buttler during the 2019 Cricket World Cup group stage match between England and Pakistan. — AFP/File

In my late sixties, and in the sunset of a cricket career which never really had a dawn, I have found it a huge privilege to play in Pakistan. I have recommended this experience to all my cricketing friends in England: some have followed me, and I hope that more will follow them.

Some have asked me whether Pakistan is a dangerous country. I reply, invariably and accurately, that my most dangerous moments have been crossing the street in Karachi. Javed Miandad and many other great Karachi batsmen were brilliant judges of the short single. I am certain that this was due to their early training crossing the street.

Be that as it may, Pakistan is a wonderful country for a cricketing swansong — and for me, a fitting one. I was introduced to cricket by a Pakistani boy at primary school, aged six, during Pakistan’s first tour of England in 1954. I have been playing the game ever since. This produces a problem in Pakistan. Opponents assume that such a long career means that I must be a good player. Not so.

My secret weapon is availability. I have played for about a hundred different teams in some thirty countries. I was rarely the first choice for any of these teams. Often, I was not the eleventh choice. But I was available, particularly in those last desperate hours when the captain or team secretary discovered that three of his best players are under water, or under arrest or under orders to paint the kitchen or visit their in-laws.

In the reverse of the usual career statistics, I have played more matches after the age of fifty than before — and not for veterans’ teams. I was certainly not performing any better. In fact, I was starting to mimic the characters in the Wizard of Oz. My batting looked more and more like the Cowardly Lion, my bowling looked more and more like the Tin Man (before Dorothy loosens him up with the oil can) and as a fielder my only skill was to fall to the ground like the Scarecrow.

But after fifty I became a freelance writer. In England, this is usually a polite expression for an unemployed writer. Anyway, it made me more available. I actually amended my answer phone message (as voicemail used to be called) to say “This is Richard. Where is the match and when do I have to be there?” I found it saved precious time for captains and team secretaries in a hurry. For the same reason, as a political journalist I was always grateful to the veteran Labor Member of Parliament who placed an automated reply on his telephone: “Whatever you’re calling about, I am disgusted and appalled.” It provided instant, usable copy in any political story: “veteran Labor MP X- Y- reacted with fury to the news that ….”

Availability was especially important to the kind of teams I played for — uncompetitive social teams of friends and acquaintances. I think that such teams are more common in England than in Pakistan. They are especially popular among writers, journalists, artists, and actors (the Authors versus the Stage was one of the major social matches of the season before the First World War) and they are well represented in English literature. You can read about this kind of team in A G McDonnell’s England Their England, in Marcus Berkmann’s Rain Men, in Harry Thompson’s Penguins Stopped Play and (since nobody else is going to mention them) my own two novels, A Tale Of Ten Wickets and The Network. Such teams are especially vulnerable to last-minute dropouts and give many opportunities to emergency replacements.

For the same reason, a durable character actress I knew got lots of work in Hollywood movie as a substitute for bigger names. When a script arrived for her, she never read it but simply asked her agent: “do I have to get wet and do I have to ride a horse?” If the answer to both questions was “no” she took the part.

In my later years, availability gave me a nice little business as a “batting therapist”. My therapy consisted simply of bowling in nets at batsmen out of form. It was based on the theory that such batsmen need mediocre bowling to practice on — not too good (because that destroys fragile confidence) but not abysmal either (because that destroys concentration.) My stuff demanded just the right level of concentration and technique before the batsman could crash it into the far distance.

On my visits to Pakistan I have lectured occasionally to students and school children and have regular been asked for my view of the secret of cricket success.

I always tell them to be available. If you turn up on time at a match or a net, anything might happen afterwards and if it does not you will always get another opportunity at another match.

Many young players have taken this lesson to heart in Pakistan’s cricket history — particularly in the early years, when I hear of players making long hazardous journeys to get to a match.

And in recent times I have seen many young players weaving and wobbling through city traffic with their kitbags piled on to scooters and bicycles. And there always seems to be a regular supply of substitute fielders and net bowlers available at any match or practice session.

Pakistan’s cricket future will be in good hands so long as young people are willing to make the same effort to be “available.”

By special arrangement with ScoreLine, (www.scoreline.org)

Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2020