I made my way to the wicket at the fall of the fifth wicket. I took guard, received the conventional information from the umpire and readied myself for the first delivery. As the bowler paused at the top of his run-up, a loud voice from cover point exclaimed:
What? Another leftie?
Hang on. I’m confused. Remind me, which one’s the Saffer international?
The fielder had a fine sense of the ridiculous. The non-striker joined the laughter. My batting partner was Ryan Rickelton, SA junior international: 19 years old, fresh-faced, with a physique developed to excel at his other sport, rugby. I was not and had not. Other than the 22 yards of well rolled and cut turf, Ryan and I only really shared our left-handedness at the crease.
I was reminded of being not easily mistaken for Ryan last week. We had been teammates four years ago, playing a Sunday friendly with a scratch team at Sale CC comprising a few first teamers, some dads and some juniors. The recollection popped up while recording an interview for the podcast ‘81 all-out‘. The host, Subash Jayaraman – aka The Cricket Couch – had paired me with Dan Norcross, creating as unequal a partnership as I had experienced in cricketing matters since Rickelton and I batted together.
Subash wanted to get an English perspective on the World Cup final, in much the same way that the Sale friendly XI skipper had wanted a few lower middle-order runs from his pair of left-handers. My leg-side nudges and edged drives, set against Ryan’s crisp cuts and slog-swept six, can be read across to the contributions Dan and I each made to the podcast. Keep the pro on strike and enjoy the close-up view, I reasoned.
Just as Ryan had time for a mid-wicket chat and ran my singles hard, so Dan allowed space for my more parochial observations and humdrum notions of the greatest ever Cup Final. What I really enjoyed, though, was the thing out of my reach: the straight drive drilled back past me, and away to the tennis courts without losing speed; the fluent linking of multiple ideas, laced with humour and images both jarring and apposite – ‘drowning kittens’; ‘evil Kiwis’ (to have brought such bad fortune upon themselves). The easy, unforced flow of runs and of the spoken word are equally thrilling to witness.
I checked out the scorecard from that Sunday match. I was surprised to see that Ryan scored only five more runs that I had. The bald figures suggest we were closer to parity than I had remembered. But the cover-point fielder was a bringer of truth: I was not easily mistaken for a pro.
Listen to a pro in action here: http://www.81allout.com/world-cup-2019-final-you-win-some-you-tie-some/ You can subscribe to Subash’s podcast at all good pod aggregators, or follow him @cricketcouch
The day after the first game of my season, a season that is to be my first fully committed to weekend cricket in over 25 years, I hobbled around the field at junior training, seeking sympathy. “I felt every one of my 51 years, yesterday,” I lamented. Indeed, I had looked and performed like a decrepit cricketer: a duck, two dropped catches and two chases of the ball that ended with me kicking it over the rope.
The Minstrel, friend, team-mate and fellow junior coach, did not indulge me. “My 74 year old uncle plays every week and I never hear him complain,” he replied, with some acute advice about doing the things you enjoy.
That hit home. I also reasoned that in time, sooner rather than later, I hope, I will achieve match fitness as my body adjusts to the rigours of an afternoon of cricket.
Now, three games in and I have generalised aches and stiffness, the length and breadth of my body, late in the game, after the game and for a day or two afterwards. Added to that, I’ve collected a succession of very minor injuries: scratches to the wrist from retrieving the ball from brambles; a bruised heel of my right hand from fielding a ball that leapt erratically; bruising of two toes from a gentle yorker that I missed; a shallow cut above my right knee from a sprawling effort to catch a ball. Most evocatively of all, my left elbow is skinned and raw providing a sensation that connects me to my early twenty-something self when, from May to September, my elbows would bleed.. scab.. bleed on a weekly cycle arising from dives to stop balls on the hard wicket-ends of Oxford and Kent.
That was then, how am I skinning my elbows now? Walking through narrow changing-room doorways? Slipping when pushing the covers on and off the pitch? It seems not. While I’m not actually diving in the field, I’m going to ground, elbow first, when the ball is hit either side of me. To set an example to the youngsters, I could argue. To avoid bending down, might be more honest. Whatever the technical failings, it gives me the sensation of being a cricketer, active in support of the bowlers, while also adding to the aches as my joints shudder from the impact.
