Quite possibly the greatest moment of my life so far — better perhaps even than pills in the late 1980s or riding to hounds on Exmoor or getting into Oxford or finding that the huge purple mite I’d discovered clinging to my left testicle during a cold bucket shower in the Western Sudan appeared not to have done any lasting damage — was watching Boy play cricket in a school house match the other week.
Like me, I’m half-proud to say, Boy is a total spaz at cricket. But I’m only half-proud to say it because obviously there’s another part of me that would love him to be captaining the first XI, like I dearly wish I’d done when I was at school. Good school cricketers, it’s true, are some of the worst people on earth: cocky and bullying but otherwise bland, humourless, tediously straight and generally quite thick. God, though, it must be magnificent while it lasts to be looked up to by everyone, including the masters, for such even now is the weird status of cricket at an English private school: the sport that trumps everything including wit, charm, intelligence or academic achievement.
Anyway, we’re hanging about on the edge of the field with Boy waiting to bat and it all comes flooding back. The hay fever. The extreme boredom. The lingering in the outfield making daisy chains and fantasising about when the Russians invade and having my very own Harrier Jump Jet hidden in a nearby hangar. Boy has been chosen to go in at number 7, which seems an accurate assessment of his abilities.
As his time draws closer, I give him a quick pep talk. ‘If you get less than 15 runs, you’re off TV for a week,’ I say. His friends think I’m joking. Then, as he puts on the hard hat that all schoolboy cricketers have to wear in these ’elf-n-safety-obsessed times, I give him a few tips I’ve picked up from my NLP guru. ‘Imagine you’re out there, hitting the most amazing shots. How does that make you feel? Now keep playing that scenario, with those feelings, over and over in your head.’ Boy gives me a look that goes: ‘Yeah right, Dad.’
Suddenly he’s standing at the crease and going through the motions of asking the umpire for his guard. He makes an ostentatious dent in the ground, then faces the bowler with the most rubbish stance I’ve ever seen — bat about six inches off the ground, meaning he’ll be slain by everything from a yorker to a daisycutter. And promptly hits the first ball for a four.
‘Bloody hell. That was a fluke!’ I say to myself. A boy nearby says the same thing more loudly. I glare at him. It’s one thing for me to say it…
About three overs later, Boy is striding off the pitch. Not because he has been bowled or caught or run out but because he has had to declare. You’re only allowed a maximum of 25 runs in these limited-over games, to give the crap kids a chance. Normally Boy would have been one of those crap kids, but not today for some bizarre reason. I know it’s not just me who is gobsmacked. As he hit his fifth four, I overheard one of his team mates ask incredulously: ‘Is that… Is that… Delingpole?’
The thing that has been puzzling me far more since, though, is why it should have mattered so much. I mean, academically he does the equivalent of hitting fours and sixes all the time, but I never get remotely excited about that. Why do I, a non-cricketer, with a non-cricketing son, care about an activity which intellect and personal experience tell me was and is a complete waste of time?
Before I try to answer that question, let me compare and contrast Boy’s recent sporting experiences with Girl’s. Unlike Boy, Girl is at a state school — a (very highly rated) Church of England primary. Also unlike Boy, she has natural sporting ability, especially at tennis, which she has been playing since she was four. So naturally, when I heard that her school would be taking part in an inner London schools junior tennis tournament, I was absolutely delighted for her. Her school playground is minuscule. About the only sport her school does is after-hours netball, organised by parent and teacher volunteers. Generally, though, as is the way with the state system, sport barely gets a look in. Playing fields have been flogged; it’s no longer part of the curriculum; health and safety laws are growing ever more oppressive; and, of course, the whole state sector is quite riddled with a suicidally anti-competitive ethos.
The last one of those gets particularly irritating when I’m trying to find out from my daughter’s teacher how well she is doing at school. ‘No, I don’t give a damn how close Girl has come to achieving the personal development targets she set herself at the beginning of the term,’ I want to scream at parents’ evening. ‘Just give me her class position and her percentages in all the key subjects. Then I’ll know whether to feel smug or worried, whether she needs pushing, and whether she’s smart enough to get the scholarship that might yank her out of the mediocrity-sanctioning state system and into somewhere that still cares for standards…’ But state primaries don’t go in for ranking kids by ability any more. Too damaging for the self-esteem, don’t you know, of the losers and the thickoes.
It infects these schools’ approach to sport, too, of course, as I was reminded when to my horror the headmaster decided he wasn’t going to allow ten kids a day out of school to take part in the tennis tournament. When parents protested, he replied tetchily, ‘I’m running a school, not a sports academy.’ To his great credit, the HM later relented, and his school did him proud by coming second. But his initial response was, I fear, all too sadly indicative of the muddled thinking which afflicts now even our best state schools. If they can’t understand why it matters to give the children from their school the chance to give a proper thrashing in the sporting arena to children from another school, ought any of them really to be involved in education at all?
And sport does matter in schools. I feel a bit of a hypocrite saying this, having spent most of my own scholastic career trying to get sick notes from matron. But still I sincerely believe it does, it really does, as much as learning, and discipline and good manners and politeness, and all those other old-fashioned qualities they very much continue to insist on in the private sector, but less so in the state one, more’s the pity.
Why does it matter? Well perhaps first and most obviously — as I experienced vicariously through Boy’s brief taste of cricketing glory — is that there’s simply nothing else in the world that comes close to matching the euphoria of sporting victory. It smells sweeter even than napalm in the morning; it makes you glad to be alive; it lifts you from the cares of mortality, of quotidian existence, and affords you a glimpse — however fleeting — of the halls of Valhalla, of the summit of Mount Olympus. To deny such opportunities to a child in the name of fairness and equality strikes me as an act of cruelty and stupidity almost beyond measure.
It matters too, of course, because life is unfair and always will be unfair and the sooner our children learn this the better. Sure, I don’t necessarily like it that my children have to suffer the pain of losing. But what I’d like even less is if my kids were taught to find losing so acceptable they acquired a taste for it.