Monday, 21 May 2012

20/5/2010 - Middleton Stoney

Perhaps I should just fess up. You see 'The Decrepits' down there? Well, that's my other team, that is. Our captain has actually made some of his money by writing about how old and crap we are - over the space of two books, in fact (I've all but outed us now, but shall preserve the veneer of anonymity).

But on days like this, you have to wonder - is that joke funny any more? I am the club's youth policy. I'm 30, and as such I'm our athletic fast bowler. But I'm ludicrously unfit, I've played far too much joke cricket, and I doubt my bowling's topped 70mph since I was 24. Christ, it's just occurred to me that my bowling is legal on British roads. Anyway.

Some days we're not too old. Today we were the oldest we have ever been. Even with me in the team, we averaged 51. We lost the toss, and were inserted on a day so cold, and so damp, it felt rather like being - I can't even think of a simile. Like being in the North Sea, but on land. "I'm just going outside," announced our Captain, as we huddled in the dressing room, "I may be some time".

And the oppo. Oh, the oppo. A village. But a proper village. With a league team. That play in a league. And bowl properly. And bat properly. And are either middle aged, ludicrously coordinated batsmen who despite being past their prime simply deal in boundaries to save running, or thrusting young Charlies who just want to knock you or your stumps over.

Up against them: me. And ten people either closing in on or having already flown past 60 years of age. Why do we play them? Because they're nice, and it's a nice ground. When it's not -5C and the clouds don't look like the opening to an Ingmar Bergman film.

We lost the toss. I opened the batting. The short story is this. I got about 25 or 30, and when I was out I remember noticing we were 36-6. I had pretty much scored all of our runs. Had I not been there, I think we probably could have been entirely done for in the first half hour.

The long story of this innings is very long. That 25 took an hour and 20 minutes. The pitch was green and unbelievably slow and low, the ball was swinging miles, and the seamers were very good. It took me 15 minutes before I got off the mark, and it was (genuinely) the first bad ball I received. After 10 more minutes the bowler finally got another one wrong - a low full toss, and I climbed into it, punching it over his head and holding the pose. Have some of THAT, Sonny Jim.

Except. It wasn't four. It stopped absolutely dead, three yards from the boundary, and I scampered two. It was almost impossible to hit fours, because the outfield was slower than, well, us. So my score was entirely comprised of twos, many of which would have been boundaries on another day.

But EVEN given all this: tight and quick bowling, lots of seam movement and a pitch that won't let you time it even when it doesn't move laterally, a slow outfield - you still have an option to get the scoreboard moving, don't you? The quick single. Yeah, good luck with that when your batting partner is, in cricketing terms, older than Methuselah.

But EVEN given all this, you have another option, don't you? Take a few risks and go in the air. Cut the outfield out and send it home. Well yeah, you could. I mean, surely someone else will make a few if it goes wrong? Oh, there goes another one. 20-4. Hmm, might put that lofted on drive back in the locker.

But EVEN given all this, you have one final option, don't you? Just stay there, and hope for the best. So that's what I did. Their opener, once he'd found his rhythm, was getting it to move both ways, huge amounts, in the air and off the pitch. Every ball either cut back in or away sharply - far too much for me. Fuck it, I'm happy to declare - too much for most people.

You have a wonderful Hobson's choice in these scenarios - do you just cover off stump for the one that comes in, let the balls that move away beat the outside edge and hope one doesn't catch it, or do you try to play everything in the hope of picking up some extra runs, and pray you don't nick off or get bowled? Either way, you're very unlikely to score any runs. I opted for the lesser of two evils, and covered off stump. Five balls in a row fizzed past the outside edge.

And you want to know the real fucker? It was how I got out. For an hour, I'd restrained myself from playing the horizontal bat shots, knowing the ball was barely getting stump high. And the first change bowler, who's a teenage kid and isn't a patch on the openers, drops one half way down, and for one ball I forget, start to pull, and there's that sickening realisation that I'm not going to get a bat on it because once you're into the shot there's no going back - and - clunk.

