My life is like one long case of the yips

Every year since 1974, when I was 11, my father has bought me a copy of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack for my birthday. This year he didn't, and I was worried that he was either losing his marbles - although there is no other evidence that he is - or that he was making some kind of obscure point. Such as: you're grown-up enough to buy your own copy. Or: surely you've lost interest in cricket by now? Both of these are unthinkable; the second being more unthinkable than what a life in the 19th dimension might be like.

But he had simply forgotten, and when I went to cook a meal for the parents the other evening, the 2011 Wisden was waiting for me, having been ordered and picked up from a proper bookshop by my mother, who, after 50 years living in this country, is just possibly, if a bit incredibly, beginning to see what the fuss is all about. ("The woman in the bookshop said 'you don't need to buy it every year'," she said, a remark that betrays on the shop assistant's part not only an astonishing ignorance about the point of Wisden, but a sackably counterproductive attitude to selling books.)

Hit for six

Anyway, back on the Tube I start devouring it. As I get older I seem to be investing more and more of my emotional life in cricket. And not just because, at the time of writing, there is nowhere else to invest the emotional life without pain, or because the England team is making both itself and the institution of Test cricket look thrilling and memorable. It's also at the small level of village cricket. I played a game for Marcus Berkmann's team, the Rain Men, at Fernhurst in West Sussex last Sunday, and as the light thickened and the crows and wood pigeons did their stuff in the rooky woods surrounding the ground, and the team cruised towards their first victory of the season, I found tears forming behind the eyelids in reaction to the beauty of it all. Bad for the concentration, of course, and when the fattest batsman (wonderfully nicknamed "Sight Screen" by his teammates) hoicked a skier right up to me, I lost my footing running backwards and banged my head on the ground, giving myself a touch of concussion that made the next couple of overs rather a blur.

Back to Wisden. The Tube journey from East Finchley to Baker Street is long, but not long enough to read every one of Wisden's 1,648 pages, and one has to choose carefully. The book was never better than when under the divine Matthew Engel's editorship, but Scyld Berry does a damned fine job, too, and one hardly knows where to start.

And then I came across an article on the yips, that terrifying desertion of talent that particularly affects bowlers (and golfers, who coined the term). This has huge resonance for me. No one now will believe me, but I once used to be a pretty good bowler. I could do everything: swing it both ways, cut it off the seam, and also bowl off- and leg-breaks.

I could make the ball sit up and beg if I wanted it to. At school I once took five wickets in five balls. Beat that. And now I won't even bowl in the nets, it's so embarrassing. Even bowling to my kids is fraught with potential shame. This has been going on for five or six years. How the hell did it happen?

So then I read this (the piece is by Graeme Swann's elder brother Alec): "One of the factors that intensifies the experience of the yips is the fact that if you bowl a no-ball or a wide . . . you have to repeat the delivery. Then you can feel like you are 'trapped inside a burning building', as one bowler put it."

Freudian slip

At this point I had to put the book down and think. Rarely have I heard a psychological condition so precisely described. It is the stuff, precisely, of nightmares (and the importance of repetition is something Freud would have made careful note of).

This had come hard on the heels of a remark by Mark Bawden, England's team psychologist: "They are usually caused by some form of emotional trauma they have not fully dealt with. The yips are the physical manifestation of the emotional problem. The irony is that often the person does not consider the causing event to be traumatic, and that in itself is the problem."

Well, until then I had considered that the big problem in my life was the yips; but it would appear that I am getting it arsy-versy. (There is also the nasty, growing suspicion that my whole life is a manifestation of the yips: every decision wrong, every outcome disastrous and yet compelled to repeat the same actions for ever.) And I used to scoff at the idea of team psychologists. Not any more. If only I could afford one of my own.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy