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?
That marks me out as naive, living in the past and detached from the realities of top-level international sport.
Here’s an irony: had Broad walked, I doubt he would have got any credit for it. Walking is the act of a batsman bringing clarity to a situation where there is ambiguity about whether the ball was hit. There wasn’t ambiguity in this case. If Broad had tucked his bat under his arm and headed to the dressing room, our thoughts would have turned to Broad’s weak back-foot dab, to the continuing magic of Agar’s debut, to England’s slender lead and not to the batsman’s magnanimity for acknowledging he was out. Ambiguity wasn’t the problem; Aleem Dar was and Broad exploited that.
This England team seems dense with characters who are divisive or unloved. I can think of only three players about whom there is a consensus of approval, who have a broad appeal: Alastair Cook, Matthew Prior, James Anderson, with Joe Root headed in the right direction. The antipathy towards Broad is based on his sulky, quarrelsome behaviour as a bowler; vanity about his appearance; his attainment of an undroppable status in the Test team, even when his performances don’t merit that certainty; and rumours that he has been active in a clique within the team, having had some involvement in the twitter account that goaded team-mate Kevin Pietersen.
In my estimation, Broad has risen high above that sour and self-obsessed reputation four times. Around each of these events, I have warmed to him and respected him.
The first occasion was after the 2007 World T20 when Yuvraj Singh struck him for 36 in an over at Durban. Broad was barely one year into his international career and had not yet made his Test debut. I thought that might sink him, or at least require some intensive therapy before he could again have the confidence to bowl at international batsmen. Not being a bowler (and as I have mentioned elsewhere three consecutive sixes did for my bowling pretensions), I admired his courage when his career continued without pause a few weeks later.
Incident number two was his eighth wicket partnership of 332 with Jonathan Trott at Lord’s in 2010. It was thrilling counter-attacking cricket that followed the dismissal of four of the previous five batsmen for ducks. And I was there.
The third highlight, and the only one with which I have no personal connection, was Broad’s performance on the tour of the UAE in the series against Pakistan. On lifeless tracks, Broad’s bowling was instrumental in England gaining positions of advantage early in the matches and then dragging themselves back into the game after the batsmen let the team down. His bowling was smart, stifling and straight. He took advantage of any movement that could be coaxed from the conditions, and ended the top wicket taker amongst the quick bowlers competing and bowled more overs than Graeme Swann.
The final event that lifted him up in my estimation was the Test Match Special interview he gave earlier this summer. Aside from cricket, my other deep interest is junior sport and the role of parents and coaches, which I explore on Touchline Dad. Broad spoke openly and very appealingly about his experiences as a young sports player. Asked about what influenced him to play cricket as a boy, his answer surprised: it wasn’t his Dad, the Test cricketer, but his Mum. He spoke warmly of their relationship and how her support – playing with him in the garden, then as he grow older, getting him to and from games, and always watching him play – helped him develop. He contrasted this quiet, constant presence with the dads who brought their boys to the nets hours before matches, drilling shots or deliveries. I appreciated his appreciation that driving home after games his mother wouldn’t grill him about how he had played, but let him talk or stay quiet depending on his mood.
So I have warmed to Broad when I’ve felt able to identify with him. And so it’s through the frame of my role as a junior coach that I have come to a conclusion about Broad’s most recent and heavily discussed misdemeanour. I have put my mind to what his exploitation of Umpire Dar’s error means for young cricketers of 10-13, playing their first seasons of hard-ball cricket.
Most of the boys and girls I coach will not have seen the incident. I see very little influence of professional cricketers on the youngsters. They play the game because their family does, or because some exposure at school has drawn them to the club. I detect widespread ignorance of the current game amongst those boys and girls. At this week’s junior nets, I was running a session on batting against slow bowling. “Who are the best spin bowlers in England and the world at the moment?” I asked. Swann and Ashwin were mentioned, but so were Bopara and Warne. Most of these kids lack the opportunity or desire to spend days soaking up cricket and its culture on television.
Some do, of course, so the question about Broad’s example is worth looking at. I have never spoken to the junior players I coach about ‘walking’. There are few fine edges and fewer close to the wicket catches in our matches. The most pressing issue of conduct and etiquette is the acceptance of umpires’ decisions. Umpires in these matches (myself included) are not trained in match adjudication. We struggle, some more successfully than others, with an instinctive bias towards the players we coach. While we stand umpiring in the middle, we worry if the field is set well, if the next batsman is padded-up or kicking a football around the field and whether those boys playing in the nets are wearing all the right protective equipment. Confounding decisions are, therefore, frequently made.
