One sunny afternoon on the school playing fields in 1982, the nine-year old me came face to face with my Dad. In a father-son relationship that where we stuck firmly to the old rules of stiff upper lips and unspoken affection (unspoken but undoubtedly there, on both sides), cricket was often the medium through which we communicated. It remained that way too: along, later, with politics it was a way into a conversation where we could communicate warmly, passionately even, without the discomfort of breaking the relationship’s masculine code. We both knew, I think, that this is how we expressed our affection and we accepted it.
It was the summer term, some time in July and drifting into the joyous last few days of the school year. The nine-year old me walked to the wicket, the thumping of my heart almost drowning out the cheers and cries of encouragement from the boundary edge. I don’t think I’d ever had that level of attention and it suddenly made me so self-conscious I remember becoming aware of how I walked, a movement that suddenly felt complex and mechanical. I made it to the wicket, however, and took guard in the annual fathers v sons match. The umpire confirmed my Viv Richards-inspired leg stump guard, I tapped a mark with my bat and looked up to see my Dad at the end of his run.
It was rare to see my Dad at a school event. He worked hard to provide for his seven children and this meant long hours that were incompatible with coming to school events in the middle of the day. But this was a special occasion. Mum had bought a picnic and a summer dress. While other Dads on the team wore jeans, tracksuits and trainers, my Dad was in his whites. We were doing this properly.
I tapped my bat behind my right foot. It was a size 4 Gunn & Moore, my first bat. This was my chance to show what I could do, to prove that my reputation was deserved, to make my first dent in the Oedipal armour.
Dad bowled off-spin. I watched him begin his familiar, curved trot to the wicket, left shoulder dipping slightly, before a short delivery stride and a surprisingly delicate pivot on his left toes. I saw the ball. It hung in the air. So slow, so hittable. I swung as hard as I ever had, the shouts of ‘Go on, Nick, show your Dad!’ and ‘Six! Six! Six!’ translating into a surge of adrenaline. It was the showdown they’d all been waiting for. Father and son. Master and apprentice. Patriarch and pretender. Villain and hero.
I remember as I swung my bat with vigorous abandon being aware that the expected moment of impact had come and gone. There was that awful moment between missing the ball and hearing it hit the stumps when you manage to generate a nanosecond of optimism before the devastating sound of leather on ash crashes through your hopes. As disbelief, injustice, embarrassment and shame all leapt upon me, I hoped I had heard wrong. I looked round; I hadn’t. I hoped for a call of no ball; there was none. I hoped for the ground to swallow me up; it did not.
My devastation was immediate and, I learned later, so was my Dad’s. Always competitive but never unkind, always willing to put his own needs second in order see his children succeed, my Dad had thrown up a ball of such innocuous gentleness that it would have been easier to hit than miss. This was not a devilish off-break, this was a selfless offering from father to son, a delivery designed to ensure the moment belonged to me, not to him.
It may have been a 30-yard boundary but it was still far too far away. The tears prickling my eyes would not be swallowed away. I looked only at the ground until I could slump down on the picnic rug on the boundary’s edge, listening to the jeers and boos continuing to be directed at my Dad. These made me feel better – and worse.
Those who did not know the game called foul at the paternal ruthlessness but even at that tender age, I knew it was my fault. I had got carried away and I had gone for glory.
So it was that my Dad, the who had tried to communicate his affection for me through that most gentle of deliveries, now had to listen to the boos from the boundary and watch his son walk off in angry tears. He prepared to bowl his next ball, utterly crestfallen.