Cricket is in abeyance. A fallow period. Cricket grounds in the UK swirl emptily with fallen leaves or give grudging access to junior footballers. Even the latest of late finishes to the County Championship was over a month ago. An Ashes series lies ahead, but the shallowness of England’s batting line-up and Ben Stokes’ alleged assault only serve to distract from each other.
Football is everywhere, not even having to pretend cricket might steal a fraction of its audience. I comply with the hegemonic order, if only to the extent of touchline support for my sons’ junior teams.
In cricket’s absence, I have a new enthusiasm. I ride a bike. That simple. Early morning, careering along the tow-path, a heron rising above the mist on the canal, I ask myself: is this more enjoyable than cricket? Finding a new route, further from the roads, for my commute, gives great satisfaction. On the days I ride, I sleep longer and deeper. It’s a new pleasure and one I hanker for if too many days pass without the chance of a ride.
I am not, of course, living a life denuded of cricket. I watched a few overs of India v New Zealand. I’ve helped out at my club’s first autumn junior cricket training – targeting the youngsters we have senior cricket designs on for next summer.
And, in a fashion, I have played.
Cricket is adaptive and has found a new form that means its grip on my life has barely loosened. I suspect this innovative format arose out of my sons’ refusal to do anything truly active during the long, summer school holidays. Just so they could answer, ‘Yes, we’ve exercised today,” they invented an indoor game. Invention gives them too much credit. It’s closely related to the corridor cricket I played during evenings in our digs on tour. Big Nick propelling twisty-twosties along the hall, while we took turns defending our wicket from the tennis ball, everyone else crouching ready to catch, unless swigging from a glass or bottle. It has crossed the path of my boys in a game played in the changing room at the club when rain stops play. One-hand, one bounce.
Our version takes place exclusively in no.2 son’s bedroom, although he is the less interested of the two. As the youngest child of three, he’s bagged the biggest bedroom, giving just enough space from window to wall for intense sporting contest. We use a bat – size 2 – and a wind-ball. Our stumps are stylish: a pair of jeans draped over a mattress on its side against the wall. But the feature that draws us back to this game, night after night, is the carpet. It’s deep and soft, giving a purposefully rotating sphere just enough purchase to skip and jag off the straight.
Our bedroom cricket is played in conditions that simulate Galle, Mumbai, or Taunton (2016-17). Batting requires avid concentration, attention paid to the line of the ball, but above all to the bowler’s hand. Bowling is where the game departs furthest from convention. The ‘bowler’ sits with back to the radiator below the window – comfortably warming as November’s nights close in – and chucks the ball. 15 degrees of flex has been inverted – it’s the bare minimum any elbow would bend.
Batting is required to be defensive: one warning per innings allowed for an attacking shot (although there is tolerance afforded to sweep shots). Most of the nine modes of dismissal are available – hit-wicket is an exception – and ‘caught’ has been extended to include ‘one hand, one bounce’. It is a battle for survival; a test of defensive technique and of the ability to read the ball from the bowlers’ hand, and failing that, off the pitch.
No.1 son has seven variations: front-of-the hand off-break and doosra; back-hand leg-break and googly; round-arm googly; left-arm something-or-other and a straight one. If I survive the first dozen balls, playing inside a few off-breaks, inside edging those turning the other way, I start to pick his front of hand deliveries, even pulling off a reverse sweep when I spot the off-break outside my (left-hander’s) off stump. Those he flicks with the back of his hand facing me remain inscrutable and I have to smother or play off the pitch.
When it’s my turn to bowl, I have just added a fifth variation to my off-break, arm ball, back of the hand top-spinner and doosra. This last delivery is my most productive, beating no.1 son’s outside edge and taking his pad or bowling him. But I ration its use, in case he starts to pick it from my hand. My most satisfying dismissal has been drawing an outside edge to an arm-ball after three off-breaks that he played with ease. Never really a bowler (despite efforts ‘late in the day’), in moments like those, I’ve enjoyed a flash of insight into the mind of a spinner: laying a trap, defeating through deception.
