Taking the helm
There is a feature of my first ever cricket match and my most recent that has barely occurred in the thirty-odd years in between. This element of the game has always been there, it’s just not something that I have experienced, been tested by, or suffered with any regularity. Yet now, as plans are being laid for the 2019 English season, it looms large. It defines and frames most thoughts I have about this summer – family, work, other past-times, my older son’s A levels, my parents being in their late 80s, holidays, meeting up with friends, not forgetting the Men’s World Cup, the Ashes, my own batting, junior coaching and even Declaration Game.
When my season starts in mid-May, I will be 51, with batting prowess and fielding mobility on the wane and, most significantly, a novice captain.
That first cricket match took place thirty-nine years ago. I was in my last year at primary school and our new head-teacher had made an early impression by insisting that the school would have a cricket team. The teacher who ran the football team and the running club, and so identified as the lead on school sports, was tasked with finding fixtures and organising a team. He didn’t know a lot about cricket, but must have picked up that I had pretensions to know a great deal, and so appointed me as captain.
My first duty in the role, carried out one afternoon in place of lessons, was to mark a pitch on the school playing-field for a practice match. My knowledge didn’t extend to an understanding of crease dimensions. After school, the boys (yes, just boys) wanting to try out for the team gathered. I had my own kit and so padded up to face the first ball. Cautiously, I moved onto the back-foot and in my back-swing, knocked a bail off the stumps, that I had pitched too close behind me.
Despite the first ball dismissal in the practice match, I was retained as captain for the season (and career) opener. The evening before we played, I sat with my Dad who had captained his club team in South London for a decade in the 1950s and ’60s. We talked about how to use five bowlers (one to switch ends) and place a field. Of course, I knew all the fielding positions, but had never had to exercise judgement over fielders’ locations. My Dad sketched a field on a scrap of paper, which I kept in the pocket of my whites for the whole of that first season.
Our first game was won comfortably. I think I stuck rigidly to my Dad’s plans – probably for the other handful of matches around the county primary schools of South Buckinghamshire as well. The only captaincy-related memory I have is of a team-mate’s Mum lobbying me to get her son more involved. I tried to explain that by placing him in the covers he had the plum fielding spot.
The following summer I was at secondary school and as Easter approached and cricket began to be considered, I faced the disadvantage of not being a footballer known to the PE staff. It can only have been precocious use of my growing cricket knowledge that got me noticed by the sports teacher running the first year cricket side. I was appointed captain. Then virtually run-less and probably not compensating with much in the way of leadership, I was dropped after a few matches in that administratively efficient fashion: name not on the list pinned to the PE noticeboard. Like a blow to the un-protected part of the thigh, it hurt, and while I might try not to show it, tears pricked my eyes. For the rest of that season and the one that followed, I was in and out of the school side, sometimes as captain, other times not.
Meanwhile, at my village club, I was part of a colts team captained by the England school-boy rugby skipper and soon was the youngest member of the Sunday friendly XI. Captaincy was in more capable hands. It stayed that way through seasons of occasional matches, interspersed in my twenties and forties with more committed attention to playing the game. I had half-an-eye on the office in my second-year at college, but my friend and opening partner, Ged, stitched the job up for himself by taking the man in post, who had the honour of appointing his successor, out for a night of drinking and in the argot of the time, ‘hackery’. Both the college team and I benefited from the decision, even if it was made under the influence.
On the occasions that captaincy did fall to me, the experience was not a happy one. One summer as an undergraduate, I had a holiday job in a factory in Liverpool. The stores officer invited me to play for his club’s Sunday friendly team, led by a sociology lecturer of unconventional cricketing tastes. He liked to have two and if possible three wrist-spinners in his side. He would take up fixtures at places that interested him and so, from our north Liverpool base, we travelled to matches in Mold and Leek. It was a curious, but enjoyable summer where I was treasured as the team’s southern posh boy (known as ‘Smythe’) and, living in an unfamiliar town, I was grateful for the team’s friendship. Before returning south, in my farewell appearance, I was given the honour of skippering the team. I lasted maybe ten overs in the field, until confused and with no sense of control of the game, I handed the reins back to the regular captain.
Half-a-dozen years later, at another farewell occasion, I was delegated on-the-field control by the appointed captain in a match organised to mark a friend’s departure for Italy. He had been teaching at a public school in East Anglia and was granted use of the ground and facilities for the day. This time, I negotiated the role in the field satisfactorily. But waiting to bat, wearing first a jumper and then a coat, I noticed that I was the only player feeling cold. I drove back to London in the grip of a fever. I thought of stopping to find a bed for the night, but pushed on and crawled up the stairs to my flat, which I didn’t leave until the flu subsided.
More recently, I have captained teams at the annual cricket matches organised by my company. Opposing me has been the (now retired) Chief Executive, whose ruthlessness at work carries across to the cricket field, but not his workplace sense of fairness. My team-talk one year concluded with the injunction that the ideal result for us all would be a one run defeat. Several hours later that was the exact result. But I gained no satisfaction from such precise game management. That single run (and a couple more as well) were wides called by the opposing skipper off my bowling, when balls had hit the batters’ pads.
And so to the last game of last season. The 4th XI skipper was injured and I agreed – willingly – to step up. Our side was heavy with juniors – nine – all of whom I have coached or run matches for. Perhaps I imagined it, but I felt a couple of my interventions – field placements, bowling changes – paid off, or drew in players otherwise on the margins. The weather was warm, the hospitality of the home team warmer, the ground a picture, the team cheerful, the beer in the pub afterwards so tasty. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.
I didn’t get dropped afterwards (last game of season), feel overwhelmed, catch influenza, or get into a public dispute with the head of my company. As long as I use these as the success criteria for my season as a novice at the helm of the 4th team, the summer of 2019 should go well.