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.
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
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.
It was April. I walked out of the conference hall into the bright spring light. No sooner had my mood been lifted by the warm sun on my skin and the beginnings of thoughts about the summer to come, than my stomach churned. The drone of a lawnmower and the scent of the grass it cut triggered associations that caused an anxious response.
I was on a work trip, attending an event designed to enthuse me about an IT system. The conference had broken for lunch and I had headed outside for fresh air, rather than into the dining room. I wasn’t, you see, about to play cricket.
But those indicators of late spring/early summer connected me to the many days over the last 35 years when I have been going, later that day, to play cricket. The game that obsesses me, that has from time to time been so rewarding, that I very rarely ever regret having spent any time playing, makes me uneasy in anticipation.
School matches used to eat into the afternoon lessons: a release from desk, blackboard and text books. From mid-morning on the day of a match I would be distracted. Lunch would be uncomfortable. The looming match drew from me nervous energy, preventing me concentrating on schoolwork, playing at break-time or simply relaxing.
At college and then as a club cricketer in my 20s, I would wake early, missing out on the recuperative sleep student life or weekends could have given me. My mornings were unproductive as I would try to get studies or chores done but be forever calculating and recalculating how much time there was until I needed to leave to catch the bus or walk to the ground.
Playing evening matches in my most recent cricket-playing phase, I learnt to schedule busy days at work, to crowd out the anxiety of a match and an innings at the end of the day.
Interspersing my nervous preparation for each match, was one clear and ever-present thought: I hope the match is called off. A rainstorm, illness in the other side’s ranks, an unfit ground, a mix-up in preparations, a coup d’etat were all summoned as interventions. Some of these, at least, would occur with some regularity and I would feel relieved – even when a full afternoon of lessons was the consequence.
I can’t quite define where the source of this game-day reluctance to play lies. It must have something to do with the fear of failure. Cricket is a very exposing sport with the individual’s performance stripped bare. There’s probably an element of imposter syndrome in there – I’ve have not always felt comfortable that what I bring to the team merits my selection. I also detect a tinge of idleness – not wanting the exertion of a whole match.
Over the years, I have gradually learned that these pre-match nerves have no relationship at all to the enjoyment I get when I am playing. However sincerely I hoped for a crater in the centre of the ground to prevent the game happening, I have been pleased to be playing once the game is under way. I am, on the whole, a happy cricketer, maybe quiet and preoccupied, but generally content to be playing and sometimes, especially when batting, exhilarated. I have learnt to disregard my negative thoughts ahead of a match and find distractions.
Last August Bank Holiday, I was on tour for the 21st and final year with my college old boys team. Sitting around our tour base on the morning before our last ever match, a teammate looked out of the window and said, “Why can’t it rain?” For years, as fewer and fewer of the team played regular (or indeed any non-tour) cricket, there had seemed to me, while I struggled with my own game-day reluctance, a delighted determination amongst the team to get on the field to play. But last August, there were murmurs of assent for the wish for rain. Then more amazing still, my teammates began confessing that for years they had come on tour and in the build up to each game hoped the weather or some other factor would intervene. It’s not just me, I realised.
Earlier this summer, several weeks after the IT Conference, I drove no.1 son to our club’s second ground, where he was making his debut as a paid scorer. I was to stay with him for an hour or so, making sure he could identify our players, interpret umpiring signals and keep the book and scoreboard up to date. On arriving, I found our team was one short. I got back into the car, drove home, changed, loaded my cricket bag and was back in time for the fifth over. I had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon’s cricket, my day completely unimpaired by pre-match nerves. Finally, I had found the solution.
Not long after my surprise appearance, I was helping out at an under 9 fixture, where no.2 son was making his competitive cricket debut. I was running warm-up drills to keep the boys occupied while everyone gathered and final ground preparations were made. A late-comer charged across the grass, clasping a bat. He ran up to me and bouncing up and down in front of my face, shouted: “Hello, my name’s Sam. This is my first game of cricket and I’m SO EXCITED.” I may not be alone in experiencing pre-match nerves, but it was a good way to be reminded there are others with no such inhibitions.
