It was a toot, like a brass instrument being tuned. Incongruously high-pitched. Strongly, warmly associated with cricket and companionship.
The first time I heard the toot it came from behind me. I had shuffled down the pitch to the off-spinner, mis-judged or deceived by flight. But I had laid a healthy edge on the ball which would be hurtling in the direction of many of my scoring shots as an undergraduate, to thirdman.
The toot was the prelude to a more throaty, but still high-toned chuckle. Turning in the direction of the laugh, I saw Nick, occupying a space between first slip and gulley, with his left arm out-stretched, hand wrapped around the ball, shaking with merriment and enjoyment at his own display of agility.
Three or four years later, I became a teammate of Nick’s. I was now an old boy and the broadest, deepest allegiance that traced back to my student days was being forged. Our group was always happier, ruder, funnier and more generous when Nick was with us. We worried more, mostly about Nick, when he wasn’t.
Nick soon opted to be a non-playing tourist on our annual August Bank Holiday weekend jaunts. His last game left him melancholy. He had taken four wickets, at least two of which were slip catches to his leg-breaks that turned and bounded some way back up to the heights from which they’d been delivered.
While the rest of the team tolerated a slow, uneven decline playing on for a further 15 years, Nick called a halt. The distinctive nasal laugh would have been absent that evening.
Nick had been an unusual and highly effective bowler. At over six foot four, he could spear wrist spun deliveries to a quick bowler’s good length. I only faced him in practice nets and found it almost impossible to play forward. Stepping back, my bat met the ball in front of my chest.
The tooting continued, particularly around cricket. Nick was the most rewarding of companions for a spell of cricket spectating. In 1995, we watched the West Indies together at Lord’s. Meeting in the Grace Gates queue, he was bubbling with anticipation at 9am. Understanding that the ticket was a freebie, Nick undertook to cater the day, which he did with an entire loaf of smoked salmon wholemeal sandwiches. We sat in the lower Warner from where I was despatched regularly to the bar for another round. Just as adjacency to Nick seemed to shrink cricket gear, so pints of beer in his hand looked like, and were treated as, tumblers.
The real pleasure of his company wasn’t the food and drink (although his knowledge of both were doctoral), but his enthusiasm and appreciation for the game. Lara came out to bat and Nick seethed with delight. “That back-swing, so high. Look at it,” he commanded no one in particular, but I and the dozen or so people in easy earshot complied. Nick wasn’t the kind of voluble spectator that cleared seats. His joy transferred. People in front of us turned and nodded. Those directly behind us didn’t curse this man obscuring their view but responded to him adding character to their day at the Test.
Lara and Hooper batted throughout the afternoon. The run scoring was slow. Peter Martin and Dominic Cork exerted a check so inimical to the pair batting. It was a tense session with few boundaries and fewer wickets. To be honest, it only lives so strongly in my memory because I shared it with Nick and glimpsed the game through his eyes.
A decade later, our old boys’ annual tour coincided with the fourth Ashes Test at Trent Bridge. Since the series began in early July at Lord’s, my mind had been dominated by thoughts of how England might finally defeat Australia. At times, particularly the final morning at Edgbaston, it had been suffocating and it was regularly waking me at night as I computed scenarios and permutations. I was passionate for English cricket, not cricket.
Around our tour fixtures that weekend we gathered in our residence’s living room to watch coverage, live or recorded, of the Test. We came to will England to victory, roaring and cursing, if needed. However, we found an impediment to our partisanship. Nick, occupying the sofa, was cooing, purring over Warne’s bowling. “It’s the top-spinner,” he would divine as an England batsman was about to be hurried in a defensive shot. “Look, look at the wrist angle,” Nick would urge as super slow-mo dissected what Nick had already informed us. At the time of great national release, Nick was our conscience and our analyst, expecting more of us. His high nasal laugh signifying the great satisfaction of watching great cricket played by some great cricketers.
Soon the old boys will gather. There will be no toots and we won’t worry about Nick. There will be the formalities and then we’ll toast him and the pleasure that his company brought to our group and to each of us as his teammate and friend.
Just 1.1% of a full day of Test cricket; only 5% of a T20 innings. An over is the second smallest unit in cricket, but for a non-bowling cricketer, obliged by the format of a competition to bowl, it has the potential to be the period of time covering the transition from active playing to determined retirement. It lasts long enough for repeated humiliation that then echoes onwards for years ahead.
