My insidethegames colleague Nick Butler is a decent sort, but he had me squirming this week with his column on cheating and the form of cricketing dismissal known as the “Mankad”.
After 40-odd years, I thought I had learnt to live with my shame, blotting it out, banishing it to the deepest recesses of my subconscious. Now, thanks to Nick, it has all come flooding back.
You see I too was a schoolboy Mankad perpetrator.
I must have been 11 or 12. It was an inter-house match at my preparatory school and we had been bowled out for an absurdly low total, fewer than 30.
In our ranks, though, we possessed that rare and priceless commodity: a pre-growth-spurt leg-spin bowler. He duly reduced our bamboozled opponents to about 20 for eight.
This was a pleasant surprise, yet we were still only a couple of big hits away from defeat.
It was at this point, while trundling through some of the overs our star “leggie” was unable to bowl, that I noticed how the latest tail-ender was backing up rather a long way down the pitch.
And the rest, as they say, was ignominy.
It was much too long ago to recall accurately what I was thinking.
Did I know enough about the game to recognise that a prior warning would probably have been in order?
Did I realise that what I had done was legal albeit frowned-upon?
I can’t remember.
Was my action in any way a reflection of my trying to work out where I fitted in following a transfer from the state education sector, where a more aggressive, dog-eat-dog take on the world might have been more acceptable than in these more privileged surroundings?
Perhaps that’s what my shrink would have said, though it smacks too much of post-rationalisation.
What I do recall, with Proustian clarity, is the guilt.
This assailed me for what seems like months, but was probably days.
I could not have felt worse had I run over the neighbour’s cat.
What amazes me is that this sense of guilt remains so potent on the rare occasions that the episode does come to mind (thanks Nick), even though I would not now classify my misdemeanour as all that heinous.
A lively will to win is, after all, a pretty desirable life-skill, even if it pays to temper it to prevailing social mores.
What probably disappoints me most about the comportment of 11-year-old me is that I opted for an easy path to victory, rather than backing myself to complete the over unscathed and our team to come out on top via a couple more devilishly disguised googlies.
I also think there is something profoundly English about a deed that is both legal and, to some, little short of reprehensible.
How else would someone have come up with the phrase, “It’s just not cricket”?
Contrast the English establishment’s view of the Mankad, to the American way.
As Nick mentioned, there is nothing remotely questionable about a baseball pitcher throwing out a batter who strays too far from the base s/he is supposed to be occupying.
What Nick didn’t say is that the process of stealthily moving from first to second, or second to third, while the pitcher is preoccupied with his pitch, is known as “stealing” a base.
Even though that cat-and-mouse process is now an entirely legitimate part of the game, a residue of the disreputable persists in the use of that verb.
Going back to the Mankad, it seems to me that the reason it is still widely seen as a low blow has to do with anticipation: once the bowler has reached a certain point in his action, everyone anticipates that the ball is about to be hurled in the direction of the batsman.
The non-striker, for example, might reasonably start to venture down the pitch towards his team-mate in anticipation of a scoring stroke, even if he can’t pick up the flight of the ball, and even if he was legally stationed within his ground at the moment when the delivery would normally have been released.
What is not in doubt, with short-form cricket ever more dominant, is that a law permitting the Mankad in some form is needed; without it, the extent of backing up by non-striking batsmen would quickly reach abusive proportions.
But is there an argument for the present Law to be tweaked such that a Mankad may only be effected before the bowler enters her delivery stride, rather than before completing it?
Video technology could presumably help to police the practice - albeit probably not at most prep school house matches.
Thankfully, not all my week was this hellish; I also stumbled upon a work of sporting fiction that actually cuts the mustard.
This is a rare enough occurrence to be worth shouting from the rooftops.
The problem with sports fiction is summed up in the commentator’s cliché, “You couldn’t make it up”.
The extraordinary happenings and coincidences that make live sport so compelling for a large proportion of the world’s population usually seem lame when somebody is “making it up”.
Yes, the plot-line in Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding does involve the semi-believable transformation of a traditionally hopeless team into a bunch of world-beaters, or at least college-beaters.
But the machinations of the plot, the descriptions of sport and everything else are so carefully observed and precise that the besetting problem of sports fiction is overcome as much as it is really possible to do so.
I wasn’t overly sold on the strangely macabre ending, but once I had got over my initial shock at realising the book was about baseball and not cricket, I found myself starting to see this fine game in a new light, in much the same way as with the (factual) tennis essay in David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
Particularly impressive was that the baseball dénouement in Harbach’s novel hinged not on some fairy tale bases-loaded home run, or no hitter, but on an action that is psychologically exactly what you would expect the character of Henry Skrimshander, short-stop extraordinaire, to do.
Part of the story concerns what happens when Skrimshander gets what I would call the Yips – a facet of sport that has always intrigued me.
The Yips occur when an athlete whose effectiveness depends on muscle memory, on being able to repeat an action, or specialised series of actions infallibly and almost unthinkingly, suddenly finds, bafflingly and for no apparent reason, that s/he can no longer do so.
It is different from the loss of “bottle” that can afflict performers in sports where significant courage is required, such as boxing or jumps racing.
Typical sufferers might include artful slow bowlers at cricket, darts players, or in this case, a baseball short-stop.
Through the relentless moulding of Skrimshander by Mike Schwartz, the obsessive team leader with wrecked knees – a schooling process made out to be at once generous and selfish - Harbach shows painstakingly how becoming a top athlete entails turning yourself into a machine, a sort of robot imbued with mechanical reliability.
What struck me like a shaft of light was the realisation that getting the Yips, however bewildering and demoralising the experience, could consequently be seen as the reassertion of the athlete’s humanity.
Very much recommended.