Heady stuff from a simple indoor game with my sons. But it has helped bridge the gap between the English season and the long winter tour. I am hoping it will continue, filling those anxious evening hours in the build-up to the Tests in Australia.
No more volleys of texts to check player availability have to be sent. The cones marking out the playing area for a ‘skill-based game’ have been collected for the last time. A small group of youngsters wanting to know the score or when they’re batting has been hushed for the final time. The last waddling batsmen have had their pads and helmet checked and been questioned to verify they are wearing a box.
The junior season has finished.
Usually, the weather is dry and warm at this point of the summer, so we complain about the season ending just when the best time to play has arrived. This year, late July has been damp and chilly – doing a good impersonation of September, when it is easier to reconcile oneself to cricket rounding off as autumn makes its presence felt.
In 2015, I have concentrated on cricket with boys and girls in the under 9 age group. It’s the entry level to the sport, with a wide span of ability shown within most teams. In practice sessions, we try to find different ways of rehearsing the basics of the game. Repetition balanced with interest; grooving with competition. Matches are an extension of practice and are designated as friendlies without results being digested into a league table. Most matches progress without use of a scoreboard; the scoring itself can be inscrutable: start at 200, add runs, subtract x for wickets, etc. My team lost some matches so heavily that the precision of my scoring wavered late in the game. But at the end, the team still crowded around me find out if they had won.
Adult cricket, despite the wide span of the ground, is mostly played within particular corridors of activity, with familiar, recurring shapes to play. Under 9 cricket is free form. Two fielders, the bowler and batsman converging on a ball that settles in the middle of the pitch. A batsman, fielder and wicket-keeper rushing to reach the mis-directed delivery dribbling out towards what we know of as cover-point. The bowler, turning and speeding past a slower teammate to retrieve the ball from long-on and sending a throw bounding past the unattended wicket and down to the third-man boundary.
My favourite play of the year, for sheer devilment, started with the batsman swinging forcefully and missing the ball. The keeper collected the ball and stood with it in her hands. Everyone froze, except the live-wire at mid-wicket who sped to the stumps, whispered something in his teammate’s ear. Responding to this prompt, the keeper crumpled the stumps while her teammate withdrew back to the on-side. All the while, the batsman had been standing out of his ground. I gave him out. The fielding team’s coach, who was keeping score, rejected my decision. We all laughed.
Some other favourite moments of the season, in my role as father. My younger son, on his hard-ball debut, batting capably against bigger older bowlers bouncing the ball up to his chest. Then back in under 9 cricket, that same son, playing that rarest thing in junior cricket, forward defensive strokes to straight balls bowled. The highlight of the season was watching no. 1 son, when he was tossed the ball for the 17th over of an under 16 cup final with the opposition accelerating and needing nine an over to win. I shivered and squirmed with nerves, while he bowled full and straight, picked up two wickets, conceding 11 runs from two overs helping his team to a five run victory.
We are already planning for next season: teams, coaches, training approaches. There will be indoor matches in the autumn and after Christmas. A gradual build-up to another three months of texting players’ parents, setting out cones, dodging showers, hushing talkative kids, worrying about protective gear and playing cricket, wonderful cricket.
My Dad once (or twice) netted with Surrey. That was back in 1946 when he was a 15 year old school boy.
The two stories seem equally as unlikely, but are as true as each other.
Just like the Birmingham Bears, I was delayed by the traffic.
“Ten minutes and we’re leaving,” I announced on returning to the family home.
“Why can’t I have a phone?” demanded the 1&only daughter.
“By tram. No. Why can’t we go in the car?” complained no. 1 son.
“Can I have a coke?” nagged no. 2 son.
Were Chopra and Brown’s team as moany and discontented as Mrs DG’s and my lot?
A sprinkling of rain fell as we got off the tram at Old Trafford.
“How much longer until they call if off?” queried no.1 son gloomily.
Finding dry seats in C stand, we heard the announcement that the game would start 30 minutes late owing to traffic delays on Daddy’s commute home (or similar).
“Now, we’ve got to sit here for 40 minutes,” muttered no.1 son, who in another Manchester sporting venue is anxious if we aren’t at our seats that length of time before kick-off.
