By Nick Friend
“The noise and the roar just got progressively louder and more raucous every time I bowled a wide. Then, literally, I absolutely froze.”
Scott Boswell’s story is a harrowing one. Boswell himself may not be a household name, but the image that defined – and ended – his professional cricket career, most certainly is. Everyone has seen it, whether on blooper reels or as one of the 1.6 million people to have clicked on YouTube’s ‘Worst Over Ever.’ The over lasts fourteen balls. Six of the first eight are wides. To the oblivious viewer, the natural instinct is to be amused, to mock, to ridicule. The reality, however, could scarcely be less funny. The video shows a lifelong dream being destroyed, a career being ended on live terrestrial television, a man losing what, for all his life, had been the most basic and repeatable of skills; a disorder better known as the ‘yips.’
“There are different types of yips”, Boswell explains to me. “I got the yips from an occasion. You can get the gradual yips but the key thing to understand is that it’s all mental. Occasionally, it can be a combination of the mental and technical. My bowling arm got lower and lower, partly because I was trying to swing the ball, and partly because it was late in the season and I was getting tired and we’d just tried to change my action to get me swinging the ball in instead of away.
“But, if you’re not mentally tough enough and don’t have a strong enough action, it can happen and you start becoming conscious of your action and what you’re trying to do. As soon as you start thinking about it, you’re a goner – especially in a high-pressure situation. My action didn’t hold, mentally I didn’t hold together.”
Boswell was opening the bowling for Leicestershire against Somerset in the 2001 C&G Trophy Final at Lord’s. He had done so all season and with tremendous success. He was the top wicket-taker in the Pro40 league and had taken 4-44 in the C&G semi-final against Lancashire, dismissing the England quartet of Mike Atherton, Neil Fairbrother, Graham Lloyd and a young Andrew Flintoff. Nobody – not least Boswell himself, could have foreseen what would happen next.
“I never had a gradual process or a year where the ball wasn’t coming out well or where it didn’t feel good in the hand. Basically, on that occasion, I froze because the occasion was just too much for me. And from there, it started to get progressively worse.”
Boswell was dropped from the side for the following game, a Pro40 game against Gloucester, but was recalled for what was, essentially, a title decider against Nottinghamshire. By his own admission, his mind was elsewhere, his confidence wrecked and he was genuinely fearful of releasing the ball.
“After Lord’s, I’d literally gone. I openly faked an injury against Notts and came off the field. I didn’t want to play in that game whatsoever. I think I bowled one over [for eighteen] with four or five wides. It was the most horrific thing – and I went missing at one stage. I left the ground because I just didn’t want to play the game or even be part of it.”
Worse was to follow as, inevitably, he was released from his contract days later, despite having been in discussions regarding a new deal just prior to the final. Though disappointed by the decision, he acknowledges that “even if they had offered me something I wouldn’t have been able to take it with the yips.”
The events that led to these yips make for, at best, uncomfortable hearing. Yet, Boswell, now one of an elite group of ECB Level 4 coaches, is unbelievably candid in reflecting upon the day that would change the course of his life.
Even before it had all begun, Boswell had been the subject of a last-minute toss-up between him and, former England fast-bowler, Devon Malcolm. Upon receiving the nod, the first piece of advice given to a self-confessed “tense cricketer” by his coach: “I hope you don’t f*ck up tomorrow.”
While Boswell makes no excuses for what followed, he confesses that “it wasn’t great preparation going into the biggest game of my career as an average county cricketer.”
From then on, Boswell’s account of the day is gut-wrenching; an unbelievable insight into the effects of pressure at the highest level – the combination of playing at the Home of Cricket in front of 20,000 fans, while running in to bowl at one of England’s most imposing opening batsmen of all time.
“It felt wrong from the start of my first over. I didn’t feel nervous, which was unusual for me, but I knew after I’d bowled two balls that something didn’t feel quite right. It just didn’t come out right – whether it was the tension or the nerves. All I could think of was the noise and the atmosphere.
“I’d played in front of big crowds a lot but I’d never thought about it, never even considered those external factors. I actually enjoyed performing in front of people. I suppose it can all change around and I think, in my case, that was because I became actively conscious of the crowd and the noise and of something I’d done. From then on, I was no longer thinking about where I was going to put the ball.
“I just remember standing at the top of my run-up, looking at (Marcus) Trescothick, the striking batsman, and thinking about how far away he seemed to be. I was running in, with the Lord’s slope, thinking: ‘Bloody hell, you are so far away.’ And he just looked huge – like an immense statue, and I remember as I was running in, it felt like he was getting further and further away from me. I can see it now, literally almost in the stands, thinking about how I could even reach him, he was that far away.”
Fourteen balls later, his ordeal was over, banished to third man in the hope of respite. However, with Somerset bringing an army of fans in the hope of witnessing a first one-day trophy win for eighteen years, Boswell became a figure of mockery, taunted and derided on the boundary.
“Oh my God, it was awful”, he reminisces. “The bloody ball followed me everywhere. I was completely frozen. I had a water bottle three metres away and my mouth was so dry that I couldn’t even get to the bottle. I had to ask David Millns to pick it up and pass it to me as he walked around the ground to do some media work. I just couldn’t physically get myself to the boundary to get to the water. People talk about sportsmen freezing under pressure – I was ice. I was literally gone.”
And if this was torturous enough for Boswell, this would only be the start of a decade of struggle as he battled to understand what had gone wrong. For, what is missed by the spectator in professional sport is its human aspect, the fact that these men and women do, in fact, have lives, families, friends and their own vulnerabilities. There is a misconception that the sportsman’s focus is infallible, that his composure is unbreakable, that nothing that happens on the field could ever affect his mental state. I, personally, find Boswell’s YouTube clip unwatchable – it leaves me squirming and almost nauseous.
