Sunday, 2 July 2017

Upside-Down and Inside-Out

I am in Hong Kong. It’s early and my head is foggy, which is par for the course on Sevens weekend. It’s now Saturday morning and the Friday night, despite our best efforts to have "a quiet one”, got a little out of hand.

As is usual these days I reach for my phone, check the time and then open my emails. That’s when I get the news. I’m sat on the side of my bed and I’m sharing the room with my mate Dhugal.


He leaves it a few moments before responding. My voice tells him that this was no ordinary profanity.

“What’s up?”

“My dad has cancer.”



I do the only thing I can do. Pull on an egg costume and go on an 18-hour drinking session.

I am back at the hotel. It is sometime after 8pm and the five of us at the stadium all went in different directions upon leaving. Gudetama, my depressed egg costume, has gone straight in the bin and all I want to do is phone home.

All day I’ve not been able to get the opening line of my mum’s email out of my mind.

“Dear Alan, It’s the worst possible news.”

Being in the South Stand, which carries the slogan “where the world comes to play” has proved a handy distraction for much of the day, but not all of it. Despite God knows how many drinks I still feel sober as a judge.

I get my sister on the phone and manage to speak to both my Mum and then Dad. All I can remember is him saying that he is in a lot of pain. I feel incredibly far away, and in 36 hours I’ll get on a plane and fly five hours in the opposite direction. Back to Japan and a whole world of uncertainty.

I am in the office. The staff all know, but only three of them have expressed sympathy or concern; the rest did not say a word. I’m angry, but shrugging it off. I have made the simple decision to get on a flight home by the end of the week.

My boss is being very supportive, and everyone at the ICC Regional Office in Melbourne, who are due to arrive in Japan in just 10 days to run a tournament that I have been the lead on, are being equally so.

In the end, despite my initial upset at my team for their lack of decency, the staff all step up and take on my workload for the tournament; for which I am very grateful.

I step off the CX 509 from Tokyo to Hong Kong. Transiting through Hong Kong feels strange. Last time I stepped off a plane here, less than one week ago, I was full of excitement about the weekend ahead. This time it is fair to say I have an incredible sense of foreboding.

Next is the CX 253 to London Heathrow. On the flight I cannot concentrate enough to watch movies or read books. I managed to get the exit seat, but there is no window to stare out of. Instead I fix on the woman curled up in blankets on the floor near my feet. Clearly she didn’t like the people sat next to her. There is a song by the Chilli Peppers that I can’t get out of my head. It doesn’t help.

I am on the train to Cornwall. It is a four and a half hour journey, the same length as the flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong. At least this time there are windows to stare out of, and I watch as rain buckets down on the UK; a pathetic fallacy if ever I have experienced one.

The news during the past week has been slow and not exactly positive. We are told we should be thinking of months rather than years. Packing for the flight was the worst, I had no idea what to bring, how long I should stay or what I should be preparing for. Eventually I booked a five week stay, but made sure the flights were changeable.

I stopped overnight with my sister in London and had a good update from her. She’s not sleeping well and there is not really much I can say to help with that. I am hoping that just by being around I am helping, but it seems a bit hollow. Her words after I booked my flights have stayed with me: “You coming home means it must be real”.

I disembark at Truro and get a taxi to the Royal Cornwall hospital at Treliske. It’s funny how cabbies are so much less chatty when you ask to be taken to the hospital. I’ve still got all my stuff with me, so it’s clear I’ve travelled a long way.

I meet my brother and my Mum then go to see the patient. He is in a ward with three others and the first thing I see as I walk in is “Bunny”, a skeleton of a man who looks so unwell that I immediately panic about what Dad might look like. Opposite Bunny on the right is a chap vomiting into a bowl. It is Easter Saturday, and I don’t think I like this place.

It’s Monday 24th April, nine days since I arrived and Mum and I are on our way to the hospital, for what we all hope is the last time in a while. Doing the journey everyday has taken a toll and we are both exhausted. It is helping keep Dad sane however. He has started on his memoirs and has asked for my help. We talked about this sporadically over the years and now he has suitable motivation things will move along.

Bunny is no longer with us and his bed was taken immediately by someone considerably noisier. It is safe to say Dad is happy to be getting out as well. He looks and sounds much more like himself. We were told the previous Thursday that it is prostate cancer, it took more than two weeks after he was admitted for that to be figured out, which seems a long time to me.

