Monthly Archives: April 2014

Cricket bags – good home sought

bag 1To the cricketer, his or her bag is an object of comfort and reassurance. It contains all the essential equipment – bat, pads, gloves, whites, spikes – as well as spares. It has cricket balls – shiny new cherries to rotten old apples. It has tape, oil and rags, the materials for looking after kit. The bag may even have a pack of cards for rainy days or a toilet roll for windy ones.

To the cricketer’s spouse, the cricket bag is a hulking presence. It is lumpy with the strange objects obsessed about by the other half. The bat protrudes from the bag, tripping and catching anyone trying to step past it. It has an aroma, picked up from the changing rooms and bars it inhabits and seasoned inside its canvas skin. For heaven’s sake, there’s even a toilet roll in it.

I like my cricket bag to be in the hallway, where it sits among handbags, school bags and lunch-boxes – like an elephant trying to be inconspicuous in a flock of sheep. My wife doesn’t like my cricket bag to be in the hallway. Rarely does it manage an overnight stay there. The study, where it is placed between the exercise bike and the gerbil cage, is just behind the front-line, but vulnerable to sudden eviction.

In retreat, the bag spends time in the car boot. For very practical reasons, I don’t like this. I can’t justify the carbon emissions it adds to every journey. And when I have a match, I find it too easy to head off  incompletely equipped if I haven’t unpacked and packed the bag indoors. I carry this fear with me to every match ever since my debut (also my swan-song) for Buckinghamshire Under 12s. I arrived in the changing room, unsure when to swap from school uniform into whites. At the sign of my teammates changing I reached into my bag for my cricket kit. All present and correct.. except the socks. I thought I was going to have to play the biggest game of my life in grey school socks, already sweaty from my anxiety. Another boy had a spare pair, which helped my appearance, but not my confidence.

After that game, my Dad taught me the skill of packing a cricket bag by imagining you are getting dressed and padded up for an innings. Over 30 years later and I still do this, each time my stomach turning as I am taken back to a Northamptonshire pavilion, finding my bag devoid of white socks.

So what is it that my wife has against my cricket bag? There’s the general virtue of tidiness and that she doesn’t want the house turned into an obstacle course – particularly one where the hurdles smell. I am also convinced that the bag, large and with protruding bat handle, symbolises for her the obsession that draws me out of the house, or in front of screen or by radio, my attention on the family severely compromised.

I have come to realise that I like to have my bag visible around the house because it reinforces my belief that I am a cricketer. It validates my self-image. It would be so easy not to be a cricketer. I don’t offer a great deal to my team. Personal success, despite a very flexible threshold, is a rarity. In my mid-40s, a season-ending injury is never more than a quick single away. There’s the demands of family and the guilt of not fulfilling them. There’s work. And there’s a newer creeping occupation, offering another title, fulfilment and obligation: junior coaching. While the bag’s there, I have withstood those counter forces and maintained an identity that I care about.

bag 2For over a year now, my cricket bag has had a little cousin – an accomplice. My older son plays cricket in the team I coach. He has a bag, slimmer and more streamlined than mine. He also has my storage practices – if anything, he’s worse. After a match, he steps inside the front door and drops his cricket bag, before heading to TV or PlayStation. His bag, propped against the front door isn’t just an obstacle, it’s a fire hazard, blocking our evacuation route in (the unlikely) case of emergency. He can be forced to carry it to his room, but he does it in a weary, out of control manner that scuffs the walls on the stairs.

The harmony of my family is at stake. We need somewhere to store our cricket bags that is out of sight of the forces that would banish them, but accessible for those of us that take comfort in them – or just have a regular need to use them. Somewhere of the house, but not in the house; secure, weather proof, but out of the way. I have an idea – it is, as my younger son would say, a Beast of an idea.

