Editor’s choice – issue 44

Managing editor Matt Thacker makes his selection from the Winter 2023 issue. We publish one article from each edition on the website, but you can see the rest if you subscribe or buy a single issue or four-issue bundle. Matt has chosen Kris Pathirana’s essay on growing up in the warm embrace of a community cricket club.

• • •

Kris Pathirana’s piece on the part Bridgend CC played in his upbringing rang so true for me. My club was Birkenhead Park CC on the Wirral. It was a haven, a proving ground, a place of laughs, lager and genuine friendships. One of the lads I played with there, Martyn Smith, died last week, still a lad to me, at 56. The outpouring of grief is no surprise – our cricket clubs allowed genuine bonds to be forged gradually, week after week, summer after summer. RIP the Vikar.
Matt Thacker, Winter 2023

Role models and slow-burn epiphanies

Kris Pathirana on community and growing up in south Wales

An epiphany is like a freight train. There it is on the horizon, taking an age to reach you, but when it does, and steamrolls you for about a hundred carriages, you wonder how you could have missed it. I tend to have these realisations about once every five years, some two years after that realisation would have been useful.

In 2015, I was hired to write a screenplay for a film set in Wales, where I grew up until the age of 14. Now, nine years later, after a Sisyphean endeavour of development, it looks like we are finally going to shoot the movie. At the time, I had assumed my Welsh background to be largely coincidental, rather than a cavern to mine within myself. In fact, I used to pride myself on being a product of the culture I consumed, rather than my environment. Yet the older I get, the more I realise how formative those years were, and how the fingerprints of my Welsh childhood have left indelible marks on my English adulthood.

The prevalent themes of the movie – belonging, family, and community – are recurrent in all my work and I never fully understood why. In real life, I have gone to great lengths to cultivate a solitary, Hemingway-esque, man-is-an-island persona, that by design requires no community of any kind. Alas, this now seems a paper-thin charade, and it seems I have subconsciously been lamenting my lack of a sense of belonging, by seeking to recreate it in fiction, based on the only time I ever truly felt that feeling… growing up in South Wales. But the more specific I became, the more I realised that the sentiment I was trying to evoke, only ever existed at my first cricket club, Bridgend Town.

You may have heard of the club because Simon Jones, of 2005 Ashes and that Michael Clarke ball fame, now plays for them. In the mid to late nineties, back when Test cricket was still on terrestrial television, and considered front and back-page news, club cricket in Wales was thriving. Bridgend Town alone had five men’s Saturday teams, two Sunday teams, a midweek side, an over 60s, and three junior teams. For four glorious months of summer, our home ground of Newbridge Fields felt like the hub of the entire town… weather permitting.

***

I made my senior men’s debut at the age of 10. I remember it well… not least because it was the first time I got hit in the head. Did I then bat without a cap because of the golf ball size lump on my forehead? Yes. Did I get caught at short leg off the penultimate ball of what would have been a match-saving 35? Yes. Should I take up with a therapist that I can remember every single dismissal of every game I ever played? TBD. I was made county captain that same year, so between club and representative cricket, I played around five matches a week (which probably explains why a back injury put me out of the game, and the ECB later enforced maximum five-over spells for U16s). I loved it. For a kid who wasn’t having a great time outside of the game, having a place you looked forward to going almost every day, where people welcomed you with open arms, was something akin to refuge. Even now, I wonder if I miss anything as purely as I miss a Friday night net on the eve of a Saturday game.

With at least three Saturday teams playing at home most weeks, it was customary after your game ended to go to the clubhouse to watch the conclusion of the first team match. But it was a family club, spanning multiple generations, so wives and girlfriends, parents, children, friends, random people having a kick-around, and couples walking their dogs, would also gather at sunset to watch the game’s dénouement. I didn’t realise at the time just how rare and sincere this wonderful atmosphere would be. I remember one evening, with the match on a knife edge, Les Cutter taking a boundary-skirting, diving catch to win the game – the kind of catch unheard of until the invention of Ben Stokes. The crowd went, to use the technical phrase, apeshit! For a club game. It was such a pure moment, one that felt personal to all within, and open to all without.

The first team players were almost local celebrities to us, partly because a handful were in and around that great Glamorgan side of the mid-nineties, so it felt gratifying when any player said a kind word after a game or gave you some impromptu coaching in the nets. They really wanted you to do well. I remember when I got my first cap for Wales, how the senior players made such a big deal of it, not only about how proud they were, but to ensure that I didn’t rest on my laurels and ease up on training.

I subsequently played at several English clubs and not only did none come remotely close to that sense of community, but the senior players seemed eager for the youngsters to fail just to put them in their place. By contrast, the Bridgend seniors seem genuinely excited to see progress in their young players for the simple reason that you were one of theirs. Your success was their success. This was taken to a ridiculous degree when I was 13, when my father received a phone call at 10.30 at night from a concerned parent who had heard a rumour that a rival club (where the rich kids played) were going to pay me to play for them. Even then I thought that ridiculous, and it remains, the most Friday Night Lights thing that has ever happened to me. But now I realise that’s just how tight-knit the club was; and how much they cared that I was one of theirs. Which is actually rather nice.