“You now,” shouts the skipper. The innings is short; the call inevitable. I trot towards the umpire, hand him my cap, and mark a short run-up, wondering if performing these conventional actions can somehow create an aura of bowling competence that will sustain me through the next six deliveries. That number, six, I put out of my mind. I know it’s a best case scenario. It could, with a mechanical merciless umpire, be infinite if I cannot control how I propel the ball. But even six deliveries, with these batsmen, could yield runs so richly that the game could be put beyond us.
Before any more thoughts can overwhelm me, as if approaching a cold pool for a dip, I step forward and send the first ball on its slow flight towards a violent fate. It’s straight and full. The batsman meets it on the half-volley and drives it swiftly to the left of our fielder (one of only four) at wide long-on. The batsmen run one, and there’s a call for a second. A powerful throw reaches the keeper on one hop, the stumps are broken, we shout, the umpire raises a finger. We cheer and congratulate. A new batsman comes to the wicket, takes guard.
So much has happened. The over should be finished soon, I feel. But, no, it has barely begun – five more balls required.
So, back up to the crease, getting this unpleasant duty done. Another drive sends the ball skimming straight past me to the boundary. The ball is returned to me and I wave the four fielders straighter. I should have done it at the start of the over, but the notion of setting a field for bowling that I feel I can barely control, seemed like tempting fate.
Here we go again, before my hand starts to tremble, a couple of steps and over comes my arm. I’ve managed to keep it full again, but this one is heading for the batsman’s legs. Down comes his bat, but somehow, probably through lack of pace, the ball evades it, hits his pads and bounces a yard or two into the legside. The batsmen run a leg-bye. My team-mates shout encouragement to me. I’ve made it to the half-way mark. It might be comical, these slow looping lobs, but I’ve not yet felt humiliated or put the game beyond us.
The tall opener is now facing me. Forward I go and launch another benign missile, which he steps out towards and drills past my left hand, ball bounding to the straight long-off boundary.
Not far to go now. I let a thought of technique into my mind as I move into my next ball: to pivot on my front foot so my chest rotates from facing leg to off-side. The tall opener clatters my next ball to my right. A full-length dive on the boundary cuts off the ball and keeps the runs down to two. I stop and applaud, relieved to be spared a boundary; embarrassed by the gap in quality separating my bowling and the fielding.
My finishing line, my summit is approaching. I don’t want to ruin things now. That sense of protecting something carries through into my action and, hardly possible one would think, I put even less on this ball, which floats along the 20 yards, descending towards the batsman’s thigh, in front of which he waves his bat and spanks it past the square-leg boundary.
“Over,” calls the umpire and I am released.
I have played very little cricket where getting a result, any result is all important; and when I have, rarely has the balance of the game been tilted decisively at the half-way point.
“Just bat. Just don’t get out.”
That was the gist of the skipper’s instruction as I padded up, getting ready to open our innings after tea on Sunday. 270 was the target, but not one that I was being aimed at. 40 overs was my objective.
Whenever a Test team starts its second innings with nothing but crease occupation at stake, I pause for a moment to imagine being asked to bat and bat and carry on batting. Would it be liberating, to be freed from the pressure of scoring runs? Would you attain a focus and rhythm, with pulse suppressed and consciousness narrowed? Or would the fear of making a mistake cramp and sully what could be a pure exercise in staying at the crease, over after over?
I recall being involved in a rearguard for my club in the Kent League in the early 1990s. My partner and I were doing our honest best to suffocate the game. I have never been subjected to such foul abuse on the sporting field, or anywhere else, as I was by the fielding team that afternoon. I scoffed when I next came across that club, 20 years later, on an ECB sponsored video looking all prim and proper setting an example for involving volunteers in running junior cricket.
I may have conflated two matches, but I think I was eventually run out. I hit the ball to the pavilion boundary, where our players signalled a four. I was talking mid-pitch to my partner when the fielder returned the ball, the bails were removed and I was given out. I didn’t skrike like Ian Bell at Edgbaston. I was in the wrong: the umpire hadn’t signalled the boundary.
