Wednesday, 11 June 2014


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. 

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