I’m looking forward to seeing the Minstrel this evening at junior training. I am reconciled to my sore body, dosed over-night with analgesic. I’ll enquire how he feels after a challenging afternoon in the field. Sent to the longest boundary, then back into the ring as the batsmen rotated strike; at the other end, gulley for the new batsmen, mid-wicket for the established player. Barely two deliveries in the same position. Two-and-a-half hours of continuous motion, always in the line of fire. In the changing-room, post-match, capable of nothing more eloquent than groans as the team reflected on the afternoon’s action. Has the Minstrel any other advice for his captain, I’ll ask, or is it time for a quiet word with his 74 year-old uncle?
Basingstoke in the mid-1990s; the scorer’s hut. “I’ll give you our top five,” said our skipper to their scorer. “Dunn, Mann, Smith, Brown, Wood.”
“Sounds like a team of aliases.”
A top order of monosyllabic names. And now we find ourselves short of one syllable.
Greg was tall, often sunburnt, unhurried and calm. He smiled, bearing lightly our ritual teasing of the team’s sole Yorkshireman, replying with gentle ripostes in an immaculate accent unaffected by three years spent down south studying. University for most is a launch-pad away from home, giving energy to the search for new experiences and changed identities. For Greg, comfortable I imagine with who he was and where he came from, undergraduate study was a detour.
Some years, Greg would show on tour the benefit of his time playing club cricket in West Yorkshire. Once, we were mismatched against a Devon club 1st eleven. Greg, after the loss of most of our monosyllabic top-order, faced their teenage quick who was relishing the chance to pick up his 100th wicket of the season against some fragile tourists. I was pleased to have made it to the non-striker’s end, from where I saw the young bowler dig in a delivery that was heading for Greg’s torso. With a speed of reaction that surprised and contrasted with everything we had offered hitherto in that innings, Greg pivoted and pulled the ball with a clean crack through square leg. A moment of class that communicated that we may be hung-over, but we weren’t to be push-overs.
Greg missed several tours owing to a prior commitment. He had become involved with coaching his club’s junior section – a genuinely selfless act as he wasn’t following (or steering) his own child’s activity. On August Bank Holiday, Greg organised a cricket festival for the primary school kids of his area. In his absence, naturally he was a topic of our discussions. There was a story of Greg earnestly telling a young player’s Dad that his son’s bowling action was suspect. “That’s not what Martyn Moxon thinks,” was the reply. I also remember one of our number saying that each morning, when John Simpson cued up the BBC’s business correspondent, he amused himself by imagining it would be our Greggy’s Yorkie tones that he would hear, not the bland voice of his BBC namesake. Greg’s former team-mates will be experiencing a lot of fond imaginings of their friend.
These memories are so arbitrary and slight, as is the way when there’s no particular purpose for storing a recollection. Thinking back, Greg is associated not with sharp images but feelings: the easy companionship of our team’s reunions; threads of familiar stories picked up, spun a little, then put down safe in the belief that we will continue the narrative together.
We do, though, have some more deliberately formed memories: of a ludicrously warm weekend spent in Leeds this past summer. We had thought it sensible to locate our Friday 13th get-together close to Greg’s home, hoping he could join us. But Greg, with a vigour that defied his condition, played the part of host and local expert. Our weekend culminated in an afternoon under blazing Yorkshire sun, watching Pudsey St Lawrence play a Bradford League fixture. Our vantage point: camp-chairs and benches, on the boundary beside the sightscreen, with tea in the pavilion and an all day bar. Greg gave us fresh stories that we can enjoy reliving, but that have come to a conclusion.
So, now we find our batting order short of a syllable; and I find myself short of the words that convey the warmth and affection in which our team holds this dear man.
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.
Our audience cleared, taking back to their desks and their vans the quarterly dose of our distinctive homespun corporate wisdom. From the back of the crowd came Robbo. “You’ll like this. Got something to show you two,” he said to the boss and me. “You remember Carl Hooper? Well, my son met him at this event in London.”
