Sport Short Story Competition - Winner

James Perkin

Sport Short Story Competition


James Perkin has been an avid reader for as long as he can remember. He enjoys writing – mainly science fiction; however, after being a long-term WM subscriber, and recently resolving to enter a competition monthly, he is trying out differened genres and styles. In the past year, he has been shortlisted once, and is now delighted with his first win.

Over By James Perkin

Abead of sweat crept its way across my forehead, somehow evading the cushioned headband of my helmet. I ignore it. Concentrate. Focus. Hours of practice – years of practice; my mind a steely weapon – totally in control of my body, my emotions, my reactions.
Twenty-two yards away my opponent will soon arrive; further back, I see him waiting – standing by a small pile of sawdust, an indicator of the start of his run-up. The ball is gripped in his hand. A hand currently hidden behind his back.
Even at this distance, I can see his eyes, feel them boring into me. What is he thinking? What is he planning?
A team sport; eleven against eleven. But it all comes down to this. One on one. Bowler versus batsman; deviousness and trickery versus skill and judgement.
Time seems to slow. He barely moves. The light breeze no longer ruffling his sun-bleached hair.
I look around the ground. Fifty thousand people, all hushed, expectantly, as they await the final ball. The final ball of the match, the final ball of a long tour. A long tour on the other side of the world, away from friends, away from family; but alas, not away from the harsh barbs of fans, bitter daggers of the press.
The final ball. The final ball, to be delivered by the world’s greatest spinner. The final ball, to be delivered by the world’s greatest spinner, on a spin-friendly ground. The final ball to be delivered by the world’s greatest spinner to… the world’s greatest player of spin (or so my proponents would have me believe).
The final ball. And still with all to play. And all to lose. Hit and miss, or be given out, and victory is handed over. Hit the ball, make a connection – any connection, then run and hope. Anything would do. A single, two, a boundary even. Just don’t get out. The final ball.
The ground fell quieter still.
He began his run up.

We had been in Australia for over three months. Three long months of cricket: practice, matches, warm-ups, press conferences, practice, matches, physio, practice, matches, practice. Practice, practice, practice.
To paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell: you need to practise to become the master of something. Ten thousand hours to be an expert. Ten thousand hours in the nets, playing ball after ball, after ball, after…
Ten thousand hours trying to pick a leg break from a googly; ten thousand hours to spot a flipper from a top spinner.
Wait, watch, wait. Ball, stance, hit. Reset. Hour after hour, day after day, ball after ball. After ball, after ball, after…
To be the best, you have to be better than the rest. Innate skill can get you so far but to cross the bridge, from average to sublime, you have to practise. Practise, practise, practise. Ball after ball, day after day, hour after hour. Ten thousand hours.
It used to be you could be an ‘amateur’ at the top of the game. A gentleman with other interests, who could still rise to the top of a sporting field, or a genius with preternatural skills to transcend the chaff clawing at their heels. Not anymore. Now you had to spend every waking hour practicing. Practise, practise, practise. Ball after ball, day after day, hour after hour. Ten thousand hours.
If you weren’t in a club’s development programme by eight, you were all but done for. You needed to get in early, to get the hours in; to get the practise in. Practise, practise, practise. Ball after ball, day after day, hour after hour. Ten thousand hours.
The moment stretched out to an eternity, like a spaceship circling a black hole – its life played out to the audience in infinite slow motion; an inevitable event, a certain conclusion.
The hand, still behind the back, still shielding the ball; anything for the slightest advantage. Shielding the grip, shielding his intentions.
Was his run up different? Was his body posture different? His eyes – where were they looking? Any clue to gain the slightest advantage.
If seemed like there was all the time in the world. All the time to bowl the perfect ball, to pick which shot to play. It was never that easy.

