Written in 2011 but still tickles me…

For reasons that are generous but entirely unfathomable, at least to me, the last few Saturdays have found me not only playing cricket, but captain of our club’s 4th XI.

The Bells Yew Green 4th XI is a team in transition. When founded a couple of years ago we were, and the others won’t mind me saying so, a team of limitless enthusiasm tempered by rather more limited ability. The initial idea was to have a dads and lads team where sons would learn from fathers, while fathers would proudly watch sons develop into mature cricketers. This laudable objective lasted perhaps two games into the inaugural season. We very swiftly realised two things. Firstly that we didn’t really have enough father-son combinations to fill a team and secondly, where we did, the sons were, for the most part, better cricketers than the fathers. So although there were any number of dads, even grandads, and lads in the team, there were comparatively few genetic matches.

It also soon became apparent that we were virtually the only team playing to this rather quaint paternalistic ethos. Most of the opposition teams we faced were entirely composed of adults. Moreover they tended to be strong muscular adults who had played at county level, or were capable of hitting the ball into the next county. Not surprisingly, they feasted on our twelve year old bowlers like crocodiles at a water hole.

On the rare occasions we played teams with any fathers and sons, they tended to be all fathers, uncles, sons and cousins. In one case, and no I shan’t name the village, the entire team appeared to be the product, as far as one could tell, of a single genome. Not so much a gene pool as a gene puddle. Faced with this kind of negative biodiversity in some of these more remote Sussex villages, you can’t help but conclude that they don’t get out much. There is nothing quite so unsettling as batting in front of a slip cordon of four seemingly identical, gap toothed, unshaven skinheads. I swear I could hear banjo music.

Our 2009 and 2010 campaigns were largely a catalogue of defeats. Games followed a fixed pattern. Inevitably we lose the toss and the opposition skipper asks us to field for 50 overs in Saharan heat while their batmen send us scurrying to every part of the field. They declare on 300 and tuck into the sandwiches with similar zeal. Our dehydrated openers last less than an over and suddenly our youngsters are exposed to a West Indian fast bowler who is clearly intent on singlehandedly filling the local A&E department. As balls whistle past ears, the match begins to look like a seal cull. The ambulances keep their engines running.

Loss followed dispiriting loss and despite some brave performances with bat and ball, the 4th XI always found itself struggling. In the first season we escaped relegation by the width of a cigarette paper. In the second season we were less lucky, finishing last and tumbling ignominiously into Division 13, the Bermuda Triangle of the East Sussex Cricket League. Mercifully the flatulent, grunting Sussex Neanderthals secured promotion.

So a new beginning for the 4th XI in 2011 and I’m delighted to say that we are doing really rather well. In fact better than that, we are top of the league, having won four of five matches, albeit often by nailbitingly close margins. Some habits die hard and, as we know from bitter experience, there is no position so secure that the 4th XI, cannot snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. No opening stand large enough that it cannot be negated by a batting collapse of biblical proportions. But despite these acknowledged batting frailties, we have still scraped home. For four of those five matches, I have been the skipper. And nobody is more surprised than me. The first week, I was delighted and honoured to be asked. By the fourth, I was beginning to wonder if things were that bad with the 4th XI that a 53-year-old man with no natural cricketing ability is the preferred choice as captain.

Of course the role of captain in the 13th division of the East Sussex Cricket League is some way removed from anything that Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook or Joe Root might be expected to undertake. They have nothing more complicated to occupy his mind than field placings and bowler rotation. The absence of juniors in the England team also means that they do not have to fret over Under 15 bowlers exceeding their six over quota or accidentally fielding closer than eleven yards from the batsmen. Nor do they wake up in a cold sweat over collecting match fees, or whose name is next on the tea rota. And then there is always the young seamer allergic to flour and therefore liable to keel over at the mere sight of a custard cream wafted under his nose. These are weighty matters and the skipper who ignores them does so at his peril.

On-field duties are, in comparison, a doddle. A few magisterial waves of the arm to move fielders and the odd word of encouragement to the bowlers seem to cover it. If one of the fielders takes a catch, you look like a tactical wizard. Having said that, there can be some tricky moments. Telling Graeme Swann that he is not needed to bowl is one thing. Say the same to an already grumpy twelve-year-old and you will see the word petulance defined with a level of clarity that makes the OED’s effort seem an exercise in obfuscation. Graeme Swann will take it on the chin. In the 4th XI, the captain is more likely to get it on the chin.

Then there are the supporters. A crowd of thirty thousand will pack Lords on a test match day. At our home fixtures we are lucky to get ten. Counting the dogs. And the scorers. And half of these have gone to the wrong game. Dogs and children chasing balls on the outfield are minor irritations. But nothing beats the occasion our fielding was distracted by two topless sunbathers on the deep mid-wicket boundary. Before your imagination runs away with you, I should say that both were tattooed and the size of walruses. As if their mere presence was not intimidation enough, they spent the afternoon taunting our young fielders. Some, like soldiers returning from the Somme, still bear the psychological scars. One has developed a stammer. Even the batsmen asked for the sightscreen to be moved.


Club cricket – one from the vault