Keeping Matt Sane #2: Sport

Britain's Loveliest Ground 2013: A game of cricket at Stoneleigh Abbey.

Sport has always been a massive part of my life. Whether it be lazing in front of the TV watching Match of the Day or enjoying an afternoon out on the golf course or cricket pitch, there isn’t a day that goes by when sport isn’t included in some way. So, almost inevitably, it was to play a part in the process leading up to my diagnosis.

On a cracking late summer’s day in 2014 my cricket team, Stoneleigh, and I were about to play a Sunday friendly when the captain announced we’d be needing a wicketkeeper. The usual man with the gloves had badly broken a finger so we’d need a replacement. I calculated that I’d have probably last bowled a decent over about 12 years ago, so I put my hand up for the job.

It was only for 40 overs, after all, and I figured all they did was just stand still and catch the ball in a nice big pair of gloves. How wrong I was.

Just a few overs in and I was already struggling. Technically, of course, but also physically. I’d like to blame our erratic bowling attack for causing all my issues but frankly I just wasn’t fit enough for the job.

After about 25 overs, I was almost feeling feint. My thighs were screaming and my upper half was just so tired. Five overs later and I felt even worse, like I was coming down with dreaded manflu or something. Reluctantly, I had to ask to swap with someone and I slowly made my over to a more familiar midwicket position.

A shot from the famous Rogerson / Gallagher family cricket match. I'm sorry to say I've captained the losing side in the last two years!!

A shot from the famous Rogerson / Gallagher family cricket match. I’m sorry to say I’ve captained the losing side for the last two years!!

I think I only needed to chase the ball twice in that last ten overs, but my God did I feel awful. I was so thirsty for a start, but I also felt hot, dizzy, and just so, so tired. The tea break gave me a chance to down a few waters and sit down to get my breath back. But it didn’t solve the state I was in. I can’t even remember how the batting went but I bet I hardly made any runs. I might have even asked to bat down the order. But by the time I got home I just needed to lie down.

I even felt terrible the following day and by the middle of the week I was just downright ill. From then on it became clear that something was up. A few doctors’ appointments and weeks later, I was diagnosed with kidney cancer.

Since that diagnosis, there haven’t been many things that have brought as much pleasure to my life as sport.

That match was obviously the last sporting thing I did for a while. But my operation came and went and within a few months I started to feel more like my old self. Sport was back on the table. I played some five-a-side football – albeit not particularly well – and started to hit the golf ball like I knew I could, on one occasion shooting five over par through 15 holes (before finishing with three inevitable double bogeys, of course).

But the one thing I really wanted to do was step back onto that cricket pitch. Especially at Stoneleigh. The ground is situated right in front of the gorgeous Stoneleigh Abbey, and was given the mantle of Britain’s Loveliest Cricket Ground for 2003 (yes, there is such a thing!). It’s one of the oldest club’s in the county and ever since I first played there four years ago, I’ve been in love with it.

Britain's Loveliest Ground 2013: A game of cricket at Stoneleigh Abbey.

Britain’s Loveliest Ground 2013: A game of cricket at Stoneleigh Abbey.

Winter nets started in February 2015 with me feeling so much better. My batting felt better too. I remember picking up my bat and just feeling so confident – like I had never felt better. I’d scored a couple of 50s in the past season but had never really felt that comfortable until now. I was ready to hit the ground running, and started the season well with a couple of well-compiled 30s. I even took over the wicket keeping duties again for the Twenty20 games and felt like I was really making improvements in that area – especially under the guidance of Stoneleigh Saturday captain and wicket keeper Paul Lazenby.

But I never really felt able, or strong enough, to kick on from those speckles of promise and in May – just a few weeks into the season – I was given the news that the cancer had returned. From that point onwards, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make a decent score. By the end of the season I didn’t really feel well enough to play at all, and had to knock it on the head knowing that I’d need new treatment to be successful if I was to ever step onto a cricket pitch again.

Now a year on from the news that my cancer had returned, I’m still not back out there. But it remains just as much of a goal as curing my cancer. My dream is to one day make a century at the old ground, which would be pretty special, albeit a hell of a long way off. You’d certainly get a longer price of that happening than my cancer disappearing any time soon!

I got to see one of my heroes, Ian Bell, bat for the first time earlier this week. He only made 7 but I did get to see that famous cover drive!

