2019-08-15 03:13:09

I don’t know what I was doing when I encountered my first cricket match. But I know what my mum was doing. A five-day Test was a selfishly long time to commandeer the television; so Mum, an ardent fan of the game, would hoard our family’s ironing, then mount a great wall of it beside her on the couch. The game would take place to the squeaky creak of the board, and the background hiss and spit of her Hotpoint as it moved methodically across Dad’s shirts.

At some point – possibly out of curiosity, but more likely in an attempt to distract Mum from some chore I should have been doing – I asked her why there was a box in the corner of the screen, and why two men in white were jogging up and down inside it.

“Because they’re trying to score runs.”

“What are runs?”

“They’re the things that batsmen get when they run between those two white lines.”

“Like rounders?”

“Yes. But instead of having bases, you have wickets.”

“What’s a wicket?”

This is the killer question in any conversation with a cricket novice. The word wicket means three different things, and it is at this stage, in my experience, that most people who have asked about the rules become muddled, overwhelmed and very quickly bored with the explanation that follows.

All out: dejected members of the England cricket team after being dismissed by the West Indies for 46 in Port of Spain, Trinidad, March 1994. Photograph: Ben Radford/Getty Images

I know that, at the time, I didn’t really understand what my mother was telling me. And yet, within three short months, my bedroom walls were covered with newspaper cuttings of cricketers whose attributes and affairs I knew as well as my own family’s. At the age of 14, I installed them as my household gods – the Lares et Penates of my teenage years – and I hero-worshipped them devotedly.

The teenage obsession is as much a rite of passage as a first kiss or a chinful of blackheads, and stems from the same hormonal rush. As adolescents we’re primed for intense emotional attachments. The lucky ones will adhere to a figure of contemporary rebel chic – Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain, Madonna – whose cool will stand the test of time. The majority are herded alongside their peers into a mainstream crush, the kind that will later release a warm puff of nostalgia during some execrable Christmas movie starring John Cusack or Bon Jovi.

And then there are those of us whose early-blooming passions remain inexplicable to all but the elitist of psychoanalysts. One of my friends couldn’t miss a match of the World Wide Wrestling Federation, and would come into school with updates on what new item of furniture Hulk Hogan had smashed over the Undertaker’s head that week. Another carefully kept a cardboard cut-out of Elton John in her bedroom, which she’d begged from the local HMV. This was around the time he was recording duets with RuPaul and Nik Kershaw.

And yet even these obsessions were considered less bizarre than mine. There have been moments in cricket’s history when the game has shaken off its reputation as one of the most boring sports in the world – a pursuit for men with sock-suspenders and ludicrous moustaches. The 1990s were not such a time. They were a sporting wilderness stretched joylessly between the 80s heroics of the hard-drinking, hard-hitting Ian Botham, and his long-awaited heir, Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff.

Emma with her sister at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Photograph: Emma John

There was nothing sexy or macho about England’s 90s team. It was peopled by a mixture of fragile talents who faltered under pressure, and forgettable no-ranks who disappeared from the side as quickly as doomed crewmen on the USS Enterprise. My sporting idols were desperately flawed heroes like the dangerously fast but woefully inaccurate bowler Devon Malcolm, and Phil Tufnell, famous for being unable to catch. They lost the majority of their matches, becoming a byword for British failure and an easy alternative for the nation’s scorn when Graham “Turniphead” Taylor’s footballers were between tournaments.

So they were not only an extremely odd choice for my hero-worship, but a foolish one. None of my girlfriends could understand my overnight conversion to a sport which was so aggressively arcane, so forcefully tedious. Footballers were considered socially acceptable pin-ups, and David Beckham’s evolving hairstyles would become a matter of great importance as the decade wore on. But putting up posters of cricketers was highly mockable; the fact that I made them myself, Pritt-sticking newsprint to sheets of A3 coloured card with the fastidious care of a kidnapper sending ransom notes, was positively creepy.

As my GCSE coursework progressed, so did my cricketing education. I bought myself “textbooks” – coaching manuals, player encyclopaedias, tour diaries written before I was born. But my chief teacher was my mum. is not a game you can learn instinctively; nothing about it is especially natural. Just look at the peculiar way you have to hold the bat: no child, lifting a piece of wood to hit a ball, chooses to hold it side-on and lead with their elbow. A bowler’s delivery stride, with its learned mechanics, is utterly contrary to the accepted laws of human anatomy. The complexity of the leg-before-wicket dismissal is so evolved that my teenage self spent as much time figuring it out as she did learning to solve quadratic equations.

It is, therefore, a sport that requires a special form of introduction. You cannot come to cricket on your own: it demands a relationship. I have yet to meet an obsessive like me whose fervour was not stoked by a teacher, a friend or a family member. Up to that point in my life, my father had been the parent my sister and I associated with play, the one who messed around with Lego and took us kite-flying. Mum was at the business end of parenting, checking up on homework and report cards, setting the chores, making sure the fridge was full.

She often seemed serious, and exhausted; her patience was not notable and by the time she got home from the law firm where she worked, her temper was often frayed. Sport on TV – be it Grandstand or Ski Sunday – was her “alone time”; since my dad professed to have no interest in watching other people exercise, she had long ploughed that armchair-furrow alone. Now, suddenly, her teenage daughter was peppering the action with constant questions: why was that player so rubbish? Why were the other team so much better? When were England ever going to get good? Far from showing irritation at the constant interruptions, Mum seemed to welcome them.

