GILES COREN

His lat­est dis­patch from the touch-line of fa­ther­hood as­sesses sports op­por­tu­ni­ties

Esquire (UK) - - Contents -

A good friend of mine has a sporty 11-year-old son. When we last spoke, the boy was a keen crick­eter. Phil had grad­u­ated from bowl­ing at the lad in the gar­den to fer­ry­ing him around four or five times a week to lo­cal club prac­tices and matches (be­cause ob­vi­ously no nor­mal schools play cricket any more), and even ac­com­pa­ny­ing him on tour.

I hadn’t spo­ken to Phil in a while and when I fi­nally did, I nat­u­rally asked him how the kid was get­ting on with his cricket. Was he a mer­ci­less slog­ger, headed for T20 glory and a mul­ti­mil­lion pound IPL con­tract that would have the old man re­tir­ing to Bar­ba­dos be­fore he was 60, or was he a more cul­tured player, likely to be open­ing for Eng­land at Lord’s be­fore the end of the next decade?

“Ac­tu­ally,” said Phil. “He’s a ta­ble-tennis player now.”

“Oh, that’s fun,” I said. “School break-time stuff ? Mixed dou­bles and round-the-ta­ble and a bit of im­promptu whiff-whaff in the kitchen with books for bats?”

“No,” said Phil. “Six hours a day and 12 at week­ends. He’s given up cricket. I spend all my free time tak­ing him to tour­na­ments now. On Satur­day we’re off to Birm­ing­ham for the na­tion­als then overnight in Derby for a tour­na­ment there.”

“Jesus Christ,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

If my Sam shows any sport­ing abil­ity it will be di­rected to­wards some­thing with po­ten­tial. Cricket is the ne plus ul­tra: el­e­gant, classy,

his­tor­i­cally fas­ci­nat­ing — and there are mil­lions to be made at

the top

“What do you mean?” asked Phil.

“I mean, what a fuck­ing waste of time: schlep­ping up and down the coun­try for noth­ing.”

“It’s not noth­ing. He’s in­cred­i­ble at it. He’s got a na­tional un­der-12 rank­ing in the top 10.”

“Yeah, at fuck­ing ping-pong. The fat kid’s sport. Who isn’t good at ping-pong? It’s the game you can play with a fag in your hand. Or a fag in your mouth and a pint in your hand. Dou­ble points if you get it in the other geezer’s beer. I used to play while not only smok­ing joints dur­ing ral­lies but rolling them.”

“He’d beat you 11–0 with his wrong hand.” “Great. And then what? How good do you need to be at ping-pong? There’s no money in it, is there? He could be the best in the world, go to the Olympics and smash the Chi­nese to pieces and he’d still have to apol­o­gise for tak­ing time off from the call cen­tre. You can’t make a liv­ing at it, can you?”

“Sport­ing ex­cel­lence isn’t all about mak­ing money, Giles.”

“Right on, mate. So what is it you have gained by your boy swap­ping from cricket to ping-pong then? The op­por­tu­nity to sit all day in sweaty sports halls in the Mid­lands watch­ing him nance about in plim­solls in­stead of re­lax­ing in the shade at some beau­ti­ful coun­try cricket ground, swal­low­ing pints to the sound of leather on wil­low?”

I swear, if my Sam shows any sport­ing abil­ity it will be di­rected to­wards some­thing with a bit of po­ten­tial. I don’t mind trog­ging around Bri­tain with his stinky kit in the back of the car, sup­port­ing him, pay­ing for it all, wreck­ing my old bones prac­tis­ing with him, but it’s got to be some­thing with a bit of pay­back, ei­ther in money or glory. Not hockey or cy­cling or row­ing. Or judo. Or the fuck­ing triple jump. I’m not swap­ping my week­ends for any of the no­body-gives-a-fuck sports. Un­grate­ful lit­tle bas­tard might as well take up the clar­inet.

Cricket is ob­vi­ously the ne plus ul­tra. It is el­e­gant, classy, his­tor­i­cally fas­ci­nat­ing and now, at last, fi­nan­cially vi­able. There are mil­lions to be made at the top. I’ve been play­ing with Sam since he was 18 months old, first with tiny au­to­graph bats and now with a plas­tic size zero that I’ve sawn off to his size. At first, I tried to get him to play straight with a high el­bow and hit the ball along the ground but that doesn’t come nat­u­rally to a tod­dler and, frankly, it isn’t how they play any more. So, I just let him get on with clear­ing his front leg and slap­ping it cross-bat over ex­tra cover for six like Jos But­tler or Vi­rat Kohli. He’ll start mini prac­tice with Mid­dle­sex as soon as he turns five and I’ll be whor­ing him around In­dia be­fore he has pubes, in search of a nice fat ju­nior con­tract.

There are, of course, other sports I’ll con­sider. Tennis is a bit wussy but if the cricket doesn’t pan out it’s some­thing to do in the sum­mer, it’s a good way to meet girls and there’s money in it if you are a self-hat­ing robot with no sense of hu­mour. Foot­ball pays well but is just too pikey. There’s horse racing, of course. Ex­cept Sam looks set to be too big to be a jockey. A horse per­haps.

The size is both a hin­drance and a help. Ob­vi­ously, tall peo­ple tend to be stupid and mal­co­or­di­nated but Sam — on ge­net­ics and cur­rent per­centile in­di­ca­tors — looks set to land be­tween six four and five with a hefty build. If he can’t drib­ble, bowl, serve, throw, kick, run or think, there is al­ways rugby. I never played it my­self be­cause it was thought I might need my brain in adult­hood but I chuck an oval ball around with Sam a bit and he seems nat­u­rally to tuck it un­der his arm and then run hard at my nuts. That’s about the size of the game, isn’t it?

Or per­haps box­ing. With his size, vi­o­lence and the ex­tra­or­di­nary com­mer­cial ad­van­tage of be­ing white, he could do quite well even if he’s shit.

I am aware that sport in child­hood is pur­sued for rea­sons other than as a po­ten­tial fu­ture ca­reer op­tion. But we live in a world now in which to live com­fort­ably in Lon­don (the only place re­ally worth liv­ing) is no longer pos­si­ble on the av­er­age salary of a doc­tor, jour­nal­ist or civil ser­vant, let alone a teacher, po­lice­man or nurse. And with robots and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence on the cusp of tak­ing out a whole fur­ther tranche of op­tions, we in what I’ll call the “am­bi­tious” classes (nei­ther too posh to care nor too fucked to have a hope) might as well look to sport.

With all the time and money we’re go­ing to put in, all those in­juries, all the cry­ing over de­feats and not be­ing picked for teams, we might as well put our kids in a po­si­tion in which, if they do turn out to have a sport­ing gift, some­thing con­struc­tive can be done with it.

There’s plenty of time for ping-pong when they’re dead.

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