Thursday, 30 October 2014

THE CLIMAX (BB15)






Twenty years from now, historians will look at the NSSCL Div 1A league table – historians whose lives have become badly sidetracked somewhere, I would guess – and see the 20-point gap separating Moddershall, promoted in second place to the Premier League, from Audley, club of certified toe-rag Imran Arif, and may reach the erroneous conclusion that it was all plain sailing. It wasn’t. Far from it. 

Had you conducted a straw-poll of Moddershall 1st XI’s hardcore following – a number considerably swollen by several injured cricketers – at around 5pm on the season’s final afternoon, when we were 60-odd for 6 at Blythe needing 100 for the second batting bonus point, and with it, promotion, I doubt you’d have found a great deal of confidence knocking around. Two seasons’ worth of struggle was now weighing down heavily upon the next hour’s cricket. I felt like puking (it would not be the only time that day). Andy Housley looked like a pint of milk. Luckily, Dave Housley was bossing things, although he, too, might have been reluctant to lay money on promotion. 

On a personal note, it was a wee bit strange to be there in the first place. It’s fair to say that when I ended my three-year sabbatical from the game – when I’d retired from being retired – I hadn’t envisaged skippering any team at Modd this year, let alone two. However, the loss of three key men to fractured bones or pregnant wives in Asia meant that I was needed to try and help bring the ship into port. “Experience”, they said. “A no-brainer”. I had suffered a dip in batting form, lacked confidence, and wasn’t 100% sure it was the right move. Even so, that was the consensus, and you try and do what the club needs. 

When Andy Hawkins walked into the covers 40 minutes before the start – and you’ll begin to appreciate why we used to be reluctant passengers in Hawk’s car in his younger days – and gashed right through to the bone, it was up to that no-brainer to captain a team containing four players with whom I’d played one game or fewer (Ball, Hope, Goodwin, Slinn) and only one with whom I’d played more than 10 games (Housley). I was an outsider, really. Still, it’s not so difficult when the openers put on 250.

Hopey and Anis shared eight wickets between them, and with Fraser garnishing his 161 with a wicket with his first delivery of the season, four teenagers (Irfan's 80-odd the other main contribution) had starred in the victory. Having been happily spoonfed the
bowl first, knock off gameplan – after all, I didn’t know the league that well (mind you, I draw the line at spectators deciding when I should declare) – it turned out to be a very good toss to lose, the 25 points meaning we’d go into the final match at Blythe needing a straightforward five rather than a ticklish 10 points. No problemo. 

Just five points – the exact same amount we needed in 2008 to wrap up the Premier League title (when we were, I felt, being prematurely congratulated). Then, as now, it didn’t seem difficult to imagine the set of circumstances that would make five points very tricky to secure: get shoved in on a poor wicket, get rolled out cheaply, and need to win a low-scoring game against a team with the psychological freedom of having nothing, really, to play for. In 2008 it rained all week – truth be told, the ground wasn’t really fit for play – and, sure enough, I lost the toss (despite offering Little Stoke’s skipper, Gareth Morris, both tosses the following season if he gave us this one). We went from 21 for 1 to 22 for 5, then 45 for 7, at which point five points looked a long, long way off. So, to me the gameplan at Blythe seemed very clear: ideally, bowl first, and pick up enough bonus points to make the second innings a formality, or even better, irrelevant. 

After trying to impress this gameplan upon the team, I went out to toss. “What do you want to do?” asked their skipper, having earlier tried to scarify the wicket in plain sight (I told him he couldn’t do that, “it’s against league rules”, without really knowing if that was true). “Win the toss”, I said. I lost the toss. But they batted. So far, so good. 

We made a great start, too, with two wickets in the opening over from an ever-so-slightly pumped-up Gooders, back on old turf. Hamaiz nipped out three and normally, at 100 for 5, I’d have been thinking about the end result and looking to close the game out, to strangle the opposition slowly, rather then being quite so aggressive as I was, keeping three close catchers for young spinners, allowing Blythe to keep the board ticking over. See, them digging in and getting, say, 170 for 6 against defensive fields would not have changed our situation one iota (although, in a less pressurised game, in mid-season for instance, we’d have felt very confident chasing 170 at Blythe, and thus would no doubt have bagged 20 points). So, I went for wickets. Context is everything, and I felt that eight wickets would be enough. We’d then only need 75 runs. Still, we should get 100, right? 

Cricket is littered with teams making a botch of short chases. You don’t know whether to stick or twist. Nervous shots were played, a couple of controversial dismissals happened, Bally got a good cherry. Thankfully, Dave Housley played the innings of a lifetime, the first 30 or so runs of which were chiselled out under extreme pressure (he’ll be delighted he finished with 69, too, I imagine). There was, it’s safe to say, a lot of relief, and no little ecstasy in the aftermath. It had been the culmination of two years’ hard work – longer, in fact, when you think about the rebuilding process that went into arresting the club’s slide in 2009 and 2010. Hearty congratulations go out to the players, but even more so to the likes of Andy Housley and Andy Hawkins (and many others) whose transformative vision of a club based on developing and backing its own talent is starting to bear fruit. It has certainly pulled us from the doldrums. 

Moddershall is lucky to have such a talented crop of young players. Equally, those young players are lucky to play at such a wonderful facility, and to be part of a generation that could achieve pretty much anything they want in club cricket – all of which will be so much easier (and more enjoyable, I dare say) by sticking together, playing with (and for) their mates, building a legacy for themselves as a group and for the club. And in that, they could have no finer role model than Sam Kelsall, a lad who could have played at any club of his choosing for a good deal more money than he has been getting at Moddershall, but whose obvious loyalty and palpable love of the club has kept him here, doing teas, rolling wickets, pulling pints – an exemplary clubman and model team player. I hope that when the cash offers start rolling in for these young lads, they can remember Sam’s shining example. And remember, too, that cricket is about glory – or rather, striving after glory (for sometimes it’s out of your hands) – and about creating those indelible lifelong memories forged in the sweat- and laughter-filled aftermath of success. Always has been, always will be. 


It was a genuine privilege to lead that team over the line, to share in their glory, and I’m excited to see what they can achieve next year. But that wasn’t the main story, or pleasure, I got from my out-of-retirement season. No, that was being part of – and eventually skippering – a promising and eager group of lads in the A team, watching the side develop over the course of the summer, learning ‘game-sense’: how to carry yourself on the field; showing the opposition you weren’t going to take a backwards step and they were in a fight; showing your team-mates that your were switched on and prepared to do the hard yards for your team. 

It is, at bottom, about emotional management: of yourself, for the group. It’s about being prepared not to let the inevitable disappointments given by the game of cricket – those days when the bowling doesn’t go your way, or when you get a rough decision – turn into thin-skinned, sulky, disruptive, and ultimately selfish behaviour, as though the game revolves around you, and you alone. In less extreme cases than that, it’s about putting yourself at the service of the team, working out what it needs, and trying to do it. You can tell an awful lot about a person from the way they respond to the success of their teammates. And the ‘failures’ of those same teammates, too. Support, innit? Concern, encouragement, generosity of spirit.  

Anyway, the progress I saw in this direction was very good, not only from the young regulars, but also from the lads who came up from the 2nd XI: Robbo, Frankie, Mitch, Keiran and others. I think they – and the regular players who’d never before played under my captaincy – perhaps got a wee bit of a culture shock regarding how precise I was with the field placings, how I wouldn’t allow them to drift into their own thoughts and go quiet. But, again, almost everyone saw this for what it was – a way of making us a better team – and bought into it.  

A word here for Andy Lightbown, the original A team skipper. I’m not sure I could have come straight in from the outside and started the season as captain. I barely knew several of the team. Relationships needed to be formed. They needed to respect me for how I was in the present (as a cricketer, yes, but as a human being) and not because of some (beer-improved) stories from the past. And I needed to work out what made them tick. Even so, me lurking in the field with my tactician’s cap on cannot have been easy for Andy and, while our relationship remained fine, he was gracious and magnanimous about handing the captaincy over.  

