Even before good sense and Government edict confined us to our homes, sons no.s 1 & 2 and I had transferred our cricket games from the bedroom to the spring-lit back garden. The lockdown finds us in mid-season intensity.
Around 16 metres long, the garden provides just enough space for a pitch. The lawn, assailed from above by years of the boys’ football games and from below by the roots of a thirsty silver birch tree, provides an unpredictable surface. The tennis balls (or the inner cores of incrediballs) jag, leap and creep keeping innings brief and challenging. Modes of dismissal include hitting the ball over a fence, into a fence in an uncontrolled fashion, any edged shot in the direction of an imaginary full umbrella of slips and gulleys and one-hand one bounce. With no counting of runs, deliveries faced is our currency. The leave is highly productive.
The wicket on pitch 1 is the trunk of the maple at the back and centre of the garden. Wear and tear has forced us to pitch 2, where a concrete post provides middle stump, off and middle, leg and middle and we negotiate over whether the off and leg stumps have been hit. Pitch 2 opens up the off-side for the right-hander (sons 1 & 2) and plenty of space for me to nurdle leg-side.
The bowler has a step or two to build momentum. Hitting a good length produces rewards, but the temptation to drop short and see the ball fly past the batter’s chin (or scoot into his ankles) is strong. The pitch takes turn, although it hardly seems worth the effort to rotate a wrist when the natural variation is so.. varied.
Competition, the more so since we have had to spend so much time in each other’s company, is keen. The boys wind each other up, finding fault at every opportunity. They are young men and fling the ball at each other with venom. I flinch, waiting for a catch at short-cover, ready to step in and restore order, should either lad cross the line. No.2 son is particularly incensed that his brother’s criticisms of his technique end up stymying his play. He’s torn: last summer his sibling coached him back into a love of the game; this year, big brother may be trying to undermine him for advantage.
Balls disappear over the three fences and return at a slightly slower rate. Such is the discipline of our batting, it’s rarely the result of a loose shot. A firmly hit back-foot drive can hop next door. Bouncers, flicking arm, shoulder or just climbing over the batter, end up in the allotments behind us. But if it is from a loose drive or a top-edged pull, disdain rains down on the batter as they surrender the crease.
I found another way to leave the crease on Saturday. No.1 son had bowled a spell of off-spin. I had picked him off through the leg-side, forcing him to drop short, which I clattered to the fence (two metres away). He reverted to his stock: seam bowling. A delivery reared off a length, past my face which I turned, only to meet the ball coming back the other way from the concrete post. The tennis ball hit me squarely in the eye.
I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening lying in a darkened room. I had an early night, slept soundly and woke on Sunday with two functioning eyes. I now bat in my non-shatter cycling glasses.
It is a delight to share these games, sometimes good humoured, often intense, with my sons. It lightens the mood of this dark time. But there’s an unease that keeps picking away at me.
No.2 son returned to cricket after England’s World Cup Final win last summer. The junior season had passed and he played three senior matches and netted with his brother in the summer holidays. He has trained through the winter, working hard at senior nets. Cricket, he says, has replaced football as his favourite sport. The summer, this season, has been his goal. Not only may those hopes go unfulfilled, but I worry what shape the recreational game will take when we finally find it safe enough to congregate and spend whole afternoons together.