The invitation – the instruction – to bat as long as possible is then very rare. It’s a luxury to be revelled in; not an opportunity to spurn. But, not far below the surface, it feels self-indulgent. It’s the all you can eat buffet of the batting world, but with the risk, not of indigestion, but dismissal, unfulfilled, wondering how many runs you passed up.
All this talk is cheaper than a first-baller. How did I do?
I edged the first ball wide of second slip for four. I recorded eleven more scoring shots: ten singles and a two. Wickets fell regularly at the other end and the bowling was testing, particularly the young opening bowler. I managed to calm my instinct to have a dash at anything pitched up on or outside off-stump. There was one exception: the ball after I fended a bouncer away from my throat, that instinct rose and I swung and missed by some margin a ball wide of off. Thereafter, for the final third of my innings, my shot-shyness was assisted by only being able to hold the bat with one and a half hands (see reason here). The rest of the time, I was content to stretch out into a forward defensive, watch the ball pass wide of the stumps, or deflect the ball off my legs. It was a challenge of concentration and technique.
There was plenty of chirping from the fielding team – all of which felt justified given my aim was simply to spoil their afternoon with my virtual inactivity. And they did seem happy, when with momentary carelessness I played across a straight, short-pitched leg break, was struck in front and sent packing. It was the end of the 17th over, I had scored 16 and hadn’t completed half of my assignment.
Our lower order held on for the draw – in doing so, playing some attractive cricket. I would be daft to deny there is great pleasure in that, but there’s also something to cherish in taking up the invitation to “just bat.”
When I first coached young cricketers, I used to get frustrated that some of my team would forget where they were supposed to be fielding.
Then on one of the occasional weekends that I had time to play, an availability crisis and the need for a scorer (no.1 son), saw me elevated to the second XI. It was my first county league standard cricket in twenty years. We fielded first and it felt as though afternoon had already passed into evening by the time the fifty overs were done. During that innings, while a left hand/right hand combination was at the wicket, I had had to be reminded of my fielding position five times. I was culpable of the very thing that irritated me when coaching kids who were brand new to the game.
Since then, I make the point to those of my coaching colleagues who don’t play regularly at the club, that playing a match, even just every now and then, is an important part of understanding what to expect of the kids for whom we run matches and training.
I also believe that playing cricket, even at the recreational end of the spectrum, helps the viewer, the follower, the blogger better appreciate the sport. I don’t mean it gives a better understanding of the technical side of the game. I do think it ought to develop an awareness of the tactical dimension. But the facet I’m thinking of is more nebulous and I can best sum it up with the statement that ‘a cricket match rarely follows a straight path’.
I have played matches where our opening bowlers are zipping the new ball past the edge of bats, but where the edges that are made fall to ground or the pads that are rapped are not quite in line. After a tasty ten overs of upbeat fielding, the same batsmen are still at the crease and starting to middle the ball they hadn’t looked capable of finding.
I have seen slow bowlers hit to the boundary three times in an opening over and made to look impotent. Gradually though they gain a foothold and then a stranglehold, so by the time they are toying with your tailenders that first over seems to belong to a different game.
These are entirely routine occurrences and don’t describe the more extreme swings of fortune that will happen in a match. What playing the game shows you is that the change doesn’t come about because of an heroic intervention. It takes hold with a combination of good luck, nouse, application or perhaps a change in the wind or a bruising of the ball.
Watching professional cricket there is a preference for explanations of agency: cricketer A did this with match-winning effect. There is also a narrative habit that chooses a particular point as the outset: from that position, mid-afternoon, team B should have scored 600. Of course, what has gone before must influence what happens next on a cricket field. But if you play the game, you are so aware that every ball is a new contest and that the state of the game at one minute is at best a partial predictor of what may happen later. Playing the game can make you more patient, more philosophical, more prepared to wait to see how things pan out in the game you are viewing.
There’s one other type of appreciation that playing the game gives the cricket follower. Sitting now, typing this post, after an afternoon of cricket, much of it simply spent crouching at gulley, I am nonetheless very aware of how physically demanding and exhausting cricket can be.
For twenty minutes, cricket dominated, absolutely. Second by second, it controlled everything and its imprint was everywhere. Every muscle contraction was dedicated to the game. Each thought a construction of this match and its near conclusion. My psychology awash only with hopes and dreads of what my contribution might be. Relationships with teammates defined solely by our combined need to squeeze a result. Of the opposition, depersonalised antagnoists, on whom failure was all I wished.