Time well-invested back at the concourse behind the pavilion, buying treats. An ice cream to distract the 1&onlyD from the ignominy of being a year 6 pupil without a mobile phone; and another chosen in a split-second defection from coke by no. 2 son.
I try to explain to Mrs DG the prominence of Brendon McCullum in world cricket. I feel emotional as I summarise how his significance goes beyond New Zealand and can be credited with invigorating the English game this summer.
“So he’s the best T20 player in the world?” questions no.1 son, comfortable with definitive judgements, not the weighing of strengths and weaknesses, the application of context to performance and the sheer ambiguity of the game. “Is he good?” he asks as each new bowler is brought into the attack – frequently, as Lancashire bowl most of the innings in one over spells.
McCullum doesn’t live up to my encomium – although that’s been true of his whole trip to the UK as a batsman. The Bears’ captain, Chopra, and their other international captain, Porterfield, accumulate, but the innings doesn’t ignite.
As each bowler starts their mini-spell, I confirm to no.1 son that, “Yes”, they are good – as well as providing some context. The exception is Steven Croft, about whom for the sake of variety rather than a genuine assessment, I state, “No.” Despite me, Croft bowls well, as do the other spinners, Parry and Lilley, which suggests why the Birmingham innings falters. No.1 son and I comment on the variation in pace and flight of the slow bowlers, but most respect is accorded James Faulkner.
His run-up is pitched like a man trying to progress into the teeth of a gale. But what we appreciate is the accuracy of his back-of-the hand slower ball. He uses it as his default, rather than surprise, delivery and lands it on a length on off-stump repeatedly.
Before the game began, asked how many sixes we would see, I plumped for eleven. The first comes in the Bears’ twentieth over, when Gordon, who the big screen tells us has zero T20 career runs, hoists his first ball over the mid-wicket boundary. If my prediction is to come true, the Lancashire reply will be short and successful.
Mrs DG pronounces it ridiculous that a county is playing a city. I think about asking her views of a team known as ‘England’ playing another titled, ‘West Indies’.
She also detects flatulence innuendo: the Blast, which starts with a Blast-Off and the flaming jets and hot air expelled in front of C stand that signal boundary hits. I enter into the spirit with a plate of lamb rogan-josh, pint of ale and bag of Bombay mix.
We move upstairs for the Lancashire reply. The rows of seats are steeply inclined. No.2 son asks us to sit still as he is anxious about toppling off. The view of the ground, its hinterland and the setting sun is uplifting.
A couple of early sixes shorten odds on my pre-match prediction. But in back garden cricket fashion, each is followed by an out. Mostly Lancashire batsmen mistime the ball or middle it straight at boundary fielders, to no.1 son’s frustration and increasing disdain. Don’t worry, Faulkner’s coming, I reassure.
Mrs DG and the 1&onlyD are focused on the big screen. Tracking the required rate? Checking career records? Studying the umpire referrals of two run out decisions? No. Waiting to see if their selfie tweeted with #summerlive makes the cut. It doesn’t and they feel short-changed. Note to county grounds: make sure you display every photo submitted.
Faulkner does come and some of the time does strike the ball a bit more cleanly than his teammates, but keeps taking singles to bring Jordan Clark or Alex Davies to face – the latter plays a short innings comprising, almost exclusively, attempted ramps. When Faulkner does connect well the ball whistles to the upper tier of the stand at mid-wicket. The chase is on! Then off again when the expected rattle of boundaries doesn’t come and he falls to a good low catch at long-off.
Faulkner is replaced by Liam Livingstone, a cricketer in the odd situation of being more famous for an exploit at club level than in the professional game. Could he alter that tonight? 17 runs to win off the final over would do it.
A straight drive hit so hard that Brendon McCullum at long-on can’t even get close enough to essay a dive, raises hopes. Livingstone runs hard, losing and regaining the strike with byes run to the keeper. Nine needed from the final two balls and the Nantwich player swings Hannon-Dalby into the legside and just over the boundary.