Ultimately, you can't coach yourself out of a couple of decades worth of cricket forever. I'm an English club cricketer, and I play on soft, slow pitches. This isn't bloody Australia, chaps. If that ball lands half way down, it's got to go to the square leg boundary. I deliberately dropped short when I was bowling to their batsmen, who made exactly the same mistake, instinctively going on the pull. But the ball missed the stumps by a whisker, three times. I made the same mistake at that Wimbledon game last year. No answer, really, other than to play more games on wickets like this. Anyway: FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK.

You may think I'm talking this innings up. But as I was walking off, the skipper, who clearly knows the game and clocked most of the contributory factors that made this innings even trickier than it would ordinarily have been, ran up and patted me on the back. I probably still am talking it up, of course, but never mind. All relative, isn't it.

We somehow set them 70. We're worse at bowling than we are at batting. I don't need to go into the details.

And yet the whole thing was so much fun. I bloody loved the challenge, though I'm pissed off I ultimately flunked it. I love the company of my team mates, for whom middle age has brought an extremely mild, but sharp - in fact absolutely wicked - sense of humour and self-deprecation. But we do need a couple of new recruits. Even Dad's Army wasn't quite so funny at the end.

19/05/2012 - Hawridge and/or Cholebury (not sure which village the ground is in)

Right, I've done hundreds of words on this one for the club site and I'm buggered if I'm replicating them in house style here. With that in mind these are the salient points (for those who can't be arsed to wade through the mountain of in-jokes).

1. People are scum. I may have mentioned this before.
2. I scored 2* and played out a maiden against a child. And didn't bowl. That said most people got to do something, which is what matters, isn't it? Oh.
3. This place is a bloody gem. Friendly chaps, nice ground, smashing tea.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Quick thoughts on Eng vs WI - Day One

Thoughts on the Test:

1. Bresnan is the most conservative pick, but with the Saffas in mind he's probably the correct one. If you take out two edges through the slips, he went at 1 an over yesterday. Ultimately that's what you need on a hot June day once the new ball's worn off. Onions and Finn are both more penetrative, but with him in the team you've got Swann at 10 which is absurdly long as batting orders go.

2. Bravo sent shivers down my spine with a couple of shots. It was like watching Brian Lara's ghost.

3. Barath's stroke play was gorgeous. Really hope the kid makes the most of his potential.

4. Chanderpaul should bat higher. He's earned the right to bat where he likes, but you've got to get him in at 3 making the big scores - the sooner he ends up marshalling the tail (though he's good at it) the fewer he's likely to make.

5. Anderson could well finish his career as not just one of the best English seamers, but one of the best seamers of all time. I've never seen such skill with a new ball in my life and I never will again.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Five Friendly Teams You Meet In Hell

This may seem like the post of a bitter man lashing out in retirement, after years of biting his tongue and remaining diplomatic at all times, in a bid to make his job run more smoothly and improve the harmoniousness of his and his team mates' weekends. It might seem like that, because that's what it is. But it's also slightly amusing, I hope.

1. The Ringermen XI

Some time ago, something strange happened. The Ringermen, formerly a nondescript, pretty clueless outfit, had a rather good player join them. Even stranger - given the gaping chasm between his ability and theirs - he stuck around. Of course, this is friendly cricket, so we're talking relatively good. The kind of batsman who will take a ton off most friendly attacks (on astroturf), who might have played a few county games at youth level (he really talks them up) - that sort of thing.

But the presence of this player utterly changed The Ringermen's outlook on the game. Suddenly, they could compete with all those teams who had so mercilessly smashed them over the years. The hunter had become the hunted. Now The Ringermen were, at a stroke, a proper team. But they began to lose something. In the past they had been thrashed mercilessly, but they could take away one key victory, every time - unlike those oppo bastards, they had played in the right spirit.

Now they won games - but for some reason it didn't quite feel right. When one of you is scoring all your runs and the other ten are contributing the square root of bugger all, I guess the moral high ground can seem a little hard to attain.

Which is why the Ringermen take defeat so very, very badly. If there's one thing they want, it's the chance to get back on their high horse. A bad decision or a batsman declining to walk will be met with the kind of furious outburst you'd normally hear after running over someone's dog. Despite this, their key player is remarkably safe when they umpire - in fact it's a bit of a struggle for them to give him out when he's bowled. It's obvious why: once he goes, the whole pack of cards comes crashing down, with even more alacrity than it did before he joined.

