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A game for true obsessives

The first thing I did was put on my cricket pants. I had to wear my cricket pants when I got dressed on the morning of a match day. They were nothing to shout about – frayed white Gray-Nicolls briefs with a knob pocket that always dug slightly into my thighs. This wasn’t for any reason of convenience or because it would stop me from having to wash an extra pair of boxer shorts at the end of the day. No, I had to put on my cricket pants because if I didn’t I would fail and if I failed people would laugh at me and if they laughed at me I would hate myself. I simply couldn’t risk not putting on my cricket pants. Later on, when it got really bad, I thought if I don’t put on my cricket pants the people I love might come to harm.

This is the kind of thing you’ll be hearing about in this article. I wish it didn’t sound so silly writing it down, but it does. I mean, cricket pants? What the hell? But this is a fraction of what it’s like to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – real OCD, not douchebags saying they have it because they have to make sure the punctuation is correct in a text before sending it – and when it comes to cricket, it can make things quite tricky.

Cricket has always attracted idiosyncratic types. As fans we are aware of the some of the more obvious quirks, whether it’s Jonathan Trott’s obsessive guard-marking or Jack Russell’s Weetabix. Me, I’m always more interested in watching Lasith Malinga kiss the ball before every delivery. Watch him, you’ll see. For a sufferer like myself, this always feels different to Trotty’s crease-groove thing or Broad’s three jumps before a spell, which I’ve always believed to be more about concentration or comfort than a physical need. (I’m not diagnosing Malinga here, just noting how I perceive a difference in the behaviour.) The closest I’ve heard to genuine OCD is South African Neil McKenzie, who apparently used to tape his bat to the ceiling and have to make sure all the toilet seats were down in the changing-room before he went out to start his innings.

When my own problems started manifesting themselves on and off the pitch it was hard, because I bloody love cricket. I grew up just across the road from a recreation ground where Little Marlow Cricket Club played each week in the local village league, with friendlies on Sunday. My grandpa was the club president, my dad played for them for 45 years, and I made my debut as an 11-year-old. There’s a cheesy picture of me standing like an idiot at square leg draped in a full-size umpire’s coat.

I’ve always been a decent cricketer, and maybe I could have played for a slightly fancier club if I’d pushed myself when I was younger. But the problem with not hitting puberty until I was about 16 meant that a) you only had to bowl a few inches short of a length to bounce me and b) my arm muscles were so puny and undefined that, while I might have been able to cover drive with visual élan, I barely hit it off the square.

When I sat down with a GP and then a cognitive behavioural therapist about three years ago to talk about my OCD, they asked me when I thought it had started. I told them about a cricket match I played in at school, a practice game in my second year. In my first year I’d been in the A team, but as I stayed small, weedy and increasingly emotionally immature, everyone else seemed to grow not just in stature but in confidence. During this match, I dropped five catches. It didn’t matter – the game didn’t matter – but I dropped five and was made fun of because of it. From that point on, I resolved not to fail so spectacularly at cricket again. (Believe me when I tell you that, despite what I write here, I haven’t kept that promise to myself.) The rational thing would have been to dive into the nets, to beg my parents for extra coaching, or perhaps to invest in a better bat. However, my confused and obviously short-circuited brain thought I could do it by formalising the rituals around my game.

As anyone who has experienced this disease knows, that kind of thinking is a case of genie, bottle and all that. What began with simple things like wiping my hands a certain number of times between overs to stop them sweating grew like mental knotweed. Make sure I only tap my bat two times in the crease. Never touch my hair while wearing cricket clothes. I’m only “allowed” one drink when the juice is brought onto the field. At tea I must only drink actual tea.

Off the field, my rituals and obsessions were multiplying too – consuming bouts of praying which had to be concluded by midnight, shoe arrangement that could take five minutes per pair per time. Hundreds of others. Literally hundreds, each one totally irrational and psychologically damaging. Google “OCD” and you can read more about it.

I don’t know what goes on in the heads of pros known for their eccentricities, or whether there are others whose afflictions are more easily hidden like mine. I only hope that it doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy the sport they have worked so hard to perfect. In my case, the game which had given me so much joy had now started to become a burden, a task that had to be executed rather than a pastime to be relished. Cricket was a roommate who had gone from being my best friend since we were 10 to someone who shat in my favourite shoes before short-circuiting my brand-new 65” TV during the last over of the World T20 by pissing on it.

