Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Sporting life: Would I have been a better cricketer had I not taken a break in my twenties?

In today's professionalised game, players don't have the freedom I had to take several years out of my career
July 19, 2023

In my book Turning Over the Pebbles: A Life in Cricket and in the Mind, I quote the American psychoanalyst Salman Akhtar’s response to a question about whether a person who has been helped by treatment for his emotional difficulties could be indistinguishable from a person who never had them. Akhtar offered an analogy: imagine, he says, two beautiful vases on a shelf. A wind gets up and blows one off. That vase cracks into pieces. It is carefully and skilfully put back together so that it looks almost identical to the one that didn’t get blown off, but has traces of cracks. But this vase knows something that the other vase doesn’t know. It knows what it is to go through difficulties and recover.

I have often wondered whether the analogy applies to sportspeople like me, who took time out from professional sport in order to pursue other things. Would I have been better at cricket had I not taken several years out in my twenties? Did cracks in my technique develop that needed repairing? Or did taking my path enable other strengths to emerge that would not have done so without this interruption? 

It’s impossible to know. But perhaps there are things to be said. 

I signed up as a professional cricketer in July 1964, immediately after four years playing for my university as an undergraduate. For the next 15 months, I continued as such. In the English winter between 1964 and 1965 I was a young hopeful in the last tour, organised by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), of apartheid South Africa.

In 1965, aged 23, I gave up this potential career and went back to Cambridge to start a PhD. In 1966 I got a research assistant position at a branch of the University of California, Irvine, in southern Los Angeles. In the middle of this academic year, I captained the MCC under-25s in Pakistan. I returned to Los Angeles via brief but memorable stays in India, Nepal, Cambodia, Hong Kong and Tokyo. In the following year I was appointed lecturer in philosophy at  Newcastle University, where I taught for almost three years, before resigning to take up an offer to return to cricket, this time to captain Middlesex, in 1971.

Nowadays, promising schoolboy cricketers are invited to choose a full-time contract with a county instead of getting a degree

I had played a few matches for Middlesex (first and second teams) over the previous five years, but only after the summer term, and I only put myself forward when it suited me. I had also played half a season for Cambridgeshire, plus two part-seasons for Percy Main in the Northumberland League. 

Looking back, I see I was quite casual about cricket at this time. It had felt like an agreeable hobby. On one occasion, for example, I went on holiday in Provence and Italy for two weeks or more: returning on a Monday, I found a letter inviting me to play for Middlesex against Lancashire at Lord’s two days later. I was to open the batting. I asked Mike Smith, my fellow opener, what Peter Lever and Ken Shuttleworth did with the ball: “Not much swing,” he said. The first ball from Lever swung away, and beat my outside edge. The second took the outside edge. Mike said, apologetically, that you never know what these cunning fast bowlers will come up with next! 

Nowadays, promising schoolboy cricketers are invited to choose a full-time contract with a county at the age of 19 instead of getting a degree. A commitment to cricket rather than a flirtation! Alastair Cook, for one, decided against studying at Durham, signing for Essex. By the age of 21 he was playing for England. A cricketing generation earlier, Mike Atherton made the more traditional choice, studying at Cambridge.

Like other sports, cricket has become radically more professional over the past 60 years. When I started, a number of talented sportsmen could divide play between both cricket and football. Most famous were the Compton brothers, who played for Arsenal until late April, and Middlesex for the next five months. This would not be possible now. In my youth, it was considered unnecessary—even pretentious—to own a tracksuit or do physical training.

Now, early and ongoing specialisation has become de rigueur. Counties have academies for the young; they have more than one coach; professional players are on year-long rather than summer-only contracts. Every county has digital aids to technique; every player has dietary and training disciplines. Players are more observed. There is a sense that team spirit requires constant bonding.

When I started, a number of talented sportsmen could divide play between both cricket and football.

In his famous book Beyond a Boundary, CLR James asks, alluding to a question posed by Rudyard Kipling: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” There is much in this sentiment, but getting the balance right is not easy. On one side we risk narrow single-mindedness, on the other, dilettantism.

In my case, I was slow to develop a reliable batting technique. I never committed to a single coach or mentor, nor did I work sufficiently hard to remove flaws. 

For instance, it took me years to get out of an early habit of playing “inside out” (that is, the bat going from leg-side towards the off-side). And I was rarely able to relax into a less tense, less stiff-upper-lip kind of courage against the best fast bowlers. Nor did I ever quite work out how to score against them, even if I could stay in; I never fully grasped the importance of transferring weight onto the front foot, so that quicker bowlers would have to worry about being driven.

On the other hand, CLR James had a point. How much did I learn about teams from outside cricket? How much more comfortable did I become as a result of my life experience in other contexts? Did I come back to cricket fresher after my time away? Was I able, as a captain at least, to be more open to experimentation? (I remember being told by the Middlesex chair of selectors that one player complained that I put fielders in funny positions; but then admitted that, amazingly, the ball kept going to them!)

I don’t regret my years out of cricket. I do regret not doing more about my technique. But I’m not sure I’d have managed it much better, had I been a contracted cricketer for those formative years.