Dexter to sinister, part 2

Today I attended a ‘live’ net session, that is, one with three bowlers bowling rather than one machine repeating. This, I reckon, is a greater test of my newly sinister stance than the indoor school’s bowling machine, as the margin of error increases by, well, 500-1000% in terms of line, and a greater amount in terms of length. It also adds great variation in pace, flight, spin, swing and action – it’s a right pain in the arse moving the machine from over to round the wicket, a tactic many right-arm bowlers use against lefties.

Bowling right arm over to a sinister beast pushes the ball across the body of the batsman. LBW is very hard to get, and the wider delivery is at greater risk of a slashing drive. Yes, nicking off to slip is more likely, but that is generally the result of greed rather than need. Right arm round jambs the ball into the batsman’s body, making it harder to open the shoulders to any shot. Yes, tickles off the thigh pad are more common, but a shorter ball is more likely to catch the gloves and bounce up off the arm, shoulder or lid. As ever, it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.

I batted twice. The first session was a mixed bag, and I was cleaned up by Jim the leg spinner a couple of times, playing round the ball. I did play some nice drives, however.

Two weeks ago I could barely play the pull shot, my most productive shot when right-handed. Now it’s vicious, as I not only seem to be able to time the shot better, but the strength of my right arm really unleashes. Because bowlers tend to have trouble adjusting their line, the ball on leg or wider is more common. Meat and drink.

It wasn’t merely spin today, as Tim, leading wicket taker in the division for a second year, was also netting. He’s quite nippy, and good fun to bat against. He struggled with his line a little in the first session, allowing me to work on the cut shot. Again, the strength of my top hand really came into play here. Very satisfying.

It was, as usual, my straight play which let me down. I still seem to be whipping across the line. Too much bottom hand – ironic considering why I’m switching …

It was the second session which changed everything. If you ignore the two beauts which Tim bowled when he got his line spot on, and the fine delivery from Jim which went past my outside edge and cut back to take out my leg stump, then it was a different story. I even drove quite fluently … in relative terms!

But the real eye-opener for me was the state of my bat at the end of the session. The marks on the blade are predominantly in the chunky middle. One defensive prod (a shot I rarely played right-handed) fairly pinged off the middle. So I’m seeing the ball quite well, it seems. I’ll work out why they’re mostly on the inside half of the middle soon enough.

But it’s progressing well. I still look clumsy sometimes, but the drives are coming on, and the cut and pull are almost weapons. But when one of our most talented batsman says he’s not only amazed how quickly I’ve adapted, but couldn’t do it himself, and one bowler quips that maybe I was left-handed all along, I have right to feel pleased.

Furthermore, it doesn’t kill my back now, and it’s feeling more and more comfortable. There is hope, I feel.

Unfortunately, only one more net before the operation. Then, well … not really looking forward to that, not one little bit.

Show and tell

When you’re diagnosed with a condition such as Parkinson’s, it changes things. It’s not the disease, because your physical condition doesn’t change as soon as those words are uttered – though with medical intervention symptomatic a certain amount of relief may come almost immediately – it’s that there is a label which can be attached to all manner of things.

In some ways, this is a great, great thing, because no longer do you blame yourself for certain idiocies that happen (my current difficulties with swallowing, or that ‘damn, everyone thinks I’m drunk because my left foot isn’t co-operating today’, for example), but can attach a label to it. Taking the reason out of the self does help.

Conversely, there is a tendency to begin to think of yourself in terms of disease. Certainly, the system sees you as a set of symptoms to be treated, or ignored, depending on circumstances. The modern world just loves putting you into a box, even though you’re never really going to fit into one. We’re far more complex than that, naturally, and resemble quite silly Venn diagrams more than boxes. Here, for example, is a (crap) Venn diagram of my physical self:

Pete exists in the tiny overlap in the middle, between cricketer, martial artist, PD sufferer, lover, shoulder, and gym goer …

this is obviously rather truncated, and will change as soon as my shoulder is operated on. The ratios will change, and, for example, cricketer, martial artist and gym goer will move from physical to potential or intellectual. Hopefully fucked shoulder will go too. I’ll probably add invalid to the mix. That leaves me as PD sufferer and lover. Oh. Er, moving swiftly on …

We don’t fit into the boxes that modern society wants. This is fine until we get a big box to be put in. No-one worries about the boxes until one thing turns up that effectively defines you to most everyone. PD becomes one of these things.