We were bottom of the league at the time. Although, again, I must go on record as saying that that was largely because we were not a team set up for ‘sticky dogs’. Our young spinners’ natural pace is (at the moment) too slow; our medium-pacers were swing bowlers rather than seamers, Ali Shah excepted; and our batters were touch players. On top of that, we had three of our first four home games totally washed out.  

Still, the run we had in the first five games that I skippered was my most enjoyable period of the season. We bossed Wedgwood away, Elliot Colclough falling just short of a deserved hundred and Irfan pulling off an astonishing one-handed slip catch for the final wicket as the light and rain closed in. We beat then-leaders Crewe at home, dropping eight catches behind the wicket yet still skittling them for 112 and surviving an early wobble against a couple of useful spinners on a helpful pitch.  

Next, we beat Oakamoor, winning despite having been 56 for 9 in our innings. Robbo and Bash gave us 90 to bowl at and we squeezed them dead: 48 all out. Those are the most thrilling games to win – out there together, defending a small score – and I really felt this was a huge moment in the progression of the team. Anis’s 4 for 5 was part of a three-match run that saw him take 13 for 59 before moving up to the 1st XI, but other bowlers were playing their part in an unassuming way, quietly doing their job for the team: Bash and Shaun were never bad together, and often both bowled well. Ali Shah brought something different and bowled excellently during this period, when Stone SP and Church Eaton were also comprehensively beaten to briefly give us a shout at promotion not bad considering we only had 46 points from the first 8 games. It wasn’t to be, though, for one reason or another, yet the season was, I felt, rewarding for us all.  

Batting-wise, Sarge and Elliott led the way, and a few others chipped in around that at various times, but more consistency is required. I can only see this team getting better and better, though, and it should be a realistic aim to get into Div 2A at some stage. Whether I’m still good enough to get in the team by then remains to be seen. But the future certainly looks bright at Modd, across all the teams.  

Carpe Diem. 




Wednesday, 11 June 2014

COMPETING PASSIONS (BB13)




A couple of months into a cricketing comeback and what have I discovered? Three things: 

(1) The other week I returned to Moddershall from an away game and bumped into an old adversary who’d been playing against the 1sts. We had a couple of pints and an amiable chinwag – not all of which was one-eyed in-my-day-ism – and it was pleasant, on a rare sunny Saturday afternoon, to indulge in what seems an increasingly uncommon part of the cricketing ritual. 

For various reasons, teams these days are less and less inclined to socialise with their opponents after a game. (When my Dad played at Little Stoke, it was not unheard of for the opposition to stagger out, several sheets to the wind, at midnight or thereabouts, a tradition I’d like to think Addo and I kept alive in the late 1990s.) I’m not entirely sure why there’s been such a cultural shift. Maybe people are more precious about their time. Perhaps, as society – and thus cricket, as a reflection of that society – has become more aggressive, narkier and rattier, more of an overheated, short-fused struggle to keep your head above water, cricket teams have become more insular. You have to keep your guard up, project strength, have some mystery – all that. Then again, the far greater player traffic between clubs ought, in theory, to mean less insularity. I really don’t know. 

During the winter, as I reckoned up whether or not it was worthwhile resuming playing, one of the things I felt I was most missing was simply competing. Or rather, challenging myself, regardless of the result (which can depend on many factors beyond your control). But another thing I was missing – and perhaps the local cricketing community as a whole is increasingly missing – was the sense of camaraderie and conviviality that comes through several years playing with and against the same faces. 

The teams you competed against had an ‘identity’ of sorts, one created by their stalwarts and the core group of players who played year in, year out – an identity that Moddershall had in the nineties and early noughties, and which I see being recreated today. It was good to go to Porthill, Audley, Burslem, Little Stoke, Knype, Longton, Stone and see the familiar faces and lock horns anew. But it was also good to share a conversation after the game, to honour the battle (and relations, at various times, with the aforementioned teams did get a little spicy) with a respectful beer. After all, club cricketers have far more in common – the desire to spend eight or nine hours on a Saturday, maybe a Sunday as well, prancing around in ludicrous white polyester attire – than the superficial differences marked by the club crest we wear. 

Anyway, I thought this might have been evidence that my competitive instincts were softening. The question was: would that be better or worse as far as playing the game was concerned? 

(2) The second thing I’ve noticed is how disconcerting it is for six weeks of the season to pass by while only having one solitary innings (disconcerting for a supposed batsman, that is). But that’s how long it will be, this Saturday – the next opportunity I may have to stride out – since I nudged 60 not out at Hem Heath, an innings that started to remind me of the fundamentals of batting and offered a sliver of hope that I might be able to contribute at Division 3 level. That hope must now be built again: since HH there have been three consecutive washouts at home sandwiching a DNB at Fenton (oppo skittled for 28) and a score of 8 at Hanford on a pitch with the hardness of good sponge cake (i.e. not as hard as bad sponge cake). So, I’m back to square one, groping in the dark for the old certainties. 

In the past, I’d never had admitted these things publicly – not before a game, at least. And in any case, the platforms for ‘confessional’ statements (blogs, social media and the like) just weren’t around. Besides, to have admitted these things would have been to give easy ammunition to the opposition. Suicidal. Take the South African batsman Daryl Cullinan as an example. A fine player, Cullinan would average 44.21 from 70 Tests, but he had terrible problems with Shane Warne’s legspin, averaging just 12.75 against the Aussies. Prior to one series he somewhat naively told the media that he’d seen a psychiatrist to help combat Warne and, predictably, he was mercilessly tormented by the Aussies about his mental state. Warne later added an acerbic line in an autobiography: “I knew that Daryll was a bit fragile at times, but never imagined he would go to a shrink to learn how to read a googly”. 

Occasionally you’d admit these things after a game, over a beer, when you and your ‘enemy’ were discussing the cut and thrust of battle. You might mention that your feet were all over the place, that your top hand didn’t know what your bottom hand was doing, that you couldn’t pick the spin, that you struggled with the swing – anything bar admitting the bowler was a too quick! Letting your guard down, opening up, didn’t mean you’d be easy prey next time; it simply meant that sharing the odd honest moment is an important part of the reason why we play cricket, creating a culture of friendly rivalry. Showing ‘weakness’ and vulnerability, we all come to realize in the end, is nowhere near as personally destructive as forever trying to project strength, invincibility. My friend, today was your day, tomorrow will be mine, the game rumbles on. 

(3) The third thing I noticed was that the old competitive streak has come out most when I have been briefly back in the captain’s chair. Maybe it’s that precision, the fussiness, the ‘perfectionism’, the irritation when things aren’t done properly. I don’t know, but for me setting the field, changing the bowling, creating pressure, creating theatre – all of it is about doing a scientific job on the opposition, about not being sloppy or casual, about not losing focus. Regardless of whether you’re chirping them or not; regardless of whether your emotions are tick-tick-ticking, it’s about making life as tough as possible for the batsman out there in the middle. All the time. Every time a batsman hits a good shot straight to a well-placed fielder, it’s another pin in the voodoo doll, and eventually it’ll be too much for him to take. 

So, what I’ve learned so far is probably three aspects of the same thing: the meaning of competitiveness, or competing. While the desire to do well, both personally and collectively, remains strong, there’s also an increased appreciation for the cricketing culture, and an awareness, I suppose, of the precariousness of good relations, how easy it is for them to be damaged by poor behavior and small-mindedness. I always did appreciate that culture, I think, but I was at times a bit heavy-handed with it, talking it for granted, rather like the way a young person might chuck expensive things about, scratching and banging and maybe damaging them. 

The will to win is important, but not at any cost. 


OVER THE HILL (BB12)




I always knew I was going to be past it. The question was: How far over the hill would I be? Wrekin View is not that much lower than Barnfields, but if our second pitch proved too big a stage then it’s a sharp tumble down the hill – the one that I was over to The Boar Inn in the village of Moddershall, a pub where all the ducks make driving precarious – and I’m absolutely sure there’s no symbolism in that. 