The players themselves have limited understanding of the rules and in the pressure of playing often don’t really know what’s just happened. Encouraging them to take matters into their own hands – for example, walking, if they believe they are out – is a lower priority than getting them to accept an umpire’s decision and get on with the game.
I would rather Broad had walked, but not for the influence it will have on the cricketers I coach. Michael Clarke’s angry aside to Aleem Dar at the end of the over is the behavioural example I would like to expunge.
I am of course marked out by this view as naive, old-fashioned and out-of-touch. But I do wonder what Stuart Broad’s Mum would have said to him in the car if she had driven him home from Trent Bridge on Friday.
Sitting by my Dad’s hospital bed, I recognise a familiar sense of distraction. A monitor, displaying live graphs of my father’s vitals, keeps drawing my attention away from the man himself. What it reminds me of is watching cricket on television. The Sky (or other local) production, sets its image on a platform of game data. My eye is drawn repeatedly away from the match image to the game data to note, in particular, the speed recorded of the delivery just bowled.
(My Dad is recovering well from a surgical procedure known as the Whipple – a name waiting for an improvised T20 shot to be attached to it – although he has put some more distance beyond his days of taking the first nine wickets in an innings or even sharing a century opening stand with me.)
This afternoon, one of the monitoring machines started bleating. It displayed a message: ‘air in tube’. I went to get a nurse who reset the machine, squeezed a tube, and explained, “there was air in a tube.” We nodded and remembered the story of my Mum being pre-opped for some minor surgery. The nurse tried to take her pulse, but the machine’s read out was stubbornly off-kilter and so the nurse shoved it away to be sent for repair. Several weeks after the surgery, my Mum’s doctor took her pulse, trusted his reading and had her booked in for a pace-maker that month.
Do we trust the machines that interpret the cricket we watch, or do we prefer to trust what we think we know?
In recent days, my cricket viewing has been distracted by the speed-gun’s read-out for the world’s finest fast bowler and a young English all-rounder. Dale Steyn’s profile invariably features the descriptor RF. Chris Woakes is generally understood to lack the pace to hold his own in Test cricket and will tend to have his F qualified with a preceding, not succeeding, M.
Steyn was bowling South Africa to a strong position in the second innings of the second Test against Pakistan. He was keeping to a tight off-stump line, registering 132-136kph. Woakes was bowling some economical middle-inning overs against New Zealand in the first one day international. His range was 130-137kph. Neither set of commentators mentioned that the bowler was operating at a pace unusual for themselves. Steyn remained RF and Woakes RMF.
This disjuncture between a bowler’s reputation and their recorded speed is fairly regular. Courtney Walsh continued to be called a fast bowler when delivering at a Trott-like 128kph. In the eyes of English cricket commentators, Sri Lanka (Malinga excepted) and Bangladesh only ever have medium pacers. These commentators find the on-screen data less distracting then I do, because I notice the numbers indicating that they tend to bowl at around the same pace as England’s quick bowlers.
How reliable are the ‘speed gun’ results? To be comparable, bowler by bowler, match by match, ground by ground, the camera must record the velocity of the ball at the point of release from the bowler’s hand – the point of maximum speed. Mohammed Irfan (left arm over, 7’1” tall), Tim Bresnan (right arm over, wide on the crease, 6′ tall) and Fidel Edwards (right arm over, slingy action, 5’8” tall) have very different release points. I can imagine technology capable of capturing all three accurately, but I don’t know if that’s what we have in place at every international cricket fixture.
Watching Steyn, I pondered a) for the thousandth time how speed in a bowler is over-rated, that control and movement must be the key to effectiveness; and b) whether his narrow features and niggling moustache make him look more like a hill-billy car mechanic or a 1940s black-marketeer.
Younis Khan was subjected to verbals from the niggling moustache and, very much more impressively, an old-fashioned working-over, peaking with a bouncer clocked at 149kph. Not long after, he played on, trying to force a fast, short delivery through the off-side. We didn’t need the speed-gun to tell that Steyn had upped his velocity. If we didn’t feel we could trust our own eyes, we only had to look at Steyn’s.
