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Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket

Posted on 19th April 2016 by Waterstones
Emma John, the author of the brilliant memoir Following On, tells of her love of Cricket, Cricketers and meeting her idols.


If meeting your idols is dangerous, meeting them and writing about it is even worse. Especially if you’re then planning to admit, in print, the full extent of the teenage crush you had on them.

My love for the catastrophic England cricket team of the 1990s was weird enough at the time. As a teenager, my bedroom walls were covered in posters I’d crafted from newspaper cuttings and photos of players like Mike Atherton and Mark Ramprakash and Phil Tufnell. It would have been a strange, almost psychopathic sight even if they’d been superstars. But this was an England team that was famous for losing – who were arguably one of the least successful sporting outfits in the nation’s history.

It wouldn’t have occurred to me to reveal this rather freakish period of my life if it hadn’t been for a conversation with my friend Rob Biddulph, the children’s author. I’d been working on a different book that was going nowhere; he suggested I take a break. “You love cricket,” he said. “Why not write something about that?” I’m pretty sure I told him it was a stupid idea.

But he must have planted a seed in my subconscious, because later that week, as I was falling asleep, I suddenly envisioned the home-made cricket posters of my youth. I remembered the emotional rollercoaster of hope and despair that the 90s England team had taken me on. I had never considered before why on earth, as a 14 year old, I’d chosen to follow them - or why I’d kept on through a decade of disappointment.

Very few of those players had talked about what it was like to endure such a torrid time. Perhaps no one had asked them – after all, 90s music and fashion might be making a nostalgic comeback, but 90s cricket was the kind of memory that many fans deliberately suppressed. So I decided I’d try and track down 11 of my doomed heroes, and see who those years had been worse for – them or me.

It took about a year to reach and meet them all. As someone who’s covered the Olympics, Wimbledon and World Cups, I’ve quizzed plenty of famous sportspeople. But this was different: this was personal. Nothing had prepared me for how strange it would feel to sit in front of men I had once worshipped, listening to them talk about events that had shaped my adolescence. If you’d told my 14 year old self that in 20 years time she’d be celebrating her birthday with England batsman Graham Thorpe, after he’d driven her to a country club in his Jaguar, she’d probably have burst into tears with excitement.

I was surprised how happy the players were to talk about some pretty inglorious experiences until the penny dropped – for many of them, they were the happiest days of their lives. I was going through my tortured teens in the 90s – investing far too much emotion in a team that never rewarded it, teased by everyone for my weird obsession – but they were at the peak of their powers, representing their country, and earning a good living doing the thing they loved most. They may not have been very good at facing Australia in the Ashes, but they were certainly enjoying it more than I was.

There was something else I didn’t expect. I had thought that as I weaved my own memories around the players’ tales, I’d learn something about the relationship between sporting heroes and their fans. In fact, a completely different story emerged, of my relationship with the person who had introduced me to cricket in the first place – my mum. The more I wrote, the more it became clear how cricket had grown and shaped our relationship; and how it had helped us through the awkward transition from mother and child to mother and friend.

Being a sportswriter and being an author are very different propositions. One thing I’ve learned from writing Following On is that you have to really commit with memoir – you can’t hold back. Knowing that the very subjects of my adoration would probably read what I wrote about them, I battled a constant temptation to play it all down – to hide the excesses of my teenage obsession, to rein in what I’d really felt. It still makes me nervous to wonder what my former crushes might think of the story – will they regret talking to me at all? At times like this I think back to my 14 year old self, and what she’d have given to write this book. I think she’d be pretty proud. 



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