The firm turf, felt only for what it meant for a cricket ball: swift passage to the boundary if hit a degree or two away from me. And the light, closing in on the game. The rotation of the planet obscuring the sun, progressively denying us sight of the struck ball until it was upon us or past us in the field. From there, back into my mind and the urgent hopes for victory and fears of shame should I be culpable in our defeat.
Immanence, the property of being everywhere, suffusing all experience, associated with ideas of deity, was the state of this cricket game.
For two hours, the match had hinted at, and never excluded the possibility of a tight finish. Our total strong; but their reply measured, then accelerating, until wickets fell, a batsman was required to retire and the run in, those swamping, absorbing twenty minutes.
Despite the intensity of those last minutes, I can’t recall ball-by-ball how the final over progressed. But with five needed from two balls, nine of us were stationed on the boundary, calculating if a stride either way could be definitive and eyes straining for the ball.
Neither of those deliveries turned out to be the examination of my moral courage and fitness for this sport that my mind had convinced me they would be. A single and a dot finished the game. We shook hands, we celebrated, we joked about heart conditions and eye strain. Cricket receded a little, allowing in physical sensations unfiltered by the game – thirst, muscle ache – and emotions – pleasure for a successful teammate, enjoyment and relief.
I have been a ringer for Jesus. Not in the sense of having a resemblance through beard and sandals; nor have I chimed the bells at my parish church. I was a ringer by playing cricket for a team when not qualified to do so – for Jesus College, which neighboured my college.
Jesus College had organised an end of term tour of Manchester, but found their cricket playing resources stretched. Four players from my college were drafted in: Captain Dunn, the Brummie Dreamboat, Sophisticated Simon and me. With the role of ringer comes an expectation – of competence and performance. How did we live up to expectation?
Captain Dunn opened the batting in the first match. It was an evening game, played in Mancunian drizzle on a pitch that a lanky left-armer made spicey. Dunn took a blow from a lifter on the end of the thumb of his bottom hand. He retired hurt from the match and competitive duties for the tour. The broken thumb meant he missed a university representative tour the following week and cancelled his bank cards when presuming them missing; they lay at the bottom of his cricket bag, which his injury made too painful to search thoroughly.
The Brummie Dreamboat was one of a number of promising young batsmen that our college turned into quick bowlers. His tour was distinguished only by antics in a Manchester club car-park that have been know to lose an England captain his job.
Sophisticated Simon bowled leg and off-cutters that were suited to the damp wickets, but excelled as always off the field with charm and a nicely turned anecdote.
On this occasion, I came closest to fulfilling the role of the ringer. A chancy 50 in that opening match seeing Jesus to victory in the loaming.
None of us came close to the ringer faux-pas of being just too good; being the bloke whom no-one knows, who dominates the match and destroys the contest. A team-mate, Mr October, played a match at a public school last season. His side was bolstered by a recent New Zealand Test batsman. The erstwhile Black Cap faced the first ball of the second innings, with 250 the distant target. He drove a length ball to the right of the cover point, who got a strong hand to the ball, from which it ricocheted to the backward point boundary. The fielder was still wringing that hand 20 overs later when the match was done. That fixture might not be renewed this year.
Cricket habits and traditions tend to trickle down from the first class game to the club and recreational sport. The ringer, in recent years, seems to be percolating upwards. As county cricket is increasingly run to the convenience of ‘Team England’, international players have started to be placed in teams that they are not ‘qualified’ to represent. Andrew Strauss, as England captain in 2011, played for Somerset against India to help prepare for the Test series. For other authority-approved ringers, the opportunity has been less propitious. Nick Compton top-scored for Worcestershire against the Australian tourists in 2013, but was dropped from the Test team. James Taylor made an unbeaten hundred in the colours of Sussex against the same team three weeks later, but has not been selected for an England match since.
International cricket also has the ‘ringer-esque’ movement of players between nations – a subject that gets ample exposure everywhere else. The 2014 Under 19 World Cup brings the story of Zimbabwe and its overage players. Administrative error, the ICC has clarified, when confirming that the five not under 19s can continue to play.
