1990. As an off season change of pace, I join the local cricket club. I plan to enjoy a very pleasant, relaxed, low-key summer. Our squad is an eclectic mix. It features several skilled, crafty veterans, a pair of young, talented Kiwis, and assorted filler, of which I am one.
Cowichan CC is a delightful group to be part of. The ten-team Vancouver Island league is just strong enough to satisfy the competitive urges of our top players. The rest of us chip in as best we can, enjoying the craic, fielding with enthusiasm, occasionally getting to bat or bowl. The banter flows, while the beer is always cold.
Out of nowhere comes the unexpected. In August and early September, the team gets on a hot streak, rattling off a series of unlikely victories. The bowlers take wickets, catches are held, batted balls find gaps in the outfield. At longish odds, we capture our zone title. The prize is a trip to Vancouver, and storied Brockton Oval, where we will play for the prestigious Tomalin Cup. Brockton CC, the mainland winner, is a serious foe. Prohibitive favourites, they sport a roster full of experience and talent.
It is a bright and breezy Saturday morning. The Oval is situated in picturesque Stanley Park, inland from the walking path along the seawall, just away from Burrard Inlet, the beaches, magnificent gardens and dense forest. No less an authority than Sir Donald Bradman, an Aussie and merely the greatest batsman of all time, had labelled it as “surely the prettiest pitch in the world.”
The game begins. Unfortunately, there is nothing pretty about our play. Wickets fall at an alarming rate. Runs are hard to come by. Any thoughts I have about a lazy couple of hours, feet up in the pavilion, are quickly squashed. I will need to bat.
Rather too quickly it is my turn. One improbable triple digit score notwithstanding, I have little form as a batsman, and even less technique to fall back on. Instead, I am a bottom of the order slogger, relying on decent hand-eye coordination, slashing at every delivery. Then hoping for the best.
We do not notice, but ominously, the weather begins to change. A metaphor perhaps, but storm clouds gather as I take guard at the crease.
The opposition bowler is no slouch. He is an English import and a county level representative. Tall and rangy, he barrels down the track, lets the ball fly with considerable malice. It moves much faster than anything I have ever faced, 160 grams of hard, dense cork material covered by high quality red leather. Before I can even lift my bat, the ball literally rockets just over middle stump before slamming into the wicket keeper’s gloves.
The next delivery is even more intimidating. 135 kilometers an hour. It comes right at me, rearing off the hard-packed matting like a heat seeking missile. I twist away in panic, feel the ball graze the cage on my helmet. Much too close.
I pretend to dig in once again, but without any real belief. A pit forms in my stomach. I have no defensive maneuvers, no ability to just block the ball. Or evade it.
Ball number three is again pitched short. It lifts sharply, then smashes into my ribs. It hurts. So much for cricket’s supposedly gentlemanly traditions. The fielders are disappointed. They have crept in close, hoping for an easy catch from a despairing deflection.
The scene plays out three more times, until my tormentor finishes his allotted six balls. Variously I swipe impotently, duck desperately or pray fervently.
Finally, the over is mercifully complete. I am now at the non-striker’s end. But my brain is still frazzled, all rational decision-making processes fully compromised. My partner nudges a ball towards mid-on. He rashly calls for a single. Stupidly, in a haze, I make my way down the wicket. I am run out by a good fifteen feet.
Our innings ends soon after. And then, following the tea break, so does Brockton's, as the heavens open and the rain sheets down. The game goes in the books as a draw.
I find a quiet corner of the changing room. I have been humbled. I am also jealous, jealous of the best players who always look so poised. They have time. Time on the ball. Time to decide. Time to move.
By way of contrast, the psychologists would have a field day with me. They could bang away about the need to “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” This is popular sporting jargon, words cobbled together to advertise resilience under pressure, to advocate fighting through adversity.
Alas, today at least, I am at the other end of the spectrum. First a jittery mess, then frozen, purely in survival mode.
The comfort zone. If truly a living, breathing thing, it proves elusive.