By Freddie Cocker
Sport can be a wondrous thing. It can help people achieve their dreams, give them untold wealth, acclaim and a life beyond the imagination of ordinary people. It can also be a place of unbridled elitism, social exclusion and misery. It all depends on your experiences and the sport itself.
The sport which I had some natural ability in and the one which gave me the most joy and fulfilment in life was cricket. Looked down upon by most people as a middle-class, boring and elitist sport, cricket has certain stereotypes associated with it. However, it was one cricket club and the amazing people who made it up that had a remarkable effect on me, my mental health and my self-esteem.
In life, “annoying” was a word that followed me around like a cloud. I was constantly labelled it in school, even by teachers. I was viewed as an irritant, a pest that needed exterminating, a personality that needed suppressing and a light that needed extinguishing.
At that age, I barely knew what my own identity was. The only character traits I could associate with were the ones given to me by bullies and people in my year group.
When words like these are used, you believe you are a burden and take it upon yourself to eradicate these qualities, imagined or real, to the point of self-destruction.
I believed my character was a hindrance to me being liked – that the traits which comprised my being were a toxin, poisoning those around me and stopping my ability to make friends.
In school, the corrosive environment which I was educated within and the narcissistic nature of the people I went to class with developed my paranoia to levels no child should have to endure.
I was hated to the point where anyone who did show kindness to me, in my head, was derived out of pity or some form of sympathy. I could not separate reality from deceit, authenticity from condescension and kindness from scorn. The first time that I didn’t find this to be the case was when I joined Wanstead Cricket Club.
When I joined my age-group team in Year 7, I met and befriended guys from other schools who wouldn’t normally have hung out with me. They were popular, well-liked and had reputations across not just their schools but others in the local area too.
The East London/Essex school community is a bubble only people who live within it will understand.
Popular kids from different schools would know each other and word spread fast on anything. As a result, some of my team-mates probably knew I was bullied. They could have distanced themselves from me for fear of becoming unpopular themselves. What struck me was that they didn’t.
In cricket, every player in his time playing the game will get a “Thanks for Coming” or a TFC for short. This means that you play in a game but you don’t bowl, bat or at best, make very little runs. You’re also usually shoved out to fine-leg by your captain to do nothing in the field. Everyone gets one in their life, even England players. It can happen to anyone.
For me, I was constantly afraid of playing in games where I didn’t contribute. It was incredibly humiliating for me and dragged my self-esteem to even lower depths than it was already at the time.
I got played in my secondary school, St Edwards’ cricket team once because I’m pretty sure the coach, who was also my form tutor, felt sorry for me. He had enough faith in me to play me in a game but he was happy for the captain to continually ignore me the whole game. The team was a glorified social club for muppets. The captain I played under at Wanstead, Barney, didn’t see me that way.
Despite our young age, Barney was a player all of us as players looked up to. Maturity wise, he was streets ahead of the rest of the team and had a calm demeanour that permeated across the rest of the team.
When we played our first game together as a group, everyone naturally picked Barney to be captain. This was probably because none of us knew how to captain or set a field but also, because we had a mutual respect for him already.
When he was in charge, we were confident we would win every game he led us in. This would be irrespective of our ability or despite how many of us were hungover from a previous night of underage drinking.
Mostly, we saw cricket as something to be enjoyed. It was Barney who instilled that belief which saw us win the vast majority of the games we played in, sometimes nonchalantly.
Barney was also one of the few players in our team who would go onto a higher level than what we were, eventually batting alongside his Dad in the adult teams, sometimes as high as the 3rd or 2nd XIs.
At a club like Wanstead with our reputation for producing County Championship and sometimes England players, that was a pretty big achievement.
The first time I bowled in a competitive game is something I’ll always remember. He chucked me the ball in the fourth over and said “give me a couple of wickets Fred”. Despite bowling two wides in the over, I took those two wickets.
For someone to have that trust in me, even when my own self-belief was so low is true leadership and a big illustration of their character. To trust someone when they don’t trust themselves is a quality we should all strive to have.
The players I played with then are still some of my fondest and dearest friends. To this day, I keep in contact with all of them as well as the coaches who form such a big part of what makes the club great.
They weren’t being nice to me out of sympathy or because they were forced to. They were being nice because they genuinely liked me, who I was and what I brought to the group. It was a very strange feeling to realise that for the first time.
Initially I retreated more into my shell, hugely paranoid that one conversational slip-up from someone in a group situation would uncover my own bottom-feeder social status. Surprisingly, it never happened.
The friendship and memories I created with Sam, Will, Patrick, Jay, Jahansher, James, Alex, Dan and Barney are ones which provided some joyous respite in a childhood beset by trauma and misery. The camaraderie I enjoyed with them and the acceptance I felt was something I had never experienced before.
For an hour and a half on a Friday when training took place and three hours on a Sunday on match-day, I felt like I belonged somewhere. It was just a group of lads having fun in a field, taking the piss out of each other at times and playing a sport we all enjoyed.
When I finished playing, the club didn’t just cast me aside to focus on players who would make the grade to the adults’ team or county level. They invited me to coach the younger age groups, even though I was still only 16 years old. I coached age groups from 4-11 years old for two years, coaching both indoors and outdoors cricket, with the club even paying for me to complete my Level 1 ECB coaching badge.
After I finished my voluntary services with the club and was about to finish my A-Levels, I was given a Jack Petchey award by the club in recognition of the small contribution I had made. It’s something I still treasure deeply to this day.
All the coaches at the club helped us become winners but also good, upstanding people. It started from the very top with Len and Trevor who instilled the right values and ethics into us as players and made sure we upheld the high standards they set.
This continued through to members of the adult teams who led net sessions and fielding drills on a Friday, like Arfan, Adnan, Fayaz, Rob, Bryan and Pam. Every coach ensured no player was left out and everyone had the chance to shine within their team.
All of them certainly impacted my teenage years when I was playing. They helped me develop my self-confidence and self-esteem both as a player and a coach.
I was given positions of responsibility for the first time to help develop the next generation of players at the club, even for a short time.
The impact the club had on my life cannot be over-stated. I will always be grateful to them for providing me with an avenue of self-expression and a place where I could enjoy myself, free from reprisal.
With every article I write and experience I share, it feels like a different part of my soul repairs and heals itself.
At Wanstead Cricket Club there is a saying; “once a heron, always a heron”. It might be cliché but truer words have not been spoken. It played a role in who I am today and who I’ll continue to be in the future.
Freddie Cocker is Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Vent.