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On Sporting Retirement

       My most longstanding friend laughed when I told him I had retired from playing cricket. His socks did not come off, but he spluttered into his beer. I half-expected this reaction as he is seventy one and I am rapidly approaching my seventy first birthday so I half-accepted that the situation was laughable. I could have told him about the seventy nine-year-old bowler with the twenty yard run-up that I played against last year whose sheer lack of pace confused batsmen. Or the legendary ninety two-year-old Bugbrooke wicketkeeper who stood up to fast bowlers because there was no point in his standing back. Or the generic class of elderly Englishmen who captain Sunday teams consisting largely of players young enough to be their grandsons. But I didn’t mention these things and allowed his mirth as legitimate.

For five years I had been living a kind of cricket half-life. Before that I had been principally a bowler, but after a severe “impingement” and an operation I never recovered my bowling action, though I don’t think I ever gave up hope of doing so. I continued to play as a lower order batsman and as a skipper. Thus when I announced my retirement it must have seemed to anyone else to be no big deal. But it was to me. I made the announcement by email to eighty-six club members on a Sunday evening.

By mid-Monday morning, trying to work in my study, I was feeling bereft. I was googling sporting possibilities including “walking football” and “sports camps for pensioners” (little return on the latter). It’s not even as if all sport has ended: I play far more tennis than cricket including ladder singles and veterans’ and social doubles and I also play in a skittles league. I would even say that I enjoy tennis more. But it doesn’t mean as much as cricket. I was never a good cricketer and achievement in cricket, especially when it was both individual and collective, always meant more to me than any other kind of achievement. You can go out onto a tennis court and beat someone who had previously beaten you, but it’s one person and they may be having an “off” day. Beating a cricket team with a lot of good players is much more satisfying.

I have a theory that players like me often last longer because we have less to lose. The sort of wonderful-to-watch batsman who scores quick fifties – or even quick hundreds – and wins matches literally off his own bat is going to notice and resent declining abilities and retire. But if your ability as a batsman is confined to “keeping up an end” as you stubbornly work your way towards a victory, the decline is likely to be much less marked and carrying on has more appeal. But having stated that theory I must acknowledge that the one remaing player in the club who is older than me was/is a much better player. He is sustained in his decline by sheer love of the game.

I didn’t play cricket at school or university, preferring almost anything else, including athletics, swimming, rowing and shooting. I played my first match since childhood shortly after finishing my final exams and I have played some cricket in every season since: fifty years, fifty one seasons. I can present my cricket “career” as a global phenomenon involving Singapore and Stanford University and even Royal Bangkok Sports Club, but the reality is that well over 90% of it consisted of playing for Warwick University Staff and Graduate Cricket Club for whom I played from 1970 until my retirement. During that time the club expanded massively in the scale and level, though it has had ups and downs like most clubs. With any other club I would not have lasted a fraction of those forty seven years because I would not have had the additional benefits of such educated and eclectic company. In 1987 I became chairman of the club, which I still am, and since then I have played mostly as a captain. This, too, has helped keep me going because cricket captaincy can be one of the most intellectually demanding and emotionally satisfying activities in sport, though it is more interesting to captain old-fashioned “declaration” matches than most modern forms.

So I don’t think I would feel so bereft if I had not been a skipper. Actually the first time I ever captained a side was classic beginners’ luck: I took 4-19 bowling, scored the winning runs and we won by two wickets on a beautiful day, which is as good as it gets. In one of cricket’s many paradoxes it might have been a poorer game if I’d been a better captain. I won’t mention anything in between, but will go straight to the last game. WUSGCC away at Blenheim Park Cricket Club: last year we lost this fixture and I was injured. This year WUSGCC 147ao beat Blenheim 141ao. At the beginning of the final over I changed my mind about who was to bowl it, replacing a spinner by medium pace. The batsman promptly “holed out” at deepish mid-off. What I did is called panic if you lose, flexibility to the point of genius if you win. As it happened our tenth wicket stand was the difference between the two sides. As the days went on after that game a voice within was telling me that it would be inappropriate to play again, that I had a good and proper opportunity to retire in a spark of glory, an opportunity which was unlikely to be repeated.

Only I know or care that I actually held on to the last half dozen or more chances which came my way. These included a sharp effort at slip round my ankles and a mighty hit which was a threat to low-flying aircraft; anyone could have got to it, but I called my own name. In these cases one is mobbed by men younger than one’s sons in a collective fit of what I described as “astonishment disguised as admiration”. For a moment you feel that you are not as other men – not other old men, anyway. I will never experience this again.

So in at least some ways it is much more painful to retire at seventy than at half that age. There can be no comeback and it’s too late to say that it opens up new opportunities. It’s final, terminal, a slice of death. Lots of people wrote nice things to me which sealed the irreversibility of the decision. I could say that it may be worse in some ways than a professional sportsman’s retirement, but the suicide rate among ex-cricketers and the problems of ex-footballers would admonish me for saying that. On the other hand, there are compensations, slight but intense. I will never again look at an email on Friday night and realise  before I open it that it is a player dropping out of tomorrow’s game because his leg hurts, thus depriving me of not just a player but also a car. Nor will I have to listen to modern wicketkeepers, chirping away like demented magpies for the entire afternoon.

Lincoln Allison       September 2017