This may seem obvious, or perhaps irrelevant, but when it happens, you know about it. This is because we want to put ourselves in boxes too. It helps. But also it hinders, and any way that we can break out becomes very, very tempting.

During my last net at Hove, I was batting left-handed. Naturally. I was batting quite well, considering. I decided to play a switch-hit, that is, changing from left to right-handed as the bowler runs up. I did so. I bashed the ball mightily. I went back to left-handed. The coach taking the session next to my net remarked to the coach feeding the bowling machine that I batted pretty well right-handed for a lefty. He was quite surprised when told I was right-handed.

Now. Someone who didn’t know me naturally placed me in a box. Incorrectly, yes, but actually quite flattering. Were I to explain, I may or may not have to say, ‘I’ve got PD’ – it just depends on whether I was being falsely boxed.

Do I feel it’s better that someone puts me in the PD box, or the box they’ve chosen. If the former, I tell.

And telling somebody changes things.

Hard a port!

I’ve been rather unsure what to write today. If to write. Last night this happened:
I was particularly touched when a relation of mine indicated his suspicion that my sanity had recently become, well, compromised. It really is not the case. What’s happened is that certain great big gobs of reality have nestled themselves firmly in my bosom. I am not best pleased. I ought not be here, is the simple truth of the matter.aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
Now. That’s what you get for trying to write at 2.30am when your entire system is shutting down. The combination of insomnia and exhaustion makes sleep occur without happening – a slap around the face rather than the gentle caress of morpheus.
It’s tough to know how to follow so many consecutive vowels, though had they been the letter ‘e’ I might have made some quip about being all the vowels James Joyce was left with after finishing Ulysses.
What I really wanted to say was that yesterday, in some small, strange fashion, I managed a volte face of a rather interesting complexion.
One of the ‘things’ about this progressive, degenerative brain cock-up with which I am seemingly saddled is that it makes things change. Unexpected things change. Some of it’s the drugs, some the disease. Often these unexpected things are small things. But small things often have an impact disproportionate to their size, as well as quite regularly turning into big things while you’re not looking.
Shazam! Where the fuck did that elephant come from … and how the hell did it get into the bathroom?
All of this year I’ve struggled with two physical problems: my fucked shoulder; and my piteous left-hand grip. These problems have had many repercussions but have made my batting performances rather impressive, if you factor in the handicap. The top hand controls the shot, and the elbow should be high, the grip firm. The top hand is usually the left hand, so … a low elbow extension because of the exercise, and a feeble grip because of the PD. So most shots become rather weak, ill-directed. Concentration at a premium …
I am to have an operation on my shoulder in December to fix this type six slap tear. Minutes of fun. The rehab will pretty much end when the season begins. My grip will just become progressively worse.
Necessity is the mother of invention, or so they say. There is a way around it: switch to batting left-handed. Let’s face it, the switch-hit will be a breeze.
So, yesterday, I had my first net batting left-handed. And boy, was it ever weird. I played pretty straight.
As I packed up, smiling faces which had gently laughed at my less-than-fluid batting looked on in admiration as I explained.
I shall persevere … I just hope I can score runs …

It ain’t what you do …

At last, the great debate of modern music returns. In a recent Prospect, Kate Mossman bemoaned the lack of technical aptitude and its concomitant boundary-shaking in British music. Similarly, in the Observer, Nigel Kennedy railed against the passionless exposition of Bach by modern practitioners.