And the greatest irony of all is that these self-deluding fuckers weren't even very sporting in the first place. You see, when you're not very good, cheating can only take you so far: that's all. A couple of them will even have the cheek to say things like "You wouldn't get that in a league match" when they see things they don't like, as if a couple of games for Shepton Mallet's Sixth XI counts as anything of the sort.

Tactics? Get the one good guy out (play on his arrogance if you can - short balls work a treat), watch the rest crumble.
Examples? Sure. PXXXXXX CC.

2. The Administrators XI

Beware The Administrators. For these are quite possibly the biggest arseholes of the lot. They are vaguely sociopathic middle-aged men of a certain indefinably petty sector of the British middle class. Their team is comprised of five or six of them (they've known each other since Uni), and five or six guys who are quite good at cricket. Rather like The Ringermen, the first five or six love to think they're playing the game in the right spirit. Which for them, equates to letting the other half of the team do all the batting and bowling, while they steadfastly umpire incredibly unfairly, occasionally holding out for a draw with the bat if it doesn't quite go to plan, and scouring the Internet for match reports that don't cast them in an entirely positive light.

At the same time they've got no problem with letting their good players bounce the shit out of a child or clobber unbeaten hundreds off a small girl's bowling. And on the rare occasion they deign to drink with the opposition after the game, they'll talk at length about how well the team played - as if their only contribution to the game wasn't to give one of their good players not out after they middled one to slip before dropping three catches.

They'd love to think they were the fun loving chaps of 20 years ago, these men, but they're not, now - they're a bunch of grumpy twats. Of course they'll never say anything about your team to your face: they'll save it for a snarky email a week or two later. Because really, that's the kind of admin they do best.

Tactics: Try to ape theirs. If you've got a guy who bats and bowls better than one of your bowlers, then I'm sorry, but he gets tossed the cherry for this game. Try to get their top order out bowled or caught in front of the wicket, because it ain't happening any other way.
Examples? Of course. SXXXX CC

3. The Pseuds XI

It all went wrong for The Pseuds captain when Oxford University turned him down. Since then, he's always had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. He knows it's a terrible weakness, but he just can't help it. He just wants people to think he's clever. He does everything he can to propagate the fact. His match reports weigh in at several thousand words, full of in-jokes that he just knows his team mates love.But his narrow vision - the same one that the tutors noticed at his interview, sadly - betrays him. The statistics surrounding the professional game of cricket that interest so many hold little joy for him, but the efforts of his team and its rivals - now they are endlessly fascinating.

He spends his time obsessively pouring over the reports and scorecards of other teams, thinking up tactics for how they can be defeated. Oh, so the number four got out to an off spinner did he? How interesting. And he loves attempting to read into the politics of it all - has there been a falling out between two of their opponents? How very interesting. Must bear that in mind.

But of course the problem is that for all this abstruse, intricate effort, he's not very good at cricket; and nor is his team. So if another team keeps beating them, there must be something amiss. How could he be outsmarted again and again? Are they simply a bunch of cheats? Must be. Ability can't come into it - for The Pseuds' captain, cricket is fundamentally an intellectual endeavour.

Once he's run out of ideas, all that research and endeavour starts to take a more disturbing path. Never mind the cricket - they've slighted us! It's right there, in a forum entry on 23rd March! The utter bastards! Soon, all-out war is declared - online (of course). No, The Pseuds will NOT be playing you this year. No time to discuss, we've got new opponents, who once lost to one of our opponents in 2008 and seem to be weak against left arm bowlers.

Tactics: You're on to a loser whatever you do, so you may as well start intellectually intimidating them from the word go. Start quoting Nietzsche at them between balls.
Examples? Why not - The GXXXX OX WXXX LXXXXX.

4. The Decrepits

Pity the Decrepits, for they are simply a bunch of very old men, who were never very good in the first place. Beating them isn't so much a victory as a mercy killing. It's hard to say how they ended up on your list - maybe you were quite bad when you started out, maybe you thought they were another team when you set up the fixture. The problem posed by these guys is quite unlike the other two. It's a question of conscience. The Decrepits will gamely let you savage their awful bowling past their stationary fielders, who will slowly turn and retrieve it from the boundary 30 minutes later. They will take guard against your most fearsome bowlers with nary a murmur of complaint. The question is - how much of this can you take - never mind them.

