There are usually two kind of sports stories that we remember- the first one is a story of triumph- the glory of success. The team who become more than the sum of their parts and turn in the perfect fighting performance inspiring millions.
The second kind of sport story is one of the plucky underdog who becomes an icon of the human spirit, but just falls short. All those pre-Murray British tennis players, the first division football club that goes on an FA cup run that ends second best at Wembley to some fancy dan premier outfit. If anything we like these stories better than the first.
There is another kind of story that I am drawn to however- and that is the story of sporting failure, humiliation even. For every hero there has to be a villain. For every team who rise to glory others have to fall. I am interested in what happens to people who live out these stories. People who have lived for ‘the game’ (whatever this game may be) and no matter how hard they try, it all ends in failure.
How do you cope when your whole life passion and effort is trampled on by failure? Perhaps you just get up and try again, aware than even to have achieved a certain level of sport is a triumph. Then again, this may depend on the KIND of failure.
There was a story in The Guardian today about Scott Boswell, bowling for Leicester again Somerset in a cricket cup final. Here is how it went;
This is his description of what happened;
When he came back for his second, Trescothick was on strike. Boswell’s head started to swim. He had been struggling to bowl to left-handers. Suddenly Trescothick “looked as though he was 50 yards away. He was like a tiny dot. I just couldn’t see him. Then I bowled a wide and I heard the noise of the crowd. I bowled a second wide, and the noise got louder and louder and louder.” His muscles grew tight. His fingers grew tense. He began to sweat. “I just couldn’t let go of the ball. I wanted to get on with it, so I began to rush. The more I panicked, the more I rushed.” He lost his run-up. The pitch, already on a slope, seemed to tilt sharper beneath his feet. He makes it sound like vertigo.
No one spoke to him. He didn’t want to talk anyway. He just wanted to get it over with. The umpire, George Sharp, finally said, out of the side of his mouth, “keep bowling”. Boswell thought: “Jesus Christ. I am going to be bowling here all bloody day.” He was terrified that the over would never end. “‘I was thinking: ‘I just want to get this over, I just want to get this over’ but it kept going and going and going, wide after wide after wide.” Some flew to slip, others flew towards fine leg. The video is harrowing.
Boswell, up till then a promising talent, was dropped by Leicester a fortnight later, aged 28. He was destroyed by the experience;
Two weeks later, Leicestershire sacked him. Then they asked if he would play one last match, against Nottinghamshire in the Sunday league. They needed to win to secure the title. He wasn’t thinking straight. So he said yes. Just before the game began he was hiding, crying, in a shop near the ground. “I was absolutely terrified.” He came on first change and bowled a wide. “I heard a couple of people cheer and that was it.” The over cost 18 runs. So he feigned cramp and ran off the field. He spent five hours sitting in the changing room, stunned. There had barely been a day in the past 10 years when he hadn’t bowled a cricket ball, up and down, one end to the other, and now he just couldn’t do it. “And that was it. I disappeared.”
A week later Boswell started life in what he calls “the real world”, as a salesman for a cricket company. On his first day he spent five hours in a traffic jam on the M6 thinking: “Oh my God.” He wanted to carry on playing. A couple of clubs offered him deals, decent money. He went up to Preston and bowled fine in the nets. But in a match “I couldn’t let go of it. It was going from my hand to the keeper, to third slip, I had no idea. I felt sick. I would actually be sick. I was throwing up all over the place. I couldn’t do what I had been doing for so long.
What does the ‘real world’ feel like after such an experience? What sort of courage do you need to find who you are in it? Boswell says it took him 10 years to recover. He is now coaches children, and is always honest about that over, and how it destroyed him. He can now say this, and deserves our deep respect;
“Sometimes,” Boswell says, “I wonder if I hadn’t played that match, would I still be playing cricket professionally? But then I tell myself that this happened for a reason.” This year, for the first time in a long time, he didn’t play a game of cricket. “I had put it to bed. I could bowl. I could bat. I had never been happier.”
The best stories are nothing to do with success- they are about redemption. The sheep that was lost is now found.