Dusting off kitbag cobwebs and limbering up for the cricket season

<span>A member of Slough CC searches for a ball at the Indian Gymkhana Cricket Club in July 2020.</span><span>Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty Images</span>
A member of Slough CC searches for a ball at the Indian Gymkhana Cricket Club in July 2020.Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty Images

The ball feels like a stranger in your hand. It’s been, what, five months since you last turned your arm over? Are you sure you still can? Those unused muscles in your back and shoulders stiffen with apprehension. You know this is going to hurt in the morning.

A slow breath. You try to remember the good times. You conjure up the memories of that sunlit five-fer from three seasons back. You visualise that jaffa that defied nature’s laws to arc through the air before straightening off the deck. You recall the out-of-body sensation the moment after you produce something beautiful from the tips of your fingers. The triumphant roar. The pats on the back. The loving smiles from beyond the boundary.

So you lean your head forward, compel your cold limbs to follow, and begin a clunky trundle towards the crease to deliver your first ball of the new year.

Winter nets perfectly capture cricket’s dichotomy. At once an endless expanse of hope and promise opens before you. Perhaps this is the season where it finally clicks. Where your ageing torso manages to twist to the demands of your brain. Where everything works as it should and you go on a magic run that your kids will beg to hear about. But maybe this training session inside a rented school gym or on some soggy field confirms what you’ve long suspected. That your best days are but a speck in the rearview. That your high-water mark is now just a stain on the wall. That the call to greatness is a fading echo of what might have been had you taken this game, and indeed yourself, just a little more seriously.

More than anything it is this launch into the unknown that unites gifted professionals and romantic amateurs. Because before the start of that inaugural game in April, we’re all, more or less, in the same boat.

“I think it’s a distinctly human thing to carry both of those contrasting emotions at the same time,” says Ethan Bamber, the Middlesex opening bowler who, along with three other teammates at Lord’s, is a proud product of North Middlesex Cricket Club. “You’re just trying to control that excitement as well as the nerves. You’re hoping you can replicate all the good stuff from the previous year and get rid of the bad stuff. It’s important to let yourself dream. I think we can all relate to that.”

That’s where the connection ends. Bamber’s muscles twitch faster than at least 97% of the more than 350,000 registered cricketers in more than 5,000 clubs across England and Wales. And this is not a story about those at the top tier, with their state-of-the-art equipment, on-demand physios and curated training camps in Dubai. This is about the rest of us at the base of the pyramid. So, in search of common themes linking trundlers in Taunton with sloggers in Staithes, I sent out a request for some anecdotes. Stories were supplied by the seven club WhatsApp groups I’m a part of. And though the granular details were different, several throughlines emerged.

There’s the classic tale of the “gun” new signing. Sometimes from a rival club, often from Australia or South Africa, this toned maverick arrives with the promise of runs and wickets. In winter nets they look like a dream. All flashing blade and whirring arms. You can tell they’re a cut above by the sound the ball makes off their bat or as it thwacks into the netting behind you. Except you’ve seen this before. As one message read, “Nine times out 10 they either never actually play or it turns out they’re a bit shit.”

To be fair, it’s far easier to look like a prospect in February and March. More than likely you’re bowling indoors on a surface that is hard and true. This is as close as you’ll ever get to the lightning quick strip that is found at the Wanderers or old Waca. But that doesn’t stop you from bending your back and unfurling bouncers you could never execute on grass.

Not that anyone’s complaining. You’re not fast enough to rattle any helmet and your mere presence is a bonus for those captains who have started their six-month practice of herding cats towards ovals. At least you are not the sort of player who arrives late, pads up and has a brief net before spending the rest of the session passing side-mouthed comments.

You look around and find ubiquitous characters: The gnarled veteran, with a nickname like “The Reverend”, who hasn’t played in 30 years but remains a constant presence; the talented youngster who hasn’t yet figured out that he will need to find another line of work; the badger with the bespoke bat and strange technique; the stroke-maker from New Zealand; the terrifying quick from Pakistan; the Canadian who can barely get the ball down the other end but will be available for every away game.

They all come together for a winter net where your back is starting to pinch and your toes are starting to cramp. This hasn’t gone according to plan. You’ve bowled pies and batted with something resembling a wet fish. Maybe this isn’t your year after all? “Nonsense,” you tell yourself as you make your way to the pub. Until that first game in April, anything is possible.