April 24, 2017

The fear and loathing of not getting picked

Nearly every cricketer has had to deal with rejection, even Bradman

What do you do on a four-month tour if, like Jonathan Agnew, you barely get a game? © PA Photos

Like me, you may have a horrifying memory of being picked for teams when you were at school - two captains step forward, the squad stands in line, and the captains call out their team one by one in consecutive turns. Best players and mates are chosen first, then the big kids, or the ones who might have sweets as bribes. It's a sort of IPL draft without the riches. Although it does have the humiliation if you're the one picked last, or not picked at all.

Imagine three months of standing against the wall and not even making it onto the playground. Graeme Swann's "holiday" to South Africa in 1999-2000 included a solitary ODI, a hotel-bar bill, and the fear that Test cricket "required an unobtainable skill level", as he later wrote. Swann survived that early snub to star for England from 2007 onwards, but not all make the most of a second chance.

Not being picked for England would prove pivotal in Jonathan Agnew retiring from professional cricket to follow a media career. After a summer debut in 1984 against the visiting West Indies, bagging the prize scalps of Viv Richards and Gordon Greenidge, Agnew flopped in the final game of the home season - a draw with Sri Lanka in which he was part of a vilified bowling unit. Still, he was chosen to go to India that winter, and he must wonder why he bothered.

On a tour that started in November 1984 and finished in February 1985, Agnew put his whites on three times, and not once for a Test. I hope he packed his swimming trunks and a small library. Three months of torture watching other bowlers get your wickets. Agnew would wait two years for his next chance, a fruitless outing against the Aussies that ultimately nailed the coffin lid shut on his frustrated England career. So he thought.

It's a sinking feeling to be told there's no space for you in the team. The captain or the coach is the bouncer at the nightclub door, that same door you've just watched all the guys saunter through

The thing about not being picked is that if you don't expect to be, you don't really care. Or you at least have the option of pretending you don't. Agnew did. In 1987 he knocked over 101 batsmen and was honoured as a Wisden Cricketer of the Year. Yet only when an injury crisis hit six of the front-line bowlers in 1989, and only because his team-mate Peter Willey spoke to his Leicestershire skipper, David Gower - who also happened to be England captain - did Agnew's soul flicker again. Gower told Agnew to go home and get his kit ready for the morning, and then rang him up the next day to tell him he couldn't convince Micky Stewart or Ted Dexter to put him in the side. "I felt utterly devastated," admitted Agnew. Quitting cricket for journalism became "an easy decision to make".

Few professional cricketers go through their life without being dropped. I imagine Sachin Tendulkar might have avoided the phone call. But even legends stutter on their debuts, have dips in form over a career, or make the mistake of deciding they can play just one more season before hanging up their boots, only to find that decision has already been made for them by the coach.

Karun Nair made headlines this winter when he drilled a fabulous triple-century against England in Chennai. He also filled column space when he was dropped. "One game does not overshadow two years of hard work from another player," explained Virat Kohli. No matter how ludicrously deep the pool of India's batting talent, I doubt Nair expected to find his name missing on the team sheet for the one-off Test against Bangladesh.

Professional or amateur, it's a sinking feeling to be told there's no space for you in the team. It's the party you can't get into. The captain or the coach is the bouncer at the nightclub door, that same door you've just watched all the guys saunter through before your way is barred. "Not you, son. Not tonight." Perhaps you can see inside the club. You can see your mates drinking and dancing, having a good time while you stand on the cold pavement outside, alone.

Karun Nair was overlooked for the next Test after making a triple-hundred. But at least he got to play again, unlike Andy Sandham, the first triple-centurion © Associated Press

It was in my drunken and debauched early twenties that I really experienced being dropped. From making my first-team debut for my Leicestershire club, Barkby United, at the age of 15, I had been a staple in the side. I won bowler of the year, Man-of-the-Match awards. When I came back from university I thought I'd carry on where I'd left - but now the cricket was paired with the late nights clubbing. And then the lack of wickets and loose overs. Until that Monday evening when I got the usual selection phone call. From the second-team captain. I can't recall the exact words, whether he gave me any clichés about getting my form back and so on, but it did pre-empt a 12-year hiatus from putting on whites.

This winter I've been netting again with my old club. Once the season starts, I'll be heading back to London and turning out mostly for the social team of wandering writers I play for, the Authors. Barkby is a professionally coached Premier League outfit with serious title aspirations. When selection meetings began in earnest for the first weekend of cricket, I understood the protocols and made the suitable noises: that I'd love a game if there was space in a side. Still, when it was rumoured that team sheets had filled up, and that I might not get a game, that old fear of being left out surfaced again. Logic, and my own insistence that I'd only want to play if they couldn't raise a team, should have have prepared me for any disappointment. It didn't.

And then, the buzz of a phone. The fear was dispatched by a text message - the courier of choice for the modern selection committee. There was space in a team after all. Weather permitting, I shall play cricket this weekend.

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His third novel, TOKYO, is out now. @nicholas_hogg

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  • Mannish on April 24, 2017, 18:18 GMT

    very good choice of subject but very lil matter. u shld also mention by the players experience that does a player hopes for the failure of team or his replacement when sitting out.

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