Mossman notes that the Americans, with their love for demonstrating the work they put into things, have no problem with learning an instrument, practising, getting bloody good at it, and then playing it. They have contemporary music schools like the Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles (of which, I must point out, I am an alumnus), which are directly vocational in approach – they give you the tools to be a professional musician. They wear their learning like a badge. We Englanders have always tended towards Castliglione’s concept of Sprezzatura: effortless brilliance. We are never happier than when a natural talent such as David Gower throws his wicket away wafting outside off stump because it is proof that he doesn’t practise, simply turn up and plays – when he got it right, no more elegant player. We love Cook because he scores runs aplenty, but he isn’t elegant, he works too hard. This is why we are so conflicted about Kevin Peterson. When at his peak he plays like Gower – all instinct, effortless grace and simple perfection. He takes risks and when it’s his day, they pay off. But KP works as hard if not harder than any other batsman. And we resent that. His hard work ought to make him a machine – admirable but dull.

The analogy of cricket and music may seem rather odd, but they share certain important characteristics. Well, mainly one. That’s timing.

I’m an avid, if not too skilled, cricketer – top score 78, which says it all. When I’m ‘in the zone’, I’m actually not a bad batsman. I was, when active, a bloody good guitar player. When I was in the zone, I could terrify people.

In cricket, the ball is like the note – when you’re in the zone, you know exactly where the centre is, and you can do whatever you want with it. The muscle memory from hours of practise pays dividends. You think sound, it comes out of your guitar – you think boundary, and that’s where the ball goes. If you think about the plectrum, or the fingering, or the note or chord, it may work, but it’s in spite of you – if you think of the shot, you run the risk of playing everything beautifully, but missing the ball.

Technique allows your knowledge to become real – your feeling to be made concrete.

Technique in itself is only one part of the battle, but it’s a vital part. And it ought not be forgotten that great technique allows for ‘simple’ music to be played beautifully, too. The astonishing album that Robert Plant and Alison Krause released a few years ago is a case in point. The musicians were utterly top-drawer. Not one of them was trying to prove anything to anyone. All the album consisted of was some great songs played by musicians who really appreciated both songs and band-mates. They were having a great time, simply being perfect. Effortlessly. All the effort had long since been expended, and all they were left with was music. And how.

Nigel is right about one thing (at least). Being too prescriptive about music is just dumb. The ‘authentic’ brigade may well produce good stuff, but to suggest that they know how the composer intended the music to sound is as daft as the ‘new bibliographers’ who sought to reconstruct the author’s intentions. Chances are the author didn’t know, either. I won’t even get onto Shakespeare.

Bach is, I feel, a special case. His music is so pure that it transcends instrumentalisation – it’s all about the player’s interpretation. For all Nigel’s efforts, Jimi Hendrix only really works on the electric guitar – and even then only when played by Hendrix himself. Hendrix played the instrument, his music came from his resources.

With Bach, it’s all about the music – the true instrument that Bach is played with is mankind.

 

They also serve

Were Mister Macawber a cricketer, he would have summed the game up thus: Home team 240, visitors 239 – result, happiness; Home team 240, visitors 241 – result, misery.

Our collective failure to observe the equation of Dickens’ most glorious N’erdowell may have led to the credit crunch, but the game of cricket resists such simple blandishments. I spent over an hour wondering about how to sum up a game with so many variables, and came up with this equation:

240 (xa x yb x zc) = μ

And this for a simple 40 over game in which the possible values attributable to each letter range between four and around thirty, making the ways of reaching μ unfathomably great. And μ can be a wicket or anything between 0 and 7 runs (inclusive). Rinse. Repeat.

It is truly the most perverse of games. The best of games the worst of games. A game which frustrates, cajoles, annoys, teases and sulks like a lover and still can happily provide no apparent joy to any of the players.

The platonic ideal of cricket is thirteen players on the field, a bright, warm Sunday afternoon with two teams indulging in good-natured competition watched by a smattering of people drinking beer and not really paying too much attention.

