Not long ago, I fell into conversation with the cricket coach of a well-known public school. Naturally, I asked him how the season was progressing. He wrinkled his nose in displeasure. The results on the pitch were fine and dandy, he replied, but a worry had been the number of injuries suffered by his players. Not the usual breaks, bumps and bruises that energetic adolescent boys are prone to but muscle tears, soft tissue sprains and strains and, most disturbingly, a significant spike in the incidences of stress fractures of the lower spine. “Four,” he told me, “in the last two seasons.” To me, this sounded more like a medical bulletin from a professional club than Matron’s sick list at a school.
Perhaps the clue is to be found in that word ‘professional.’ Of course schoolboys are not professional cricketers but sometimes they behave, or are encouraged to behave, like one. I am aware that training, as opposed to practice, features much more heavily in the daily routine of current professional players than it ever did back in the 70s when I was playing for Hampshire. The merits of the shift in emphasis can be debated but that is not my point here. My concern is the physical and psychological welfare of schoolboys, adolescents who have not yet stopped growing, let alone completed their academic and social education. “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man,” Aristotle said, a maxim taken up by St Ignatius Loyola when he founded his Society of Jesus in the 16th Century. Which of us would truly desire our son to become a Jesuit? I know that prevailing orthodoxy insists that outstanding sporting talent should be identified and nurtured at a young age but cricketers? Far better they make up their own minds after leaving school, when they have had some exposure to the real world and all its choices, possibilities and vicissitudes.
My fear is that budding cricketers are over-trained, before their bodies have fully matured. Rugby is even more culpable in this regard. I hate to see adolescents in gyms, building up weight and muscle before their skeleton is ready to bear the load. The same danger besets the modern, young cricketer. So much emphasis is placed on power and strength these days that it is understandable that a young lad falls prey to the temptation that a bigger pair of shoulders will increase his chances of success. I refer not only to ‘strength and conditioning’ work but also to ceaseless net practice and game simulation indoors during the winter months. Surely it would be better for youngsters to be told to put away their cricket bag in the loft and await the new season before fetching it out again. Let them go off and play other games – football, rugby, hockey, squash, anything – so that they come back to their cricket in the spring, rejuvenated, refreshed and eager once more to get a bat and ball in their hands. Too much of a good thing can kill you.
Sometimes we need to be protected from ourselves. This same coach told me that he had to dissuade boys in his charge from overdoing it. “Please, Sir, can I have a net?” What, in November? He would send them away and encourage them to give the game a rest for a few months. Whether they were falling foul of their own enthusiasm or whether they were bending to pressure from their county coaches that they must show ‘commitment’ to the life of a county pro was difficult to determine. But he felt it was wrong, as do I, for young lads to be burdened with too much expectation and too much coaching before they are ready.
I remember a former pupil of mine, who was destined for a career in the game, explaining to me why he had abandoned his ambition, close to his heart since childhood. He said that he had been playing cricket continuously for 10 years – and that included winter training and nets – and felt that he needed a rest from the game when he left school. He went abroad on a gap year instead and for one reason or another, the dream faded. What a pity. What a waste. Fancy being all washed up and disenchanted with cricket at the age of 18! I know this is anecdotal evidence but I do wonder whether our coaches and administrators have got the balance of life skills and cricket skills right. The German philosopher Nietzsche never played cricket – more’s the pity – but he had a point when he observed, “The mother of excess is not joy but joylessness.”