October 17, 2011

Howzat! Mid-Day Thoughts of a Late Cut Artist

By Geoffrey Philp

I love to play cricket. Sometimes I like to think I was born with a bat in my hand. Or at least it seemed that way when I was growing up in Mona Heights, Jamaica. Many of my holidays were spent playing cricket with David "Griffo" Griffiths, Paul "Pat Chow" Chin, Paul "Pablove" Smith, and our friends from Geranium, Orchid, or Daisy Avenue. In fact, you could substitute some of the characters from my short story, "The Day Mrs. HoSang Got Arrested"  in Uncle Obadiah and the Alien for Griffo, Pat Chow, Pablove, and me playing cricket on Plumbago Path.

We all had individual skills at which we excelled. David was a good pace bowler; Pat Chow had a wicked leg break, and Paul had a mixture of off-break, leg break, and googly. And when we had our version of test matches against teams from Hope Pastures, we'd call on Ian Carey, who was also a good spin bowler, to be our opening batsman. The competition was always a means to hone our skills in the three essential positions of a cricket team.

When you are fielding, you have to be aware of your surroundings by paying attention to the bowler and the batsman's reactions. A bowler has to confuse the batsman either by pace or spin, spotting his weaknesses or bowling him out by indulging his strengths. As a batsman, my favorite position, you must possess a combination of skill, patience, and confidence to master each shot. You have to focus on each ball to either play defensively or to create an opportunity for your team to make runs. My favorite shot was a late cut off the back foot for four runs between backward point and third man.

You also learn every ball is different. If, as a wise philosopher once said once said that you never step in the same river twice, then every ball is an opportunity for defeat--Howzat!; victory--six runs!, or a resounding truce--"Nooooooo!"

For nearly every summer until we graduated from primary school, Griffo, Pat Chow, Pablove, and I played cricket against different teams. Griffo went to Wolmers, Pat Chow to Ardenne,  Pablove and I went to Jamaica College. I was chosen for Murray House and Paul was inducted into Hardy House, our perennial rivals. Mid-way through our first term, Paul stopped playing cricket and started playing football. I, however, continued playing cricket, and as a first former, I was assigned to the "B" team. I thought I deserved to be on the "A" team, but the events proved me wrong.

I was the opening batsman in a limited overs match against Hardy House, so every ball counted. The pace bowler, who I think went on to play for our Sunlight team, had me pinned from the first ball. I was forced to make defensive plays: "Nooooooo!" Our housemaster, Mr. McLeod, didn't like what was happening. Didn't like it one bit.

After the second over, my partner and I had only scored four runs. Mr. McLeod walked over to me and said I needed to make runs or he would declare me out. I didn't think it was fair, but I couldn't protest or do anything about it, I was only a mere first former. Pressure was mounting on and off the field. I tried hard to remember the advice that Griffo's father had once given us, "Play the ball. Not the crowd."

The next ball came at a blistering pace, and I showed the bowler the face of the bat, "Nooooooo!" I looked over at Mr. McLeod. He looked me dead in the eyes and tapped his watch. Mr. McLeod was angry with me.

More pressure. The bowler delivered a ball that swung from the offside toward mid-wicket and I countered with another, "Nooooooo!" Mr. McLeod threw his hands in the air and pointed to another first former to get ready.

I was losing my cool and the bowler sensed it. He slammed a crushing bouncer at my head, and I tried to lift the ball over his shoulders for six runs, but it didn't work. He jumped up and caught the ball. I was out for three runs.

And then, the bowler laughed. I've never forgotten the smirk on his face or his raucous cackle.

I walked off the field with my bat under my arm and my head hung low. As I passed Mr. McLeod, I said, "I hope you're happy now."

"What did you say?" he screamed at me.

"Nothing, sir," was all I could say and sat on the sidelines. I didn't want to get a caning, so I kept my mouth shut for the rest of the game.

The worst was yet to come. Our team lost. My wicket had been sacrificed for expediency, and it was all in vain. My only comfort was I hadn't made a duck.

From that day, I made a decision that no one would ever force me to give up my wicket for any reason. As long as I could hold the bat between my hands, I would never give up my wicket for anything or anyone. I would dig in and if I had to play defensive strokes, then so be it. Either bowl me out or I would parry with "Nooooooo," for the rest of my life.

I've never forgotten that day or the bowler's derisive laughter. It has been the spur in situations that I've faced as a teacher and writer where the odds have been against me.

In fact, a few years ago when I worked as an English teacher in Dade County Public Schools, I was confronted with a situation where I had to be defensive. I was a young father and I needed every penny I could get. So, in addition to teaching English, I taught journalism and I was the yearbook/newspaper advisor and soccer coach. But that, sports fans, is another story.

There had been a change in the administration and I sensed that the new principal wanted to replace me so she could give the yearbook/newspaper job to one of her cronies. She tried every trick in the book to get me out, but I wouldn't budge. With every charge she delivered, my reply was "Nooooooo!"

When the situation became obvious to my coworkers, one of them said to me, "Why are you trying so hard? Why don't you just quit?"

My response? You guessed it. "Nooooooo!"

It is that kind of determination--my wife says stubbornness--that has also helped me as a writer. Every morning I get up to practice my writing as I had done with batting in the nets because it takes a special kind of perseverance to dig in when the rejections are coming from publishers: "Nooooooo!"  Call me Bartleby with a cricket bat.

During my writing apprenticeship, I went for years without making a run or taking a wicket. But I figured as long as I could hold my pen between my fingers--I still write by longhand--I would never be discouraged by anything or anyone. And whenever I saw an opportunity to transform the issues that plague my culture intopersonal stories, it would be a late cut off the back foot for six runs.

That's the kind of persistence that I've had to possess to continue writing, and I've never settled for expediency. A good writer, like an experienced batsman, has to have faith in his skills, which according to Malcolm Gladwell can take up to 10,000 hours of hard work todevelop, so he can get through those times when it seems as if you're facing Michael Holding at the peak of his powers, and it doesn't seem as if Mikey is going to tire any time soon.

But every now and then, I look at the scoreboard, the runs that I've made and I feel confident that even though the innings may not have been as spectacular as I would have liked, I still haven't lost my wicket.

I'm still batting.


ackeelover said...

bwoy ... as a former Wolmerian Sunlight cup 12th man I can relate to this G. ... your innings continues to inspire mine ... gotta write that one soon ... keep a straight bat mi bredda

Geoffrey Philp said...

Keeping the bat straight, Ackeelover. Didn't know you were a Sunlight man...learning more and more very day