And yet sometimes the best games are played in the most inclement of conditions, where an astonishing and very English sense of togetherness can obtain from playing this most sunny of sports in the wet … united in chilly, clammy misery, unable to grip the ball, impossible to catch it, pretty difficult to hit it as it doesn’t so much bounce as skid. The water drips from your helmet visor, down your back, and you look at the rather expensive stick in your hand that is far better an implement than you deserve, wondering whether the water will ruin it. Then you walk back to the pavilion. Willingly.

And let’s not even think about gentlemanly play. So often the game is beset by miserable, sniping, insulting players who will happily berate the umpire with a spiky ‘how can you give me out for that, you c**t’, even though the umpire is from their own team. Like the old lag, the batsman in never out leg before wicket.

Naturally, all cricketers are scrupulously honest, play hard but fair, and never, ever cheat. There are always warm handshakes after a game, no matter what the result. Mostly, this is true, and many a tea interval has been spent discussing how ‘that team’ from Oxington Smythe are a bunch of lying, cheatin, miserable gits with an ex-pro they pay to play who treats the game as his own personal workout, who stare at the batsman when they bowl a wide, berate the umpire … we all have these tales.

The truth is that no other game is as complex a mix of teamwork and individual contests as cricket. It is a great leveller.

In no other sport can you spend five hours in the game and not touch the ball. In no other sport can you wait for an hour and a half to play your part, have it be over in seconds, then spend an hour waiting for tea before standing about for another two and a half hours without the ball coming near you. And still feel utterly fantastic because you’ve won.

In no other sport can you play brilliantly for the first half, then brilliantly for the second half, and still feel utterly miserable because you’ve lost.

In cricket, every ball can prove to be your last. If batting, you can get the unplayable delivery. If fielding, you candrop the catch that loses the match, and be banished to fine leg. Or break a digit. Game over.

It’s ultimately a game built on paradox. A game played on a field often larger than an acre, and yet the difference between the ball coming off the middle of the bat and taking the edge is a matter of inches. A game which thrives on elegance and yet which is so often agricultural. A game which ebbs and flows and can so rarely be predicted.

I play cricket the way many of my age play the guitar. I played as a kid and was pretty crap. Now I know how to apply myself and work hard. My eye for the ball and quick hands developed through several years of martial arts gets me out of several sticky situations. But I’m still no more than average, but I can afford a bat that is practically all middle. Can I find it? Only when I’m attempting a delicate dink and it simply flies … invariably into the hands of some fielder who will not drop it.  If I could play cricket the way I used to play the guitar, I wouldn’t be languishing at the bottom of the East Sussex League.

In cricket, it’s so often the case that the talent of being lucky wins out against the luck of being talented. Your opposite number swishes and misses, almost plays on, edges the ball over and over again into empty space, spoons it to just where there is no fielder, makes your average cat look frankly unfortunate and you? you get one edge and you’re gone. The fielder takes an astonishing catch. Half an hour later, you watch him drop the most embarrassing of chances. Typical.

This year, I have had no luck … at least, until Sunday, when I batted for something like an hour and a half, and shared the winning partnership of 100 runs … of which the other batsman, a brutally efficient hitter of the ball, scored 78. I probably scored 15 runs in the fifteen overs we batted for. And yet, while I was gently ribbed for my slowness, I actually batted very well, making sure that whenever possible my partner was on strike. I spent much of it watching him demoralise the opposition.

In no other sport can one have so much influence simply by being there. It is a game of which Milton would be proud: They also serve who only stand and wait.

Give yourselves a big hug …

A delightful article in The Times (by the delightfully named Tara Parker-Pope) this morning suggests that rather than pushing ourselves ever harder, we ought to be nicer to ourselves – http://nyti.ms/dOMoU9. This, it insists, may well be good for our health – ‘Preliminary data suggest that self-compassion can even influence how much we eat and may help some people lose weight.’ Ignoring the fact that it’s nice to see data accepted as a plural, it is interesting that the focus here is on eating and weight, quite the modern obsession.

