A lesson in cricket humility

31st of July 2010. Bayham cricket ground

There is no greater source of pride for any cricketer at whatever level than being asked to skipper the side. It doesn’t matter whether it is the England test team, leading out Yorkshire at Headingley (I’m sorry, couldn’t resist) or, as in my case, the Bells Yew Green 4th XI at its then home ground behind Bayham Cemetery & Crematorium.

I think it was the Wednesday before Saturdays game when Chris Fox asked me if I was prepared to captain the side on the following Saturday. It wasn’t a difficult question but I still somehow need to repeat the question aloud to grasp its full import. They were seriously asking me, probably the most dysfunctional and least able cricketer ever, to captain the side. Captain as in who batted where, who bowled when, and who fielded where and why.

I should probably point out for foreign readers that the captain is usually chosen from amongst the team on the basis of peerless batting or bowling coupled with a visionary grasp of fielding positions. In essence, the position almost chooses itself.

Evidently in this my case other factors were at play. I have always described myself as a classic English all-rounder – I can’t bat and I can’t bowl. In stark contrast to Steve, my predecessor as skipper, who had played in the Lancashire league and definitely knew which end to hold the bat.I also hold the club record for byes during my one and only appearance as wicket-keeper. Again, if you are a foreign reader, you should just take it as read that this is not a great record to hold. This is not the profile of a cricketing god. As my son generously pointed out, I was essentially cricketing roadkill.

I should also point out for those unfamiliar with the politics of local cricket, that this was Wednesday. The fixture was on Saturday and it was rare for the skipper to know the identity of his team much before late Friday afternoon. And of course it was conditional on availability of players for the the teams above us. Once the first three teams had been picked, the captain of the 4th XI would be alerted to his likely team (and even then it was often subject to change). More than once skippers were sent teams consisting of bespectacled old men, amputees, and leg spinners. Many had to borrow their cricket kit from their sons or their fathers. Or grandfathers. Batting gloves with green rubber spikes, which offered no defence against a ping-pong ball, let alone a cricket ball. Pre-war pads, whitened with chalk were not uncommon. Pre- Boer war.

I wasn’t optimistic.

When my team was given to me, mid Saturday morning (and remember the fixture started at 1 PM on Saturday), I was genuinely thrilled. Perhaps the selectors wanted me to stand a chance. Perhaps we were just lucky but this was a genuinely good side. We would at the very least be competitive. Three father and son combos (and good ones at that), at least seven who could bat and as many who could bowl. A good mix of ages, skills and personalities. A team that would be a joy to captain. And a good strong wicket-keeper. It was probably as good a 4th XI as has ever been put out*.

Best of all, by hook or by crook, I had managed to secure a cricket tea of the finest quality. Sandwiches bursting with filling, a Victoria sponge lighter than air, and, if necessary to slow down their seamers, a fruitcake heavy with cherries, sultanas and currants. I briefed our quicks in advance to steer clear. The stage was set.

I spoke briefly to David, the groundsman at Bayham, before he wandered off to strim around the more overgrown graves in the cemetery. “Bat” he said, with that brevity typical of those who work with plants, “rain later”.

Our opponents that day were Hellingly, their 4th XI. They were a decent enough team but not necessarily invincible.

I introduced myself to Brian, their skipper and we walked out to the middle. We each had a cursory look at the strip and the sky. I gather that’s what captains do. I just watched Brian and did the same.

I left nothing to chance. I had a freshly minted shiny penny with which to do the toss. I had spoken to our seniors, Clinton and Kamil, beforehand and told him the groundsman’s thoughts. “Let’s bat” Clinton said. “Okay, you’re opening” I said “with James. Tell him”.

I lost the toss and, to my amazement, Brian opted to field. I gestured with an imaginary bat to the team on the sideline. We could relax a little and take our time.

Let me give you a bit of context here. The 4thXI had something of a reputation for low scores. In the normal run of things, the opposing captains would bat first given the choice, hit huge scores off our tiring young bowlers before sending on their own murderous quicks and bamboozling spinners to machete their way through our batting. Vultures would gather in the outfield, drawn to the slaughter. It was rarely pretty. We were unaccustomed to victories and generally spent our time propping up the rest of the East Sussex Cricket League Division 12 (there were only 12 divisions since you ask).

But today was different. it was going to be a day of records.

James and Clinton opened the batting, Clinton jockeying along his younger charge as opener, reminding him of the job he was set out to do. And he did. Twenty four confident runs from James saw the openers make the first 50 partnership I could remember in the 4ths. 56 for the first wicket.