I do remember Carl Hooper. I saw his last match for Kent. A Sunday League fixture at Canterbury. I was meeting some friends there on a stag weekend, only they didn’t show. I was watching play with one eye and scanning the crowd with the other – distracted and frustrated. I went to the trouble of finding the PA announcer to put out a message to the groom-to-be, before finally relaxing in front of the cricket. Hooper was out and received a standing ovation on his way back from the middle.
Robbo was holding his phone at waist level. I couldn’t see what was on the screen but expected there to be a photo. A selfie of a once majestic cricketer and Robbo’s son? What would he be like? Robbo, no taller than Hooper, is eccentric, rumoured to have hair that isn’t naturally his own, and a real cricketer. Not just club, but, I’m sure I’ve heard a bit of county too, back in the 80s. But I couldn’t find anything to verify that on CricketArchive.
So we built Robbo up. Each year he managed not to attend our company cricket match and each year his reputation was enhanced. Then last year we entered a company 6-a-side tournament run by a solicitors firm. The boss selected his squad and tapped the lucky ones on the shoulder while we supped ale upstairs in the Point after our company away-day. Immediately Robbo talked about hiring nets at Old Trafford. It didn’t happen and we turned up at the mid-summer tournament creaking and pasty. The boss made Robbo (creaky, but never pasty) our skipper for the day.
We won the tournament on the back of some ferocious six-hitting by two of our players, only one of whom is a regular cricketer. Robbo let his stars shine. He spent the day wearing not whites, but shorts of the variety worn by international cricketers when warming up. There was a message there and maybe it translated into his play, more club than county. Most memorable that day wasn’t his cricket but his style of communication as captain. His teammates (his company boss, included), opposing skippers, even umpires, were addressed with one of two names: “Shag” or “Shagger”. Not affectionately, not disparagingly, just matter-of-factly, we were all one or the other and probably both.
Seven months on, and Robbo is relating the anecdote that his son has told him. Carl Hooper is a guest at a financial services event. When the event breaks up, Robbo’s son approaches Hooper: “I have to ask you. My Dad is always telling these stories about the cricket he’s played. Can I ask, do you remember him?”
That’s a bold question. Especially to a player with memories of over 100 Tests, more than 300 first class matches and around 700 one-day games. I have experience of how slight an impact we can make on those with whom we share the field of play. I wrote once about my worst moment on a cricket field, playing as a ringer for my friend Dave’s team in a crucial end-of-season game. Twenty years later, I asked him about the match and my part in it, which has clung uncomfortably to me, and he had no recollection at all.
“What’s his name?” enquires the former Test player.
Robbo’s son utters his father’s name.
“Him!” Hooper laughs, “him. I know your Dad. He stole a game from me.”
At this point in his retelling, Robbo lifts the mobile phone. On screen is a scorecard of a Central Lancashire League Cup match from the mid 1980s. In the first innings, Robbo top-scored with 73 not out. The opposition’s scorecard has a long tail behind a fat middle that features 87 from CL Hooper – ct & b by my colleague, whose team scrape home by 3 runs. Scrolling down the screen to Robbo’s bowling figures: 1-0-8-2.
“We were going to lose. I snatched the ball from the skipper’s hand to get on to bowl. I was cocky in those days.”
Memories of tight matches won, catches taken, boundaries hit can sustain a player long after the best days are gone. For that memory to be recalled by a teammate or an opponent cannot be taken for granted. For it to be shared by a former Test cricketer.. That is memorable.
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 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.”
Drafted in for the Final, I was to open the batting. We bowled first and as we left the field, having conceded the highest score of the five innings played that day, the Skip said, “I want Dav to open, you’ll be three.” Dav’s opening partner, our Mr October, set off at a gallop, putting us ahead of the asking rate. As he neared his retirement – on scoring 30 – the Skip turned to me: “I want to keep this momentum up. Briggsy’s in next.” Briggsy delivered and the Skip tapped our opening bowler, cricketer of pedigree, on the shoulder and said, “Get your skins on GB.” Out GB strode when Briggsy topped 30. Dav fell with the target in sight. The Skip stood up. This was a chance to wipe out the memory of his final over in last year’s semi-final – 13 runs conceded and a final ball defeat. “You’re next whatever happens,” he said before marching onto the field.