By the time I finished university and returned to Little Marlow to play regularly, my cricket routine was as complex as the plans for the Large Hadron Collider. Home games were particularly arduous. When I was getting into my whites at my house for a match at LMCC, I first required myself to run – not walk, run – onto the field via a certain route where I rubbed my hand on the ground. This was to test whether the ground was wet enough to wear spikes (the irony being that I always wore spikes regardless). The patch of grass where I rubbed had to be inside the marked boundary.

After returning home, I had to troop up and down the stairs from my bedroom various times, making sure my feet touched the ground outside the front door before I allowed myself to start getting changed. When I was changing, I had to position my socks side by side on the floor so that their tops were exactly level with each other, while my other clothes had to be placed in a certain way on the bed. I always had to wear trainers while I walked up the road onto the field, carrying my boots.

Once there, I had to put my bag in the changing-room, walk outside in my trainers, go back in, put my boots on and walk outside again. I was never allowed to change out of my whites once the game started. I couldn’t wear a hat while fielding.

At the height of the illness, I had to look at the scoreboard on the second, fourth and fifth ball of every over. I had to run between overs, always crossing the square, even if I was positioned in the deep and had to run in, then run out again.

I took – and still take – my guard as middle and leg, and I had to whack my bat three times in that position when I arrived at the crease and then could never ask for it again. I only tapped my bat two times before a delivery, not because my head would be stiller or it made my game better but because if I didn’t I’d definitely be out, I’d definitely drop a bunch of catches, we would lose and everyone would blame me.

There are more… many more but basically it felt like cricket turned on me. The thing that sustained me and my mates for hours during summer evenings – that I watched on telly and I felt was a cornerstone of my personality – made me feel like shit. I fucking hated it. And even more annoying was that I still loved the idea of the game, I just despised the emotional energy it took to play it. Yet I couldn’t not have it in my life. It was destroying me, sometimes to the point of unseen dressing-room tears, but to stop always seemed impossible. Maybe the very process of cricket had become just another one of my rituals.

The recognition of mental illness in cricketers has improved in recent years thanks to people like Marcus Trescothick, Steve Harmison and Trott himself. Bizarrely, hearing about those guys also gave me succour, that a village hack like me wasn’t the only one suffering the kind of injury that can’t be fixed with an ice pack and a couple of Heinekens.

For me, OCD is like drug or alcohol addiction. You’re never truly cured, you’re only in recovery. Not long after I got married I went to get some help. It was just… the right time. I tried taking pills for a while but they made me feel weird, so I did a course of cognitive behavioural therapy through the NHS with a nice American chap who made me write out (good) lists and try to pin down some of the reasons behind why I might do this. It worked up to a point: I stopped a bunch of stuff and confronted a disease that many people hide from everyone else. That was satisfying, but it didn’t stop my rituals or obsessions entirely. Depending on my anxiety levels, my rituals increase and in turn so does my stress. I still wonder if medication is the answer.

On the cricket field many of my rituals remain, but in recent years my attitude towards the sport has fundamentally changed. While failure on a pitch was one of the triggers that began this ridiculous and destructive journey, it’s now become one of the places where everything else melts away.

When I started playing for the Authors Cricket Club three years ago, I was pretty nervous. Not only was I having to prove myself to a new set of teammates, but they were famous and talked about books I’d never heard of, let alone read. But out on the field, when I’d found my place, I was… free. Where once my mind was cluttered with fear even before I put on my whites, the pitch began to be a place where the weird OCD shit couldn’t get in. Where I could feel the sun on my face (my head now protected by an Authors’ cap) and have the kind of connection with my mind and body that didn’t require switching the light on and off 25 fucking times.

I don’t know if that will continue. I hope so. I don’t know whether I can truly banish OCD from my life, but of course I hope for that too. When I manage to stop a well-hit square cut at point and I hear my team nickname ringing around the ground, breathing in the warm summer air with cake in my belly and the promise of an ice-cold pint later, it’s even possible to believe it.


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