At this time of the year, as leaves blow across unprotected squares, covers lie dismantled and sight screens pushed aside and oriented parallel to the wind, the nearest I get to playing cricket is the game of cricket bag hide-and-seek. My objective is to keep the cricket bag out somewhere around the house, as long as possible, before it gets put into storage for the winter. The opposition, teammate in all other respects, is my spouse.
My starting point, summer and autumn, is for the bag to be in the hallway. There it sits among handbags, school bags and lunch-boxes – like an elephant trying to be inconspicuous in a flock of sheep. Rarely does it manage an overnight stay there. The study, where it is placed between the exercise bike and the gerbil cage, is just behind the front-line, but vulnerable to sudden assaults.
In retreat, the bag spends time in the car boot. For very practical reasons, I don’t like this. In the autumn, I can’t justify the carbon emissions it adds to every journey. During the season, I find it too easy to leave for a match incompletely equipped. I carry this fear with me to every match ever since my debut (also my swan-song) for Buckinghamshire Under 12s. Very nervous and having endured a car journey with our boasting, racist of a keeper and his appeasing parents, I found a space in the changing room. Waiting until the other, more at ease boys began changing, I reached into my bag for my cricket kit. All present and correct, except the socks. I thought I was going to have to play the biggest game of my life in grey school socks, already sweaty from the discomfort of the journey. I was saved that, but not the embarrassment, by our team manager, who must have seen this time and again, so queried his charges whether they were properly attired. I haltingly declared my deficiency and he found me a spare pair.
After that game, my Dad taught me the skill of packing a cricket bag by imagining you are getting dressed and padded up for an innings. Over 30 years later and I still do this, each time my stomach turning as I am taken back to a Northamptonshire pavilion, finding my bag devoid of white socks.
Back to the game of hide-and-seek. What are the motives of the players? For my wife, there’s the general virtue of tidiness. I am also convinced that the bag, large and with protruding bat handle, symbolises for her the obsession that draws me out of the house, or in front of screen or by radio, attention on family severely compromised.
My motive: unequivocally, I deny that it is equipment fetishism. I am not turned on by new, fancy kit. I am not even turned on by my own kit. I keep my trappings of batting until they break. I have a thigh pad that dates back to college days. The only item that I can remember the occasion of its purchase is my bat – three years old and ordered on the Internet. Twenty years ago, the skipper of my South London club dubbed me Kent’s scruffiest cricketer: odd pair of batting gloves, white work shirt flapping at wrists and waist, a heavily taped SS Jumbo and hair that had to be pushed from my face during the run-up of every delivery faced.
I have come to realise that I like to have my bag visible around the house because it reinforces my belief that I am a cricketer. It validates my self-image. It would be so easy not to be a cricketer. I don’t offer a great deal to my team. Personal success, despite a very flexible threshold, is a rarity. In my mid-40s, a season-ending injury is never more than a quick single away – attempted or defended. There’s the demands of family and the guilt of not fulfilling them. There’s work. And there’s a newer creeping occupation, offering another title, fulfilment and obligation: junior coaching. While the bag’s there, I have withstood those counter forces and maintained an identity that I care about.
So, an update on the game. I’ve made it to the end of October and the bag is still on the loose. You’ll see it in the image, lurking with the recycling bags, tucked beneath the coats, atop the old hamster cage and in a very prominent place in my mind.
At all levels of cricket, there are matches that harmlessly subvert the conventions of the way the game is usually played. First class cricketers have festival games and benefit matches.
Festival matches should be worth winning, providing the victories be cheerfully sought. Festivals are a freeing of the spirit, a casting of work-a-day shackles.
Club cricketers have tour fixtures, cricket week games and the works cricket match.
I completed my 2012 season on a beautiful late summer evening last month at my club. Eighteen colleagues, one with his son, one ringer and I had played out our third annual company fixture. It had many of the features required of this kind of contest, most crucially that it ended with a victory for the Chief Executive’s team. The attire was as varied as the experience and ability. I introduced pairs cricket this year to avert mismatches and worse, injuries. In the spirit of inclusivity an incrediball was used for the overs batted by our female staff – none of whom had any cricket experience. We also had the novelty of the groundsman’s tractor being mended at wide mid-on/backward point for the early overs of the match.
