The masochism of 'what if...' and cricket winter nets | Jack Marshall's column

Nothing captures the essence of cricket quite like winter nets. The new season is still all fatal optimism as you blow away the cobwebs with wickets and runs on the mind. It’s wonderfully naive.

By Jack Marshall
Monday, 7th March 2022, 4:55 am
Updated Friday, 1st April 2022, 4:13 pm

An old wives’ tale has it that women forget the pain of childbirth because they’re primed on a fundamental and biological level to ignore the fact that it can be a hugely traumatic experience and thus have more babies. While this theory has been debunked, the paradigm nevertheless applies to cricket.

The brain forgets all evidence of previous cricketing failure despite the sport being imbued with trauma in its very spirit. The most individual of team sports, cricket toys with you. It’s an exercise in self-flagellation and in chasing the unattainable. It eats its young.

Cricket carries with it the faint whiff of masochism, the journey tortuous and the destination a mirage. The best thing in cricket? Top-scoring with 25 when your team gets bowled out for 80 in a heavy loss. You did your job, you’ll silently think. Says it all.

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Cricket: the sport of 'what if...?'

Why do we keep coming back? For moral support from grizzled 57-year-olds who have been part of the club longer than most other members have been alive? For the vicariousness of playing alongside 17-year-olds yet to be burned? No – cricket isn’t about others, it’s about the individual.

It’s a moreish pursuit of pointless buts, whats, and ifs. Which is why I was at winter nets recently facing the new overseas pace bowler who was about 40% faster than anything I’d ever faced before. Not fun, just scary and uncomfortable. No winning, just the chance to be embarrassed. Cricket.

Wrapped in pads carrying a light tang of September beer and sweat and with bat uncomfortable in my hands, my footwork was sluggish. My left leg was cramping up and I’d been hit in the gap between knee-roll and thigh-guard. An impressive bruise would blossom over the next week or so.

What’s the endgame? Well, to make it look easy without trying, but that’s impossible. You miss a ball, bat flailing, so you swear under your breath, saying stuff like ‘come on, you’re better than this’ (you’re not) and ‘switch on’ (you are, you’re just rubbish).

But what if this is my year?