I was the top wicket taker in my first year at college. I bowled filthy, loopy slow lobs. Early the next season, we were knocked out of the Cup when a potentially close game was blown open by three consecutive sixes hit off my bowling and out of the ground. Bowling and I have never really been reconciled. Nets can be a torture, either side of the intense pleasure of a turn batting. So, there’s lots I don’t understand about bowling.
For example: Why can’t professional bowlers deliver a consistent line and length? Why do quick bowlers pitch short when conditions are favourable to seam and swing? What words would a bowler find helpful to hear from a teammate when he or she is struggling to direct the ball? How can a bowler carry on playing after being hit for six sixes in an over (three did for me)?
I also don’t really understand what ‘bowling as a unit’ means. Ian Smith said it of the New Zealand attack that has kept such pressure on the England batsmen in recent tests. I’m not clear how bowling as a unit is any different to all the bowlers bowling well.
To act as a unit means to co-ordinate efforts to work together. I infer from it that the sum is greater than the parts. It’s a familiar phenomenon in sport. A football team, say, when defending will combine to deny the opponents space and to pressurise the man on the ball. To some extent, it’s apparent in fielding as players back-up and support each other to deny the batsman opportunities for runs.
In these examples, the activity of the players making up the unit is happening simultaneously. They are interacting in real time to exert a combined influence on the game. Bowling is different to this: it is asynchronous, or more simply, each bowler takes their turn to deliver an over.
I understand well that bowlers have different roles. A stock bowler may be tasked with keeping an end tight, while strike bowlers attack from the other end. Alex of Lines on Grass has pointed out to me that some bowlers appear to have the ability to get wickets for the bowler at the other end. He cited Gavin Larsen; I would name Andrew Flintoff.
I can also see a bowler having a more specific role at a particular moment. For example, denying a front-line batsman a single towards the end of an over, to expose his partner, a tail-ender, to his fast bowling team-mate.
These practices seem to me more about all bowlers bowling well, than any heightened teamwork. Is there more to it than this? There could well be and I would like to be informed.
If there isn’t, I think we are in the territory of the tactical post-hoc rationalisation that Ed Smith wrote about recently. In trying to explain an outcome in sport, as in other areas of life, we seek a cause. Taking England’s lean spell in the 1990s, and the multitude of aspects of the game and society blamed for the national sport’s predicament, Smith notes:
The point, of course, is that causes are being manipulated to fit outcomes. They weren’t causes at all, merely things that happened before the defeat.
I speculate that the ‘bowling as a unit’ causal explanation arises when the bowling team has gained an advantage, without one of the bowlers ending up with an outstanding analysis – say, a five-for. Our personality-led preference for a ‘hero narrative’ isn’t available. In its stead, perhaps influenced by the culture of management and performance improvement, commentators and cricket fans may identify the ‘bowling as a unit’ cause. It’s much more purposeful and, superficially, more constructive than saying, “all the bowlers bowled well.”
But, I reiterate, I don’t know a great deal about bowling.
Alex at Lines on Grass has written a response to this piece, Hunting as a Pack, which I recommend.
A gentleman dozing in the sun is a popular image of the cricket spectator. The image conveys the tranquility of the sport, or less generously, that it is a game that moves so slowly that sleep takes hold of the viewer.
With England playing in New Zealand, and the guts of the day’s play happening after my bedtime, I am reminded that cricket has caused me more sleeplessness than sleep. I can pinpoint the very first night that my rest was disturbed by cricket: 30 December 1982 – day five of the fourth Ashes Test.
England began the match two down with two to play. The Ashes, held since 1977, were in serious jeopardy. Australia had won the second and third tests of the series, its fast bowlers providing the more effective attack. But the fourth test was thrillingly equal, from first innings to the final margin. The four innings fell within a range of just 14 runs. Australia had been set 292 for match and series victory. Advantage through their innings swung, just as the whole match had. 39-2.. 171-3.. 219-9. The chief protagonist of this middle-late order collapse was England’s young fast bowler, Norman Cowans (a surprise quick tour pick), who took four wickets in the fourth evening, on his way to 6-77 in the innnings.
