Back recently from a ‘tour’ to sunny Aberystwyth, triumphantly brimful of something we might hashtag under #positivity. Not the faux variety, which accompanies so much sport, unconvincingly driving up its libido whilst reducing its intelligence. No. The positivity arising from proper good.
Much of this was due to the sheer level of enjoyment my junior charges experienced. The rest was about… well, about Dylan.
I can use his name because although what follows is both personal and in a rather dangerous way revealing, this lad (this family) have a huge amount to be proud of. Plus, following conversations with Dylan’s mum, it’s perfectly clear that she is absolutely signed up to my inclination to walk the streets with a luminous billboard saying ‘Case For Sport proven. Whoooppeee!!’
The John family and most of the folks involved on our county team’s opening-season journey know that something wonderful has happened or begun to happen. The world has gotten better. A statement has been made. Doors which have typically clunked have swung open… a tad. Without I hope getting too mushy too early, we’re all touched and actually rather privileged to have been involved.
Okay, for better or worse, it feels like Dylan needs to be described, here. He is big, he is boisterous, he has Special Needs. Those are the obvious – and obviously inadequate – labels.
As a medium-sensitive and streetwise kindofaguy, I reckon to have some understanding of Dylan’s issues; but for brevity maybe I should package those wider, cod-psychological musings into the following phrase and leave it at that.
I am pret-ty certain Dylan ain’t an Evil Little Monster. He is more likely a lad who doesn’t either understand what barriers mean OR (maybe more painfully?) what people mean when they describe his transgressions back to him and expect him to a) get that… and then b) behave.
Beyond this actually rather critical stuff around understandings or otherwise, Dylan has a medical condition which is characterised by lapses into what I, as an amateur, might call lower states of consciousness. They aren’t either true faints or true blackouts but maybe they do symbolise Dylan’s vulnerable place in the universe. These episodes are controlled by medication and (no surprises?) happen more regularly when he is stressed or challenged.
Hold on. Roll that back. Vulnerable? At somewhere near twice the body mass of most of his peers? With a rough-tough, edgy, unpredictable presence about him?
Yes – I think so. Vulnerable. The clue is in the phrase – Special Needs.
This is not to say I don’t see how Dylan might be scary to some of his schoolmates, or relentlessly demanding of teachers or parents or anyone else charged with watching over him. I know he’s been tough to manage; that he bounces from one bollocking (which he doesn’t understand) to the next – endlessly. I found it tough to cope with him, myself, at times, when he’s got that slightly wanton, slightly worrying head on. But…
Let’s re-cap, briefly. We’ve got a lad who’s been thrown out of things for bad behaviour, for being wild and reckless and ‘likely to explode’. But he can do that See Ball, Hit Ball thing, powerfully – admittedly partly because he’s big and strong.
He comes to my Under 10s winter development sessions and it’s immediately clear that Dylan’s a Wild One and a One-off. But I kinda like his style – his childish joie-de-boom. I watch.
So this young fella hits the ball excitingly, intimidatingly hard but he is disruptive. He will complicate things. It’s not at all a given that I select him to go on for further – i.e. Regional Cricket level – sessions yet I remember very early on thinking that despite his occasionally hilarious rawness, Dylan had to play. Not because I wanted some pet project but because his batting (or rather his hitting) had crazy potential. He would be in on merit, because he’d get runs. That and yes, I did feel some responsibility and/or sympathy and/or huge opportunity much bigger than cricket was there, before us. It felt right and important to give the lad a chance.
That was all very well but from the first moment I also knew that I would have to choose a team to go on tour to Aberystwyth. Meaning 3 nights, four days away from home, with lots of patient waiting to bat or bowl and lots of Appropriate Behaviour in accommodation or dining hall. Etc etc. This would be massive.
Biggish for all the nine or ten year-olds in the group but Himalayan for Dylan. Hence further toing and froing.
He would be uncontrollable or kinda toxic. He would lose it, surely – shout or fart, not just in the shower, like the rest of us – but out there in front of the umpire or the tea lady… or he’d sling his bat at their coach or into the sunbathing mothers. Impossible to take him.
But I knew I should take him and I thought (after those entirely reasonable but also nightmarish doubts) we could make it work.