He is able to walk very short distances with the use of a zimmer frame and someone next to him for support. Pushing him around the hospital in a wheelchair during the last week was weird, but getting out of the ward was always a high priority, even if only for 20-30 minutes.

We are all incredibly relieved to be getting him home, but we are also acutely aware that this will bring with it a whole new set of challenges. A hospital bed was delivered the previous Friday and we have various other items to take back with us. Things are changing.

It doesn’t take long for the challenges to emerge. A first tumble, boredom, side effects of the drugs and a struggle to fill time when we would rather be making the most of it. On the plus side we did go out and by a 50-inch flat screen TV; so watching sport is now awesome. We are watching a lot of sport.

We are back in the car on the way to Treliske. It is nearly four weeks since we last drove this road and Dad is back for his first visit with the specialist. We are hoping for good news, but Dad is not optimistic. He is not sure he wants chemotherapy and keeps saying how important quality of life is.

My Mum has been a super trooper. She is tired and working constantly to do the best she can, but there are hurdles all over the place. I am due to leave tomorrow and am worried about how everyone will do after I go. I am not sure I have done much, but an extra pair of hands and someone to talk to over a glass of wine seems to be doing something.

We learn nothing from the consultant and are told to come back again in a month. Not much help for me but both my parents seem happy with it. A new drug is prescribed and hopefully this will help manage the pain, which seems to be considerable.

That night is not a pleasant one. There are lots of people around, my sister has come to visit with her family and my girlfriend has flown over from Japan. It’s hectic in the house and there are some frayed nerves leading to tears. I grab a beer and go down to the beach on my own for 45 minutes. I’m not sure why, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I am a little drunk and on my friends sofa in Tokyo. It is May 14th and Dad has been for a second visit with the consultant. Everything has changed. Since the last visit his mobility has improved no end; the zimmer frame is a thing of the past as, for now, is the hospital bed. News comes through that the revised worst case scenario is two-three years but with chemo that could increase to four or even five.

“Stop the Rollercoaster” one of my sisters messages. We are all relieved, and Dad is now happy to have a go at chemo. He is aware of the potential side effects but feels it is worth it now. It will be an 18-week course, so with any luck will be done by late October. 

Nick, who was in Hong Kong with me the weekend I heard all this for the first time, but was not aware of it until much later, suggests we have another drink to toast the news. I am more than willing.

It’s today, Sunday 2nd July. I am reading back over the messages from Dad yesterday. We were in regular contact during the rugby; the British & Irish Lions have just beaten the All Blacks for the first time in 24 years.

He started chemotherapy on Friday and his messages read:

“You will be glad to know I have slept well. I have no nausea as yet and I will not complain if I need more sleep. Keep smiling, I am.”

Later in his messages he is talking of a beer and pasty outside and I wish I was back there again. The difference now is that I know I’ll get more beers and pasties with him – even if only for a few more years. It is a hell of a lot better than a few more months.

There are still tricky times ahead. I feel like I’ve been turned upside-down, spun round and round and flipped inside-out. For the first time in a while however, I am in a genuinely good mood and think that things might just be OK for a little while yet.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Pre Season

February and March are a surprisingly hectic time in the Japan Cricket office. Despite it being distinctly un-cricketlike conditions outside (generally cold, a bit wet and even the odd bit of snowfall), you could easily think we're in full swing given the schedule.

I recently realised that I am currently in the middle of working 10 out of 12 weekends, which is fairly draining, especially as it's often hard to take days off in the week. That said, I am currently writing this from my bed at 9:30am on a Wednesday morning as I figured a half day wouldn't do any harm.

It may sound like I'm whinging, but I'm really not. Most of these weekends involve hanging around a cricket field, which is why I took the job in the first place. Two weekends in February for example, were spent in the city of Bendigo, Australia, watching our men's team play in the East Asia Pacific regional qualifiers for the World Cricket League. The sun shone, the company was good, the only issue was the results.

Unfortunately we were undone by every team there, which showed how far we have to go. Of course there were some mitigating circumstances (it's the middle of our winter, our team was the youngest by far and the only one without any "expat" players), but ultimately we hope that if we can keep this group of players together, and supplement it with new young talent who have played the game since they were eight years old, then our standing within the region will increase.