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Activity holiday

Big swing - being hauled upwards

Big swing – being hauled upwards

A dozen people pulled a rope, hoisting higher Mrs TL and me, clinging to a wooden plank. The ascent ended and we dangled while ropes were secured, slack taken in. It was quiet and precarious. I made limp efforts to reassure my wife. A count of three was shouted up to me. I reached above and behind and flicked a cord from a knot. Before I could face forward, we hurtled downwards. Then an upswing, which peaked before we described the same arc, but backwards. Then back and forwards for 60 seconds. The quiet as we dangled was chased away by my wife’s scream so gutteral that no.2 son will be impersonating it many years from now.

That was my experience of the Big Swing. The most startling experience – and probably the only one I wouldn’t want to repeat – of our Easter activity holiday. My description omits the harnesses, helmets, the testing and retesting of the buckles and the 16 other mums, dads and kids who had already ridden the Big Swing that afternoon. But, you know, our ride was scarey!

We spent five days of our Easter holiday at Boreatton Park in Shropshire, one of the bases of PGL Holidays. The holiday had been a bit of an impulse buy; one that Mrs TL felt less and less comfortable about as it approached. The Big Swing was early proof (day 2 – the first full day of activities) that her anxiety was well-placed.

The holiday centred on three and a half days of organised physical activities. The range of pursuit, the competence and friendliness of the instructors, the quality of the facilities and the potential to alarm the wary holiday maker were top-notch. Good basic cabin accommodation and hearty food with plenty of options kept you in good nick; evening games and time in the bar were there, too.

What did you do at Easter? Us? Oh, we kayaked, shot rifles, swung, fired archeryarrows, built shelters, climbed, fenced, canoed, zipped along wires and abseiled. Left to our own devices, at home or perhaps in the countryside, we may have managed a few walks and some roller-blading. But under the eager guidance of PGL’s youthful multi-pierced ear instructors we did loads. And (you will understand the significance of this if you have children) we didn’t have the stress of making decisions and negotiating between preferences and vetoes. We did what we were told when we were told. There was barely a complaint.

The younger children – the 1&onlyD and no.2 son – approached every activity with gusto and commitment. The 1&onlyD excelled at the kayak game. Both water sessions ended with a game to get everyone wet. The challenge was to move from sitting, to lying, to standing and ultimately, as only the gymnastically balanced 1&onlyD could manage, walk to the front of the kayak.

Each activity was done jointly with between one and four other families. In our survivor session in the woods, the family from Formby built a shelter in 10 mins  from tarpaulin that looked like a stealth bomber. Ours looked like a tarpaulin dropped on a bush. When we worked jointly, our comrades built a shelter that made use of tarpaulin, trees, branches, logs and counter-balancing forces that left me content to collect ‘camouflage’ materials if I could be allowed to be associated with it.

Sporty no.1 son is no adventurer. He opted out of the Big Swing – a courageous act in its own way, when everyone else is doing it. The next day, on his second attempt at the climbing wall, he reached half-way and wallasked to come down. The instructors, in a way that we as parents couldn’t have done without nagging, coaxed and convinced him to carry on. He made his way to the top. In the same way he was helped to complete two abseils down a 12 metre high tower.

Our stay culminated with the high ropes challenge. 10 metres up, you complete a circuit involving walking along wires, a beam, clinging to ropes and swinging on a barrel. No.2 son started, then refused. But he climbed back up to complete the course. Mrs TL confronted her fears with heights. I was happiest when at the end of my circuit. Finally, no.1 son, despite being very scared, took on the high ropes and managed to get around.

Again, I’ve not mentioned the harness, the safety buckles and the metal high ropesrunners you are tied to as you tackle the circuit. The 1&onlyD was one of the children happy to swing in their harness, comfortable with its security, while most of us clung to the ropes, fearful of a fall that would be checked within inches.

And that’s the delicious balance of the heights and climbing activities: they are made to look frightening, but they are so well constructed and managed that any real risk is removed. The draw is the danger, yet the instructors spend their time reassuring us of their absolute safety. The thrill is psychological and no less fulfilling for that.