Those of us who admit and, quite possibly, embrace our Englishness may well find the idea of writing ourselves a letter of support somewhat odd. After all, we probably wince when anyone compliments us at the best of times – almost as much as when someone complements us.

One-size-fits-all is always a strange thing to read, and the implication is that this one size doesn’t fit anyone quite right. Will ‘self-compassion’ work in other areas of life, such as sports, or work? Well, it seems to depend on the area. How is the area in which you wish to improve your performance assessed? Is it objective, or subjective? It matters not how much self-compassion one has in a sport dominated by statistics … the numbers simply don’t lie. They also fail to tell the whole story, but they are a pretty good indicator. In areas where one’s status is reliant on the perceptions of others – and there are many, many of these – it may just work. Simply presenting oneself as comfortable with one’s performance can give the impression of competence. No matter whether it is displaced or not.

The attitude with which a task is undertaken is something which is vitally important. And it must be relative to the task at hand. As with anything, it’s a question of balance. And one size most certainly doesn’t fit all. There is a time for self-compassion, for accepting that there are some things which one cannot quite control, and which one cannot quite manage. There is also a time for self-criticism, for accepting that one was an utter idiot, that one made the wrong decision, took the wrong path, put too much chilli in … and using that experience as an impetus to ensure it never happens again.

It’s almost time for the cricket to start again. Six weeks or so of nets and we’ll be off. Last year, I batted rather well in nets, in training, but out in the middle, I froze. Both literally and figuratively. A couple of small misjudgements, coupled with a bit of bad luck, and suddenly I was stuck in a run of ‘bad form’. Bad form in cricket is a self-fuelling bandwagon, with each mistake chipping way at the self-confidence … and the confidence leaks to the fielding side. It’s as if there’s a share available, and the true battle is less between bat and ball as it is for the pot of luck available. The body follows the head, and when on a bad run, the batsman clams up, rooted to the spot, and doesn’t survive long.

The body language encourages sledging, and the sledging, while not necessarily in itself effective, tells the batsman he looks vulnerable. One doesn’t sledge a player who’s taking control of the field. There’s a fine line at the crease between confidence and bullishness, between not wishing to get out and being so scared of it that one cannot bat, between thinking about one’s technique and knowing that it’s too late to worry about it.

The batsman’s first epiphany is realising that it is impossible to score runs from the pavilion – don’t get out, and runs will come. The second movement is when the thought process changes from ‘don’t get out’ to ‘what shall I do with this ball’.

Technique is what one hones off the field. Being coached by your partner in the middle drains your confidence and hands it to the opposition. In the middle, it’s about bat and ball – the shot, the technique, the style, simply doesn’t matter. It is making the ball hit the middle of the bat. That’s really all that counts.

When the ball hits the middle of the bat, whether this is literally in the game, or metaphorically in the other world, you may still lose your wicket. You have not meekly surrendered your wicket, but thrown down the gauntlet, and told the fielder that it’s up to him (or her) to get you out. Then it’s a question of how good they are, and how much they believe in themselves.

If you are still caught, then that is the time for self-compassion. You did everything right, and lost that particular battle. That’s the game. What you didn’t do was do something which infuriates. Which, in my case, once infuriated me so much I subsequently punched a (very neat) hole in the dressing-room wall. As the opposition captain remarked, ‘if only you batted the way you punch’.

The next week, that was exactly what I did.

Cartesian? Moi?

Well, it’s quite some time since I wrote anything much, and there are a bundle of reasons for this, some of which may or may not become apparent over the next whatever. Suffice to say it’s been an odd and frustrating summer.

It is strange just how much is in one’s head, when it comes to doing stuff, and also it is particularly, well, fucking annoying, actually, just how difficult it is to follow one’s own prescriptions. In the old days, when I taught guitar to people, some of whom are now proper good (and a few of whom are proper, proper good – I had little to do with these ones, I suspect, but hey …) I used to explain to them that during the time in which I was breaking down their old technique and replacing it with a shiny new one, they’d suck for a while, get really frustrated, and wish they’d never bothered. Persevere, I said (quite forcefully, as I’m sure some of them will happily agree). And well whadda-you know, I was absolutely right.