So I spoke to Ben Fields, who leads Pembrokeshire County Council Sport Development and to two Head Teachers and to my outstanding colleague and Cricket Development Officer Matt Freeman and we cooked up a plan to offer Dylan support. My comrade and manager, Rob Williams was typically up for the challenge so we just went for it – pushed for a wee bit of funding – and bingo.
The upshot was that a further responsible adult (Johnny T, a teacher from Dylan’s school) attended the Aberystwyth Festival alongside us with a brief to a) be a good bloke and b) watch over Dylan, discreetly. Both of which he did – superbly.
So, the Festival.
Helpfully, the weather was beyond glorious. We played all the scheduled cricket, we had a laugh and a surreal sing-song on the minibus. We launched ourselves into the Irish Sea, from Aber’s seafront jetty. We did the ice-cream and arcades thing. The whole gang – including parents – were magnificent and the memories really may last a lifetime.
Dylan participated fully and wholeheartedly. He was good company and only a pain in the arse when it came to muggins announcing the batting order. (I tend to name a few but try to rotate the opportunities around reasonably fairly, so am not in the habit of fixing an eleven, in case somebody bats for an age in a couple of games, thereby denying chances and necessitating changes.)
Dylan could not stop himself from asking me – in both direct and fascinatingly convoluted ways ‘who would be in after so-and-so?’ During one innings he asked maybe eight or ten times… during one innings!
He also struggles with the concept of fielding – taking the usual ten year old’s drift to new levels of estrangement. In his ideal world, Dylan would bat and bowl early, then play with anyone he can badger into bowling at him on the sidelines, before gloriously re-entering the fray. (Not that different from most club players, asitappens, but clearly something that complicates things.)
Dylan is a one-off and could not function within the same rules as everyone else. So of course we let him drift – under observation, or with encouragement to engage in something relatively calming or helpful or relevant. His contribution was hugely flawed; it bore no comparison to that of the other members of the team; but such comparisons are meaningless.
Let’s come to his achievements. (In doing so, I am conscious of the superb achievements of his fellow players and have some regrets that this is a story which bypasses them. I hope they and their parents will forgive me for that. The fabulous richness of their enjoyment was such that I’m sure that every minor man jack of them will be locked into cricket for life… and yet we are scorching on past.)
Dylan needs to feel his family are close. In several of our regional games he has quietly asked – maybe during a team-talk, maybe during the long wait to bat – if he could go and see his cousins or his mum. He needs to. For him to actually stay ‘away’ overnight, in his own room – even in the knowledge that the family have a hotel (to which he can retreat if necessary) within a handful of miles – was massive. He did that.
For Dylan to win over the fears and discomfitures of his fellow players and their families pretty completely – by being a laugh and a decent lad – was massive. He did that.
For Dylan to have come through the entire four days without creating any significant difficulty in terms of behaviour or relationships with any other party was massive – but exhausting for him. (He wobbled a little on the last, sweltering afternoon.)
At almost every moment I could feel the intensity of his energy, most of which I knew was being ferociously channelled (in his own rumbustious, amorphous way) into being good – or as good as he could be.
On the pitch, Dylan took two catches that half the team would have dropped and broke new ground with the bat. He scored 37 not out in our final game and smashed more boundaries than anyone else in our posse. He entertained us, with his beefy bludgeoning and his centrifugal anything-might-happenness. People cheered him on.
Crucially, he also showed us that he is trying like hell to learn proper cricketstuff; like playing with a straight bat (sometimes). Like showing a degree of circumspection previously completely unimaginable.
This latter stuff, for me, implies thought and maturation; development. Development like you wouldn’t believe! A rich universe of possibles, in fact, that the world seemed likely to deny him, because Dylan is Big and Boisterous and has weird faints and stuff – and Special Needs – and he ‘doesn’t listen!’
Except he has listened. Because the game’s gotten into him. The poor lad’s been seduced by the pure joy of hitting (and succeeding) and the camaraderie thing – being one of the gang with the gang finally becoming comfortable with that – with him!
Dylan was the lad who had lost the right to be taken anywhere, the right be really listened to. He had no hope of anything except more of the same, crushing, inevitable, well-earned ‘discipline.’ He was hoodlum-fodder: a Lost Boy. But now he’s winning.
Look we can’t say there won’t be more grief and difficulty ahead but we can say there’s something here that may offer a way out of trouble and isolation and failure to learn. Weirdly and wonderfully, that thing is cricket. A transformation, or at least the opportunity, the possibility of a staggering transformation, has begun. It’s massive.