“I’ll be honest, I went through hell – absolute hell,” he admits.
“My wife was amazing. I drank a lot, isolated myself a lot. I lost a lot of friends, partly because I made it hard for them by not wanting to talk, but partly because people found it difficult to talk to me because the yips had affected me so much mentally. It would be interesting to know where my mental health was at the time.
“The worst thing I did was talk to negative people”, he tells me.
“I would go and talk to people who had the yips – (former England and Scotland all-rounder) Gavin Hamilton, a Yorkshire fast bowler called Mark Broadhurst. I made the mistake of attaching myself to anyone who’d give me any sympathy whatsoever. I just didn’t want to improve, I didn’t want to get back to bowling. It took me four or five years to realise that I needed to be around positive people in order to find a method of getting back to bowling.”
The result was an almost chronic progression of the problem. As abruptly as his body had been able to forget what was virtually a subconscious skill, redeveloping it would prove a far more difficult task. He joined Preston CC after being released, and initially found his rhythm in the pre-season nets.
But as Boswell recalls, “Once it came to a pressure situation – oh my God! I literally just could not let go of the ball. It was just going from hand to keeper, dragging it down, just with no control at all. I’d never felt so tense or nervous.
“My biggest fear was to not complete an over. As soon as one went down and was called a wide, that was it. I was gone. Everybody knew, as soon as the umpire’s hands came out: “Oh no, Scott Boswell – wides.” And from then on, I just couldn’t let go of the ball. Once I’d bowled a wide, that was it.
“All I’d think was how I was going to get through the over. And then I’d rush it, I’d bowl as fast as I could. I’d be physically sick before games, throwing up all over the place.”
Following that game, Boswell left Preston after realising that he simply could not deal with the pressure of bowling in match situations. He re-joined Sileby Town, his old club in Leicestershire, captaining and playing at as a batsman.
“I’d try every weekend and would think about bowling but I just couldn’t do it. It was just that fear – even in a club game of cricket where there’s nobody watching, I just couldn’t do it. It was horrible. It was awful.
“When you’ve been doing something without thinking for ten years – and doing it well, to go from there to not even being able to perform at something you absolutely love and have done all your life, then not being able to do it at all, and then not having a job, was absolute hell.”
One day, a friend of his forced him to bowl in a second team match, in a final attempt to conquer the demons that had taken over the mind of a man who could no longer perform the action that had made him his living.
“I think it was a 28-ball over. Jesus Christ. There were tears rolling down my eyes and on the last ball, I got one straight and it hit the guy on the pad and was plumb in front. I embarrassingly appealed and the umpire gave it out.”
For all of the heartache and utter devastation of the previous decade, there is a real sense of uplift to this distressing tale.
“Just to get me bowling in a match situation again and to get through the nerves was huge because, until then, I wouldn’t go anywhere near it. And from then on, after about ten years, I got back bowling.”
He lets me in on the technical tip that gave him a “safety valve” while he strived to relearn his craft, explaining that though he bowls over the wicket, when things feel wrong, he reverts to bowling bouncers from round the wicket.
“When you’ve got the yips”, he clarifies, “you try and slow things down and try and just put it there. But that doesn’t work. So going round the wicket, hitting the deck as hard I could without trying to think too much, really prevented those negative thoughts from popping into my head.”
If that wicket brought Boswell closure, then his return to Lord’s felt like the ultimate redemption for a man who, previously, had vowed to never go back to the setting of what became his own personal horror story.
His club side reached a Lord’s final in 2009 and after initially declining the offer, Boswell agreed to play after much persuasion.
“It was the most amazing day. I’ve literally never felt anything like it in my life. I walked into that changing room and I just completely broke down. The tears flowed and I had my little boy with me and it was so nice to carry him around the ground and talk to him about it all. It was absolutely brilliant.
“It was real closure. There was an element of redemption there too – a mix of emotions but it was great to finish it off and close that chapter.”
Scott Boswell is a genuinely remarkable human being and, from speaking to him in an unbelievably frank and fascinating interview for the best part of an hour, it is a genuine joy to know that, in his own words, he’s in “a great place now – probably fitter now ever before, both mentally and physically. I’ve been able to put it to bed, which is great. It is what it is now.”
That said, he still struggles watching others ‘yip up’, highlighting the example of Simon Kerrigan on his England debut – like Boswell, defeated by the occasion. “It used to freak me out, I used to get really twitchy. I found watching Kerrigan really uncomfortable.”
As the first school teacher in England to gain his ECB Level 4 coaching qualification at Trent College, he is better placed than most to work with young players and understand the difficulties that come with playing the sport, all too aware from that fateful occasion that saying the wrong thing as a coach can have a crippling effect on the player.
“That day,” he admits, “has given me so much passion, drive and motivation for coaching. I can empathise with players – not just from a sporting side.”
Having experienced the worst of professional sport, would he want to move into coaching at county-level? Not at the moment. “I just think it’s too cutthroat and too brutal. It’s great when it’s going well but it’s really hard when it’s not,” he tells me. And there are few who know that better than Boswell, an honest and hardworking pro who, through no conscious fault of his own, suffered the ultimate ignominy on the biggest stage imaginable.
“Three years ago, I’d probably have been frustrated if somebody had brought it up again. But now, if it can help anybody and if someone reads about it, then brilliant.” He is spot on. People should know the story of Scott Boswell; a traumatic tale of humiliation, torment, redemption and, finally, pride.
As he says, “It just happened, and it can happen to anyone at any level.”
Photographs: Scott Boswell