What did happen was two very fine cricketers eased us home with two overs to spare, the Skip making the winning run. He apologised to me – I hadn’t had a knock that day.
After two league title winning seasons, juggling a team of very uneven talents, the Skip had seen a chance to win something meaningful. Five batsmen, all my superiors, were our best chance of chasing down the total and were sent in ahead of me, with several cannier operators following. I backed the Skip’s decision not only because it brought us the trophy – the only cricket trophy some of us have had a sniff at – but because it showed the agile thinking that eludes cricket teams. That day I raced in earnest the hobby horse that I so often ride for leisure. Where Benaud had his front-foot no-ball law, Boycs has covered pitches, the subject I bang on about is: why are teams so inflexible with their batting order, in innnings, matches and even whole series?
Above all, it’s the England cricket team who have seemed afraid of upsetting the scorecard printers by sending in their batsmen out of order. There is an exception, itself controversial, the nightwatchman. But even that tactic appears to be employed inflexibly.
For long periods of the last thirty years, England have found the number three spot problematic. Pundits have explained the difficulty of finding a player who is equally able to take strike to the second ball of the game or after a double century opening stand. The real problem lies not in finding a player to fit this bill, but in making this the person specification. The England of 2011, best Test side in the world, have Trott at three, with Pieterson and Bell to follow. Trott, recently named ICC player of the year, is the ideal candidate for the early loss of an opener. In his current form, he thrives whenever he comes to the wicket, but is it in the team’s best interests for him to bat if the openers have lasted a session and the opponents are deploying their third and fourth change bowlers? Another player is more likely to capitalise on the situation and turn an advantage into control of the game.
A defence of the inflexible batting order is that batsmen need to know their role. Ok: “Trotters, overs 1-25, you’re in three. KP, you’re the man if Chef and Levi are still there at over 26 onwards.” In fact, the inflexible batting order can lead to batsmen being less able to play a role suited to their strengths. I suspect, this whole argument is fallacious. What we are really dealing with is individual pride and prestige. Why else was Collingwood persisted with at five in the Ashes, when Bell’s fluent innings kept getting cut short batting with the tail at six?
How far could this approach of a flexible batting order be taken? I had my first taste of club cricket, playing for a hard-drinking village Sunday XI under the captaincy of Gill, a Popeye-shaped builder, and unorthodox leader. One month he got into his head that we should capitalise on having two left-handed batsmen, one of who was me, in the top-order. Gill sent a lefty and righty out to open and said to a right-handed colleague and me that the former was to go in at three if the righty was out and me if the lefty fell first. What happens, I asked, if my fellow southpaw bats through? Am I at number eleven? Gill said he’d get back to me on that.
There are limits to how flexible the batting order should be. The potential is found in scenarios that are forseeable, of which I list a few below. First though, a danger. In baseball, when I last followed the sport closely in the early 1990s, the following often happened. In the late innings, a right-handed starting pitcher, beginning to tire and due to be facing one of the opponent’s most effective right-handed batters would be replaced by a left-handed relief pitcher. Once this pitcher had warmed up, the batting side would counter by pulling their batter from the game and sending in a left-handed pinch hitter. What seemed to drive this series of moves was ‘the numbers’: lefty batters have better stats against lefty pitchers, similarly righty batters prosper against righty pitchers. Probability, dressed up as flexibility, isn’t the answer (however, I have enjoyed international teams bringing on their slow left-arm bowlers the minute Pieterson appears at the wicket.)
Taking the current England team as the example, here are three Test match scenarios, to add to the first wicket down situation, where some flexible thinking could make (even) better use of the available talents.
- England lose their sixth wicket to a swinging delivery in the third over of the second new ball. Instead of bringing in Broad or Bresnan to partner the last front-line batsman, send out Anderson, England’s nightwatchman, to see the shine off the new ball and holding back the more attacking lower order batsmen until the bowling is less of a threat.
