Jack of all trades
To kick the curse of the all-rounder, stick to what you know
The other day, for my 30th birthday, I was given a book entitled Life Worth Living. It is the autobiography of C B Fry, variously described as the "best-looking man in England" and "the greatest sportsman of all time". To judge from photos, the first claim was an exaggeration, but Fry was undoubtedly a great sportsman. Most famous as a cricketer (he played with an ageing W G Grace and captained his country without losing), he also played for England at soccer and once broke the world long-jump record. At Oxford, he won 12 Blues and captained the university at cricket, football and athletics; his nickname there was "Almighty".
Fry's autobiography was in many ways the perfect present: he was my kind of sportsman. Like him, I am an all-rounder - someone good at a number of games. Except that Fry was not merely good at the games he played: he was prodigiously talented at all of them. In my case "good" just about gets the measure of it; another word might be "promising". All my life, I have been "good at games"; many a coach has said I showed promise (and, less often, described me as "talented"). So I have known what it feels like to be better than most; but also, and rather more often, what it feels like to be not quite good enough.
The first sport I was not quite good enough at was tennis. I started playing the short version (indoors, with plastic rackets and sponge balls) when I was seven. A couple of years later, I reached the apogee of my career: the final of the Middlesex Under-10s Short Tennis Championship. My nerve-racked parents watched me lose in five sets (or, rather, five games, because short tennis is scored like squash) to a boy with a fiercely top-spun forehand and one leg slightly shorter than the other. I accepted the trophy for the runner-up with tears in my eyes. Taking up proper tennis soon afterwards, I achieved a few modest successes: the quarter-finals of the Paddington Open Under-12s; the third round of something called the Sport Goofy Trophy. I even represented Sussex (where we moved when I was ten) a couple of times.
But by now I was becoming more interested in cricket. I played for our local village team - Glynde - and became known as a solid, technically correct open batsman. (In village cricket, the ability to play the forward defensive shot is enough to earn you a reputation as a technician.) The phrase "golden summer" is often applied to cricketers - think Ian Botham in 1981 or Andrew Flintoff last year. My own golden summer came in 1989, the year I captained Glynde Under-14s. We played 20-over matches: this meant that if you were an opener, it wasn't especially hard to stay in the whole innings. That season, I stayed in the whole innings a lot - in all but one of our matches. I finished with the improbably high average of 523 (one I like to think has not been bettered in the annals of Glynde Cricket Club). So complete was my dominance that it became a source of friction. Other parents would sidle up to my proudly watching mother and grumble that because of my extended vigils at the crease "Johnny isn't getting a chance".
Not surprisingly, I never scaled such heights again. The rest of my sporting career has been one long anticlimax, as I've proved not quite good enough, first as a goalie (too inconsistent) and then at squash (fitness always a problem). These days I tend to stick to the games I know, and play people slightly worse than me. That way, in my own mind at least, I can still be a bit like C B Fry.
Hunter Davies is away