A tour like that can be quite chastening, but I was really impressed with the attitude of our players, who all got on with it and continued to give their best. If they can keep that up then better results will come.

Right now I am in the middle of the National Trials weekends. This was introduced last year and we had just two days with men and women together as we tried to identify some new talent. It was all a bit hectic so this year we split it into two weekends with the women trialling last weekend and the men this weekend coming.

Running these events is Cam Tradell, a man who has featured in the blog before, who is over here for his sixth time and brings with him not only a unique coaching mind, but an incredible positivity which helps everyone around him. He's not scared of a beer either.

After this we have a strategy meeting with the ICC and then the women's tournament warm ups begin and the event itself kicks off at the end of April. Once that is all done and dusted I'll get a decent break as my parents are coming to visit and we'll do a little bit of travelling around Japan, so I'll finally visit Kyoto, Kobe and Hiroshima.

It's not all weekends of cricket however, because just prior to going to Bendigo I took the brilliantly named "Snow Monkey Express" train up to Nagano and hung out with some primates who enjoy a warm bath. Never have I felt more surrounded by likeminded creatures.

This trip was actually worth a blog post all of it's own, but since it's been about six weeks you'll just have to make do with some monkey pictures and my assertion that it was awesome and everyone should go. Pretty cold though.

Monday, 6 February 2017

The East Asia Cup

I figure that if I am going to keep writing this thing then it may as well be informative about what I actually do over here in Japan. Hopefully not in a self-aggrandising way, but then I am pretty awesome.

Folks in Japan probably won't learn a lot from this piece, but feel free to read on should you have nothing better to do.

So last November Japan hosted the inaugural men's "East Asia Cup". I say men's because there was a women's version of the tournament in South Korea the previous year which was given the name retrospectively.

The tournament consists of four teams; Japan, obviously, then China, Korea and Hong Kong. In the men's tournament it is the Hong Kong Dragons, which is their all Chinese development side, but for the women it is their full side.

The idea for the tournament was really borne out of necessity as none of the four countries were playing enough cricket. I am not trying to be critical of the ICC here, but the fact is that between late 2014 and early 2017 our men's team did not have a single "official" cricket fixture.  As such we do our best to find opportunities for the team to get together and play; most often that is against touring club teams.

The women fare a little better, as they compete in the Asian Games every four years, and with ICC qualifying events taking place roughly every two years as well then it keeps their calendar relatively busy.

It was at one of those events that my friend and colleague Dhugal began discussing the possibility of playing more regular fixtures between the sides in the region. The idea marinated for a while and in late 2015 an agreement was drawn up between the four cricket associations and signed by all.

We in Japan took the lead on these conversations and proposed a number of different options, with the final agreement being that there would be a tournament every year and that it would alternate between being men's and women's events. The four countries would take turns in hosting over the next four years and then we would reassess where we were.

Since Korea had just hosted the women, Hong Kong had a packed schedule in 2016 and China did not have a suitable venue yet, it fell to us to host and so it was that the first men's tournament was put in the diary for 3rd - 6th November in Sunny Sano.

This was my first time as a Tournament Director and it was a phenomenal experience to try and manage so many moving parts. I've got a few mates who work in events and it really did give me much more appreciation for what they do for a living; frankly it's bloody hard work!

Thankfully the weather was amazing throughout, a good few people turned up over the four days, and we had quite a lot of folks watching on the live stream which we were using for the first time. By the time the final was played we had more than 18,000 watching online, which is pretty cool.

I was also balancing the job of Tournament Director with umpiring and I managed to cause a bit of a stir in the every first match (my long-awaited international debut) after giving our opening batsman out after he left the field of play without permission. It did serve to get us a bit of attention however, although I felt pretty bad about it at the time.

Now, those of you who were paying attention will have noticed that I said early 2017 was the next men's official fixture, which would be now. So next week we fly to Melbourne for a tournament in Bendigo where Japan will come up against Fiji, Indonesia, the Philippines, Samoa and Vanuatu with the winning team qualifying for the World Cricket League Division 5, which is the first rung on the way to World Cup qualification.

It should be a pretty good week and I am going along as Team Manager, my first time doing that too. I'm pretty confident my next entry will have a few thoughts on that. Until then...