I was given a reminder of my age when, chatting to a young first team player about the evolution of his game, I mentioned that he could easily follow the trajectory of Lance Klusener. His eyes glazed over. “You don’t know who Lance Klusener is, do you?” He shook his head. I told him that ‘Zulu’ started out as an aggressive third seamer who won Man of the Tournament at the 1999 World Cup for a series of scarcely believable rescue acts at No8, bludgeoning the world’s best bowlers for match-turning cameos. Thereafter, he developed into a good enough batsman to be picked as a specialist Test No5. 

Anyway, I told this young cricketer – have you guessed who? – that the South Africanssemi-final in that tournament was arguably the greatest ODI ever played (its not a format that easily lends itself to the epic, but this was one). On a blustery June Birmingham day, South Africa’s battery of high-quality seamers – please, please, please tell me you’ve heard of Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock! – bowled well to restrict Australia to 213 all out. They then came firing out of the blocks, reaching 40 without loss, before a certain SK Warne decided to bend the game to his will, as he so often did. Bang, bang, bang, and Australia were back in the game. It ebbed and flowed beautifully – as low-scoring games do, each rare boundary tilting the balance further to the batting side – until the endgame... 

As ever, Zulu was at the crease. Glenn McGrath was to bowl the penultimate over, South Africa were seven wickets down and 18 shy. Two runs and two wickets later, Klusener muscled a full-toss to long-on, Paul Reiffel parrying what should have been a match-winning catch over for the rope six, and a single was smuggled next ball to leave nine off the final over. Klusener, with those iron forearms, blootered the first two balls through extra cover for four to bring the scores level, then dug out a yorker (what a delivery under pressure!) to mid-on. His partner, Donald, started to run but was sent back, and Mark Waugh’s flicked shy at the stumps would have been curtains, but he missed. Next ball, Damien Fleming bowls another yorker, dug out to mid off. This time, with no conflab with his partner between balls, Klusener comes charging down for the run. Donald, head scrambled by the previous ball, stays put, half-turning to see Klusener running past him. He sets off belatedly, and in so doing drops his bat. He was run out by 15 yards, but Klusener didn’t look back to see it. He knew. He heard. The game was a tie, with Australia qualifying as a result of finishing higher in the previous round-robin. It was here that the “choker” label first became attached to the South Africans. 


Reminiscing about that 1999 tournament provided a sharp reminder about age and about physical frailty, for I now realize that it was only a few short weeks later that I contrived to fracture my elbow in the middle of a two-night Stone Charity Cup final (a long story that deserves to be told in full). Occasionally, I wake up with sharp pain in said joint, and in 2010, after a couple of long and grim innings, I could barely grip the bat. This injury was – and remains – my chief concern over whether I can contribute. The other concerns were whether I could see the ball, whether I could hit the ball, whether I would enjoy fielding, whether I had the competitive fires of yore. Was I happier in a deckchair, away from the chirp and posturing? 

I had already had my reminder of my age. My reminder that age would be no protection against sledging came in the Talbot Cup first round, when I stood in to skipper a team of nine teenagers and Bash at Barlaston. Four or five people who might have played were saved for the Firsts’ squad, three others were unavailable, so in effect it was almost a third team, almost an U-18s team. We were duffed up, good and proper, and I was on the receiving end of some chirp from three players in the opposition that irritated me. 

The backstory: I am, unrepentantly, a very fussy captain about field placing and angles (and the best one I played under was every bit as fussy, if not more so). I have written about the reasons elsewhere. So, after 45 overs of trying to keep the wheels on for a young team, having right- and left-hand in for most of the innings, players of different physical strength and technique, it was a demanding session for both the young players and myself. They came through it well. I wasn’t about to stop at 30 overs and go, “You know what, it doesn’t matter.” 

Anyway, we were quickly two down in an unlikely-to-the-point-of-impossible pursuit of 270. I walked to the crease and was immediately greeted by Shaun Jenkinson foghorning sarcastically for a fielder to move “one inch that way, no, two inches this”. I had an internal chuckle. It was funny. But timing is the essence of comedy (and batting) and sure enough on he went until everyone in the ground had heard. By that stage, my amusement had turned to determination. Jenko has never been shy of a word on the pitch, usually in good humour. I’m not entirely sure why he decided to tweak a joke into a sledge – I mean, we weren’t going to win the game, and the only thing I remember saying to him when he was batting was that he should have stopped at Stone after a ball had popped off a length. “There were ten thousand reasons” he told me, and I can only assume he’s spent about eight thousand of those on bacon double cheeseburgers. 



Eventually, Jenkinson relented, and Alex Thorley started to run into bowl, at which point Barlaston’s 50-year-old captain stops him, repeating Jenko’s joke. Now, I was not very amused with that, and for a number of reasons. First: if you’re going to make the joke, fine, but don’t make the game subservient to the chirp. Second: the thing that they were taking the micky out of arguably helped give the teams I skippered an extra edge (I certainly had few complaints about it, and even skeptics were converted). Third: I’d always considered Stanners someone I’d have a pint and a chat with if I bumped into him at a game, a straightforward bloke who I had the utmost respect for; this, I felt, was beneath him, and I told him so at the end of a hugely one-sided game. 

Anyway, I timed the first ball I faced to cover, no run. It felt good. I steeled myself to absorb all this flak and to make a telling contribution. In the past, I’ve often needed that kind of thing to help me focus. This time, I played all-round a half-volley and was bowled second ball. Ah, cricket. ‘Tis a cruel mistress. You have little choice but to troop off, to suck it up, but the final irritation of this two-minute spell came when I heard the sarcastic nasal laughter of a former Moddershall player when my castle was broken, doubtless delighted, he thought, that the chirp worked (he thought). I was ticking, yes, but I simply put it down slight over-confidence and iffy eyesight. Anyway, considering I had once sat with this player after a game against Stone – against Shaun Jenkinson – when he came off trembling and almost in tears, I felt it was unnecessary and a bit disrespectful. Certainly, I cannot imagine ever having done the same against any of the senior players from my early Moddershall days – and I didn’t get involved in some of the rancour that existed in our dressing room toward Richard Harvey, after he left us for Longton. 

The mellowing of the middle years? Not exactly. The game just doesn’t really allow you to! So, yes, off I scuttled. Blobski: the inescapable leveller of cricket. I sought customary consolation with lager. 

At the end of the game I reminded the youngsters that, although it may have been taxing for them, those are the standards. Doing basics well protects you against poor performances, but details win matches, win championships: getting angles right, hunches with bowlers, selections, batting-order changes. So, I underlined to them that this method had won trophies – more trophies, in fact, than have Barlaston in senior cricket as a club – and told them that Jenkinson had quit the Cheadle captaincy two thirds of the way through the season, while Mark Stanyer had never won a medal. Had I made a few, no doubt I’d have felt less volcanic. Then again, had I been in their shoes, I’m certain I wouldn’t have taken cheap shots at a respected old adversary. It’s a fine line between a joke and attempted humiliation, and very easy to do it when you’re bullying the opposition. 

the old stumps at the old HH ground


I followed this up with another blob against Church Eaton but managed to avoid the Audi last Saturday at Hem Heath, playing part of the game in front of a thousand people or more (they all left at 2.30 – I can only guess the bar ran out of beer). But the game saw me play against two or three more old foes, involved in fairly blatant but completely understandable time-wasting to save them bowling any extra balls in our run chase. Gamesmanship. I tried to put pressure on the umpires to get involved, not because what they were doing was wrong but because I wanted to win the game badly. The umpires seemed happy to let them draw the game out, which seems a slightly dangerous precedent. I repeat: I would have tried to do the same – and was once involved in a University cricket match when we bowled 13 overs in two hours to avoid sending down the 30 that would have constituted a game – but this allows them two bites of the cherry: to rush through early overs to potentially allow them more than 55 to bowl us out; to slow the game to a crawl to pull back to the 55 overs. The umpires merely repeated what the Hem Heath players were saying: you bowled 55 overs at us, why should we bowl more at you? A perfectly valid point, so why not simply change the rules and make it 55 versus 55? 

Anyway, despite a few forthright exchanges of views, the game showed that it is possible to play hard and sort it out before you even left the field. No hard feelings there, because there was no ill-feeling on the pitch. 