Returning to ringers in club cricket, their presence in touring teams and recreational sides has a strong tradition. Competitive, league cricket is altogether different. Players are registered to clubs and fielding unqualified cricketers is usually proscribed with matches or points forfeited.
I have come across one sanctioned use of ringers. Relatively recently, Lancashire would release players not in action for the county to play top level club cricket. Clubmates tell me of turning up at the Sale CC home ground for a match to find Ian Austin sitting on his cricket bag. “Who are you playing for?” he was asked. “Don’t know, just told to be here by midday.” He bowled for the visitors and predictably took wickets.
Other than that, the use of ringers in club cricket competitions is cheating. So, not only have I been a ringer for Jesus, but also a cheat. A couple of years after the Manchester tour, Captain Dunn and I headed to the north-west again, this time to help out our former Number 4, now skippering a club team, who found himself light of players for an end of season fixture. The opposition had won the league the week before, but a strong finish would allow our adopted team to claim second place. Batting first, the Captain clattered a half-century that had our team being very careful to be nonchalant and familiar in his presence at tea.
The champions lost wickets regularly in their reply. Our adopted club had the chance of a victory to cap their season. With nine down and an over to play, a ball was hit high to a ringer on the boundary. With hardly a step required, the ball fell to hand, but didn’t come to rest there. The catch was dropped and the match drawn.
It was my worst ever moment on a cricket field. If a team mate drops a catch, there’s an easy empathy. We all know if could have happened to us and it probably has during the course of that season or ones before. But if some bloke you don’t know, who was brought in because he’s ‘a useful cricketer’ drops the catch that denies your team the match and second place in the league, it’s different. That’s what I felt, not what my temporary teammates actually said or intimated to me.
I knew I had been one devil of a ringer.
Photo credit: George Franks, GGF Photography (george.franks@O2.co.uk)
The outfield at Folkestone was bone hard and sun seared. Hot and weary we made our way across it to the pavilion. Tea, the innings break and shade were all welcome. As our fielders funnelled together over the last 20 metres, a teammate spoke at me, over my shoulder: “Catches win matches.”
It was an accusation, not acclaim. Early on I had dropped the opener at second slip. But that had been a good effort. Four runs saved. An over or three later, the same batsman had got a leading edge, sending the ball spiralling up and in my general direction at point. I shuttled to my left, backwards, turned, stretched and got the barest scrape of the fingers of one hand on the ball. I thumped the ground, picked up the ball and flung it to the keeper. A teammate pointed at the sun and nodded. Yes, the sun had got in my eyes, as it inevitably would at some point when you do a pirouette with head tilted skywards on a clear day. The batsman went on to score 80, playing barely another false shot and providing the backbone of the Folkestone 2nd XI total.
The exertions of fielding and bowling had wilted us. We never challenged the total, but took the game deep before losing. I don’t remember my innings, but it must have been brief. Ready for an early night, I was tied to my lift and eventually made it back to London at 11pm.
Contributing little; taking no pleasure in the company of my team; and seeing a whole Saturday pass without reward; that day, 19 years ago, sealed my disenchantment with regular club cricket. I played the last couple of league matches of the season and didn’t return.
Even now, if I hear the phrase, ‘catches win matches’, it triggers uncomfortable associations with that Kent League fixture. Putting aside the discomfort, however, the phrase intrigues me. It sits at the centre of the great unresolved quandary of cricket selection: how does a player’s fielding ability balance against his or her batting and bowling contribution?
An answer (not necessarily ‘the’ answer) is provided in a piece of research, ‘Do catches win matches?’ (1) carried out by Seamus Hogan, economist at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Hogan’s work looks at one day internationals and analysed every opportunity for a fielder to make a dismissal in 122 matches, using Cricinfo ball-by-ball commentary. Fielders are scored for their performance. A strong fielder is defined as one with a score one standard deviation above the average. Their contribution is compared to that of the strong batsmen and bowlers – each defined as performing one standard deviation above their respective discipline’s average. The superior fielder is found to contribute less than two runs per innings, well below the equivalent bowler (six) and batsman (eight).
After identifying some caveats to the findings, Hogan concludes:
the “catches win matches” cliche should be put to bed.