It was a memorable holiday, taken as a family and spent together as a family. Each of us having little triumphs that we shared. The weather was bright throughout, although I doubt that affected the cheerfulness of the instructors who walked us around the 250 acres chanting songs.

fencingFresh air, physical activity, psychological challenges, new experiences and over 100 hours without watching, or even asking about, television. We reached home mid-evening on Good Friday. Within minutes the television and Playstation were on and I was being asked, “Dad, can you play football outside.”

 

Disclaimer: I have received no payment or benefit for this article and all opinions expressed are my own.

 

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Back garden football

back garden footyMy boys play football in league and cup matches, friendlies and tournaments, school games, development centres, holiday clubs and pick-up matches. But their football began in and always returns to our back garden. It’s there I’ve seen them develop from toddlers and toe-pokes against whom I would contrive defeats, to opponents with step-overs and stinging shots, that imperil my aging frame.

Garden football has a distinctive sound. There’s uttered congratulations – directed most usually at oneself (“Did you see what I did, there..?”) and there’s a contagious bubbling of chuckles. The exertion as one boy pits himself against the other in our small space of ground, brings out breaths of laughter that bounce from one to the other as they battle for space to fire the ball past me.

There can be moans and yells. The play quickly gets tasty as the countermeasure to a neatly executed skill is a tap on the ankles or a push in the back. But the accusation and denial are soon swept away as the game restarts.

There’s a balance to the competition between the boys. The tightness of the space handicaps no.1 son’s height and stride advantage. The older boy’s superior passing is nullified in the one-on-one game. His younger brother’s power and pace provide for a close match-up.

Last week we had a typically breathy, sweaty, happy game. The springing forward of the clocks freed up time for outdoor play after work. The boys sprang around like lambs and I revelled as much in the atmosphere as I did in their athleticism. The light was a diffuse gold and the air was rich with the scent of blossom. All three of us in plain white shirts – theirs school, mine work – gave the scene a historic look, distant from the shiny, gaudy patterned replica tops they would choose to wear. The boys traded skills, appreciated the best the other could offer and I was unusually lithe in net. We tumbled into the house when the golden light faded, garrulous with our efforts.

Idyllic, no? A perfect picture of parent and children?

While nothing I have written is untrue, the whole is far more complicated. The emotions of joy and fulfilment described so far are only part of the story. Garden football is also a source of guilt, frustration and irritation.

Having lauded the pleasures of back garden football, you might think I take every opportunity to play. But that, as no.2 son, in particular, would attest, isn’t the case. Here are the reasons I give for not playing: I haven’t finished my meal; I haven’t digested my meal; the grass is too wet; I’m about to eat; it’s too early; I’m having a cup of tea; you’ve just played all morning; it’s too late; I’m going out. I pass up more games than I play. Frustration on one side; guilt on the other.

But, as long as the grass isn’t too wet, or the hour too late, I do usually propose an alternative: “why don’t you two play?” No.1 son is back to the TV before I can finish my proposal. Creaky, maladroit me is the magic ingredient. Two football crazy boys need their Dad with them to have a fun game. Irritation and more frustration.

Garden football exemplifies the different approaches parents (if I am justified in generalising my experience) and children (if mine are typical) take to their relationship. Mine is one of credit and debit; theirs is one of infinite and unfulfillable need. If I’ve spent a long (and happy) time playing, I feel that I have earned some credit in our relationship. The credit means I can cruise for a little while, capitalise on my investment. The other parties keep no accounts that are tallied. They merely have an immediate and on-going need for garden football. We play for an hour before lunch: I feel I deserve a rest in the afternoon; they want to start up again and are as frustrated with a refusal as if I had forced them to do homework or clean their rooms all morning. I inhabit a middle-ground that doesn’t satisfy them. Logic would say I should either play all the time in search of their approval or never play and be no less resented.

At the back of my mind is a recognition that at some point the scales of interest and dependency will flip. Their time will become precious to me and they will ration the amount they dedicate to me. It’s nice to think there could be an equilibrium, but I doubt it. While I’m still wanted, and retain the physical capability, I must drag myself away from the computer screen, the cup of tea and lead my boys out onto our own pitch for yet another game of back garden football.