It has come down to the final ball: family friendly cricket. Excitement more memorable than an ice cream and flake, a ride on a busy tram and fear of tumbling from a high stand; and at least on a par with seeing flames shot into the air in front of you. Whether it matches the thrill of seeing your photo on the big screen, we’ll have to wait for another visit to find out.
Hard ball cricket requires a flat track. And so, a first game right in the middle of the ground, whose crowned contours lift the square like a modest stage. Playing here, unlike the soft ball games tucked away in the outfield, means being the centre of attention.
Fielding first and there’s shape and purpose to the team’s positions. The dashing after every ball must stop. Know your position, understand the role.
A hand put in the way of a cleanly hit cut shot brings applause and praise, but leaves a stinging palm that could do without more contact with the ball for a few overs. A few tidy stops and then the ball appears suddenly, high and to the left. Stretch up and the ball bounces off the heel of the left hand. Are those supposed to be caught? What do teammates really think, beneath the shouts of ‘hard luck’? It’s still nagging away when another ball is lofted. Moving forward, stooping to reach, it clatters fingers on its way to the turf. The commiserations are more muted.
The coach makes the bowling change. A first over. The seam is abrasive on fingers. It’s up a slope to the crease and the ball has an unfamiliar density. The first ball just floats towards the batsman, who swats it to the square leg boundary. More momentum to the next and the one after to push it two extra yards. But the predictable swing of the incrediball has gone and the line is legside.
Later, a second over; wickets have fallen and the team is buzzing. Still no swing and balls drift harmlessly to the legside. The penultimate ball comes out well and the batsman carves it up into the covers where an older boy, more accustomed to the slap of ball on flesh, takes a catch for a first wicket in hardball cricket.
The innings ends, untidily, meaning 87 must be chased. Relief – real or pretend – to be number ten; unlikely to have to bat. But wickets fall rapidly and with six down, shooed to the pavilion to get padded up. In there, a man’s space, boisterous talk from teammates already dismissed and about the shortcomings of those out of earshot. It’s exciting, it’s validating. But how do pads fasten? Which on which leg? Told to hurry, the innings is folding – not much to live up to.
The top-scorer is run out trying to keep the strike and keep us in the game. Called in to the middle, shuffling like a mini cowboy. Taking strike for the first time, comfortable stance, eyes peering through the helmet grill. But the proportions are out: stumps reaching as high as the new batsman’s elbows. The first and second balls are repelled. The ball seems heavy and dead, like a stone, on the bat. Hands are jolted and the ball rolls out to the fielder, rather than springing to the boundary, when the opportunity comes to pull. But the over is survived.
Now non-striker, the chance for a run is spotted and a bold call made. A straightforward sprint in a game of football, is an arduous venture in batting gear, but ground is made. Facing again, another chance to pull. The dull toe end of the bat lifts the ball over square leg for a first run.
The fielding team’s bowling rota brings its opening bowlers back on. Deliveries that bounce bail high must be fended off. Another run, another over; the sense of an innings – and with that thought, a swish, a miss and it’s over.
Afterwards, he was more cheerful. He had a great ‘find’ to report. A film shot in 1950 at his school had been discovered. It featured my Dad, in his final school year, playing cricket.
Stories of my Dad’s cricket exploits have featured on Declaration Game: his ’10 for’ denied by a failed all-run four; him netting with Surrey’s 1st XI while at school. But I’ve only had words with which to conjure an impression of my Dad as a cricketer at his peak. He had stopped playing club cricket 20 years before the only, memorable match we played together.
But now I have images. Two close-ups of my Dad playing a sweep shot. One sequence of him bowling, which was shot from the mid-wicket boundary. And with that a nugget he’d never mentioned: his run up and action modeled on Alec Bedser.
The film can be found here. The cricket sequences are brief, running from 6:50 to 7:30.
The very top of the order; no doubt.
Embed from Getty Images
Father and son, a day trip from Manchester to the Lord’s Test. So long anticipated. I’m excited, but all too aware what a risky business it is inducting these modern kids into the sweet, deep, almost shameful habit of watching a day’s cricket. There’s the hope he might want to accompany me for years ahead; the fear he’ll be bored or repelled by the kind of people who do this. And this day is an event: it’s not just me and mine, but my Dad, who first brought me to Lord’s 36 years ago, will be sitting with us in the Grandstand. I bet he wears a jacket and tie.