Then in response to a comment to his piece, Hogan placed the cliche in its context:
it would also be true that “groundsmen win matches”, “tosses win matches”, “boundaries win matches”, “singles win matches”, etc. I do think there is something about a brilliant catch or a horrible drop that sticks in the mind more than any single cover drive or or even a seaming jaffa that earns an LBW, leading to the importance of catches being overstated in people’s intuition.
And catches happens to rhyme with matches.
Nearly two decades on and 300 miles north-west and I am back in club cricket. Drawn into the world of club administration, I find the work continues after the playing season has finished.
I attended a local club forum last week. The ECB’s club cricket survey results were the headline item. The presenter, from the county cricket board, noted that participation rates stayed constant for players at all ages between 26 and 56. It was in the ten years up to the mid-20s that saw a steady decline as youngsters left cricket. The presenter regretted that the full results of the survey were not yet available, but he was anxious to see the feedback from this crucial age group. Match duration, start time, travel distance, pitch quality, competitiveness of fixtures, umpire reliability and that malleable notion, the spirit of the game, were all independent variables that could be evaluated and changes made to accommodate the game’s younger players.
The discussion took me back to my withdrawal from the game, that hot day in Folkestone, the ball looping out of my reach, the teammate pointing the finger of blame at me and the late return home after a day wholly wasted.
Just as the result of a cricket match cannot be distilled into something as simple as which team takes its catches, the players’ survey results won’t be able to single out just one step that will keep more young men in the game. But there is a factor, in the hands of the players rather than the administrators, that my experience suggests does determine whether members return year after year. It’s not the format of the game, the competition, where or how it is played. The key ingredient is that teammates enjoy each others’ company.
Footnote 1: Do Catches win Matches (UPDATED) was published by Seamus Hogan on the Offsetting Behaviour website on January 31, 2013. http://offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.co.nz/2013/01/do-catches-win-matches.html
The DLF Maximum has gone the way of Cornhill Tests, Coopers&Lybrand ratings, Pura Cup and the Fosters Oval. A glossy superficial thing – in this case the sponsorship of sixes hit in the IPL – has evaporated, leaving the cricket element naked of commercial message for a briefest moment before a new cloak, differently coloured and with a new typeface, is worn.
When I asked readers which cricket terms they would most like to be rid of, the DLF Maximum was nominated most urgently. It seemed to encapsulate the commercialism and hyperbole that repels some cricket fans from the IPL and makes other watch with nose pinched.
I’m sure the IPL has made other arrangements and not left the hit for six nameless but for the runs it scores. I do have a suggestion, perhaps not for this year’s tournament, but maybe 2014. This idea won’t generate a lot of cash, but could add to the theatre of the Indian Premier League.
A little background: it was the early 1990s and Ged, my erstwhile college opening partner, was doing something in the Army in the south west of England. His girlfriend ran a stable and her brother captained a village cricket side in Somerset. Ged was playing a lot of cricket for his regiment, but clearly wasn’t doing a lot of whatever had officially taken him with the Army to the south-west because, when not learning to ride, he found time to accept an invitation to play for the village side.
Ged was asked to open the batting. As he was about to trot to the middle, the captain had a word with him about a club tradition. Ged was in good nick and soon played a lofted drive that enabled him to envoke that tradition. He hesitated, was this a prank to make the army officer look a fool? But, with his batting partner nodding encouragement, while the umpire raised both hands above his head, Ged took the locals at their word:
Hey! Ho! Over she goes!
And from the boundary a chorus from his teammates, now on their feet:
More commercially minded folk than I will determine if this practice has sponsorship potential, but it trumps spectators waving cardboard 9’s when the boundary is cleared.
Cricketers’ compulsion to name and rename elements of their game requires no financial imperative. In the endless discussion of the game, there are new coinings, some of which, even if just in the local economy, become currency.
The Sunday village team I played for as a teenager welcomed back Johnny late in the month of May. Johnny was the local amateur football team’s star striker. He brought to the cricket club charisma, effortless athleticism – but more importantly – girls as spectators. I don’t remember him being an especially fine cricketer. He had a swift run-up, bowled off the wrong foot, with a fast arm, but no body in his action. But he was the star-turn and we liked the burnish he brought to our otherwise scruffy mob.