Australia began the final day, me in bed listening to Test Match Special, on 255-9. Allan Border and Jeff Thomson were half-way towards the target for their final wicket partnership. I was tired and downhearted. England didn’t seem to be creating any chances and the runs were ticking away. I neither wanted to listen nor to switch off. After seventeen overs, Australia had closed to within a boundary of victory. I think it was CMJ commentating (do correct me) who described Botham’s delivery to Thomson, which went something like this .. edged to Tavare.. he’s dropped it.. no it’s caught by Miller. My hair prickled, I wanted to shout. I was exhausted. I couldn’t sleep.
Twenty years later, another England victory left me agitated and sleepless. The first test at Christchurch was played on one of the first ‘drop in’ pitches – i.e. cultivated elsewhere, and slotted into the ground for the match. This novel approach to groundskeeping turned upside down one of the constants of first class cricket: pitches deteriorate as a match progresses, making run-scoring increasingly difficult. This characteristic became apparent on day three as England’s sixth wicket pair, Graham Thorpe and Andrew Flintoff, set off on a partnership at odds with the low, slow scoring of the first two days. England, the radio pundits said, would manage with a lead of 250, which they were 80 short of at the fall of the fifth wicket. Fifty overs later and the lead was 460.
New Zealand were eventually set a target of 550. I went to bed with New Zealand down a few wickets and many hundreds still to get, but batting with some verve. Restless through the night, I tuned in to hear commentary as breathless as I can remember. Nathan Astle had run amok, and with Chris Cairns, a lame last wicket partner, were making the most audacious assault on the England attack. Boundaries followed boundaries. England’s attack was hapless – short balls pummelled over midwicket alternated with full balls launched straight. It was humiliating, but futile, so great was the target. Twenty minutes later, the flood untrammeled, the commentators began to consider an England defeat. Then, with the suddenness of all wickets, it was over. Astle out for 222 from 168 balls; a ‘tainted’ victory, I felt, so badly caned were England’s bowlers. Heart-racing, my night’s sleep was over.
Anxiety about my own play has from time-to-time cost me sleep. Only once have I been not out over night. Even with a fifty to rest my head on, I
slept poorly that night (uneasy lies the head that wears the lid – except I didn’t and never have worn one). The next day, my timing had gone and I slapped my way to a (still) personal best 90.
I have had an even more intimate case of cricket-induced sleeplessness. As a teenager, I played whole-hearted Sunday village cricket with the flotsam and jetsam of my Chiltern Hills village. One Bank Holiday weekend, the club steward chucking us out, we decided on some night-time japes. A visit to the churchyard was mooted, but rejected in favour of sleeping on the square, protecting the pitch for the Bank Holiday Monday’s fixture. The skipper, his girlfriend and three players headed for the middle. There we spread duvets and bedded down. I have endured some scratchy, almost painful innings, but I have never been so uncomfortable in the middle. The joking ceased, somone slept, the skipper and his girlfriend began rolling the pitch and I borrowed some car keys and tried sleeping in a VW Beetle’s passenger seat.
There is one occasion in my career when cricket and sleep fed upon one another. On tour in the south-west with my college old boys team in the early 1990s, our two fixtures were split by a rest day. While the bulk of the team opted for a round of golf, the captain and I (protecting our batting techniques from golf’s seductions) set out on a walk that took us along the south coast to Lyme Regis. In a churchyard above the harbour we found a bench and sat soaking up the late summer sun. Important context is that the day before, I had batted through most of our innings to help secure a draw against the much stronger team from Axminster, keeping out a young quick bowler seeking his hundredth wicket of the season. As relevant is that I had undiagnosed sleep apnoea. So, like a retiree at a county out-ground, I dropped off, almost mid-conversation. When, twenty minutes later, I blinked awake, the captain was eyeing me warily. I apologised. He asked if I knew what I had been doing. I braced for embarassment. He laughed and said I had been mumbling over and over again, “Get forward, get on the front foot, get forward…”
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.