As a cohesive organisation, we lack the spite and bitterness that can characterise games between colleagues. I can imagine matches built around hierarchy could be the worst – blue collar v white collar as an unseemly extension of first-class cricket’s Gentlemen v Players. We end up eating chilli and chips together passing much needed money across the club bar.
Generally,”proper” cricketers won’t look forward to these games. There’s little to gain and a lot of self-respect to be lost. We still haven’t managed to persuade our company’s sole county cricketer – a handful of JPL Sunday matches twenty years ago – to join us.
One of my club-mates tried to make the most of his company match last year. Davvy, whose running exploits will be known to regular readers, was batting with his Director. Davvy pushed the ball into gaps calling for two’s and three’s. After a couple of overs of this, Davvy’s boss was doubled over, gasping for air. “This is going to kill me”, he puffed. Calmly, Davvy responded, “I know. I want your job.”
Works matches can also provide a opportunity for ambitions to be realised. My Father had been a top-class club cricketer who, once retired, stood firm against pestering from colleagues several times each summer. On one of the few occasions he relented, my Dad agreed to be selected if I could play alongside him. On the day of the game, he upped his demands: Father and Son should be allowed to open the batting.
And so, on the 21 August 1983, D Smith and CP Smith, an all left-hand combination, opened the batting in pursuit of 143. I don’t remember very much of the occasion but, out of character with this type of game, we kept batting and batting. I had plenty of short balls on my pads to pull behind square and my Dad leant into straight drives. Our partnership never reached the proportions of father and son Chanderpaul, but topped the 100 mark, before my Dad was bowled. I followed soon afterwards. The rest of the innings was a procession and we lost the game.
A victory in a works match provides immediate enjoyment and a needle with which to irritate colleagues for a full twelve months. Much more enduring is the pleasure of a partnership that my father created and we then built run-by-run together.
“Well,” he said in his slow way. “Smackin’ it first off. Off the wall, up the alley, down the line, however it goes it goes with that there crack. Then runnin’ like blazes. ‘Round first and into second and ya head for third – and ya know that throw is comin’, ya know it’s right on ya tail. So ya slide.. ya hit it – whack into that bag.. Well the best part, in a way. Standin’ up. Dustin’ off ya breeches and standin’ up there on that bag.”
In Philip Roth’s Great American Novel, the silent centre-fielder, Luke Gofannon is seduced by a seasoned baseball mistress. She asks him what he loves most in all the world and his answer is the triple. She sets about matching baseball in his affections.
“And Luke,” she asked when the act had left them weak and dazed with pleasure… “what about your triples?”
“I can’t tell a lie, Angela. There ain’t nothing like it.”
The all-run four is perhaps cricket’s equivalent, requiring power or timing to put the ball into the deep outfield and speed to complete the runs. But never could it attract the same devotion as Gofannon felt for the triple. Batsmen and fielders would, in most circumstances, be happier if the ball travelled just a little further to the boundary so the same result could be achieved (or conceded) for less exertion.
There follow two stories of attempted all-run fours. The stories connect the cricket I play to the game my Father played – while also making clear the distance between our competitive experiences.
Last month, early in our Over 40s twenty over innings, I joined Davvy at the wicket. Davvy cut a ball powerfully through a gap at point and off we set. The pitch was on the west side of the square, but the full boundary to the east was in play. It being the summer of 2012, the outfield was damp and Davvy’s cut found resistance and pulled up short of the rope. The short-thirdman fielder was trundling in pursuit and we called for a third run. As we crossed on our third run, the fielder may have had ball in hand but I drew assumptions about his throwing arm from his mobility and mention of going for a fourth was made. I turned at the completion of the third and headed down the home straight. Davvy, turning a few seconds later, about to run towards the danger end, raised hand and voice to stop me. The throw was on its way to the keeper, who, at the second attempt, broke the stumps as I turned mid-pitch and dived feet short of the crease.
I was met with hilarity and disdain as I returned to the pavilion. Mr October, who updates the play-cricket website for us, dedicated the match highlights section to this novelty: an all-run four attempted in an Over 40s fixture. It’s not embarrassment that makes me feel this is particularly harsh on teammates who scored runs and took wickets in our victory.
I was telling my Father how my over-ambition had led to this misfortune. He said, “I must have told you this story hundreds of times,” and related a tale I thought I knew well.