Potentially tricky situations with children are best managed (I know, because I’ve got it wrong with three of them) with food. Just let the usual rules lapse, don’t insist on token fruit or the presence of a pure protein. Say ‘yes’, much more often than ‘no’. Duck the battles, sway away from the arguments like we hope to see Kohli later having to deal with Broad.
But no.1 son has started the day feeling nauseous. Stuffed with pizza and two bottles of coke from his friend’s 13th birthday party on Friday evening. He turns down breakfast, which means we’re away to Piccadilly promptly, but accepts a croissant, although nothing to drink, at the station. It’s wet as our early train leaves town and it stays wet for most of the journey.
“A coke. Can I have a coke?” gasps the boy as we arrive in Euston. I buy myself an apple. “Fancy one?” I check. But it’s the sugar and the fizz he needs and gulps in the taxi to the ground.
‘What will he think of Lord’s?’ I wonder of this place I cherish visiting. Will its atmosphere, its confidence sweep him away? We queue at the North Gate. Tickets, bag search, body frisk and into the bright light of Lord’s flashing off white awnings, stands and media centre. “Is that where the commentators sit?” he asks of its blank, arced rear.
I steer him to the nursery sightscreen, to make his first sight of the 200 year old ground, the iconic view of the Pavilion presiding over the wide open outfield. “It’s not at all as I imagined,” he offers inscrutably. And, just as he has done when I take him to see his side at the Eastlands/Etihad Stadium, “Can we go straight to our seats?” I concur, although I want to stride around, spot players, ex-players, maybe even old pals.
Into the Grandstand and no.1 son spots Grandad, standing guarding our seats. He’s wearing a suit and tie. There’s warm welcomes, as befits an event: “Your first visit to Lord’s. Lovely, fantastic.”
Play is only 15 minutes away, so I dip back under the Grandstand to get coffee, tea and, for no.1 son, a packet of ready salted crisps, while he recaps his season so far. His first season where he has shone more as batsman than bowler.
Back upstairs for the start of play and I realise it’s not just bright, it’s hot. Some men a row behind us are taking off their shirts, looking sweaty as though they’ve joined in the Indian team’s fielding warm-ups. It turns out some hospitality box dwellers had tapped their yellow and red sun shade, sending last night’s rain smacking onto the £90 per ticket hoi polloi below. That remains a threat to the lower Grandstand for the rest of the morning. Them upstairs also shoot champagne corks, but these clear us and reach the outfield, where they sit looking like objects, sometimes seen on cricket grounds in public parks, that should be picked up and disposed of in plastic bags.
At noon, Grandad hauls in the first beer of the day and sandwiches – cheese for no.1 son. “It’s got pickle all over it” he hisses at me at a volume just below his Grandfather’s sensory range, as though I have conspired to place preserves in the least acceptable locations. I offer to find a replacement, but the nausea of 7am, 200-odd miles north has returned.
By the afternoon, when weathermen warned of storms, the sky is wide and blue. I’m happily roasting under a straw hat, Grandad may be snoozing and no.1 son is getting bothered that the sweat may be showing on his back. He accepts the need for protection and wears my club cricket cap. His hunger is back and I take him to the Jamie Oliver food court for thick-cut chips. He holds the cardboard basket up and oscillates it while directing me to pump more and more ketchup on top. “Can I have some salt?” he knows to ask. “I’m not looking,” I know to answer on this day of dietary laxity.
Back in our seats and no.1 son is soon offering chips. That’s unusual. Maybe he isn’t feeling well, I wonder, until I see the skin of salt like the mucky froth along a harbour wall. He’s overdone the sodium chloride.
Into the evening session and although it’s late in the playing day it’s hours until I need to drive the car, so I resolve to have a third pint. A soft drink for my Dad and an order for hot chocolate for no.1 son. “Will it be too hot? How long will I need to wait?”
“After Anderson’s next over, give it a try.”
“No, Stokes is still bowling. You could try dipping your finger in.”