It also showed that perhaps age isn’t a complete barrier, and that there might be a few dregs of life in the old Dog yet. Had I left Hem Heath with 75% of an Audi in place (000), I may have wished that, like Lance Klusener at the end of that ODI at Edgbaston, with his partner stranded in the middle of the pitch as Aussies cavorted behind him (Barlaston, in my drama), that I should have just carried on running, away from the scene where his dreams lay in ruins, away from the pain, and off into the future. 


Tuesday, 6 May 2014

IN FROM PASTURE (BB11)

'The Dog' returns to cricket

The mysteries of the passions. One day, the thing that you’ve been doing – and looking forward to doing – for the most part of your life suddenly feels like the thing you least want to do, like a trip to the dentist, a physics exam, some bespoke phobia or other. 

It’s hard to put a finger on the exact point that such a transformation happens – almost impossible, in fact, when you’re in the middle of it all, much as you wouldn’t see the point when you become bald by looking in the mirror every day – but the point when you realize it has happened is as clear and unambiguous as dropping a frying pan on your toes. You simply cross a threshold of patience and what only the previous day was tolerable suddenly becomes unbearable. In an unsurpassably wise text, F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work – the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside – the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within – that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.” 

I remember well the moment when I realized my elastic had snapped, the moment that the various lines of pressure – lines that were muddied at the time but, looking back, have become clear – suddenly overwhelmed me. I was on the toilet one Saturday morning, usually an exciting time (the morning of the match, that is, not sitting on the toilet), but cricket had become the thing I least wanted to do in the world, a monumental chore. I sighed a few times, shook my head, put that head in my hands, may even have sobbed (thankfully, the tears didn’t come), and slowly came to the realization that there was no getting out of it – well, I didn’t think there was. 

How did I get there? After several weeks of poor results, several weeks trying to man-manage a team with a few personalities that were not disposed to the selflessness and generosity of spirit required in team sport, several weeks of having to arrange sub pros (to go with long stints in the previous two years) and actively loathing one of the sub pro’s we did sign (which I have written about previously), I’d reached my tipping point. Looking back, though, I know that these white-flannelled factors comprised only a fraction of what had really shoved me to the brink. See, cricket had always been an oasis away from real-world stresses, as I’m sure it is for many who play the game. A place to switch off. And although there’s a certain (self-imposed) pressure to perform, ultimately you enjoy the game, the challenge. When it starts to become a pressure in its own right, however, it stands to reason that it can no longer function as that valve. That was true with me, and, as with most, the greatest pressures by far lay elsewhere… 

At the time, I shared a two-up, three-down in the middle of Stoke with a good mate in bad nick. Our neighbours were a pair of bickering, sleepless old alcoholics, housed there by social services, and their every ‘conversation’ – each one a pool of petrol in a flame-thrower shop – could be heard through walls thinner than French pastry. They were not particularly house-proud people, either: once, they blithely set fire to an unwanted settee that had been loitering awhile in their rarely visited back yard; on another occasion, they couldn’t find it in them to remove a sizeable dog turd from their front doorstep, so it sat there for a whole month (basically, until it had dried out and perished, as though they were preparing some Chinese medicine or other). A dogshit on your front door step for a month!! The only time they would venture out from the murky shelter of their boozecave was when DTs forced them to procure more bottles of White Lightning, at which point you would see them head shakily up the street like stick insects learning how to roller-skate. 

We never did invite them round for tea, not even when a weasely little heroin dealer named “Cookie” moved in (I knew his name because that’s what clients would shout at 4am when throwing stuff up at his window looking for a score). Nor when Cookie’s prison acquaintance – who we called “Tattoo Man”, on account of the large tattoo covering the left-hand side of his face – turned up with his late-night disco blaring through the walls, advising Cookie to tell us that he was going to “come through their fucking front door with an axe” when we complained. I even started to feel sympathy for Brian and Dave’s race to drink themselves to death having been inconvenienced by this psychopath. No, we never did invite them round for tea. 

All of this – the cricket, the neighbours, the skintness – was played out against the ongoing saga of my PhD, which was the real gnawing, chafing, heavy presence at the centre of things. I had been burgled in Nottingham in 2006, lost my laptop and, in this pre-Dropbox era, the majority of my work (15 months; 65,000 words). Benefiting from a huge and timely stroke of good fortune, I took a year out, selling advertising to property firms in Europe, North Africa and the Caribbean, and then had to settle back into writing, from scratch, a long, abstract and very, very theoretical piece of historiography (185,000 words reduced to 120,000 in the final eight days of furious editing). A comedown, to say the least. And once the funds from the advertising jaunt had dried up, it became increasingly difficult to get motivated for each day’s slog. The mind wanders, the internet swallows time. Each morning – or, often, afternoon – you wake up alone and in a desert, knowing you must push forward those few steps. Meanwhile, every fortnight I had to fabricate a jobsearch to keep the state happy (getting a part-time job would have used up time I didn’t have, and probably would have made me poorer). And while all that was happening – that, and a mother dying of primary biliary cirrhosis until a life-saving liver transplant (and she didn’t go anywhere near White Lightning, nor anything more refined) – you’ve got to keep yourself together for the cricket team. Be El Capit├ín

Anyway, as I sat there on the toilet that morning, the prospect of donning the captain’s hat and giving the team-talk seemed impossible. If you feel like throttling three or four of your team (literally, in one case, metaphorically in the others), it’s quite hard to be convincing when it comes to the motivational pep-talk. This was not a time for Henry V’s “Once more unto the breach, dear friends”; it was a time to go to a spiritual retreat in the hills of Sri Lanka and have nubile women rub coconut balm over your body. But PMT had recently discontinued the Potteries to Colombo service, so that was no longer a realistic option. Yet neither was the “Come on today, fellas!” pretence. I was cracking, as slowly and inexorably as a WACA pitch. 

And that was it. The passion that had sustained 21 years of first-team cricket had vanished, like a puddle in the tropical sun. I played on for a few weeks, maybe six, until three or four weeks from the end of the season a nagging knee injury gave me my reason to free myself from the torture. I had no idea the end of my cricket-playing days would be as sudden to arrive or as anti-climactic as that, but as the start of the following summer came around I realized beyond all doubt that I’d fallen out of love with the game – ironically, around the same time as I started to write about it, and to watch more of the professional version than I had in the previous two decades combined. 

getting a different view on the game...

As well as watching Notts a fair bit in that first, cricket-less summer, I also popped down a couple of times to watch Wollaton, the club in Nottingham for which I played in 2006 and 2007. I swung over to Staffordshire to see how Moddershall were doing on a few occasions, and a few more in 2012. I reported that year on Test matches against West Indies at Trent Bridge and Edgbaston, a T20I against the same opponents in Nottingham, and an ODI there against South Africa. Still I had no real desire to play. I saw Graham Onions take his 9-57 against Notts, covering the game for The Guardian. And last summer I was in the press box for the opening exchanges of the Ashes, as well as Jos Buttler’s ODI savaging of New Zealand. I still didnt feel like playing. Slowly, slowly, however, I was becoming aware that I might have an itch to scratch – the feeling of wanting to hit a spanking cover drive, or to skip down the wicket and loft a spinner back over his head – although I didn’t really feel I could face the sacrifice (as it had become) of fielding. 

Nevertheless, just as imperceptibly as it had disappeared, the passion was starting to swell. I still can’t put a finger on the exact reasons – and maybe I haven’t yet had the moment when I know, definitively, that the passion has returned, the frying-pan-on-the-foot moment – but I was definitely inspired by seeing a club that had endured such a torrid couple of years slowly rebuild itself, but on much more secure foundations. And I was inspired by seeing an emerging crop of youngsters not only dominate at junior level (with those unprecedented back-to-back trebles) but also make real contributions to senior cricket. And then there was the Staffordshire Cup final: the ground looking a picture, the pavilion buzzing, a young side doing themselves and the club proud. 

