Heavy mettle

God, I hate judgmental people. They’re so mean…and fat.  (John R. Lindensmith)

One of my earlier cricket memories was watching the late Harry Pilling batting for Lancashire in the nineteen-sixties. Harry was a diminutive sportsman but in over two decades he knocked up north of fifteen-thousand runs. And let’s not forget that one Donald George Bradman came in at around five-and-a-half feet and retired with a Test average just south of a hundred.

The Venezuelan baseball star Jose Altuve who played Major League with the Houson Astros said this: In baseball, it doesn’t matter if you’re tall, skinny, fat, whatever. If you really have talent and you really love to play, I feel like you can make it. And this is certainly true of a select group of players on the cricket league circuit who fall under the umbrella of carrying a few extra pounds.

When I was younger I played squash at club level. On one memorable occasion I played against an ex-pro in his early fifties who who was more portly than I suspected he might have been in his serious playing days. As this ex-pro peppered the four walls from the middle of the court, I was like a mouse in a psychology experiment scampering around in a meaningless pursuit of the ball. The guy’s hand-eye coordination more than made up for his excess weight, making the exercise a literal chaste experience.

I have written on this blog about the exceptional improvement in fielding over the past ten years. And even with today’s boot camp fitness and the younger players  strutting their abs, there is still good representation of XL cricketers around the League. And I believe this is something to be extremely proud of.

In my youth cricketers were more generously built than today’s players. You wouldn’t give much hope for the likes of Colin Milburn and Colin Cowdrey and later on Mike Gatting in the modern era. In their day fitness was measured in how many pies and pints could be polished off before, during and after a day’s cricket and I am sick of hearing variations of Gatting being spotted having a triple cheeseburger with large fries. I saw him get a county hundred once and I cannot recall a better example of the total humiliation of a fielding side. So who cares if Gatt liked a slice or three of Black Forest gateau?

These cricketing greats would never have countenanced the dieticians, psychotherapists and media officers on today’s county and international payrolls. Not for them a pre-match group hug or bonding week on an SAS retreat, a pre-season amble around the county ground with a Silk Cut behind the ear was the fitness modus operandi back in the day. And despite their wide girth – or in the case of Milburn possibly because of it – they still delighted fans with their immense batting prowess. But in today’s era obsessed with fat shaming, what would social media make of Australian cricket icon Warwick Armstrong nicknamed The Big Ship and weighing in at 133 kilos at the beginning of the 20th century?

It is interesting that I have yet to hear any XL player on my watch to be sledged about their weight although it has not stopped overt criticism of their batting ability. It may well be that in a League cricket circuit where everyone knows one another, that there is respect for the cricketing ability of these players. And make no mistake, as with my humiliation on the squash court, I have witnessed some extraordinary hitting from these stand-and-deliver merchants. Pressing home the point that the cricket text books are wrong and you don’t have to move your feet, these hand-eye warriors can thump a cricket ball a very long way. Accumulating singles, twos and threes is not for them. Aside from wasting their time with running,  this nickel-and-dime short change is not as profitable as the jackpot of the boundary rope.

It is not only acumen with the bat that raises eyebrows. The majority of the XL League cohort are posted at first slip or long leg where they generally remain for the innings. But it is not unusual to find a hefty village blacksmith patrolling mid-off and covers which can be a toxic environment when a batting side let loose in the final few overs of an innings. As a size-friendly sport this is where cricket comes into its own. Of course an overweight fielder is not going to have much chance in winning a race with the ball to the boundary. But with a knack of knowing where the ball is going as soon as a batter plays a shot, these canny fielders arrive at the point where ball meets fielder at exactly the right time to pull off some great stops. It has got nothing to do with weight and everything to do with a knowledge and feel for the game.

Which brings us to Rakheem Cornwall, who plays for Leeward Islands and West Indies as well as being a regular in the Caribbean Premier T20 League. Tipping the scales at 140 kilos, the talented all rounder was described by one of the all time greats Andy Roberts as ‘a real talent’. Yes, he will need to shed a few kilos to get to a better level of fitness but the only thing that really matters is that he is an international cricketer, not just a fat bloke. Like my League, Cornwall serves as a role model for young players who show promise and whatever their weight, will always be welcome in cricket.