It felt like anyone who lived in Bridgend had a connection to the club. Another memory that stands out was when Rob Howley umpired one of our junior games. Already a local legend, despite not yet being the greatest Welsh scrum-half since Gareth Edwards, this was akin to Brad Pitt showing up to judge your school macaroni art. Except it wasn’t a one-off. I believe Howley is still a playing member. Bridgend Town had a way of keeping everything in the family, even if it wasn’t your family. I suspect it is still this way, a few decades later. After some very light online stalking of the club website, it seems that many of my former teammates are not only still playing, but now have kids of their own, who play for the club too.

***

As adults, we sentimentalise the past, lamenting the complexity of the present, nostalgic for a past that felt simpler. But it’s not only the world that was simpler, we yearn for a time when we were simpler. Perhaps I am doing that with the club. Perhaps it was never really like that. But its value goes far beyond the romanticised nostalgia of an older man, mourning the absence of community and sense of belonging in his own life.

Although player numbers spiked this year because of the Ashes, participation in cricket, both at club level and in state-schools, has been in steady decline. Cricket is not on terrestrial television any more, and Test match tickets have become prohibitively expensive. Like most, I mourn the declining interest in the sport, but its waning influence has far-reaching implications beyond the game itself. When I think of the value of my time at Bridgend Town, and what has stayed with me, very little of it has anything to do with cricket. It wasn’t just the sense of community it fostered, it was the actual community it created. The older I get, the more I realise how significant a part that played in shaping my worldview.

With recent technological advances, social media, and a systematic cutting of public services, access to “third spaces” has been greatly impacted. A third space is a sociological term to describe an environment outside of home and work where people come together, like public libraries, parks, churches, cafés and… cricket clubs. Arguably, no group has been impacted quite as negatively by these developments as boys and young men.

Anyone familiar with the work of Professor Scott Galloway will know that the forecast for young men seems bleak; educational outcomes are spiralling, unemployment, crime and suicide rates are rocketing, more men aged 18-34 are still living with their parents, have no romantic relationships of any kind, and perhaps most tragically, report not having a single close friend. In the modern, “interconnected” world, we have the illusion of connection, but the reality is that real-life interaction is at an all-time low. What this also means, for boys and young men, is not only a lack of connection, but a complete vanishing of real-world mentors and visible male role models.

The value of clubs as social spaces has never been more evident, and while we regularly complain about the decline in real world interaction and eroding social structures, few make the connection that the solution could lie in a rain-affected Sunday game at Hatherop. Of all the mainstream British team sports, I would argue that none is better placed to offer the camaraderie, discipline, and mentorship than cricket (I am yet to meet a cricket hooligan or see any evidence of vandalism after Northants narrowly miss out on a draw at Sussex).

Perhaps this is because, unlike other team sports, it is perfectly normal for children to be drafted into adult teams, and spend entire days together, talking over a cup of tea in 30 degree heat. I can’t think of any other scenario where I would have been around adults, almost as a peer, for that length of time.

Having those senior figures at Bridgend, both coaches and older teammates, was invaluable because it gave you something to look up to, and a sense that you belonged to something greater. You listened to them in a way that was different to listening your family. Even if it was but a few words, that was enough.

I wanted their approval and would have been ashamed to disappoint them. That alone kept me disciplined and humble. For young men, having positive male figures in your life is vital. Perhaps, what I am really describing is the value of the tribe. In a tribe, it isn’t merely the job of the parents to raise the children, it is the role of the community. And perhaps, when I talk of community, what I am really talking about is “found family”. I’m sure nobody at Bridgend even remembers me. But I remember them. That’s how this works. The receiver remembers kindness far more than the giver.

This is hardly a new idea. But it feels like if we looked at club cricket as a cure to what ails us, we might take greater pains to protect, preserve, and demand investment in it as a social good. And if we look at it as a social good, then we should view those coaching and mentoring as public servants. Charlie Griffiths, who I was sad to learn passed away a few years ago, was the youth organiser at Bridgend Town for decades, and instrumental in cultivating and nurturing cricket in South Wales. It never occurred to me to wonder whether he was paid for this, or where he found the time and energy, given that he was already in his seventies. I suspect he did it all out of his love of the game, and can only imagine how many thousands of children found a place for themselves in cricket because of his efforts. Not that he ever asked for gratitude or applause.

The difference that older men can have on their younger counterparts, and the responsibility that we as men have for younger generations, cannot be underestimated. The rise of the Manosphere and online “red pill” community demonstrates how essential it is for young men to find a sense of community, structure, and accountability, because if it isn’t available in the real world, then powerful, and unfortunately charismatic, false idols will be found elsewhere. So, as I close the chapter on this Welsh screenplay, rather than pine over the fact that I haven’t found any sense of community since, I feel only gratitude that I got to feel it at all. But because of the kindness and generosity shown to me, my only thought now, is how to pay it back, and how to pay it forward.

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