Yes, the passions were stirring. The sacrifices of fielding began to pale alongside the possible pleasures of batting: possible – because the possibilities encompass glory and humiliation, and everywhere in-between. By Christmas, with the persistent nudging of one or two good cricketing friends, I’d made the decision to give it another crack. I now needed to commit, mentally and materially, the time to playing, and to commit some to shifting a bit of timber. After a couple of rust-coloured nets – finding myself padding up again was weird (weird in the way that certain victims of stroke can no longer recognize their own face) and I had more or less forgotten how to do it – the skeleton of an idea was starting to acquire the flesh of reality.

Sadly, I then had to go to Cyprus for seven weeks – well, not sadly, but you know what I mean – and cricket training opportunities are pretty thin on the ground over there. Nevertheless, the juices were now flowing, and one of the first tasks was therefore to find a household implement that could double as a bat for practising shadow strokes. First, I found a broom with a long handle (and everyone in cricket knows that you sweep with a short handle) before stumbling across something more wieldy in the form of a sponge-headed mop of approximately bat-length, the only problem being that if you didn’t align it properly you’d thrape yourself on the back of the calf when playing a cover drive – oh yes, it had started to feel familiar! 

My shadow-batting elicited a few curious glances from passing Cypriots, that’s for sure. Still, no mither: I managed to average 734 for the winter, with a strike-rate of 167 per 100 balls, two triple-centuries and three double, so I felt in reasonable nick coming into the season, despite not having hit a non-imaginary ball in a competitive match since August 2010. 

Tomorrow, I step in from the wilderness to play a friendly, and then it’s into the league campaign.* I know that, in a cricketing sense, Fitzgerald was right: I’ll never be as good a man again. Even so, a writer – an aspirant writer – can be consoled that the passing of what physical prowess there was is often accompanied by the arrival of intellectual acuity and, more importantly, emotional balance, a wilting of the go and with it all the clamorous interiority of the young, vain and anxious. Fitzgerald was also convinced that “a man does not recover from such jolts – he becomes a different person, and, eventually, the new person finds new things to care about”. Six months ago, I would have agreed without hesitation. But the old passion – if indeed it is the same old passion – appears close to having returned.  

Hopefully, then, a metaphorical frying pan will fall on my foot. Hopefully, I’ll feel the simple delight you get from hitting a ball, from chipping in your efforts for the team cause, and from watching a young player have a light-bulb moment. Hopefully, what had once brought me so many joyous, sun-kissed afternoons, so many different types and tones of pleasure, so many thrills and spills, can be fully restored. And hopefully, that unmistakable sense of Saturday-morning anticipation – whether sat on the Great White Throne or elsewhere – will bring its blue skies and butterflies once more.

 * I made 38 (4 fours, 1 six), against bowling that wasn’t, to be honest, too challenging. I hit an extra-cover drive for four that gave me a Ready Brek glow of satisfaction and had me hold the pose for a few instants … until an opposition fielder made some wisecrack about getting his camera! I told him it had been four years and he shouldn’t begrudge me the moment. We smiled at cricket, probably. I ended up being too delicate with a shin-high full-toss and steering it straight to long-on.

Previous columns for Moddershall CC's newsletter, 'Barnfields Buzz':

BB01: The Grass Isn’t Always Greener… | On club loyalty
BB02: The King and I | Early forays in the press box and meeting IVA Richards 
BB03: Chris Lewis: Still out in the Cold | The coldest cricket match I ever played 
BB04: Sam Kelsall: Role Model | How a 15-year-old's standards inspired a team to the title
BB05: Astle la vista, Baby | Surrealism and hypocrisy with a NZ star
BB06: The Geometry of Captaincy (A Hunch) | Waxing philosophical about setting the field 
BB07: A Brief History of Moddershall in the Staffs Cup | A look back at our four finals 
BB08: The Name of the Rose | On facing a big Jamaican on a minefield at Burslem
BB09: But I did not Shoot the Deputy | On the sub-pro minefield
BB10: On Recruitment and Other Headaches | The good, bad and ugly of Modd signings down the years



Wednesday, 12 March 2014

ON RECRUITMENT AND OTHER HEADACHES (BB10)


The winter recruitment drive is the bane of those responsible for a cricket club’s short-term, on-field development, a headache that’s only getting worse for captains trying to paper over cracks or find missing pieces to jigsaws. These days it seems that every player has a ‘market value’ (although having recently been told that a Division One club were prepared to “cross my palms with silver” to come out of four-year retirement, I was disappointed not to have been told precisely how much. Usually, it takes thirty pieces. Fifteen quid, that is, not 75p). 

Personally, I wasn’t much cop at it, the old persuasion game. Heart just wasn’t in it. I always felt that if you needed to persuade someone too much of the obvious merits of Moddershall (great pitch, awesome view, cake to make your arteries weep), then they probably weren’t what you were after anyway. Plus, it became more and more apparent to me that what I thought was a dynamite sales pitch – a near-obsessive attention to detail that players I skippered seemed to quite like – was actually putting some potential recruits off. Eff that for a game of soldiers. I guess I was an acquired taste. You needed to suck it and see – a sales pitch that I’ve tried and failed with more times than I care to remember, incidentally. 

During Moddershall’s 14-year stint in the top flight between 1997 and 2010, there were probably three distinct, powerful teams that emerged, none of the recruitment for which was my doing. Not a single player.

The first ‘great’ side – Division B winners and Staffs Cup runners-up in 1996; Premier League Champions in 1997 and 1999; Talbot Cup winners in 1999; assorted Barney McCardles, Stone Charity Cups and JCB Knockout successes – was grown organically in the Barnfields soil and later tended lovingly and expertly by an outstanding club pro and inspirational leader in Jon Addison. If there was a player he fancied, he simply bought ‘em a couple of lagers, made ‘em feel good about themselves, then popped the question – pretty much your standard tactics for any given Saturday night up Hanley. 

Over the four-year peak (or high plateau, perhaps) of that team, we recruited one significant player each year, each of whom stopped for two silver-lined seasons. 

First in was Dave Wellings, a pugnacious, slightly stiff top-order batsman and lively, partnership-breaking seamer who, with us having already secured promotion, was made honorary skipper for the final game of the ’96 season: away at his old club, Kidsgrove. To our eternal consternation, Welly took pity on his old teammates by declaring at 370 for 6 (already by far a league record, though since broken) with still a possible nine overs left. He really, really ought to have been overruled. We may have got 450!

In 1997 came the Crewe Rolls-Royce Express, Glenn Heywood, dubbed “the ten-to-two from Crewe” on account of both his Charlie Chaplin-style gait and the time he usually rocked up (boots in a bag, nothing else) for what were 2pm starts back then. Glenn had seriously impressed us all with a very quick opening burst on a hard, green flyer at Rolls-Royce that resulted in Richard Harvey going to hospital, Andy Hawkins being put on his backside, Addo having his castle splattered, and several others wearing a few. In the bar afterward, Addo wasn’t backward in coming forward – he was certainly keener to come forward there than he had been when out in the middle – and, without even needing the five pints of Inhibition Reducer that most of us tend to neck before popping important questions to the objects of our desire, made a bee-line straight for Glenn as he shared a jar with teammates – tantamount to pulling a married woman right in front of her husband. Glenda was duly wooed, and he brought a lot to the party. Speed, mainly. Not that kind.

Roger Shaw followed in 1998. With Addo evidently having seen enough of my wicket-keeping skills efforts, and Phil Hawkins still doing whatever he was doing up at Ashcombe Park, our recruiter-in-chief buttonholed the Dodge over a pint of hand-pulled Carrier Bag in the Cheadle member’s lounge. Jaya-Shaw-iya got gloved up for two years, including the quadruple-winning 1999 campaign, before heading off to Blythe as pro, then making the return journey in 2005 and slowly morphing into a canny off-spinner (to be honest, the club was more interested in Julie’s cooking talents by this stage; Rog was just a proxy).

Finally, in 1999, came Caverswall wobble-dobber, biffer, and grand finalist in World’s Soundest Bloke competition, Chris Baranowski, who, while not a main player, was a great team man who made three or four vital contributions with bat and ball, including 30-odd against Ottis Gibson, and would never, ever shirk a job he’d been asked to do. Field short-leg for Drew Heard? Yeah, why not.