“Oww. Why didn’t you make me wait an over?”
Grandad has left and we make a trip to the Lord’s Shop. “Is it good?” he wants to know. I sway my head as I do with a high percentage of the closed questions my kids fire at me.
No.1 son ponders buying a ball with the Lord’s logo stamped on it, then we hear a sudden, sharp cheer, with many many voices layered on top. Looking up at the ‘live coverage’ on the TV screens in the shop and Plunkett is at the top of his run-up. But the wicket falls as we hear the crowd clap the Indian captain off the field. Kohli, the player no.1 son and I have discussed most, is taking his guard on the screen when there’s more abrupt roars. Those of us caught in the shop chuckle as we wait to see the moment of peak excitement that we’ve sacrificed for a bit of retail distraction. It’s a good one, as Kohli waves on a ball into the top corner of his off-stump. The hat-trick ball, umistakeably a dud from the lowing noises we hear, 30 seconds before we see a harmless ball sail wide of Kumar’s stumps.
Ten minutes before close of play, we stand and leave our seats. I, childlike, I suppose, try to watch a few more balls between the heads of the spectators sitting in the Compton Lower, as we follow the concourse around to the St John’s Wood Road. Gently, not wanting to provoke a pressured response, I ask no.1 son what he thinks of Lord’s. “There are too many gaps between the stands. It’s not like a stadium.” I nod. He’s right, it isn’t like a stadium.
At Euston, we head to Marks and Spencer, where we might find croissant. They’re sold out and wearily he explains we should go to one of the station pastry vendors. At some French sounding franchise, he makes a Kohli-like last second recalculation and orders a slice of pizza. Aboard the train, having removed grilled tomato and taking two bites, he declares it disgusting and sits ruing not selecting pastry’s forward-defensive: the croissant.
Two and a half hours later and we’re through the front door. No.1 son, keeps going straight through to the kitchen, bypassing his Mother calling out welcomes from the living room. He’s at the toaster, grabbing butter from the fridge, finding food that fits.
Although we spent 15 hours together, I can only really piece together what my son thought of the experience: good.. the bowling was fast.. a bit boring at times.. not like a stadium.
And I got to see somewhere I know well and hold dear through someone else’s eyes. And what I’ve learnt is that cricket grounds would be even better places if they served toast.
14 May 1981 was a big night in English sport. Tottenham Hotspur played and defeated Manchester City in the FA Cup Final replay. Ricky Villa scored twice, his winner that celebrated mazy, slow-motion dribble into the penalty area and shot past Joe Corrigan.
I wasn’t at Wembley that night, but another notable English sporting venue: Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre. I was taking part in Buckinghamshire schools under 13 cricket trials.
I related the story of that evening to no.1 son on our way to his first session of county advanced nets this week. It’s not much of a story as so little of it has stuck with me.
We netted indoors in one corner of a sports hall able to accommodate a full size football pitch or several tennis courts. I was asked to pad up early. I was bowled first ball (just as I had been at District trials the previous summer), but must have middled a few as at the end of the evening when the team for the first match of the season was read out and my schoolmate Dave apologised that he couldn’t play, I was drafted in as his replacement. That match, against Northants, was the scene of the missing socks incident and cause of many cold sweats since. The other memory of that night that has, oddly, remained live is of the master reading out the fixture list, which included the adventurously sounding, ‘Stowe Away’.
My son is also taking part in some form of trial, but an extended one – eight weeks – and the onus is on coaching and improvement. He was very nervous beforehand but emerged from the hall, of which I had only been able to glimpse snippets of activity, and declared the evening “good fun”.
I told my Dad about no.1 son’s pending involvement in the county nets on a visit last month. The next day, driving into Oxford, he said that he had lain awake in bed piecing together his own schoolboy experience of county nets. “You know the story, don’t you?” is the familiar formula for getting permission to roll out a family anecdote. I did know it, but inspired by his grandson’s progress the story was much richer in detail than the versions I had heard before.
