I’m the most amateur of cricketers and I haven’t picked up a bat since the end of last season but I’ve been invited to a net with former England professionals Mark Ramprakash, Ali Brown, Matthew Hoggard, Paul Nixon and Claire Taylor at Lord’s. It’s an offer I can’t refuse.
In the morning I dig out my kit only to find that my cap has gone mouldy, my astro boots are clogged with old mud and the foam bits have fallen out of my helmet, leaving it wobbling around precariously on my head. I do my best to tidy them up and I make my way to Lord’s.
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I am one of 30 club cricketers of various ages who have been invited to a masterclass with the PCA England Masters, former international players who are giving something back to grassroots cricket.
Nixon, the ex-Leicestershire, Kent and England wicketkeeper, gets things started by putting us through some warm-up drills and has us following his increasingly bizarre orders as we jog around the hall. “Do three star jumps… Now five press-ups… Appeal as loudly as you can… Jump and pretend to head the ball into the goal… Touch the floor with your left shoulder… Now your right shoulder… Get into threes and lift one of you into the air.” Next he has us doing forward rolls and dragging people along the floor on mats.
Then it’s time for some fielding. The ball is rolled quickly to us and we’re supposed to gather it and throw it at the stumps. Nixon says we should aim at the base of the stumps to maximise our chances of a direct hit and we should throw the ball cross-seam to stop it swinging off target. It ought to be a relatively simple task but my soft hands have deserted me and I can barely pick the ball up. Very embarrassing. Sometimes you need to relax more and think about it less, advises Claire Taylor, the former England batter.
We are divided into groups based on our experience and allocated a net. Ramprakash, England’s Test batting coach, works with the youngest kids. Perhaps we’ll be reading about their cricketing exploits in future years. Meanwhile, any 1st XI players (which I only qualify as because my club has just one team) are told to go into the far net where we will be coached by Brown. In a 22-year career for Surrey and Nottinghamshire, Brown scored 16,898 first class runs, plus 11,257 in List A matches. He played 16 One Day Internationals and is currently Surrey’s 2nd XI coach, so when he talks I’m going to listen.
Compared with Nixon, Brown is relaxed in his approach, having a quiet chat with each of us after we have batted. He tells me I need to press forward in my stance slightly more, which will put me in a better position to drive but also allow me to rock back and play the cut shot. Good advice.
When I bowl my left-arm “spin” he tells me I have “good snap” in my action. Is that a polite way of suggesting that my action is suspect, I ask. He assures me that it’s not and says I should keep delivering my stock ball and every now and then hold one back in the hope of getting the batsman to drive in the air by playing too early. When I tell him I used to bowl medium pace he likens me to Ashley Giles, who apparently did the same. As is often the case in the nets, I actually seem to be bowling better than I bat, despite considering myself a batsman.
It turns out that the photographer didn’t catch me batting so he asks Hoggard to bowl an over at me at the end of the session. “A journalist, eh?” says Hoggard, which makes me worry that he’ll do to me what Brett Lee did to Piers Morgan.
Perhaps that’s why they’d made me sign a form relinquishing them of any responsibility if I was to get injured.
He’s probably lost a touch of pace since retiring from first-class cricket in 2013 but he’s quick enough for me, particularly on the fast, bouncy surface at the MCC Cricket Academy which can flatter even a slow-medium club bowler into thinking he’s Dale Steyn.
Should I have invested in a new helmet? Probably, but it’s too late now.
Hoggard’s first few deliveries are away-swingers which I can’t get a bat on. Then he hits me on the pads with an in-swinger, though thankfully it is sneaking down the leg-side so I’ve survived another ball. Next comes the bouncer, which Hoggard mercifully aims slightly to the off-side. As I hear it thump loudly into the back of the net I’m just glad it wasn’t straighter.
Perhaps to stop me getting hurt before my luck runs out, Nixon pulls the net away and it’s time for us to play quick cricket with a softer ball. Again Hoggard is the bowler but this time there’s less risk of getting my head knocked off. In this game I at least manage to take a couple of catches. Admittedly one of them was hit at me by a 12-year-old, but I haven’t had the best of days in the field so far so I’m claiming it.
Then it’s upstairs for a question and answer session. Hoggard assures us that his native Yorkshire will win the County Championship again. Nixon says Jonny Bairstow is a better keeper than Jos Buttler but rates Buttler’s destructive one-day batting. Ramprakash, still heavily involved in the England set-up, keeps his cards closer to his chest. While the men’s game has seen greater specialisation in T20, one-day and Test cricket, Taylor says the England women are likely to keep their best players playing across all formats.
So what have I learned about my own game? In a nutshell: I should press forward, rock back, and not tell fast bowlers that I’m a journalist. Still, unlike Piers Morgan, at least I somehow managed to escape without any bruises.
Follow Toby on Twitter @TobyChasseaud
Toby Chasseaud was invited to Lord’s by Greene King to mark its sponsorship of the PCA England Masters