And he had authority in the matter of lingo. I was never sure if he abused that authority, but like Ged, I soon forgot that he may be teasing the rest of us. So, boundaries were ‘fish’. ‘Four fish’ we’d comment casually as one of our team belted a half-tracker to the fence. ‘Four fish’. Basic alliteration, but it stuck with me and was fostered, if never fully adopted, by my college team. It even made appearances on our old boys tours. ‘Six fish’ had an assonant quality, but never became the DLF Max of the Chilterns.
In my twenties I played cricket in South-East London. At my club, poor bowling belonged and would be hit “in de weeds”. The source of this expression was Dougie, an elegant, cigar-smoking Jamaican, who always seemed to me to be charming and of good mien. My teammates warned me, though, that Dougie had a terrible temper.
Knowing the originator of this term, I imagined balls being spanked into the tropical undergrowth surrounding a baked Caribbean cricket ground. Retrieving the ball would involve pulling aside twisted stems of thorns, leaves with stings and risk disturbing creatures that would bite with venom. On the grounds we played, hitting the ball “in de weeds” would mean damp nettles and bramble.
Dougie was in his 50s and was still playing regularly. He had the knack of slowing the game to his own tempo, without looking ponderous. I batted with him only two or three times and he was very encouraging – one of the few batting partners with anything worthwhile to say between overs. During one of these partnerships, I flicked a full-toss through the in-field. I turned for two, hesitated, miscommunicated, gained my ground and left Dougie stranded.
While I batted on, Dougie circled the ground, smoking his thin cigars. I had been warned of his temper and knew I was going to be subject to it. Once dismissed, I thought it better to apologise to him straightaway. I said my piece, very briefly. Dougie responded, “‘Man, you shoulda hit it in de weeds.”
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.
The story when England announced its touring party for the series against Pakistan was that there was no story. The selections were predictable and well merited. The team’s front-line performers and immediate understudies proven or deserving the chance to prove themselves. Settled and experienced, the team could defend its number one ranking with confidence, without the distractions of debates over who’s in and who’s out.
One account of the tour party’s announcement diverged from this line. The commentator took a step back and saw the big news and called it a ‘silent victory’. I recommend you read that post now. It impressed me. It also gave me a context (and a title) for reflecting on a cricket experience of my own – local, narrower, but something that probably should also be seen as a victory. It’s a story I have told for laughs and gasps many times. There is something comic about it, certainly it has novelty, but it ties into a bigger story too. The novelty is captured in a couple of sentences.
Ten years or so ago, as the following season’s fixtures were being finalised, our captain took a call from the skipper of a team we had played a couple of times on our annual August Bank Holiday tour. Small talk, agreement of times and dates, and then this, “By the way, I’m not Andrew now, I’m Angela.”
Turning up at the ground six months later, we were curious and nervous. We didn’t know quite what to expect from our opposition, but we hadn’t avoided speculating. The previous couple of matches with Andrew’s side had been good natured. We hadn’t spent much time mixing after the games: the grounds they used didn’t have a bar; we were keen to return to our tour base; and our teams were of different backgrounds. But we shared a desire to play friendly, declaration game cricket, giving games to youngsters and extending the careers of oldies. And now, a new element had been introduced.
I sincerely believe we behaved well that afternoon, led by our captain, whose sincere charm has smoothed our way into and through matches across the country for over twenty years. Our whispers, “Is that him…her?” were discrete. The tea that day was provided by a friend of Angela, who was also going through a gender reassignment process. Angela’s friend was tall, of solid build and anomalous in a long, red frock. Our ‘keeper thanked Angela’s friend for the tea and was surprised to be told it was the last one she would be making that season as a trip to Hamburg beckoned: for further gender reassignment surgery.
A team of 30-something graduates, professionals, cosmopolitan and liberal – yet we felt a frisson and some awkwardness at encountering our unlikely opponent and his catering friend. Angela’s team, less educated, with more diversity in occupation and native to their market town, were relaxed. They played and chatted with Angela just as they had done with Andrew – following Angela’s instructions in the field and teasing her for ineffectual slow, looping bowling. They showed complete acceptance of their captain and the choice she was making.
Angela’s leadership of her team was a small silent victory of the sort David Mutton describes in his article on Steven Davies. Her courage and presence at games expanded the reach of tolerance in cricket.