Man & Boy
I have always wanted Sam’s sporting life to be more Corinthian than that. I wanted him to play the game I love. The game of white clothes to mirror white souls, straight bats and straight backs, the game of length and complexity, more like a symphony than a pop song, a game of intellectual rigour and camaraderie that helps you grow into a gentleman, rather than a game which is merely an outlet for the animal inside.
So, since he was two I’ve had Sam in the back garden, holding a tiny 10in Autograph bat and swatting away at foam balls lobbed gently into his hitting arc, graduating slowly to a larger but super-light plastic bat with a sawn-off handle with which I encourage him to play forward and straight.
But all I can do is encourage. For what Sam really likes to do to a straight ball of good length is clear his front foot and smash the ball cross-bat over extra cover (and the garden fence), which I started off trying to coach out of him until Mike Atherton (a colleague on The Times) pointed out that this was exactly the shot that has made T20 stars of Virat Kohli and Jos Buttler.
So I’ve introduced the concept of a “Sammy shot”, the cross-bat whack over the house, as opposed to a “cricket shot”, which accounts for the forward defensive prod and the cover drive. As long as Sam knew the difference, I reckoned, and could play them to order, he’d be fine.
But gradually he has dropped the Sammy shots and gone full cricket. Mostly due to watching an hour’s play every morning before school on Sky catch-up, in line with the Coren household’s “no television before 6pm unless it’s cricket” rule. And this viewing pattern is what had him demanding a Stokes costume for his fifth birthday. He called it a “costume”, of course, because he had Stokes down as a superhero.
So I called the shop at Lord’s, “the home of cricket”. But nobody answered. I tried the website, but it didn’t work. It was all just so English cricket. So ECB. So why cricket is dying on its feet.
After a week of trying, I eventually got some kid at the Lord’s shop grunting, “Yeah?” I asked if they had T20 or one-day England strips: “Don’t think so.” I asked if I could get “Stokes” put on a shirt: “Nah”. I asked if they had kid’s sizes of anything: “Dunno, you’ll have to come in and look.” Click, brrrr…
When we went down there, they wouldn’t let us in the ground. “There ain’t no shop. Closed down, innit?” said the man on the gate at the 204-year-old Home of Cricket.
After half an hour’s arguing, a sweet bloke who clearly felt my pain offered to walk me and my tiny son — who just wanted a fucking cricket shirt — round to the shop to show us it had indeed closed down.
It hadn’t. Although it might as well have done for all the help I got from the track-suited trainee on the till. Shy fellow, harmless, probably a solid opening batsman, but not a fucking clue about running a shop. Still, left to my own devices, I found Gray-Nicolls branded white trousers, shirt and jumper in Sam’s size. So cute. And then a size O wooden bat for which he is now big enough, if not quite strong enough. And some giant batting gloves and a helmet. God, how he wanted the helmet. And how gorgeous he looked in it. Part Stokes, part stormtrooper, part jelly baby.
On the way home, disheartened, I told Sam the truth about England’s recent test woes (this was before the announcement of a new dawn under Ed Smith), the problem with Stokes (who, like Sam, is full of talent and charm but a bit bashy) and the criminality and self-pity of Australia. He sat silently. I wasn’t sure if it was sinking in.
Back home, Sam got straight into his whites, traditional cable-knit jumper included, donned his helmet and gloves and picked up his new wooden bat. Then he walked out onto the terrace, to where I had chalked the position for his feet as well as arrows indicating the correct foot movement to a ball of good length, and asked to be thrown some deliveries with the new red, composite cricket balls we had bought to replace our old foam ones.
And forward he came, ball after ball. Left elbow high, front knee bent, bat unswervingly straight (due to the size of the gloves and the weight of the willow), pushing each ball along the ground, in classical manner, into the rose bushes.
After a few minutes he stood straight, leant on his bat and said, “So Dad?”
“Who are the best team in the world who aren’t cheaters?” “South Africa, I suppose. Or possibly India.”
“Will England ever be any good?”
“I’m sure they will Sam. One day.”
“Who is the best English player who doesn’t punch people or cheat and wears the right clothes and plays the way that you like?”
I thought about that one for a while and then I said, “You are, Sam.”
Sam, like most kids, is bombarded with football year round and inhabits a snowflake world in which cricket is denigrated
as old-fashioned, posh, slow, boring and overcomplicated