My Dad’s story, he now recalled, began with a man who lived in the same block of flats in Stockwell, South London. This man was a steward at the Oval and asked my Dad if he would like to help sell centenary brochures at a Surrey match. This places the story in 1946 and my Dad 15 years old. He turned up at the Oval, completed his assignment and by way of thanks was asked if he would like to come along to a net session one morning.
So Dad returned to the Oval the following week on a non-match day, carrying his cricket gear. He made his way to the nets at the Vauxhall End, where he was spotted by the Surrey Coach, Andy Sandham, and told to get himself a ball and get bowling. In the nets were Laurie Fishlock, Alf Gover, the Bedser twins and the rest of the county squad. Dad bowled – quite well, he thought, without really troubling the batsmen – until Sandham told him to get padded up. He took strike against the Bedsers, both of whom were decent enough to keep the ball pitched up.
Dad was the only schoolboy there until, with the practice in full swing, another youngster arrived. Coach Sandham gave the lad a voluble telling off for being late, in full view of the players, then ordered him to get booted up and bowl. Dad remembers being beaten time and again by the flight and turn of this left-arm spinner. It was Tony Lock, who made his first-class debut aged 17 that summer.
Dad went back the following week and perhaps, he thinks, one more after that before this schoolboy dream-come-true ended.
There may be a greater narrative to these three stories of the increasing professionalisation of talent spotting and junior development in English county cricket. My son, one of over 100 boys having eight weeks of coaching before a much reduced playing squad is selected; me, recommended by school for a trial net alongside a couple of dozen other boys; my Dad, given the nod for a try out by a neighbour who was a ground steward.
But, on the other hand, as I said to my Dad the other day,
“Are you sure you weren’t invited just to watch the nets?”
“No, I’m not sure,” he conceded. But my word, didn’t he do the right thing, taking his kit with him and doing just as Mr Sandham told him to.
There is nothing that feels like building an innings. The conjunction of raw reactions and thoughtful adaptation. Respect the straight ball, don’t chase the wide one outside off are my starting mantras. Which works unless something is floated up under my nose and instinct takes over: a step forward and a lash of the bat.
As the overs pass, other scoring opportunities open up; a clip off my pads, a push towards mid off where the cricketer making an occasional appearance is drifting out of position. Defence is savoured. A forward defensive to a delivery that earns the fielders’ applause but didn’t trouble me.
A battle won as the opening bowlers are replaced and new flights and angles to deal with brought on. Constant assessing: do I have the better of this bowler, or am I in trouble if he gets it in the right place? Was that over a loosener, or can I expect more easy pickings.
And always the run rate, the state of the game – is it time to open up or should I be building a platform for the team? A false shot. Do I analyse my mistake or let it drift past me in case I break my own concentration. A couple of twos in an over and I’m puffed. Control my breathing for the next ball.
At the other end there are shots and runs; wickets and new partners – advice, caution and bonhomie. Is what’s happening at that end making my job easier or more difficult?
Ever present is the risk of getting out. In an instant the world I’m immersed in is over. From being the protaganist, the focus of every player’s attention, I could be sidelined in the second it takes to draw the bat across, not down the line of the ball; to bring bat to moving ball at slightly the wrong angle and send it upwards. The contest is over. Someone else gets to revel in this exquisite challenge of batting.
Last week, I experienced the closest pleasure yet to batting. No.1 son, already an accomplished bowler at 12, had his first substantial knock. That his team had a chaseable target was in a large part down to him. He had started with a double wicket maiden, knocking over two of their top batsmen with full, swinging deliveries. No.1 son’s team also lost a wicket in the first over of their reply, bringing him to the crease.
He and his partner got the innings going with some well-judged singles. But he batted patiently, respecting the straight one and stroking full balls into the V. A couple of plays and misses outside off-stump and a middle-stump yorker dug out. The short and ill-directed stuff came, as it always does, and on this evening, no.1 son was still at the crease to cut and steer these for runs. Mini-partnerships with three teammates; support and reminders shared to back up, to run the first one hard.
The opposition had held back their leading bowler. Big and strong – at least a head taller than no.1 son – he bowled lively left-arm seamers. This was a test. He pitched the ball short and no.1 son stayed in line and defended, was hit on the thigh, grinned, kept his nerve and his head in line with the ball and pulled another short delivery behind square. I made a mental note to buy him a thigh guard.