- A slow left-armer or leg-spinner has cut through the England middle-order, turning the ball away from the bat. Instead of exposing Prior and Bresnan, who would be vulnerable to the same kind of dismissal as their teammates, send out the left-handed Broad to disturb the bowler’s rhythm and attempt to shift the momentum of the innings.
- A long partnership, in place since the start of play, is progressing deep into its fourth hour. The next batsman in will have been sat, padded up, concentrating and burning nervous energy. Why not stand him down for half an hour to freshen up, with the next but one batsman moved up one place until the scorecard order can be reinstated?
Cricket is a unique blend of individual endeavour in a team environment. Loosening the grip of the scorecard batting order may strike at the pride of some batsmen in the interests of the team, yet also allow more individuals to play the game in situations to which their strengths are best fitted.
I’m lucky. So lucky. Black cats and pairs of magpies cross my path as I make my way to the wicket across swards of four-leaved clover. I’m a very lucky batsman.
Rarely have I taken an innings beyond 20 without being dropped. More spills than BP, as many shells as a beach. A few facts: my three major innings this season:
- 66*: dropped at slip; dropped at extra-cover; dropped at deep mid-wicket in a fielding calamity that saw my lofted on-drive swatted over the boundary to bring up my 50
- 26: dropped at extra-cover; dropped at cover point
- 55: dropped at deep mid-on.
Outside of these innings, I was also dropped by a fielder in the deep, who contrived to shovel the ball into the sight-screen to gift me a six.
In total, eight catches off my bat went to hand and then to ground. Four times I was dismissed to a catch, giving me a two to one chance of surviving a lofted shot hit to a fielder. There were many other occasions when I sent the ball in a tight arc over a fielder, who flapped or swore, but didn’t intercept it.
Some context: the standard of fielding isn’t high in the cricket I play; and I do hit the ball in the air a lot. Nevertheless, I benefit more than most from butter-fingers in the field. This isn’t a phenomenon limited to the most recent season. It’s been a truth that nagged at me in each of my phases of cricket-playing: teens to 21; 25-28 and over 40.
Is it possible to be a lucky batsman for a career? One of my team-mates has that reputation earned over a career of 40 odd years. Merlin played a very decent level of club cricket and spent some years pro-ing in the north-west. So he’s well known in the county for his magic. Merlin waves his bat, mesmirises the fielders and the ball sails up and drops safely. To date, with Merlin on the team, I’ve kept below the radar.
Most would argue that any cricket career, if long enough, will have its share of good and bad luck. Things even themselves out, in other words. My experience, and the reputation of Merlin, makes me look at this random distribution of luck theory in a different way. There are so many of us batting ten, twenty times a season, that a small number will have a disproportionate share of good fortune over a career. We are the random samples of batting fortune which are placed well to the right of the Gaussian bell-curve. We may start each match as likely as any player to have catches dropped, but in the retrospect, our skiers have tended to be the ones that pop out, slide through or jar the ends of the fingers of fielders’ hands.
Of course, luck for a batsman takes more forms than whether catches are held or dropped. Other common external factors are: umpires’ decision-making, the (mis)behaviour of an occasional delivery, form of the bowlers and state of the game when batting. Of these, catching is the most visible display of good or ill fortune, followed perhaps by the decisions of the umpire.
How then, in the upper echelons of the game, should evidence that a player attracts good luck affect selection, role and career? Should a test batsman who has made runs, but always benefiting from misses in the field, be shunned as his scores overstate his ability? This appeals to our rational, analytical selves. Or should he be cultivated – at the risk of operating at the level of David Brent, whose approach to recruitment short-listing involved throwing the pile of CVs in the air and interviewing those that landed face-up. Who wouldn’t want someone lucky working for you, he reasoned.
I suspect selectors of professional cricketers pay less attention to the luck that made possible a score or a bowling analysis. It’s the end product that counts. Dropped on one, and 31, went on to score 91, is interpreted as: has made a score so has the confidence to make another next time. The other interpretations – the rational: took three innings to make 91, not good enough; or Brentian: let’s back this guy, he’s lucky – don’t feature. Despite the luck that fuels my batting, I would give full support to a selection committee that judged the process as well as the outcome; that dropped the batsman who only scores runs because he gets dropped.