Many thanks again to Will Luke at The Corridor, who pointed me in the direction of an excellent interview with the former Durham and England Under-19 batsman Michael Gough at Patrick Kidd's blog for The Times, Line and Length. Gough retired from the game at the end of the 2003 season, aged 23, and is now hoping to forge a new career as a first-class umpire.
As with most players who come out of the England junior ranks, I kept a close eye on Gough over his first few (and, as it turned out, only) seasons in county cricket. As Kidd explains, he had some initial success, going on an England 'A' tour in 1999-2000, and reached a peak in 2002, when he averaged over fifty in first-class cricket. But it was never enough.
With admirable candour Gough stated that he never enjoyed playing cricket for a living and was constantly thinking 'there has to be more to life than this'. Elsewhere in the interview, though, he emphasized how much he loves the game. This apparent paradox set me thinking.
When you watch county cricketers going through the motions, perhaps towards the end of the season, you sometimes find yourself wondering how many of them really enjoy what they're doing. And, if they do enjoy it, whether their enjoyment is suffused by the kind of emotional bond with the game that is customary to those of us who spend most of our waking hours following it. The answer, of course, is probably not, because, for all county pros, the game is their job. If and when they ever stop to think about it, most - at least those with enough runs or wickets under their belt to secure their next contract - would probably say that they enjoy what they're doing and are aware of how lucky they are, but you'd expect them to stop short of saying that they genuinely love the game. You tend to feel that those that enter the professional environment with an authentic love of the sport soon feel it wane under the remorseless pressure of earning their living from it. Which in turn may mean that those who stand the best chance of coping with those pressures are those who were a bit more ambivalent about it all to start with. Those who only ended up playing cricket for a living because they were good at it and it was always going to be more fun than working in an office or driving a van.
With all this said, though, one of the things which is drummed into you by youth coaches when you talk to them about young players and whether they'll 'make it' or not, is that it's very difficult indeed to sustain a professional career in any sport, and only those that really 'want it' (as well, of course, as having the necessary level of basic ability) will even make it to the bottom rung of the ladder.
The answer, I suppose, is to want it like hell until you get there but then be able to cope with the disappointment of it all being a bit more mundane than you expected. A bit, I suppose, like adult life.
Professional cricket clearly didn't suit Gough and he should be given credit for recognising this while he was young enough for it to be easy for him to switch his focus and still stay in the game.
He deserves to succeed and it'll be interesting watching him try.