One weekend, in the early 1950s, my Dad returned to his club in South London (The Old Grammarians) on a break from National Service. He opened the bowling and on a damp pitch the ball jagged around without, he says, him having to make any effort. Wickets fell quickly to him and as the opposition batting fell away bringing its lower order to the wicket, the possibility of him taking all ten arose. The bowler at the other end was trying not to get the batsmen out and eventually wickets one to nine had fallen to Dad.
One of the last wicket pair had a swing and struck the ball towards the boundary. A fielder, unhurried, went after the ball, which stopped inside the rope. The batsmen ran. The fielder reached the ball, picked it up and lobbed a high, looping return towards the middle. The batsmen kept running. The keeper planted himself behind the stumps, content to wait for the ball to make its way to him. The batsmen continued for a fourth run. The ball completed its arc, bounced and hopped into the keeper’s gloves. With great reluctance, he broke the stumps, ran out the batsman and scuttled my Dad’s chance of taking all ten wickets in an innings.
I thought I knew this story, but had never registered this twist of my Dad’s ‘ten-for’ being denied not by any old run-out, but by the last pair risking an all run four. Old stories get retold for a reason.
Physical strength masters nothing in cricket. It is a delightfully unmacho sport. Big hitters may scatter the field, but controlled, dextrous batting wins many more games. A charging bull of a fast bowler may make some batsmen hop about, but the ability to coax a ball to move from the straight is needed to dismiss the best batsmen.
There is an exception where power trumps in cricket: throwing. Bowling slow and manoeuvring the ball between fielders are essential skills within a team. An inability to project the ball the short distance to the keeper from in front of the square leg umpire is a failure, not part of cricket’s diverse talent pool. When the ball has to be returned from the outfield only velocity and accuracy will do. The metaphors reinforce this macho side of the game. Good throws are ‘bullets’, ‘shells’ and the fielder ‘guns it’. The simile for the player without ammunition is that they throw like a.. well, you know, you’ve heard it said and it’s probably disrespectful to the women’s game.
I was reminded of the manly virtues of throwing, and their dreaded opposite, on a family walk along the Dee. We came to a stony beach by the river and no. 1 son and I picked stones and tossed them across the river. His throws carried further than mine. I turned and received from my wife a look of sympathy, even pity, completely out of character, such is her indifference to my cricket. She had seen me upstaged by my ten year old son.
Throwing, as with other aspects of fielding has only had the full attention of cricket coaches in recent decades. Drawing on baseball, some good practices have been established. One, that the elbow should be above the shoulder was flouted by one of the best fielders I saw as a child. Hallam Moseley, West Indies bowler, threw side-arm, with his release at about waist level. I remember seeing him on television, playing in one day matches for Somerset, swooping on a ball and fizzing it into the keeper from the Taunton boundary.
Wisden records that, “the definitive record [for throwing] is still awaited.” It lists a handful of long throws that it considers authentic, topped by Robert Percival on the Durham Sands Racecourse (c1882), with 140 yards, 2 feet. Of more modern players, Colin Bland and Ian Pont, the Essex all-rounder, are mentioned. The latter’s throwing prowess saw him all the way to the USA, where he had some limited success in Major League Baseball.
More recently, the throwing skills most celebrated are the abilities of in-fielders to throw down the stumps, even with ‘only one stump to aim at’, off-balance, on the run and even on the ground having sprawled to make a stop. Relay throws have had a fashion, where the ball is returned hard and low to an infielder to then distribute. The aim is to optimise the throwing strength of two fielders to save milliseconds, not to compensate for a deep square leg with a dodgy shoulder. The most refined throwing art is to flight a throw so that it bounces the ball on one of its sides in front of the keeper, once the new ball has lost its juice and swing. The bounce of the ball roughens up the allotted hemisphere to speed up the process that can bring about reverse swing.
I bear, courtesy of an accident ten years ago that left my shoulder dislocated for 16 hours, a feeble throw, and a deficit of manliness. It grates at me. When preparing to field with new teammates, I’ll introduce the subject of my injury so they know that I know I can’t throw before they get to see the sorry evidence. Daily dynamic stretches and press-ups have made no difference. Andrew Leipus’ cricinfo article, Shouldering the pain of throwing, where I understood it, gave me some succour, not that I could improve, but that I probably have something wrong in my shoulder. Just as David Gower had. In his last few playing years his nonchalantly athletic fielding was compromised by a shot shoulder. He would run in with the ball from the outfield, or underarm it to a teammate.
