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?
Three sudden jarring cries carry the 75 yards from the middle. A pause and then a broader chorus cheers, still high-pitched, but with less urgency. The batsman walks away from the wicket. The chorus members converge from their fielding positions. A wicket has fallen.
Evidence of the eyes: the stumps stand upright, location of bails unclear; the ball has now been returned to the umpire.
Rewind a few seconds. Grab a memory of this, the sixth, sixtieth, perhaps, 360th delivery watched today. Scan for clues: the batsman’s movement, the ball’s destination, keeper’s line, close fielders’ inclined heads.
Apply heuristics of many years of watching, layer with knowledge of the competitors, inject with understanding of the conditions of the pitch and the ball.
Settle on a theory: a thin edge, to a good-length, seaming delivery, gathered to the keeper’s left.
Away to your right, the scoreboard flatly conveys the truth: LAST MAN lbw b 9.
Watching cricket live is a challenge of concentration and observation. The difference between an edge behind, a drive to the boundary or a cautious leave, is found in a fraction of the seconds the ball is live. An experienced eye can make a lot of those fleeting images. But much of the appreciation when watching play at the ground is in the aftermath of the delivery and interpreting the movement of batsmen, fielders and bowler.
There are exceptions, where the key moments of action play out at the same pace as an alert spectator’s attention. My favourite, an incident that can crown any day at the cricket, is the running catch. The usual pulse of action is extended, introducing jeopardy, with just enough time for speculation and ‘will he, won’t he’ thoughts.
The flash of activity that ushers the chance is articulated: an advance down the wicket perhaps, invariably a full swing of the bat that grabs the eye. Following the ball’s course, the brain calibrates trajectory with boundary and deep fielder. Swapping focus, before settling on the fielder, carrying out her own speedy calculations.
While writing, I’m thinking of Damien Martyn ending Kevin Pietersen’s daring first Test innings, Alex Hales (and Moeen Ali) sucker-punching Misbah at Lord’s, a full-length dive at long-on by Cameron Bancroft at a T20 at Cheltenham. None was the most significant moment of that day’s cricket, but each imprinted deeply because I watched them unfold.
The fielder’s athleticism plays a part in the appeal: foot speed to gain ground towards the ball, agility to stretch or even dive to reach it on the full and dexterity to clasp and cling onto the ball while moving at pace. Yet, the running catch that resounds the strongest featured a greying cricketer, most comfortable scheming at slip. But it was from mid-on, in the closing overs of a one-day game, that he pitter-pattered with flat feet down the slope towards the Tavern, like an uncle chasing a paper plate blown away at a family picnic. Mike Brearley, at the 1979 World Cup Final, ran and ran before taking Andy Roberts’ skied pull over his left shoulder.
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
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.