I’m watching – or I was when I started this post – the highlights of the first day of the Test Match at the Oval. This made me think of a pupil I taught in my first year in the classroom, a young man who is now a fairly big player in the First Class game – if you’re into county cricket you’d probably recognise the name, but if you’re not you won’t.
I taught him History, and I took a liking to him fairly early on. I had set the old chestnut of designing a First World War recruitment poster (I know…) and he had wrinkled his face in disappointment. “Don’t worry if your artwork is bad,” I announced, “mine is worse than yours. I’ll be looking for the point that you’re making.” He was far too polite to say so, but I could tell he was unconvinced.
And rightly so. He had a point. I even thought so at the time: I remember worrying about what I would say if he asked if he couldn’t just think of a point he’d want to make and write it down, which might possibly have taken as much as five minutes if he really thought about it, instead of the twenty or so I’d allocated to this dismal task.
He produced an appalling poster, which also made me wonder. Some of the others produced some nice pieces of artwork, which I duly laminated and pinned to the walls just outside my classroom as an example of the sort of twenty-first century learning which was going on inside. But I took his from him and gave him a look which I hoped conveyed sympathy tinged with disappointment.
But I didn’t act as though he had slacked off with a piece of written work. If he’d handed me in an essay which was a quarter of the length that it should have been, scrawled and scruffy and quite clearly the product of very little effort, and I’d spotted it, I’d have kept him behind, and there wouldn’t have been any sympathy: it’d have been full-on disappointment at best, possibly with some confected anger and almost certainly with an instruction to do it again in his own time until it was of an acceptable standard. Obviously I didn’t do that with a poster. It’d be unreasonable. And even as a brand-new teacher it occurred to me that this suggested that it wasn’t really a wholly respectable assignment to set.
Still, the Cricketer forgave my teaching, and in the Lent Term he found himself in his year group’s Association Football team. Because of course he did. He was his year’s outstanding sportsman, and he was the obvious choice for the role of midfield general and team captain. This meant that we would be spending more time in each other’s company, because that was my team.
One afternoon we had a fixture away at a similar sort of establishment. One of the very civilised elements of this sort of school sport is that the hosting teachers will meet travelling staff straight off the coach and whisk you off to somewhere for a cup of tea at least, and sometimes for something stronger, while one of their boys will take the players off to get changed. And that’s just what happened on this occasion. It was February, so the roaring fire and tankards of beer were particularly appealing, and we stayed indoors until the last minute. I strolled out with my opposite number, and everything seemed fine. The boys warmed themselves up: they were used to doing so.
The game kicked off, and I noticed that our one substitute was walking rather oddly. Was he trying to hide an injury? No. He was trying to hide the fact that he was wearing school shoes instead of football boots.
I asked him, as you do, to explain his unconventional footwear.
He was unwilling to give me an explanation.
All right, I told him, no one’s in trouble. But we’ve got a problem here now, which is that we have eleven pairs of boots for twelve players. Which feckless wastrel have you given your boots to?
I sighed. Well, I told him, let’s hope that no one gets injured, especially no one whose feet aren’t the same size as yours.
Now this would, I suppose, for some sports coaches, present a dilemma. The Cricketer was by some way the best player in the team. Taking him off at half-time would therefore be controversial. But I wasn’t going to take a substitute to an away match and make him spend the whole game on the touchline because someone had forgotten his boots.
Furthermore this was a midweek game, and only one parent had made the trip. Now I don’t think you can have a blanket policy of not substituting players whose parents are at the game, even when you might be aware that it’s fairly likely that such a parent will have travelled quite some distance to be there. It’s not fair on the others who are already missing out on their parents being there to watch them to play. But on any one occasion, if there’s only one parent there … I think – or perhaps I just feel – that it’s a bit insensitive to take off the one player whom that parent has come to see.
Why not ‘roll’ the substitutes then? Have several players take a ten-minute break? Well, regardless of whether you think this is normally a good idea, and I have my doubts, every substitution in this game was going to involve the swapping of boots and shoes, so barring injuries this game was going to have one half-time substitution only.
You have I’m sure worked out that the only parent in attendance was the Cricketer’s father. Fortunately at half-time we were 3-1 up and in a dominant position. So I told the Cricketer that he’d better return the boots on his feet to their rightful owner. He had the decency to look embarrassed. I told him that I wasn’t trying to make a point by taking him off, but that I was going to give the substitute a game, and that there was therefore only one logical change to make, and that change was going to involve him taking the rest of the afternoon off.
The father was very classy, and while I hope that neither Schoolgirl Grumpy nor Toddler Grumpy are daft enough to turn up to a sports fixture without their kit, I also hope that one of them does so that I can repay the universe by acting as he did: a few minutes into the second half he came up to me, slapped me on the back and commiserated with me for having such a fool for a captain. “He’ll learn his lesson now,” he told me, “at least let’s hope so.” I taught the Cricketer in the following year as well, and we always got on very well, so that at least was a happy ending.
As for the game, we had several good chances in the second half, missed them all, then conceded a goal with ten minutes left to make it all a bit tense; we then conceded another goal with two minutes left to ruin our afternoon; and we then conceded a corner in injury time, which our diminutive right-back heroically headed off the line to keep the scores level at 3-3. It was quite some finish to the game.
Would it have all been much easier if I’d asked all the boys with size eight or nine shoes to put their hands up and organised some way to keep the star on the pitch? Yeah, probably. I’m pretty sure that several sports coaches with whom and for whom I’ve worked would have done so. But I don’t regret that I didn’t.