The cricket match

June 11, 2010

Little Buggernuts (and no, it’s not called that) is a few miles from Colchester, and only just in Essex, being nearly-but-not-quite in the much grander county of Suffolk. Mind you, fat lot I know about southern subtleties. We have wars up north – wars of the roses between Lancashire and Yorkshire, north-east versus north-west, all sorts. Local rivalries? Don’t get me started. Set one village against another and you are lucky if there are only a few broken bones. Anyway, to return to the cricket…

I had scrambled around on Friday afternoon getting a set of whites from dear old Lillywhites. Of course I hadn’t played since school. I had been okay then, but probably nowhere near the standard of ex-test players that Lee would probably rustle up. As I weighed up the relative merits of two sorts of boxes (if you know about cricket, you’ll know how you need to balance off protection against comfort, and if you don’t…well, don’t ask…), I had brief nightmarish visions of Ian Botham (I don’t think he was a Sir then) thundering in to hurl a small red cannon ball straight at my head.

The lady wife (this was a few years ago, when she was still in her peacock period)  was a bit miffed at me disappearing for the whole of Saturday – I think she expected me to shove a trolley round Sainsburys, or maybe one of those newfangled garden centres, like a proper new man, but that really wasn’t the plan. I hadn’t been invited out to do a manly thing for years, and I certainly wasn’t going to spoil this opportunity. I think she managed to invite a few of her Greenham Common chums round for a nutburger and some nettle  cordial, though, to discuss the iniquities of men, so it worked out OK in the end.

I arrived, miraculously without getting lost, in plenty of time. A groundsman was mowing the outfield, but no one else was around, so I asked him if I had come to the right place and was there going to be a cricket match today.

He looked at me for a long moment, giving the ignorant townie the kind of yokel 1000-yard stare that Seth from Cold Comfort Farm would have been proud of.

‘Well, if there ain’t,’ he said at last, taking a long drag from his roll-up and flicking it into a hedge with cavalier disregard for fire hazards, ‘then I’m wasting my time doing all this mowing.’

I had to agree with him there, so I just nodded and watched as he reduced an unruly area just backward of square leg (I think) to closely-tonsured perfection.

‘Pavilion’s over there, mate,’ he said. I walked over to the little shack, and got changed, behind the door was an ancient bat, and joy of joys, a ball. I limbered up for the game by batting the ball in the air in cricket’s version of keepy-uppy, then I noticed, after the ball hit the ground after 108 shots, that my trousers were too clean to be convincing, so I rubbed my knees on the grass to make it look like I was a seasoned player with not enough time between games to get his kit washed.

It was 10.30, and people were arriving now, seemingly all knowing each other, and for a nasty moment, I remembered how I had felt, being the new boy on his first day at big school.I reminded myself that i was about to play the best cricket of my life, and was just psyching myself up when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned, and there he was. Stringy-haired old multi-millionaire Lee.

‘How are you, mate?’ he blathered. ‘You must be Al. haven’t seen you since school. You could bat a bit in them days.’

I didn’t stop to put him right, especially as he was on the verge of introducing me to Eric Clapton. Always shorter than you expect, these superstars. We talked about cricket, Eric mentioned that my whites seemed new, and before I knew it, I was telling him how I had ripped the last pair to buggery trying to catch a steepling six on the boundary.

‘Did you get?’ he asked, eyes bugging in that unfortunate manner he has.

‘Yes, but I fell over the boundary so it wasn’t out,’ I concluded. The great man seemed crestfallen on my behalf.

‘Bad luck, man,’ he mumbled.

‘Umpires are out,’ somebody shouted, a single that we were about to begin. We’d won the toss, and our skipper, a gangly skinny bossy schoolmastery sort of bloke who made me feel 14 and delinquent and not moderately successful, had opted to put the other side in first.

Dodgy decision, I thought, as he waved me down to some position near long leg. I tried to remember what that meant. Basically I would be in the firing line if our bowlers were lobbing down dolly-drops, and the other side could bat a bit. as it was, there would be a lot of running around, and my throwing arm wasn’t great, so we’d just have to see. Our opening bowler was a well-known political correspondent in his 60s whose left arm didn’t seem to work terribly well. ‘Polio, poor chap,’ the fielder at long off mumbled to me as we ambled to our positions, both blithely ignoring the skipper’s exhortations to ‘Look lively in the field’.

The village’s batsmen were the groundsman I’d met earlier and a short tubby fellow who looked like he might be the landlord of the village pub, but was apparently a very successful hedge fund trader. He went through the various scratching-around activities of taking guard that always put me in mind of a chicken, and then finally the umpire called ‘play’ and we were off.

The political correspondent whistled in surprisingly fast, and his right arm went through a complete circle. The next any of us, and most of all the surprised-looking batsman, knew about it, the umpire had raised one arm and was waving the other from side to side to signal 4 byes. Not a good start, and the bowler glared at the unfortunate wicket keeper, who opted to stand much further back. After this surprising start, the rest of the over was uneventful and the batsmen failed to trouble the scorer.

I moved back to third man, which involved a trot of about 10 paces, but the bossy skipper motioned to me to move round to square leg. I was very impressed at my ability to remember the obscure names of field positions, and for some reason, the famous commentator’s faux pas – was it Johnners? – in a 70s Test against the West Indies: ‘The bowler’s Holding. the batsman’s Willey.’ crossed my mind.

I sniggered. Just as I did, the hedgie whacked a huge hook shot straight at me. I put my hands reflexively to protect my face, and by some other reflex, closed them and caught the ball. There was a smattering of applause from the pavilion, and the first one to congratulate me was Old Slow-Hand himself.

‘There you go, man, you’ve made up for the boundary catch,’ he said, and grabbed me by my hand, which was now stinging like fuck.

I squealed.

Eric let go, surprised, but sympathetic. That’s what happens with your childhood heroes…

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