Little Boy Lost

The opportunity to play professional sport is granted to few.

This is the deal: You can carry on doing into adulthood something you've loved since you were old enough to walk and you will get paid for it. Unlike your friends you will not need to concern yourself with which university to go to, or how much money you will end up owing a student loan company, or how you will find a job with your meagre handful of qualifications.

That can wait.

If you can play cricket really well, while your friends are shuffling to their offices, shops and factories through the greasy English winter streets, barely awake in the half-light, you will be abroad. You will be travelling and playing your sport among the shimmering sunlit cities of Australia or the majestic beauty of New Zealand, or amid the palm fronds and azure seas of Sri Lanka or the West Indian islands.

And you will receive adulation for doing it. People will love and admire and applaud you for what you can do, even if, to you, it is nothing exceptional or unusual. It is simply what you do best.

Playing professional sport at the top is as good as life can get.

Nothing in life is perfect, though. Even this wonderful existence has its downsides. The fact that millions of people watch you doing your job can be one of these. If you have a bad day everyone knows about it. People you don't know, have never met, with whom you have little in common, will tell you what they think of you. At the worst, people's perceptions of you can be coloured for as long as you live.

Matthew Syed's thought-provoking book Bounce contains, among many other things, a chapter which examines some of the worst examples of choking under pressure that sport has seen, and explores the reasons why they happened: they include Greg Norman at Augusta, 1996, and Jana Novotna at Wimbledon, 1993. There are others. Until a couple of days ago, one example from the recent history of English cricket stood out: Scott Boswell's over soon after the start of the 2001 Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy final.

Then came Simon Kerrigan.

It's hard to imagine that Kerrigan had any idea until shortly before the match started that he would be playing in the most important match of his life, in front of the largest crowd of his career, with a group of people who, with just a few exceptions, he knew only from television. In this he was an innocent throwback to the age when underprepared, uneasy, inadequate, debutants were ten-a-penny in England teams.

His early overs were shocking, partly because of their sheer technical incompetence but also because everything you'd read and heard from those who'd seen him, and, more importantly, played with him, was that he was a confident, tough, aware, bowler.

But apparent confidence can be skin deep. Sudden fame and the eyes of millions can do strange things to people. From the time he began to turn his arm over Simon Kerrigan will always have been able to bowl well, and his first two overs in Test cricket were probably the worst he will ever have bowled. He will have wondered, silently, what was happening to him. He will have wanted to be elsewhere. Back playing with his mates, back playing for Lancashire, at Old Trafford or Aigburth, with the sun on his back and the ball coming out right without thought or effort.

Kerrigan had the demeanour of a little boy lost, and, until he gets the chance to redeem himself, this is the memory which too many people will retain. In England's age of tolerant, enlightened, consistent selection, there must be the hope that he will be persisted with, or at least, if he goes back to Lancashire and continues to take wickets, returned to. But such was the level of his stagefright, the concern is that even among the England management, his card will have been firmly marked.

If he gets another chance to bowl at Australia's batsmen in the next few days, the pressure will be even greater. He will know that a good many people, even if they are hoping otherwise, will be expecting him to fail. It will be up to him to confound their expectations, and, possibly, his own.

If he fails to do so - or if he doesn't get the chance - Simon Kerrigan could easily join the ranks of those England players - John Stephenson, and Joey Benjamin, and Allan Wells, among others, can tell the tale - who played their only game at The Oval and were never seen again.

Which would be very, very sad.


Anonymous said...

Brian, I've not seen the likes before on an international cricket field. Good to see that Kerrigan is back taking wickets and bowling maidens for Lancs.

Interested in whether you think Cook handled it as well as he could have done.


Brian Carpenter said...

I thought it was all very sad - which probably comes through in the piece, although I wasn't all that happy with it.

It's very hard to judge Cook as I wasn't there (and didn't even see it live on TV). Obviously it could be argued that he should have given Kerrigan more overs, but that was always going to be a difficult call after the first two, and he was still going at four an over when he came back on, which wasn't what England wanted from a front-line bowler. With the way the Australian second innings panned out I don't think he was ever an option.

Those at the ground might know whether Cook put an arm round him (literally or metaphorically), although most of the work to rebuild his confidence would have gone on behind the scenes, via Flower and, perhaps especially, Saker. It would be interesting to know what Mike Brearley might have done.

A regrettable sign of the times, but it was very annoying that both Kerrigan and Woakes were instantly written off as sub-standard, both on Twitter and by certain members of the 'established' media. Those with little knowledge of the county game seemed to have no idea that Woakes could bat (as if hitting Brett Lee for six on your ODI debut wasn't enough).

Interesting to see what the future holds for both. I've always liked Woakes but a long Test career? Probably not. However, if Swann retires post-Australia and Monty's still struggling, who else, apart from Kerrigan, is there?

The hunch is that he'll be seen again for England, but if he thought the pressure was on this time...

Anonymous said...

I was there, which doesn't necessarily mean one has the fullest idea of what is going on, psychologically or otherwise. There was a complete absence of visible captaincy fuss, whether supportive of Kerrigan or designed minimise damage to the scoreboard. It looked to me as if this was someone so shocked by being asked to bowl for England that he couldn't even start his run up in the normal place (at least, I assume he doesn't normally try to bowl of two and half walking paces). Nor did this get noticeably better when he returned for another try. He had apparently forgotten how to bowl, except in general outline. In fact, his "muscle-memory" of his own usual method of bowling had completely deserted him, leaving only the outline available. This didn't look retrievable, and it was not surprising when he didn't get a bowl in the second innings. Sad isn't a sufficient description.

Brian Carpenter said...

Thanks, Anon.

You bring home just how bad it was, and I wouldn't like to bet on whether he'll ever get another chance. I suspect he'd be unsure whether he wants one or not.

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