Monday, 2 January 2017

Guess Who's Back?

Forgive me readers, for I have sinned; it has been 2.5 years since my last confessi.....I mean post.

It would seem somewhat blithe to put this down to simple forgetfulness, so I hope that perhaps laziness will suffice as an explanation.

In posts gone by I have often promised to pipe up more frequently, fear not, there shall me no more such grandiose claims. Instead I shall simply say that I am not quite sure what form this blog will take in its latest edition, or how often I'll sign in to say hello, but from time to time I shall poke my head up above the parapet and say something if I think it is worthwhile.

Anyone still reading?

Amusingly, I don't really have anything worthwhile to say right now, so I guess I should quickly fill you in on what you've missed.

In the 2nd half of 2014, let's call that Year One, there was more Cricket Blast for juniors and a little bit of domestic travel when a rather tall friend of mine came and holed up in my apartment for three months. Here we are, hiking around Chuzenji Lake in Nikko.

Hard to say what really happened in Year Two. I caused a bit of a stir with a tweet I sent from the Japan Cricket account after a couple of fine ales on my birthday were left tasting sour due to England crashing out of the World Cup at the group stages. Got us a few more followers at least.

Aside from that, life got a bit easier initially as I was basically repeating what had been done the previous year, but that was boring so we decided to open up another Cricket Blast Centre, this time down south in Yokohama at the Country and Athletic Club where Cricket was first played in Japan back in 1863. That went OK and is still running.

I did continue my mission to see a bit more of Japan (and the world in fact); Hokkaido got a visit and I finally managed to get myself up to the top of Mount Fuji, which was actually pretty cool (there I am at the top). Internationally there was a trip to Vietnam, where the previously mentioned tall man had fled after his visa for my house/Japan ran out.

Towards the end of the year things got a little complicated as the funding for my position came to an end. What that ultimately meant was a job change to the very important sounding "Head of Cricket Operations" - yes, you should all bow down before me as I pass from now on.

So Year Three was a bit different. I made more of an effort to connect with the cricket community, get to know the players who the Blast kids will hopefully grow up to play with/against, as well as better understand all the domestic structures we want to improve.

I also had to oversee the National Teams, which has been both enjoyable and extremely challenging. The women travelling to Samoa and the men competing in East Asia Cup at home were major events which were great to be involved with, and extremely tiring. With a better understanding of the needs of the players and the longer term vision of the JCA I am confident these programs will be even better in 2017.

Additionally I attended the ICC Annual Conference for the first time, which last year was held in Edinburgh, and later did a two week placement with Cricket Scotland. Learned loads on those little jaunts, as well as on a "Leadership Forum" in Sydney a little later in the year organised by the ICC regional team. Met loads of new people and made lots of contacts to bounce ideas off in the future.

I have played less and less; two games in Year One, just one in Year Two and not a single one in Year Three (apart from a Drovers appearance back in London). I have instead done a lot more umpiring and under the impressive guidance of Chris Thurgate am now part of the Japan Elite Umpiring Panel...which may have been chosen by my friend Dhugal...but that's by the by. Here we are, looking rather sexy I'm sure you'll all agree.

While all this is going on the placements from overseas, which were such a central part of my early months here, have not only continued but increased in frequency. Too many to detail, but let's just say that we have not had a dud yet. All have been great, none shy of a beer and managing the placements from Cricket Victoria, Cricket Without Borders and the MCC continue to give me a huge amount of job satisfaction, and I hope some lifelong friends as well.

2017 has much lined up, I am, barring disaster, off to Australia (Bendigo) in February as Team Manager for our Men's team where they will compete in a World Cricket League Division Five qualifier, and in April/May we will host a Women's World T20 Qualifier for the region. Expect (or don't), to hear a bit more about those here in the coming months.

We will have a festival in September, which if all goes well will be combined with a match against a Top League Rugby side - still trying to get all of that confirmed, but it could be pretty entertaining.

My folks are also coming to visit in May, following on from my sister Helen making it out here in 2016, which means I might finally get out to Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima and all those other places I have thus far failed to reach.

I think that pretty much covers it, no need to babble on longer than is necessary. I shall leave you with some of my favourite photos of 2016. A whole yen is on offer to anyone who can guess where all nine were taken...