The second strong team, emerging in 2004 and 2005 after three fallow years, was a fully-formed unit that by and large had evolved at Moddershall and required few extra ingredients. Addo may have gone, yet his flair for recruitment wasn’t really necessary. In 2003, with West Indian paceman Adam Sanford bringing some venom, we finished in the top four and lost a Staffordshire Cup final. Our main ‘outsider’ (a position he would never really overcome in three years), James Cornford, pro in 2001 and amateur thereafter, was made captain for 2004 but skedaddled four weeks into the season with senior players on the cusp of mutiny. I took over as skipper and we stabilised in the league – losing only once in 18 matches having been defeated in three of the opening four, yet lacking a bit of magic overall – and managed to reach both major knockout finals, losing to Audley in the Talbot Cup final while beating Hem Heath to win the Staffs Cup. The following year we recruited Richard Holloway and a well-balanced side, one being given serious cutting edge by Imran Tahir, ran an incredibly strong Longton side – the 2005 version probably the strongest XI I played against – right to the wire. It was not to be.
  

Longton CC: where it tipped down on our dreams...


That team broke up, partly due to Immy leaving, partly as a result of my two-year stint in Nottingham, but we were both back in 2008 as members of the final strong team: a one-season affair only. Putting this team together involved something of an orgy of recruitment. Several good players were not around from the previous campaign – Iain and Darren Carr; Joe Woodward; Richard Holloway – and a team that had flirted with relegation for two seasons looked like they were paddle-less and heading up a certain Creek (the one alphabetically before Shot Creek). Conscripts were needed; headhunters to do the finding. And it wasn’t going to be me – I was one of the recruited players!

Andy Hawkins and A team skipper Mike Dyer got busy and eventually found Ally Whiston and Amer Siddique. I have to be honest, I had never heard of Ally – and, on first impressions, I wasn’t entirely convinced he was much cop (mainly ‘cos his chat was a bit Denstone) – but he proved a very, very solid gloveman, with the invaluable ability of being able to pick Imran’s variations (something that proved well beyond me), and dug in to play an absolutely vital innings in a nerve-jangling title-deciding final match. 

Amer, meanwhile, swept into the indoor nets at Sandon Road like a Sultan into his harem, promptly shrinking-violeted that he was “probably the best looking Asian in Great Britain”, and was then sweded by the Moose – at the first net! Welcome to Moddershall, pal!! Regards, The Moose – leading some to wonder whether we’d see him for a second net, let alone the actual season. 

As it turned out, we’d have to wait for a crucial match in the title run-in for him to go AWOL, Stone away, Amer fobbing me off with some ornate yarn about having had a fallout with Mr Siddique and needing to beat a retreat to Leeds when in fact he’d gone on a jolly to London to watch Arsenal in a meaningless pre-season ‘tournament’, as revealed by him being tagged in a Facebook photo. D’oh! Still, he’d had a really good first half to the season, was a decent, gutsy player and boisterous presence around the place – therefore someone I didn’t want to make an example of if I didn’t have to. So, I Malcolm-Tuckered a fix: I told him to “get the effin’ photo off Facebook, yeah?”, drafted an apology for him to email to the rest of the team, and that was pretty much it. Bygones was bygones. No story here. Move along.

Two years later we were hot on the trail of his more gifted yet also more aloof brother, Hamza, a schoolboy record-breaker at Repton trying to crack it at Derbyshire. In fact, we’d been on the case for two years. He’d stayed at Cheadle. Eventually, we got some sort of green light from his father, who Andy Hawkins and I thus arranged to meet over what we assumed would be a lavish spread at Thornbury Hall. Mmmm, curry. (I mentioned earlier that I had nothing to do with recruitment – that wasn’t technically a lie; I’d just forgotten about this whole episode…) Trouble was, that same afternoon I’d visited my mother in the North Staffs Hospital and managed to contract the 24-hour sickness-and-diarrhoea-bestowing Norovirus, a fact that became very evident about half-an-hour before Hawk picked me up – via the medium of massive stabbing pains in my intestines. 

Arriving at the opulent converted Georgian mansion, then, food was the furthest thing from my mind. As was cricket. In fact, the only thing on my mind was not having the increasingly watery contents of my bowels end up hose-piping their way out into, maybe through, my trousers. 

I visited the loo eight, ten, twelve times – at least twice as many as the number of mousey nibbles of the delicious-looking starters that I attempted – all of which may or may not have proved detrimental for the sales situation, what little of it I was contributing to with my head rolling around on my neck like a beachball on a ship’s deck. Still, Hawk’s a well-practised flogger of stuff and seemed to be doing a grand job in ushering the deal over the finishing line. In fact, probably the only thing that could have scuppered things at this stage would have been for one of us to projectile vomit over Mr Siddique’s Peshwari naan – which obviously couldn’t be entirely ruled out.

Anyway, despite these microbiological mishaps, the deal was closed. Hamza came, and while he himself got the runs – on the field, of course – he nevertheless remained a self-contained presence, batting in his bubble with undeniable application yet hovering serenely above our heart-on-sleeves, sleeves-rolled-up emotional investment in it all. He was more or less indifferent (perhaps there are parallels here with KP). Still, had our own team culture been stronger at the time – it wasn’t, for a variety of reasons – then I suppose we might have drawn more from him. Maybe.

As I say, it’s getting harder and harder to recruit. I still need persuading that people need persuading. The club always had an almost spiritual hold over me, see, something that becomes more and more apparent when you play at some of the uglier grounds and on the poorer pitches. And while nowadays I’m died-in-the-wool, I wasn’t even ‘originally’ a Moddershall player – I joined from Little Stoke, largely as a protest – not that that matters at all (another parallel with KP). As Ian Brown of the Stone Roses once said in an unusually philosophical moment, “It’s not where you come from that matters, it’s where you’re at”. 

On that note, it’s been great to see the recent flourishing of young talent at Moddershall (back-to-back trebles for the U-17s; first team and A team choc-full with skillful teenagers making meaningful senior contributions), talent that, while perhaps planted elsewhere in some cases, is now being nurtured at Barnfields; and talent that, in return, is fertilising our soils for future teams, future glories, a time when recruitment is headache-free because people are queuing up to hop aboard the juggernaut… 

Carpe Diem. 

Previous columns for Moddershall CC's newsletter, 'Barnfields Buzz':

BB01: The Grass Isn’t Always Greener… | On club loyalty
BB02: The King and I | Early forays in the press box and meeting IVA Richards 
BB03: Chris Lewis: Still out in the Cold | The coldest cricket match I ever played 
BB04: Sam Kelsall: Role Model | How a 15-year-old's standards inspired a team to the title
BB05: Astle la vista, Baby | Surrealism and hypocrisy with a NZ star
BB06: The Geometry of Captaincy (A Hunch) | Waxing philosophical about setting the field 
BB07: A Brief History of Moddershall in the Staffs Cup | A look back at our four finals 
BB08: The Name of the Rose | On facing a big Jamaican on a minefield at Burslem
BB09: But I did not Shoot the Deputy | On the sub-pro minefield

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

BONES OF CONTENTION #1: THE BANNED KILLAMARSH REPORT


The following report was produced in the aftermath of Killamarsh versus Wollaton on May 26, 2007. Shortly after appearing on the Wollaton website, the club received contact from the Nottingham Premier League Chairman requesting it be taken down. Apparently, it had offended our friends from South Yorkshire. Anyway, it has now been officially declassified. Phew. But can you guess what they found so upsetting...?


* * *


PUBLIC HEALTH WARNING:
Despite the best intentions of the author to keep things brief, it proved difficult in the face of the day’s events. He apologises about this and recommends that reluctant readers, the impatient, and the ‘time poor’ amongst you stick to the white bits and skip the sections in green...   

[In which case, the above would read as follows...]

PUBLIC HEALTH WARNING:
Despite the best intentions of the author to keep things brief, it proved difficult in the face of the day’s events. He apologises about this and recommends that reluctant readers, the impatient, and the ‘time poor’ amongst you stick to the white bits and skip the sections in green... 

