””

SPORTING LIFE

On an English village field, a lesson in sporting values

A month ago on a cricket field in Devon - where I am right now - a boy comes out to bat. He's 13 and a little shaky because he's playing his first match for a village second team, in an anonymous English league, against builders and delicatessen owners and policemen. They play - I presume - to test themselves, to share a joke, to boast to their wives later, to indulge a love for sport and the outdoors, and of course also to win.

The bowler, a grown man, is so fast that even the boy's father is intimidated by his speed. But when the boy arrives at the pitch, the opposing captain sets a gracious tone: He tells the boy's father, don't worry, our bowler will not bowl at full speed. And so the bowler doesn't taunt, or sneer, or bully the kid with his pace. He does something rather meaningful - he bowls off only three paces. Quickly but manageably.

In a sporting world where we're fixated on separating people - into best and better, faster and slower - this was an inclusive moment. This was man respecting boy but not patronising him. He was welcoming him to adult cricket: Come, kid, play. This is our sport, these are its manners.

My brother, an amateur cricketer who mistakenly believes his swing bowling is a divine gift, is telling me this story. The boy is his son. For the first time this month - in a rite of passage that only some sports offer - they played together in the same team in this small league up in the Devon moors on grounds so picturesque they are like watercolour paintings.

His team-mates are are all tough men, forged by the elements, living in a cold, wet world where they chop firewood, build stone fences and stand on ladders to saw trees. When my brother's driveway is snowed out, a neighbour appears with a tractor to drag his car out.

The only way to match the erosion of sports' value systems at the top is to teach decency at the bottom. That's our only chance. If kids' sport goes, like everything else in sport, out of proportion, then we've lost. If the only fun on a field is winning, we're doomed.

It's another, quieter, quainter world where the favoured footwear is gumboots. Mine is slippers. I am not sure as a city dweller that I could live the way they do, but I certainly admire the way they play.

My nephews, 10 and 13, run long distances and play rugby, football and cricket. Often in the pictures my brother sends me of them, I see girls on the field. Girls playing tag rugby with boys. A girl opening the batting with a boy. When I ask my nephews about this gender-blind sport, they shrug and say they look at the girls as any other team-mate or rival. It's just the way it sometimes is out there. And what it sometimes is, is rather beautiful.

Maybe this is how you build respect. With the simple act. With a quiet word in the ear. With a reminder that the way professional athletes play is not the only way. Out here, without idealising this world, they clap all half-centuries. They say "good shot" when they see one. They're competing and yet also teaching. When a young cricketer, maybe 14, overzealously appealed, his captain told him this is not how we play. No fuss, no sanction, no hullabaloo. Just a reminder about values and cultures.

The only way to match the erosion of sports' value systems at the top is to teach decency at the bottom. That's our only chance. If kids' sport goes, like everything else in sport, out of proportion, then we've lost. If the only fun on a field is winning, we're doomed. If headlines like this recent one in The Guardian - "Lunatic coaches, controlling managers and overzealous parents are wrecking kids' sport" - are going to be the norm, we're sinking.

And so it is why men like the fast bowler and his captain - who shook the boy's hand when he was out - matter because they restore meaning to sport with the small gesture to a young boy. They are proof that every adult isn't a frothing bully. They are evidence that on foreign fields, and at home, away from the camera's gaze, people are still protecting sport.

Some folk might say the boy shouldn't have been playing, for this is sport, and "no quarter must be given", as if a Sunday village match is a battle. Some might say what's the point if a fast bowler must slow down. But what pleasure for a sporting man lies in intimidating a boy and what terrific value rests in initiating him to the beauty of cricket?

The next match the boy took three wickets and was bowled for a duck by a spinner. He is just plain giddy at having played alongside his dad and with men. He's also incredibly lucky. Strangers had given him something grand: Not just an education in sport but an education through it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2016, with the headline 'On an English village field, a lesson in sporting values'. Print Edition | Subscribe