Last month at Lord’s, I caught an early season session of macho cricket. The Middlesex seamers were giving the Surrey batsmen a working over. A succession of quicks was getting seam movement and lift, striking the batsmen and beating the edge. It felt more like a combat sport than a ball-sport as the batsmen sustained blows, dodged other strikes and ventured occasional counter-punches. Truly a different sport to the one I play and I realised, for all my passion for the game, not one I would ever have wanted to play.
In this atmosphere of balls thudding into protective gear and the fielders’ menacing gasps, there was a incongruous moment: I spotted a fellow sufferer. Corey Colleymore, as sharp and thrusting as any of the Middlesex bowlers, was fielding in front of where I sat in the Grandstand. A ball was clipped out to him on the boundary from the pitch set on the Grandstand side of the square. Colleymore collected the ball, skipped and sent a looping return back. It died well before completing the flight from the short boundary, making the keeper scuttle forward to take it on the second bounce. As I began to think how brave it was of the West Indian seamer to endure this deficiency I replayed the throw in my mind and realised he had thrown it left-handed.
Club cricketers in Britain are gathering for their first nets or practice matches of the 2012 season. These get-togethers will, for the vast majority, be reunions of cricketers who played alongside each other last season and maybe seasons before that. New faces – acquisitions from other clubs, students and others new to town and even overseas professionals – will be a small minority.
Club cricket, as part of a conservative sport, finds its place firmly on the right-wing. Its continuity is a strength. Bonds are strong, which is seen in the hours of free time given to every club’s running. Here are two examples of the dynastic core of club cricket that are local to me. My Over 40s league season ended with a match against opponents whose opening pair are father and son. Amongst my team, the Silverbacks, we have sired the following active members of our junior section: two under nines, one under ten, three under elevens, one under twelve, one under thirteen and one under fifteen. It is not inconceivable that some will play veterans cricket for the club. I expect most to play senior cricket within five years. And if we, the Dads, can’t hold a place in the team alongside them, we’ll be circling the boundary and boosting bar profits. It’s not to be knocked: repeat custom is a sound business model.
There are, of course, dangers. The blogger Silly mid off wrote recently in Pom Africans and posh lads about the background of the current England Test team. Public school boys (including Stuart Broad, pictured above with father and sister) and South Africans accounted for nine of the eleven who played the final test of the 2011 English summer. Anderson and Swann were the state school products and both of these benefited from strong links to local clubs. If cricket isn’t to be a pursuit exclusively of those brought up in warmer climes, the privately educated and the club dynasties, it must penetrate our non-cricketing families.
However, there is an attitude in club cricket and amongst its junior coaches that blunts efforts to penetrate those families. I have heard it at my own club’s AGM (and I will trumpet our excellence in junior cricket development shortly) and from the county association’s coaches delivering a training course to budding volunteer coaches.
The attitude is encapsulated in this phrase “glorified babysitting”. The criticism levelled at parents who drop their kids off at cricket practice or matches and then disappear until the session or game is due to end is that they are taking advantage of the club. These parents, it is argued, see the club’s services as nothing more than “glorified babysitting”.
Cricket doesn’t need every player’s parents to love the game. It needs more players.
Cricket’s charms are oblique, exclusive and won’t be to everybody’s taste. Hours watching an activity poorly understood will be weighed against other things a parent could do: supermarket shopping, spending time with another child, having coffee with a friend. As long as they pay the subs and pick up their child on time, this preference shouldn’t be viewed with disdain. In fact, here is an opportunity.
Cricket clubs that can embrace the function of babysitting will thrive. They will draw more broadly from their local community, expanding their gene pool and ultimately create more ‘cricketing families’. My local club understands this and is a Chance to Shine award winner for its project to bring cricket to local primary schools. But as well as running games lessons in school hours, the club’s development officer holds after-school clubs and school holiday sports clubs, both of which give relief to working parents or Mums and Dads with other stuff to attend to. Club members make use of this glorified babysitting, and so do parents with no connection to the club, but who might be drawn in when their child raves about the great time they have had. And the development officer has his eye open for the child with a natural swing, a good eye or a strong shoulder.
Any large club can achieve the same. What else could be done to continue the renewal of our cricketing stock? Is a cricket Free School, the Government’s policy for new community-based schools, out of reach?