A good friend of mine has a sporty 11-year-old son. When we last spoke, the boy was a keen cricketer. Phil had graduated from bowling at the lad in the garden to ferrying him around four or five times a week to local club practices and matches (because obviously no normal schools play cricket any more), and even accompanying him on tour.
I hadn't spoken to Phil in a while and when I finally did, I naturally asked him how the kid was getting on with his cricket. Was he a merciless slogger, headed for T20 glory and a multi- million pound IPL contract that would have the old man retiring to Barbados before he was 60, or was he a more cultured player, likely to be opening for England at Lord's before the end of the next decade?
"Actually," said Phil. "He's a table-tennis player now."
"Oh, that's fun," I said. "School break-time stuff? Mixed doubles and round-the-table and a bit of impromptu whiff-whaff in the kitchen with books for bats?"
"No," said Phil. "Six hours a day and 12 at weekends. He's given up cricket. I spend all my free time taking him to tournaments now. On Saturday we're off to Birmingham for the nationals then overnight in Derby for a tournament there."
"Jesus Christ," I said. "I'm so sorry."
"What do you mean?" asked Phil.
"I mean, what a fucking waste of time: schlepping up and down the country for nothing."
"It's not nothing. He's incredible at it. He's got a national under-12 ranking in the top 10."
"Yeah, at fucking ping-pong. The fat kid's sport. Who isn't good at ping-pong? It's the game you can play with a fag in your hand. Or a fag in your mouth and a pint in your hand. Double points if you get it in the other geezer's beer. I used to play while not only smoking joints during rallies but rolling them."
"He'd beat you 11–0 with his wrong hand."
"Great. And then what? How good do you need to be at ping-pong? There's no money in it, is there? He could be the best in the world, go to the Olympics and smash the Chinese to pieces and he'd still have to apologise for taking time off from the call centre. You can't make a living at it, can you?"
"Sporting excellence isn't all about making money, Giles."
"Right on, mate. So what is it you have gained by your boy swapping from cricket to ping-pong then? The opportunity to sit all day in sweaty sports halls in the Midlands watching him nance about in plimsolls instead of relaxing in the shade at some beautiful country cricket ground, swallowing pints to the sound of leather on willow?"
I swear, if my Sam shows any sporting ability it will be directed towards something with a bit of potential. I don't mind trogging around Britain with his stinky kit in the back of the car, supporting him, paying for it all, wrecking my old bones practising with him, but it's got to be something with a bit of payback, either in money or glory. Not hockey or cycling or rowing. Or judo. Or the fucking triple jump. I'm not swapping my weekends for any of the nobody-gives-a-fuck sports. Ungrateful little bastard might as well take up the clarinet.
Cricket is obviously the ne plus ultra. It is elegant, classy, historically fascinating and now, at last, financially viable. There are millions to be made at the top. I've been playing with Sam since he was 18 months old, first with tiny autograph bats and now with a plastic size zero that I've sawn off to his size. At first, I tried to get him to play straight with a high elbow and hit the ball along the ground but that doesn't come naturally to a toddler and, frankly, it isn't how they play any more. So, I just let him get on with clearing his front leg and slapping it cross-bat over extra cover for six like Jos Buttler or Virat Kohli. He'll start mini practice with Middlesex as soon as he turns five and I'll be whoring him around India before he has pubes, in search of a nice fat junior contract.
There are, of course, other sports I'll consider. Tennis is a bit wussy but if the cricket doesn't pan out it's something to do in the summer, it's a good way to meet girls and there's money in it if you are a self-hating robot with no sense of humour. Football pays well but is just too pikey. There's horse racing, of course. Except Sam looks set to be too big to be a jockey. A horse perhaps.
The size is both a hindrance and a help. Obviously, tall people tend to be stupid and malcoordinated but Sam — on genetics and current percentile indicators — looks set to land between six four and five with a hefty build. If he can't dribble, bowl, serve, throw, kick, run or think, there is always rugby. I never played it myself because it was thought I might need my brain in adulthood but I chuck an oval ball around with Sam a bit and he seems naturally to tuck it under his arm and then run hard at my nuts. That's about the size of the game, isn't it?
Or perhaps boxing. With his size, violence and the extraordinary commercial advantage of being white, he could do quite well even if he's shit.
I am aware that sport in childhood is pursued for reasons other than as a potential future career option. But we live in a world now in which to live comfortably in London (the only place really worth living) is no longer possible on the average salary of a doctor, journalist or civil servant, let alone a teacher, policeman or nurse. And with robots and artificial intelligence on the cusp of taking out a whole further tranche of options, we in what I'll call the "ambitious" classes (neither too posh to care nor too fucked to have a hope) might as well look to sport.
With all the time and money we're going to put in, all those injuries, all the crying over defeats and not being picked for teams, we might as well put our kids in a position in which, if they do turn out to have a sporting gift, something constructive can be done with it.
There's plenty of time for ping-pong when they're dead.