Unfortunately also 56 for the second wicket, Alex misjudging one and skittled. Never mind, plenty of batting to come. 56 for two was still pretty good form. Joe took guard. Off the mark almost instantly. The next hour or so was a joy to watch. Joe and Clinton sent the fielders scurrying to every corner of the ground. When Joe was finally caught for 28, they had amassed a partnership of 89. Unheard of territory.

When you play in father and son teams – dads and lads – it’s always a pleasure to bat with your son. Max was a talented 13 year old and hit the ball as hard as any I have ever seen at that age. Those who were there to witness his 50 off 28 balls in a junior game the previous weekend at Bidborough are unlikely to forget it. So, when Max stepped out to join Clinton at the crease it promised fireworks. A single, a boundary and it was all over. 145 for 3 was now 157-4, becoming 158-5 as Kamil was pinned LBW.

Time for a captain’s innings!

I strode confidently out, practising a few exercises that I had seen Ricky Ponting do on television when going to bat, and trying to put Jacob’s roadkill remark out of my mind.

“Middle and leg please umpire” I called before scratching some sort of mark in the dust. I lifted the bat and surveyed the field in what I fancied was a I-know-what-I-am-doing sort of way.

And so it began. Beautiful slashes through the covers, magisterial drives through mid-wicket, subtle stabs wide of the slips. Beautiful strokes. By Clinton. I just watched and tried not to get out. But eventually even my stubborn Boycottesque resistance was broken, clean bowled for 5 (incidentally one of my higher scores) whilst trying an inappropriate shot that doesn’t have a name. Well it’s not in any manual. 178-6.

Alex’s dad Andrew next up and still the runs flowed, Clinton taking the team to 200 for the first time ever and himself to a wonderful century (116). We even used up our overs. Such was my confidence that I even toyed with the idea of declaring with a ball to spare.

Teatime. We phoned others in other teams that day, to update them, anticipating our victory.

The tea I had arranged was a thing to behold. Laid out by the ladies, it looked magnificent. Da Vinci’s Last Supper paled by comparison. We ate like prerevolutionary French royalty. The youngsters ate like velociraptors, despite my reminder that they were going to form the mainstay of our attack and therefore should steer clear of the fruitcake. Fruitcake is for batsmen. Sponge cake for bowlers.

Still, we were raring to get at them.

And I had the weapons to do the job. Two very fine young seamers in Alex and Max, both capable of generating troublesome pace and, certainly in Max’s case, a penchant for the shorter pitched deliveries. And I had Kamil, who could ask questions outside the off stump. And of course Scotty, legendary club seamer who could always be relied upon to keep it tight with nagging line and length. Three other spinners (Paul, Andrew, and Tim) balanced my attack. And I might not even need my ultimate secret weapon – Joe who could bowl anything – quick seam, spin in either direction and some wobbly sort of ball which didn’t seem to have a name but took wickets. Nobody seem to be able to pick those deliveries. Eight bowlers at my disposal at least. This would be a memorable victory.

Their captain, Brian, opened and it was clear that he could bat. Every team has one or two. In this case they were one and two. The openers. Okay, they did not give a chance on their way to 50. I wasn’t worried. At this level you can always be sure that they will make a mistake sooner or later. They didn’t. Obviously the pitch might be helpful most days. It wasn’t. Clinton’s fine innings was in danger of being eclipsed. By the 18th over, they had reached a hundred, mainly plundering runs off the juniors. Kamil kept it tight at the other end. I turned to Joe and Scotty on the reasoning that Scotty would pin them down while Joe, feeding off their frustration, would take wickets. Neither happened. It was one of those days. I had eight bowlers and all eight bowled in my increasingly desperate efforts to take wickets. A century partnership soon became 150. I tried everything I could think of in terms of field positions to support the bowlers. Somehow I seriously believed that if we could get one wicket, we could get 10. But we’ll never know because we never took a single wicket. They reached their target with seven of their 43 overs to spare. It was humiliating.

I had the sinking feeling that I had been found out, that my “captaincy” was a sham. I was a rabbit in the headlights. I don’t even remember what the opposition captain said to me after the match. I didn’t care either. To have to go back to the Brecknock with the score book recording in black-and-white this calamitous defeat was humiliation distilled.

In a way I had learnt the most important and hardest lesson in cricket. Take nothing for granted. Pride comes before a fall. My laughable pride in being made captain that day had turned to dust. Nobody in the Brecknock could quite believe it – how we, well I, had managed somehow to conjure defeat from the jaws of victory. And where was that rain the groundsman had promised?

I drove home trying to find some crumb of comfort. Well, I thought, at least they won’t ask me to do it again. There was that.

It turned out I was wrong on even that.