So after an off-season spent rebuilding my batting technique, I start to net really well, and enter the season expectant of runs in buckets. Naturally, the cricket gods were watching, and had obviously been to some of my classes back in the day. Why so? Because for the first ten matches or so, if I there was a 1 in 20 chance of getting out, I would. That’s what happens when you’re out of form. The edge carries, the run-out chance is a direct hit, the overbalancing leads to the ball hitting your big toe and cannoning onto the stumps, the third slip takes an astonishing catch, only to drop a dolly off his own bowling three overs later.

When things aren’t going your way, that’s the way it stays. And boy, did it stay. I had a short run mid-season, but that was it. My cause wasn’t helped by the fact that on taking up a rather more vigorous martial art, I dislocate my shoulder and, well, let’s just say things changed.

You see, what I used to tell my students is to relax, let it flow, just let it be. And I used to cheat to make it happen. I’d make them do something so daftly stupidly difficult for them, but really make them try, expecting them to succeed but knowing they’d fail … and when they went back to the original thing, they’d be so disgusted with themselves, or maybe angry, or maybe broken, that … well, it would flow. And once they’d heard it, felt it, caressed it the way it ought to be, that would be it. Barrier broken. Job done. Thank you and goodnight.

But no fucker does this for me, and try as I might, I couldn’t make it happen for myself. I once (sorry, Mayfield) got so annoyed after batting myself into the dodgy bowlers only to twat the ball straight up in the air that I put my fist through the pavilion wall. As the opposition captain observed … if only I batted like I punched …

The next, and final game everything changed. Why? Well, because of the parkinson’s (oh, and after two years … count ’em, two … I finally got the genetic results … more on that later) I simply can’t jab with my left hand, so when I spar there’s an awful lot of dancing about to be done … as I wait until I can actually do something. My defence is vulnerable, so I have had to adapt it. And finally I just relaxed and thought ‘fuck it, who cares’, and decided I was just not going to get hit. So to speak.

And lo and behold, before I know it, two has turned into ten ten into twenty … and then I’m being applauded. The opposition keeper has to point out it’s because I’ve just reached my fifty.

Now, this is all well and good, but your point, sir? Hmm … I’m sure I had one … oh yes. Tonight I’m rolling (that is, doing groundwork, wrestling … you know the sort of thing) when my opponent tries something, I try to prevent it, and ker-runch goes my other bloody shoulder.

You see, what I lost during the cricket season, and what I tried so hard to instil in my students, was that flexibility of though which allows you to take what the world gives you and simply absorb it. Roll with it, so to speak. That’s a lesson I finally remembered on that final sunday of the season. Sadly, my tendons and ligaments aren’t following suit. One of the effects of this delightful condition is a loss of the elasticity in said tendons and ligaments … an increased stiffness in the muscles … and when you’re working with a partner, and they say ‘loosen up’, you can only say ‘ain’t gonna happen’ so many times. ‘We’ll get it’, they say. ‘Er, no we won’t but don’t sweat it’, I reply. Eventually, I simply tell them.

The point, the point. Well, with parky’s (and no, I have neither the Parkin gene – so odd to have a gene for a kind of ginger bread thing – nor Lark 2) there are the obvious symptoms – the tremor and the parkinson’s shuffle. Sounds like a dance. And it is, because what’s beneath the surface is worse – joints seizing up, loss of fine motor control (hey, look, I have trouble wielding a fork, of course I’m not going to be playing the fucking guitar again), trouble swallowing … er, other stuff I have to look forward to.

Look to what’s underneath. Because that’s what make what you can see happen. So much of this life is in the head, and sometimes, a part of it fucks up, and that, too, affects the outside. My basal ganglia are giving up the ghost. The result is I fall, I get injured, I take longer to heal. My brain is mostly on the money, and then some. But it is communicating less and less well with my body. I am becoming Cartesian. Bugger.