Emma and her mum at Lord’s. Photograph: Emma John

As for me, I hid my strange new passion from no one. The books and stationery I carried between classrooms were, inevitably, plastered with Panini stickers of the players I admired. (I still struggle to believe that Panini used to make albums for a sport as little followed as county cricket, or indeed that our newsagent carried the stickers.) It even infiltrated my GCSE assignments: I insisted on writing up a piece of coursework on the Trojan War as a sports report, and when my English teacher asked us to write an essay entitled “What I hope to be doing 10 years from now”, I confidently asserted that I would be joining England’s tour of the West Indies as a cricket correspondent and the newly wed wife of the captain.

My attempts to evangelise cricket in the classroom were met with indifference and scorn. This was still a decade before the England Cricket Board would send in Swat teams armed with Kwik Cricket sets to try to grow the game among girls; there was no campaign to strike a blow for gender equality in sport. My newfound love was not seen as a powerful feminist statement but proof that I was an irredeemable loser. Even the popular girls, whose status rested entirely on their ability to catch and throw a netball, narrowed their eyes and pronounced the dread words: “That’s just sad.

But it was even worse with the boys.

Having had a single-sex education from the age of three, I didn’t have many male friends; when I was 11, the horrible shock of having to share school bus journeys with the inhabitants of the boys’ establishment next door had quickly put me off them. In the morning the boys boasted of their sexual dreams the night before; on the way home they unloaded whatever frustrations they’d been tamping down in class. The back of the bus resounded with their Caligulan banter; I sat up front in the geek seats, desperate not to overhear.

My cricketers offered another type of male; at least, my idealised version of them did. I’d always been slightly intimidated by the posters that other girls had on their walls – the model dressed as a mechanic with a provocative bead of sweat running down his torso, the pop idol reclining crotch-first on a couch. I could feel deeply in love with Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, but if he revealed so much as a chest hair I felt confused, embarrassed, and deeply uncomfortable.

Unlike most other sportsmen, cricketers didn’t seem particularly macho figures. They were nicely covered up – you couldn’t even see a hairy shin – and on the field they were required to abide by a fairly decorous standard of behaviour. When a young aggressor such as Dominic Cork emerged, strutting and shouting, people tut-tutted. The players I adored – Angus Fraser, Peter Martin – were reliable-looking nice guys whose oft-defeated demeanour made them utterly unthreatening. Even Darren Gough, one of the more charismatic characters, was known as a housewives’ favourite: cuddly, not sexy.

I convinced myself, if no one else, that my feelings carried no taint of lust. Unfortunately, the only boys I knew to speak to – at the local youth group – knew better, and subjected me to merciless teasing about how much I fancied this player or that. They also learned exactly how little they had to do to wind me up: tell me how crap my team was, and watch me turn puce and splutter. While a girl following a football team might have been accorded a grudging respect (if she had proved her bona fides by owning a shirt, or going to some games), one with pictures of cricketers on her wall was just easy bait. Unfortunately, my team was constantly providing them with fresh material: individual failures, collective collapses and on one occasion a farcical “ball-tampering” scandal that caused the captain to go into hiding in the Lake District.

Big appeal: Angus Fraser, one of Emma’s favourite players. Photograph: Clive Mason/Allsport

I let myself be provoked again and again: I guess I liked the rush of feelings, and the sense that I was defending my team’s honour. My naive enthusiasm had been an ideal starter characteristic for supporting England, a team that demanded a particularly imperishable sense of loyalty. But as time went on, the power of teenage mulishness combined with adolescent idealism, and I started to find my identity as contrarian, a defender of lost causes, a romanticiser of doomed heroes. What teenager doesn’t believe that they’re the only one feeling this deeply – that they stand alone against the world?

No one understood what I loved about cricket – except my mother. The summer after I’d first fallen for the game, Mum took me to a Lord’s Test against South Africa. She’d never been to a live match before either; she hadn’t had anyone to go with. Now we were both breaking our duck at the game’s historic home.

As we walked from the tube, we joined a stream of people with picnic boxes, all vibrating with the same subsonic thrill on their way to the ground. As the crowd thickened at the turnstiles, people all around were talking about the state of the game. I’d never heard so many conversations about cricket and I wanted to listen to every one of them.

The walkways inside Lord’s were narrow and tight to navigate: bypassing every instinct of a 15-year-old girl who wants to be taken seriously, I clung tight to Mum’s hand for fear of being separated. The stands were blazing white; the greensward in front of me was primed and primped; the pavilion looked like a painting on the lid of a tin of shortbread.

Sitting in the stands, we watched the game unfurl before us, living and dying with every wicket. Our erstwhile secret language of googlies and cover drives and leg-byes was here the lingua franca, and we laughed and argued with the strangers sitting next to us as with old friends. We went back every year after that; the Lord’s Test became our joint pilgrimage, our special day. With every match Mum and I sat side by side in the plastic tip-up seats – indulging in adult occupations like doing the crossword and drinking sparkling wine – I became a little less her daughter and more her friend.

Emma’s school folder, covered in cricket stickers. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

My teen crush on cricket was to shape my life in ways I’d never imagined. It was responsible for some of my closest relationships, not because I found friends who shared a similar passion – I never did – but because I chose my college at university entirely based on where the England captain had gone. It also decided my career. I had no particular yen to be a journalist, but I did want to spend my summer holidays working somewhere I could keep up with the Test matches; I found myself a place at a cricket magazine, and after that, my mother’s hopes that I’d follow her into law were ruined.

But none of them compare to the legacy it left my mother and me. Recently we celebrated our 20th anniversary of going to Lord’s together, but we don’t need to be at a ground to know how the other one’s feeling when the cricket is on. We don’t even have be in the same house, or the same city. I like knowing we have the same allies, the same emotions. I love how, in those moments, she understands me, and I understand her. The England cricketers of the 90s might be losers in some people’s eyes. Not ours. ■

Following On: a Memoir of Teenage Obsession & Terrible Cricket by Emma John is published on 21 April by Bloomsbury at £16.99. To order a copy for £13.59, go to