Batting with his friend, captain on the night, there was a surge of runs from more positive shots, aggressive running between the wickets and the team was on the verge of victory. Light fading and one last push from the left-armer. He fired a ball across no.1 son who sliced it to the third man boundary for the winning runs.
So many of the shots and techniques he had practised in the nets came off. He had worked hard for those runs since indoor practice began in February and had to work for them all over again on the night. Sweeter still for being telling, match-winning runs.
And now when I burble on about the unique pleasure of building an innings, I’ll have someone close who will know what I mean. Someone who can contrast the early dismissal to the lengthy knock, the disappointment of the former with the exhilaration of the latter. A special feeling – in person, and as I have now experienced, by proxy.
No.1 son came with me to the Sunday of the Old Trafford Ashes Test. It was his first experience of live, professional cricket. It made me think about my first visit to a cricket ground. That, too, was for an Ashes Test: day one of the Oval Test in 1977.
My son saw four and half hours of lively cricket on Sunday. Thirty-six years earlier, my Dad and I had spent a wet morning at the ground before play was called off in the early afternoon. We went to visit my Nan in Carshalton before heading home. I don’t remember being particularly disappointed at seeing no play. The day had had its excitement, beginning with an early morning journey into and through London. I do remember watching the players arrive: the Aussies by coach; England players in sponsored cars. My Dad made much of the Australians not wearing blazer and tie. I recall him attributing their series defeat to this lack of discipline in attire.
I have a memory of the scorecard bought at the ground. The names were familiar to me because that was the summer I began my vigils in front of the TV, lasting from Peter West’s introduction to his closing reminder of the highlights programme late that evening. Beside the players’ names were their counties and more alluringly, states. Queens., W.Aus. NSW, Victoria were terms empty of context that I could conjure with and savour.
And that, until the next season, was my spectating experience of cricket. That’s the story I have told and believed. I was secure in my personal cricket narrative – beginning with a washout and then taking off the next year with runs for Gower and wickets for Botham.
I was taken aback when reading the Wisden match report of that Oval Test last week, and looking at the scorecard. Something else was familiar. It was the description of the end of England’s first innings:
In Saturday’s brief spell of play Willis and Hendrick added 33, taking England to a more respectable total of 214. … The tenth wicket pair hit seven of the sixteen boundaries in the innings.
I remembered Willis swiping at the ball and it arcing over his left shoulder – a shot I knew wasn’t conventional or intended. A man in the crowd said that Willis wanted Botham’s all-rounder spot – at the time I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic. These were the recovered memories of that Test. My Dad had taken me back on the Saturday. Looking at the scorecard, I then had a realisation, but I regret not a memory, that I had seen Thommo bowl. The world’s fastest bowler, with the action of a javelin thrower making one last effort for Olympic glory, had made no impression on me.
If these were the images that lodged in my memory, some buried deeper than others, I wonder what no.1 son will remember in years to come of his first visit to at Test match.
Will it be Prior and Broad’s boisterous partnership that took England past the follow-on mark and probably to Ashes retention? The dramatic pause while the third umpire and crowd looked again and again at Warner’s top-edged hook behind, that wasn’t – and England’s drama queen response? Steve Smith’s driven sixes, or his run out, where he nearly completed three, while his skipper was content with the single?
It might not be the game. It could be the antics of the crowd around us. The trumpeter, the large man singing falsetto, the Barmy Army chanting? All these things, along with the beer snake construction, seemed of more import to many in our stand. It might just be the squeeze on the tram that sticks in his memory.
Just possibly it will be the incident that, second to him thanking me for taking him and asking when we can go to a county game, gave me the greatest contentment. Queuing in the rain for the tram home, we stood beside four Somerset men who had travelled north for a day of Test cricket. For ten minutes we swapped cricketers’ names and grounds we had played on, comfortable that we were in company of mutual understanding. Could my son find space in his memory for five middle-aged men taxing their own memories to locate names and places, and keeping amateur cricket’s undramatic narrative rolling on?