Remove the cobwebs from your kit bag and get ready for the cricket season | Sports

TThe ball feels like a stranger in your hand. It’s been five months since you last twisted your arm? Are you sure you can still do this? The unused muscles in your back and shoulders stiffen in fear. You know this is going to hurt in the morning.

A slow breath. You try to remember the good times. They bring back memories of the sun-drenched five-fer day three seasons ago. You imagine this Jaffa defying the laws of nature and flying through the air before rising from the deck. You remember the out-of-body feeling of the moment after you produce something beautiful with your fingertips. The triumphant roar. The pats on the back. The loving smile from across the border.

So you tilt your head forward, force your cold limbs to follow, and begin a lumbering movement toward the goal line to release your first ball of the new year.

Winter nets perfectly reflect the dichotomy of cricket. An endless expanse of hope and promise immediately opens before you. Maybe this is the season when things finally click. Where your aging upper body manages to adapt to the demands of your brain. Where everything works as it should and you embark on a magical run that your kids will be eager to hear about. But maybe that workout in a rented school gym or on a damp field will confirm what you’ve long suspected. That your best days are just a speck in the hindsight. That your high water mark is now just a spot on the wall. That the call for greatness is a fading echo of what could have been if you had taken this game and yourself a little more seriously.

It is above all this start into the unknown that unites talented professionals and romantic amateurs. Because before the opening game begins in April, we are all more or less in the same boat.

“I think it’s a distinctly human thing to carry these two opposing emotions at the same time,” says Middlesex opening bowler Ethan Bamber, who along with three other teammates at Lord’s is a proud product of North Middlesex Cricket Club. “You just try to control both the excitement and the nervousness. You hope that you can repeat all the good things from the previous year and get rid of the bad things. It’s important to let yourself dream. I think we can all relate to that.”

The connection ends here. Bamber’s muscles twitch faster than at least 97% of the more than 350,000 registered cricketers at more than 5,000 clubs in England and Wales. And this isn’t a story about the frontrunners with their state-of-the-art equipment, on-demand physiotherapy and curated training camps in Dubai. This is about the rest of us at the base of the pyramid. In search of common themes linking trundlers in Taunton with sloggers in Staithes, I sent out a request for some anecdotes. The stories were provided by the seven WhatsApp club groups I belong to. And although the granular details were different, several through lines emerged.

A cricket kit that dries in the warmth you crave. Photo: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

There’s the classic story of the new guy with the gun. Sometimes this fit outsider comes from a rival club, often from Australia or South Africa, and promises runs and wickets. They look fantastic in winter nets. All flashing blades and whirring arms. You’ll know they have a lead by the sound the ball makes from their racket or the way it hits the net behind you. Except you’ve seen this before. One message said: “Nine times out of ten they either never play or they turn out to be a bit shit.”

To be fair, it’s a lot easier to look like a prospect in February and March. Most likely you will be bowling indoors on a hard and stable surface. This is as close as you’ll ever get to the lightning fast strip found at the Wanderers or old Waca. But that doesn’t stop you from arching your back and performing jumps you could never do on grass.

Not that anyone is complaining. You’re not fast enough to shake your helmet, and your mere presence is a bonus for the captains who have begun their six-month practice of herding cats toward ovals. At least you’re not that guy Player who arrives late, gets up and scores a quick hit before spending the rest of the session making off-color comments.

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You look around and spot omnipresent characters: the gnarled veteran with a nickname like “The Reverend,” who hasn’t acted in 30 years but is still present; the talented young man who has not yet realized that he needs to find another career; the badger with the custom-made bat and strange technology; the stroke maker from New Zealand; the frightening speed from Pakistan; the Canadian who can hardly get hold of the ball at the other end but is available for every away game.

They all combine to form a winter net where your back begins to strain and your toes begin to cramp. That didn’t go according to plan. They bowled cakes and hit them with something that resembled a wet fish. Maybe this isn’t your year after all? “Nonsense,” you say to yourself on the way to the bar. Anything is possible until the first game in April.

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