(although, if you really were ‘time poor’, you’d probably have skipped the Public Health Warning anyway, perhaps been attracted by the lovely golden yellow below, in which case you’re also probably not reading this either, you scatterbrained twat…)



WOLLATON 159/9 (50 overs) 
Elstone 35, P McMahon 35

KILLAMARSH 160/7 (48 overs) 
P McMahon 4/42, Heath 3/40


Were memory not such a fickle thing, I’d probably tell you that Saturday’s trip to Killamarsh was The Worst Day of My Cricketing Life. But, as has been said elsewhere, memory is a fickle thing, so such a claim would be either fib or exaggeration, both of which are best avoided. For instance, I was going to say ‘Worst Day Of My Cricket Career’ but then I realized that this was loose terminology, licentious, principally because I have never played first-class cricket and even implying that I had played first-class cricket (by casually using ‘career’) when I hadn’t played first-class cricket would be as deceitful as explicitly stating that I had played first-class cricket when I hadn’t played first-class cricket. I think it’s important to recognize this, clear it up from the outset. Anyway, if not The Worst Day Of My Cricketing Life, it was certainly up there. A definite contender. 

If you’re reading this blue section, I suppose it’s because you want to know why it was such a bad day. Right you are. Well, despite U-11-sized boundaries on three sides and pokey dressing rooms, it was far from being the worst ground I’ve ever played on. Not in the top 20, in fact. Neither was it the worst weather I’ve ever played in, although it was bitterly cold at times and drizzling for long periods. Nor were they the worst teas I’ve ever eaten; however, they were so bland that had we been presented instead with nothing but a huge bowl of iceberg lettuce to munch through, it wouldn’t have suffered much by comparison. I can’t even claim that it was the worst pitch I’ve played on (there were a few snake pits about in the demanding Nottingham University Interdepartmental League), but just about the only thing that can be said in its favour is that it wasn’t particularly dangerous. The umpiring? Well, it certainly wasn’t the worst I’ve ever encountered, despite it appearing that one of them had completely forgotten the leg-side wide ruling during our innings, only to be tactfully reminded of it at tea by his junior partner (Jose Mourinho would probably claim the official had been ‘spoken to’ during the interval, but I think that would be far-fetched), before proceeding to overcompensate in the second innings, to the extent that it no longer mattered whether or not the ball had hit the pads in his adjudication of the wide ball. Finally, this defeat wasn’t the most galling or painful of my car- (oops, nearly said ‘career’ there) …of my cricketing life, probably because there wasn’t as much at stake as on other occasions; that said, it didn’t feel great, as defeats rarely do. Anyway, the combination of all the above can be said to have contributed to a low-ranker of a day. A bleak’un. 

I should have sensed that it was going to be a bad day more or less as soon as I woke up, around the time that the teabag burst in my morning cuppa. Even more so when, having gone ahead and drank the foul brew anyway, the leaves remaining at the bottom of the mug had spelt out: ‘Don’t go to Killamarsh this afternoon!’ Was this a cryptic message of some sort? Not being the superstitious type, I ignored what the tealeaves may or may not have been trying to say. However, on the journey up, any conviction about this being a day like any other ought to have been removed when the normally eloquent Vince described Notts’ innings-and-whatever defeat of Essex as a – …well, let’s just say it rhymes with “nut cooking” and means sodomy. I thought at the time: has Vince been possessed? Perhaps it was the McMahon clan, drugged by the central heating or something – after all, I later saw Gerry thumbing through a copy of Zoo magazine. Something was rotten in the state of Denmark. Anyway, by the time the first ball of the match had been bowled, I realized absolutely beyond all doubt that it was going to be a pretty ordinary day, as days go, all things considered. Far from my cricketing zenith. 

I had been asked to open the batting. As you probably know, a NPL match, if it goes the distance, is 600 balls in length. Suppose, then, that you are a reluctant fielder, non-bowling, who is asked to open the batting, and suppose that, first ball of the match – or, to put it another way, six or seven seconds after the umpire has called “play” – you receive a briskish ball that pitches on an ‘in-between’ length and hits middle (or was it off?) stump, just about six to eight inches high, then it’s fair to say you’re staring down the barrel at a stinker of a day. It did not augur well. I think it was the first time I’d been dismissed first ball of the game, but memory is a fickle thing. The only thing that can salvage such a day is team victory. And you already know we lost… 

Now, if you’re not thinking ‘I get the picture with the whole bad day thing, move on’, then you’re probably thinking: ‘that’s the second time in six games that Ed has been responsible for your wicket’. And you’d be bang on, of course. Still, the guilt he might have been feeling for not, as senior opener, having taken strike (especially as he later confessed to having “a feeling that you were going to get out”) would soon be extinguished by a more powerful emotion – anger – just two overs later, when he found himself victim of an act of blatant skulduggery, later described by the official that gave the decision as “the most disgraceful incident he had seen in nine years’ of umpiring”. 

This is what happened: their Sri Lankan overseas bowled a short ball that stopped on the wicket, forcing Duncan’s attempted cut to become a block-pull that rolled out to wide mid-on. Ed thought there was a single and shimmied down the track, waiting for a response, but Dunc was unsure of where the ball was, so sent Ed back. The DoC touched his bat back into the crease at the non-striker’s end, then almost immediately went down to examine any damage done to the pitch (without having ascertained that the ball was dead, true, but unquestionably not trying to take a run), only for Killamarsh’s captain – yes, captain – to throw down the stumps, with Ed pretty much oblivious. The umpire raised his finger and the home team went doolally. Ed paused to query the decision (the umpire later admitted, somewhat vaguely, that had it not have been the captain he might have been able to do something) but, strictly speaking, he had to be given out, at which point one of their largely unrepentant team sent him off with a sarcastic “bye bye”. It was at about this point that we started to simmer. (For anyone who’s seen The Big Lebowski, I felt like Walter Sobchak at the bowling alley, when his opponent, Smokey, overstepped the line but still told Dude to mark an 8 rather than a zero. In a league game!! Am I the only one around here who gives a sh*t about the rules?! Smokey, you mark that frame an 8 and you’re entering a world of pain…) 

The rest of our innings was a stop-start affair. Keels looked in good touch until committing to an Antipodean on-the-up square drive to a ball that jagged back sharply (the first from that bowler that did so), to be bowled for 22. Duncan (28) and Vince (35) then battled hard to consolidate – taking the score to a reasonably healthy 93/3 in the thirtieth over – but both fell when primed to kick on, not that you were ever ‘in’ on this pitch. When we came off for rain, and an early tea, after 41 overs, the total was around 115/6. Upon resumption, the two youngest members of the team put together the innings’ brightest partnership. 

Ah, wook at wickle Scotty playing for that England, 'n' that
Coming out to bat on a very poor pitch, with no first XI runs behind him for his new club, against some wily, negative ‘spin’ bowling, Scott Elstone showed what a classy player he is, constructing a calm, orthodox 35 that contained several attractive shots on both sides of the wicket, the pick of which was probably an Azharuddin-esque back foot clip between square leg and mid-wicket for four. In fact, so complete was the display of batsmanship that his captain’s effusive praise was soon running out of body parts to commend: “good hands”, “lovely wrists”, “excellent feet Scotty Elstone”, “fantastic elbows, mate”, “top drawer earlobe-work Scotty”. Scott was well supported by Tim Young – or Young Tim; or even, if you prefer, Young Tim Young [Tim, should your career path lead you to star in Hong Kong kung-fu films, this would be the screen name I’d suggest] – who looked assured and stylish on debut, completely at home on a first XI field, making a neat and valuable 13. A few late wickets in the slog prevented us from picking up the second batting point, as we finished on 159/9 from our allotted overs. For the Killer Martians, Dave Adams exploited the conditions well and picked up six wickets with what JC would later describe as “left-arm darts”. We thought this score could be competitive if we could exert a strong squeeze and push the run-rate steadily up, allowing pressure to lead to mistakes – on this wicket, in the absence of heavy artillery in the seam bowling department, it had to be our strategy. I felt that a couple of early strikes would be necessary, perhaps decisive, against a team that had relied on two or three batters for their runs. After a team-talk containing the phrase “modus operandi”, we took to the field hoping for early inroads. 

