Coach of an Under 14A cricket side, I was doing duty as umpire thirty years ago, during a match in which we had just lost our sixth or seventh wicket. Victory was impossible and with an hour to go, a draw improbable. New to the crease was a youngster shaking with nervousness, bat gripped tightly, legs unsteady under him.
In the few seconds before the next ball was delivered, I attempted to calm him, told him just to do his best. Each time we found ourselves at the same end, I encouraged him, while ensuring that he knew that he had to do no more than defend his wicket.
Very slowly, as the overs passed, I nodded approvingly, seeing muscles relax and nerves replaced by a quiet calm and determination, as his movements to the ball gradually became deliberate and decisive. At the end of the hour he was only 19* but unbeaten and we had saved the game.
I do not know that I ever taught this boy much in the classroom but I believe that if he happens to read this article, he will remember the occasion and the hour in which he learned the warm feeling which comes from contributing bravely to a team cause, the value of a fighting spirit and undemonstrative determination and the glow of achievement in meeting a challenge and conquering it.
Perhaps as a schoolboy, one is more concerned with internationals and famous men than with mere schoolboys and schools cricket. With the wisdom and discernment that comes with age, schoolboy cricket, for someone appreciative of the true and finer values of cricket, as I hope I am, has long been the preferred option.
Other than involvement in schools cricket as a player, coach, umpire and spectator, I was fortunate enough to have a son talented at the game, so for more than a decade, Saturdays meant watching him beneath the mountain in Cape Town, sometimes on the very patch of ground where once stood my great, great grandfather’s house. Later, it was on school fields across Wales and England, where his school ground stood next to the Severn with the ancient cathedral, majestic in the background, a place where one could peer over the hedge at proceedings on the Worcester county ground, on which Don Bradman began three consecutive tours of England with a double century. Another day we might be at Christ College Brecon in Wales, a beautiful, green bowl, framed by the lush hills of Brecon, or at Oxford, playing on a pitch a few metres from the track on which Roger Bannister ran the first four minute mile. Travelling to his matches was truly a labour of love.
Gone are the days when devoted cricketers eked out a living in county, or even test cricket over thirty or more years, looking for menial work in winter to make ends meet. These were ordinary people whose ordinariness lent so much greater worth to their most deserving exploits. They have been replaced by strutting media darlings, warped by bodies such as the Indian Premier League, which guarantees riches but demands neither humility nor ability. Schools cricket remains unsullied by the avalanche of commercialism and greed at the higher levels of the game.
There is a quiet calmness about schoolboy cricket. It is uplifting to walk, early, the gentle curve of the boundary at Wynberg Boys’ High under a brilliant blue sky, the vitality of the morning still in the air, a soft breeze barely touching the trees, listening to the excited chatter of schoolboys at the beginning of a long day in the sun, gambolling like lambs between overs. In the stillness, the crack of bat on ball sounds as an echo, clean and crisp. Movement and sound seem magnified by the peacefulness.
The day draws to its close, the light is mellow and shadows gather, as the game moves gracefully to its conclusion in front of tired parents who have faithfully stayed the course, others arriving to view the finish on a glorious summer evening, before returning home in a car filled with the incidents of the day, their child, skin suffused with the heat of his energies, recounting excitedly the successes and disappointments of a day well spent.
Here there are no parking problems, no ugly pursuit of money, which runs through so much of professional sport, no sledging, noise is muted and the crowds are thin. Instead, there is the chance to see and appreciate talent of the future and share the joy and excitement of innocent boys in quietly beautiful places. What pleasure I have enjoyed, slowly strolling the field’s perimeter, stopping briefly at the sightscreen to observe whether a boy really can swing or spin the ball. Then, resuming my patrol , a light breeze, cooling skin warmed by sunshine, a wind carrying scents redolent of peace and tranquility and all the while, the privilege of watching the greatest game of all, played in serene surrounds, in the manner that surely, it was meant to be played.