It’s lonely on the road. You’re on the other side of the world, away from normality, away from routine, away from all forms of familiar comfort.
Sure, you have your teammates, but that can become stale very quickly. A group of competitive people vying for the same opportunities, the same selection opportunities; a group of people where resentment can build quickly over a dropped catch or a bad shot. Three months can get very lonely, very quickly.
What made it worse was the traveling press pack. Analysing every move – every ball bowled, every ball struck. Hyper-critical reporting by people who’d never played the game, or those who had and ought to know better. The constant need to fill column inches, or air time, or screen time. Everything seemed to have an edge – a bite, a criticism. Two wickets fall in quick succession and it was a collapse. Two tests without a score in double figures and it was a ‘worrying lack of form’. Win a match, and it was the other team who had played poorly, or you were lucky. Dare to lose a match and it was the worse crisis since 1977; lose a series then the ghosts of 1882 were dragged out.
Do people in other lines of work have the same constant and brutal inspection? Does a welder get lambasted if his joins are not as clean as they were the year before? Or a lumberjack bemoaned that the angle of his cut left a lot to be desired, and was indicative of the malaise of current tree-felling skills.
Probably not. But, he supposed, it could be argued that there was much more at stake here, than in those occupations. Money. Ah, and there was the killer. Matter not, that a failed weld could sink a ship, or a mis-cut tree bring down a building; money was the driver in sport.
But then surely there was more of that at stake in the world of finance? Where was the talk criticising the investor who let everyone down by failing to capitalise on his first million, and not going on to make a second?

Legs starting to pick up more speed now. Hair streaking back. Sinews straining, muscles bulging. The arm behind the body starting to arc upwards – a dance with the other, like two opposing sails on a windmill.
He shuffled his feet, rocked from one to the other; keep moving, keep mobile. A tap of the bat – just before the crease, then a slight raise of it – quivering as it held its position, waiting to descend on its downwards swing to meet its opponent.

They’d played one-day matches, two-day matches, three-day matches. Matches against select elevens, matches against A teams; red ball, white ball, pink ball; day-night games, abandoned games, rescheduled games, extra games. Even now, thinking of it, it was all a blur; where one game ended and another began; the season all rolled into one – one long, hot summer. Did he even know what month it was?
Specialist teams for test matches, specialist teams for limited overs, specialist teams for twenty20. Square pegs being forced into squarer and squarer holes. He had recurring nightmares that soon, some bright young thing would invent a new format – The Over. Six balls – one bowler versus one batsman. They could show it on TikTok, for the attention disaffected. He supposed that’s where he was now.

But soon, it would be all over. Three long months brought to a conclusion in the next few moments. The final ball. The final act. There’d be eleven ecstatic players, mirrored by eleven incredible disappointed ones. But they’d all share a beer – gloat or commiserate, then go their separate ways. One set going back to their homes and families, the other the same, only by a longer and more lonely route.
Almost over.

A stride from the wicket now. Arm above his head. What was the grip? Quick! Where were the fingers? Where was the seam?
Then: the ball is released. He can see it now. See the flight. See the spin. His feet move, like a dancer in a ballroom, or a bird about to take flight. The shuffle and the movement of his feet increasing, the bat taking its final tilt upwards before driving back down with speed; with determination.
And so it all comes down to this. The final ball. The final act.
Times speeds back up. The ball hurtles towards him. It slams into the ground, checks, and flicks back on its path.
His bat rises to meet it, mind and body in perfect unison to act unthinkingly.
The final ball.

Judges Comments

James Perkin plays with time in Over, the winning entry in WM's Sports Short Story Competition. As James' cricketer narrator faces his opponent in the last match of the season, time slows down, allowing for a mediation on the meaning of the game; it travels backwards and sideways, giving a view of the life of a career sportsperson, as well as a critique of the professional commentators. And then it speeds up again, conveying the kinetic energy of movement as the final ball of the season takes flight.

Told in an interior stream-of-consciousness voice, Over is an experimental piece of writing that works. Mirroring the experience of playing, or watching, a tense competitive sport, there is a beginning and an end point and in between all sorts of stuff going on that relates to the main event and fills the space when it isn't taking place. There's a down-to-earth lyric quality to parts of James' text, as well as an observational, birds-eye overview of the life of a professional sports player.

A two-page short story may not seem long enough to contain all of this, but in Over's case it does, and it works. Sport, at its best, has stories to tell about all of life. Then, surely, a winning short story about sport should do this too? And Over, which gives such a multi-faceted picture of the sporting life, is definitely a champion story.


Runner-up and shortlisted
Runner-up in the sport competition was Dominic Bell, Hull, whose story is published on
Also shortlisted were: Philip G Booth, Radcliffe, Manchester; Roger Dunn, Dartmouth, Devon; Ellen Evers, Congleton, Cheshire; Andrew Hutchcraft, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire; GP Hyde, Grimsby, Lincolnshire; Katie Kent, Bicester, Oxfordshire; Harry Seddon, Choppington, Northumberland.