As it happened, the Killamarsh openers added 58 invaluable runs. Burdett (37), the aggressor-in-chief, took advantage of most of the loose balls on offer and kept them in the driving seat, whilst Burgess, looking correct and solid, laboured to 16, Vince all over him like the proverbial rash. Luckily for us, Burdett, seemingly well set, gave his wicket away, backing away (the ball after sweeping a four) to try and hit the offie over extra cover, only spooning a catch to mid off. This over-ambitious shot was our avenue back into the game. Shortly afterwards, with a steady drizzle having returned, Burgess’ vigil came to an end when your correspondent, more than a little frustrated by how the game was going, asked our ‘keeper, pretty loudly and perhaps a little boorishly, if he knew where the batsman’s next run was coming from. Next ball, he drove Vince uppishly to extra cover (I’d like to think the two events were related, but I couldn’t prove it in court), exactly where he had cunningly stationed goalkeeper of renown, Duncan Heath, who held an excellent catch. Perhaps “next week”, suggested Colin, confusing the meaning of the words “where” and “when”. If we could wangle another couple of wickets in the four overs before drinks then, as betting-obsessed snooker commentator Willie Thorne would say, we’d probably go slight favourites here 

This optimism, however, was not long lasting. It enjoyed rude health for about 5 or 10 minutes, or whatever time it took before the umpire was turning down an absolutely stone dead LBW (the batsman’s bat was around shoulder height when the ball struck his pads en route to the middle stump). By his reasoning, the umpire agreed with us about the destination of the ball; unfortunately, he also thought the batsman was playing a shot. Playing a shot!!! This ‘shot’ must therefore rank as the most massively ill-conceived attempt at second-guessing that an off-spinner was, without showing any prior inclination, about to bowl you a fast, steeply rising ball just outside off stump that you, from off the front foot, would cunningly try to steer over the slips for four. Madness! Anyway, the now-shrinking optimism took another severe dent soon after, when Adams smeared 14 runs from the last over before drinks, swinging the momentum again decisively in their favour: 70 required from 25 overs with 8 in the shed.  

By the way, when Adams came to the crease, first drop, a rather mischievous JC suggested that Scotty Elstone should keep flighting it up, rather than “bowling darts”, to which the batsman replied “6-fer”. Instant bite. Unfortunately, Scotty then bowled a low full-toss that Geoffrey Boycott’s granny would almost certainly have hit for four, prompting the batsman to say, rather tersely, and with a triumphalism not really appropriate for the degree of difficulty of the shot, “fetch!” Aye aye… While the ball was being retrieved, Adams said to JC:

     “Played a bit of first-class have you?” to which the affable Kiwi replied in the negative. “Yeah, well, I have”, he continued, not really waiting for JC’s answer. 
     “Oh yeah, who for?” 
     “Gloucestershire, Derbyshire, Auckland…” 

Apparently, he then proceeded to name players he’d played with. JC was hugely impressed. Had he have had a pen on him, I’m sure he’d have asked for an autograph right there and then, in the middle of the game. We thought it’d be interesting to check out Adams’ first-class stats, see where the peacock got his strut, so to speak. Imagine, then, the shock it was to discover that cricinfo.com had no record of a David Adams that had played first-class cricket in England. Zip. The WCC research team then turned its attention to the more extensive database at cricketarchive.com, which did reveal a David Adams who had played Second XI championship matches for Derbyshire, Gloucestershire and Somerset, but not one who’d played first-class. A search of the domestic NZ averages showed up no David Adams in the Auckland ranks, either. A case for Columbo, or perhaps even Banacek? 

All of this leads us to one of three conclusions: either (a) he has played in first-class games not archived on the aforementioned websites; (b) he doesn’t understand the definition of ‘first-class’; or (c) he has gone and popped one out there. A porkie. Largely inconsequential, perhaps, but a porkie all the same. In fact, you could almost say that he might be laying claim to a career, and you know my feelings on that. I have asked a friend of mine, a psychologist, about what might have motivated Adams to do such a thing, suggesting that it may have been narcissism or vanity, perhaps even some kind of borderline personality disorder (sources told me he was driving his brother’s sponsored car, with one wag – not WAG - quipping that he was dropping it off at Yorkshire CCC after CJ Adams’ u-turn). My friend politely yet firmly dismissed this conjecture and told me, with typical modesty (and in slightly formal language, it has to be said), that “since psychoanalysis is a speculative art, it is impossible to know the precise reasons that led David Adams, elder brother of well-paid and successful county cricketer Chris Adams, to claim that he’d played a lot of first-class cricket when he hadn’t, especially in an information age, where factual statements are so easily corroborated or disproved with a few clicks of a mouse.” That’s right, I thought, not like the good old days where you could, with a reasonable amount of front, bullsh*t your way through. “And why Auckland?” My friend again: “I suppose you can understand the choice from a geographical point of view, what with it being as far ‘over there’ as it’s possible to go, but in an information age, in which we don’t have to liaise with the NZ Cricket Board Office of Statistics in order to verify these things, surely it’d have been wiser to have chosen Zimbabwe, where the rigorous archiving of cricketing scorecards is probably not high amongst many people’s priorities.” Infallible logic. 

Anyway, back with the game. After drinks, the scoring rate was slowed, slowly, by the combination of Duncan (who bowled excellently, and without luck, for figures of 15-5-40-3) and Apollo Creed, Master of Disaster (10-2-28-0). Just 34 runs were conceded in 15 probing overs, during which Duncan picked up Adams’ wicket and that of the overseas, smartly snaffled by Steve. All the while, their number 4, having been granted the LBW reprieve, battled hard against some tight bowling and, to his credit, held things together until being gated by Vince for 31 crucial runs. So, with four overs to go they needed 20 to win, us 4 wickets, at which point, with my optimism having largely returned (it’s the hope that kills you!), their number 7, Ludlam, sliced a four over cover, creamed another over extra, and took 12 runs in all from the over, all but sealing the game. As the death-knell sounded, Ed’s frustration boiled over: having appealed for a leg-side catch by Steve, only for the umpire to signal wide, he groaned, without really thinking it through: “it hit his pad, man”. 

Apparently the home players were aggrieved that a few of the Wollaton team neglected to shake their hands whilst leaving the field. As one who didn’t, I felt at the time, and still do, that it would be an utterly meaningless gesture that somehow ‘pardoned’ their earlier actions, to them at least. Our post-match dressing room atmosphere was one of disappointment rather than despondency. We all realize our strengths and limitations as a unit. Keels gave us a quick, cold-blooded reminder of what we need to do better to win games. Time to knuckle down and try even harder to do it. 

Savill: last laugh

I’m happy to report that by 11 o’clock Ed seemed to have wholly forgotten his earlier misfortunes. Adhering to the old adage – “Win Or Lose, Always Booze” (or for Caythorpe: “Lose Or Win, Down The Gym” …only joking chaps!!) – and going into Blue WKD-mode, the Club Captain was seen throwing some fierce shapes on the dancefloor, letting the ladies at the 40th birthday bash know what he was all about, using a combo of ‘jelly legs’ sway-dance and smouldering glare, digit raised to pursed lips like Thierry Henry celebrating a goal that has surprised even himself. Nnnnnnnnniiiiiiiiiice. See, Ed knows it’s only a game of cricket… 

MD 

PS – paraphrasing Sesame Street, this report has been brought to you by the Latha, Shruti and Estrangelo Edessa fonts. [This is no longer true, due to the constraints of the Google Blogger platform; nonetheless, it was important to keep it in, right?] “But it’s all the same!” I hear you cry. No, it’s true. You see, after JC’s daring, even radical use of the Garamond font the other week, I had a quick squizz for something choice, carry the torch. But it soon became clear that some of these fonts were identical, despite their different names. I was reminded of Ricky Gervais’ irritation over the number of different bat species being categorized each year. Gervais suspected that these bat experts, financially rewarded each time they identify a new species, were making them up. So, alongside your pipistrelle and vampire bats, you get the long-eared bat, the slightly shorter long-eared bat, the medium-size-eared bat, etc., etc. Well, it’s time to point out that some programmers at Microsoft are doing the same. It’s a scam, I tells ya. A scam.