I got to see one of my heroes, Ian Bell, bat for the first time earlier this week. He only made 7 but I did get to see that famous cover drive!

So instead of getting to experience sport for myself, I’ve had to make do with watching others take part for the time being. Highlights include me and my Dad seeing 12 wickets fall before tea while watching Warwickshire in action at a sunny Edgbaston earlier this week. Last Autumn I managed to get hold of some free tickets to the British Masters Golf Tournament in Woburn, and I’ve also checked out rugby at the Ricoh to see if that was my cup of tea. Sport has been an escape for me. Somewhere to get away from it all. That and Football Manager, anyway.

But notice how real-life football doesn’t come into that? I did recently watch some mates lift a local league trophy which was awesome – and there was of course Ajax to Ajax – but I haven’t been that interested in the pro game. Football has always been my number one but the money, cheating and a new ‘win at all costs’ attitude has put me off in recent years. That, and Coventry City being bloody useless, anyway.

I'm thankful to these boys for an awesome day at the Ricoh in January.

I’m thankful to these boys for an awesome day at the Ricoh in January. Shame Cov lost 2-0 though!

But having said all that, it was football – and the Sky Blues – that gave me one of my best sporting moments of the past 12 months. I have some very close friends to thank for what happened, as well as some incredibly friendly people who work at Cov. I had just finished my intensive IL-2 treatment early in the year and was still feeling the effects, such as the weight gain and then loss that results in your skin being a bit of a mess for a few weeks.

My fiancée Gemma had promised me a day out to celebrate me getting through the experience and told me to expect something on Saturday, January 16. On that morning I was upstairs getting ready when the doorbell rang. My dad got it and said someone was in the living room for me. I walked downstairs to find a group of pals, led by my mate Ash, in the house all suited and booted. The next thing I know, I’m in a Jaguar being whisked off for the day. The destination? The Ricoh Arena. We’re off to see the City.

On-loan star Adam Armstrong was kind enough to pose for this photo despite his obvious disappointment at losing.

On-loan star Adam Armstrong was kind enough to pose for this photo despite his obvious disappointment at losing.

I’d been put off going to the Ricoh, despite our incredible start to the season, by the fact I would have had to do the long canalside walk to the ground and back – something we were worried I might struggle with. To counteract that, Ash had booked us a space at the ground. Not only that, but I later found out we also had tickets to the stadium’s swanky VIP Lounge as well as comfy seats for the match – a key aspect considering my dodgy back.

The whole day was something every football fan should experience at least once in their lives. I loved every second, as we chilled in the VIP Lounge before and after the game as well as having the best seats in the house during it. Cov – being Cov – lost 2-0 to Burton Albion, sparking a shocking run that saw us win just twice in 16 matches and fall from table toppers to mid-table obscurity. But I didn’t care. The day was a special one. I even had a photo with on-loan sensation Adam Armstrong, who had made his way up to the lounge at the end of the game for a post-match interview.

I’m very thankful to Ash for organising and surprising – and to all the lads who came – and also to the people at Coventry City Football Club who made it all possible. Apparently they were told of my situation and offered us the VIP tickets as a treat for me. The club hasn’t half got some stick over the past few years but it’s clear there are some incredible people there who just want people to enjoy the football. A massive thank you to them.

One of the horrible things that I think the cancer has done to me – even before my diagnosis and again over the past year – is to make me feel flat. To rip emotion away from situations. I remember feeling amazed after my operation because all the emotions that had been missing for months – maybe even years – had returned. Of course, that situation has now reversed once again, but sport is one of the few things that can bring them back. Whether it be happiness, frustration, anger – sport can help bring it out in me.

It is something that will always help keep me going. I remember the feeling I got watching little Japan overcoming South Africa at the Rugby World Cup. Or when the littler James Taylor took those two incredible short leg catches against the same country at the turn of the year. I even got pleasure from Leicester City – of all the clubs – winning the Premier League.

I have faith that one day I’ll be back out there making memories of my own – but for now I’ll just unashamedly plonk myself in front of the TV and enjoy my parents’ Sky Sports prescription. It turns out living at the family home does have it upsides!

P.S. Talking of sport, this weekend is the annual Rugby 4 Heroes festival at Old Leamingtonians Rugby Club. It kicks off at 6pm tonight (Friday) with loads of music, rugby and other stuff going on. Always a cracking event! Click here for more info.

Plus ICYMI: Keeping Matt Sane #1: Italy

Matt Bates

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