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Filed under parenting, play time

Wouldn’t miss it for the world

cup final 14

Any plans for the weekend?

It’s the theme of so many Friday conversations at work. I always have an answer and, not invariably, it tends towards the same thing: taking the kids to play sport; watching the kids playing sport; getting cold and wet while the kids play sport; entertaining a kid or two while another plays sport.

Junior sport can be as unremitting as a treadmill, but as rewarding as any hobby. Commitment is one of the lessons it teaches – to parents and children – so there’s an acceptance that if you are in town, you should be there, on the touchline. At the level my children compete, there’s no obligation to show up every week, no ranking or progress at stake if the odd game is missed for a birthday party. But regular participation and attendance are their own imperative. It becomes a habit. It’s the default status.

Weekends away do happen, but they are planned. We don’t take off on Friday evening for the coast when we see a sunny forecast for the weekend. Day trips aren’t much easier, with no.2 son playing Saturday morning and his brother the same time on Sunday. What work and school do to structure the week, so junior sports manage for weekends.

I like to think we have kept a sense of perspective. We don’t plan holidays around fixtures and we have never declined an invitation from a dear friend or family on account of a crunch match. We wouldn’t need to – they’ve learned not to ask.

But there can be weekends when there is a family event that we wouldn’t miss for the world and a match of unusual importance. The first of these was three years ago. My sister-in-law had an exhibition of her paintings in a gallery in Stokesley, North Yorkshire. Family and friends travelled from the north-west and from Fife for the Friday night opening. The cottages were booked months in advance and a weekend together planned. A cup run (a two round sprint, in fact) threw something else into the mix for that weekend: a cup final for no.1 son at 9.30 on Sunday morning.

The family travelled to Stokesley in separate cars, enabling no.1 son and I to head west at 6am for a three hour journey to the ground situated 15 minutes from home. Defective packing for the weekend meant we had to add a trip home to pick up football boots on our way there. The game was won and a very full weekend completed by 11am on Sunday morning.

Over a year ago, my Dad announced plans for celebrating his and my Mum’s diamond wedding anniversary. Bookings were made in their Cotswold village of a restaurant and B&Bs for the guests. Arrangements were so advanced that I had even got around to sorting an anniversary present or two, when last Tuesday, with five days notice, no.1 son’s coach sent a text informing us that the Cup Final was on Sunday morning. Apologies were given to my parents and accepted for us missing the third leg of the anniversary weekend. Once again we rose early on a Sunday for a long drive to a local ground.

On the Friday and Saturday I had been quietly admiring no.1 son as he told his grandparents and others how much he was looking forward to the final. In his position, I would have been debilitated by nerves three or four days ahead. Eventually, on the Sunday morning drive, things caught up with him. Perhaps anxiety, certainly two days of a rich diet and late nights, left him grumpy and upset in the back of the car, complaining of pains and unreadiness to play.

We arrived in good time at the non-league ground hosting the final. No.1 son must have shaken off his worries, as he was in the starting team. He was lively and more combative than usual in the first half, at the end of which his team were a little unlucky to trail 1-0. He played the whole of the second-half, and began to make use of the space that opened up on the large pitch as players tired. One run, beginning with a sharp one-two in his own half, saw him carry the ball to the edge of the opposition’s penalty area and lay off a pass which won the corner from which his team equalised. Extra-time – ten minutes each way – followed.

In the first period of extra-time, no.1 son ran on to a loose ball at the edge of the penalty area and struck it well and away to the keeper’s right. It deflected off a defender and onto the post. It was as close as his team came to a winning goal. The opponents scored twice in the second period to win 3-1.

The previous night, my parents had sat happily in the restaurant, accompanied by their children, grandchildren and a great granddaughter, listening to their Best Man speak about their friendship of 65 years.  The next day I watched my older son, playing well, but more importantly, smile and revel in the atmosphere and challenge of a big match on a grown-up football ground. Two things, in one weekend, that I wouldn’t miss for the world.

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Filed under sport gives us.., young shoulders