The Decrepits don't have the same insecurities as the previous two teams - my God, how can they have anything other than moral superiority given what you're doing to them? They won't react well to any kind of banter - but then, they don't appear to be enjoying themselves at any point. And in many cases they aren't. For each of them is in their own personal hell, wedded to a stupid game they can't play and are far too old to take part in. Yet still, something keeps calling them back, week, after week, after week. They may have the odd player who isn't old and/or dreadful. Try not to get him out. He's essentially doing care in the community work.

Tactics: Drop them immediately from your fixture list, for no game will leave a worse taste in your mouth.
Examples: Ok. The RXXX XXX

5. The Thugs

It's telling that you come across this lot so rarely. Pretty simple equation - this lot are the school bullies. They'll cheat every way they can, threaten the umpire, sledge the batsman, do anything it takes, really. They've read all those Christmas books about sledging and think their own efforts must be given an airing: "You're rubbish", they shout, a retarded grin plastered across their dribbling lips. This, of course, despite the fact that most professionals actually wouldn't dream of doing half the things they do, because they don't need to.

Get on top of them - with bat or ball - and they go very quiet. Sledge them yourself and they've got nothing..But pit them against an inferior or intimidated team and these sickening Neanderthals, these dribbling, imbecilic fucking cunts- will have a field day.

Tactics: Beat them. Hard. And let them know while you're doing it. Very, very occasionally, there's a team who only understands one type of language.
Examples: The now-defunct Lamb, of east London.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

12/05/12 & 13/05/12 - Cambridge

Well now. How interesting. It's tempting to think, after nineteen years (nineteen years!) of playing, that you've learned all the crucial lessons with regard to batting.

I've mentioned before how I've always struggled with a certain aspect of my game, which I'm convinced is born of the fact that growing up I was never really a top order batsman - I was a bowler who came in somewhere in the middle, blocked the good ones, hit the bad ones, and slogged at the end. It's not too bad a plan, all told. But it's always meant I've struggled to find a happy ground between first gear and fifth, assuming the bowling's good.

So over the winter (which is apparently still going on), I had a good think about all this. If I got criticised for anything by people I played with, it was being stodgy. Yet I'd hit quite a few sixes over the years. How did that work? I realised that the major flaw to my batting wasn't playing bad shots - well, it was - but why these bad shots were happening.

And the answer was simple. They happened because I hadn't had a bad ball for a while- or had missed them - was feeling run rate pressure, and had decided to chance my arm. And I came to another conclusion: that I was actually a bit lackadaisical when it came playing decent balls. My team had needed someone who could stick around when I joined it, and I'd prided myself on hastily assembling a good defensive technique, but actually, pure defence isn't always the right option.

So: a good length ball that wasn't bad but wasn't particularly threatening either - I'd kept it out, but how far had I tried to direct it into a gap? The one down my leg side - I'd had a go at glancing it, but was I really fighting to make sure I got any kind of bat on it all? Between the flowing cover drives and the leaves outside off stump, there's a minute world of little battles to be won or lost, and more often than not, I'd chosen the most conservative approach.

Those little moments: they seem like absolutely nothing - a run, two at best - in isolation, but put them together and they're HUGE. Absolutely, totally, unimpeachably vital. The massive six you hit to bring up your 50 is nothing on the five quick singles that got you to 15. Because they take scoreboard pressure away. They keep you off strike just when you're thinking it's time to do something stupid.

So on Saturday I went out with a slightly adjusted mindset. I was determined to try to score off every ball I could, even if it was just a single. It sounds SO obvious I could cry. But this is it: I've never really thought like a proper batsman, and that's why I'm not, really. It's amazing how the 'block good, hit bad' manifesto entrenches itself - when a more sensible creed would be 'nudge good, hit bad'.

I couldn't have picked a better game. Decent, nagging bowlers on a flat but very sticky wicket. My first ball was on a perfect line and length, swinging back in. I patted it back. The second swung just fractionally too much, and I'm sure that last year it too would have gone back to the bowler, or just been blocked anywhere without too much thought. Not a bad ball, certainly too good to hit for four, but not quite as good as the last one. I just closed the face on it a little, pushed it gently between mid wicket and square leg, and I was off.

Next over, a nippy delivery angled across me just back of a length. Before, I'd have let it go or got into line and blocked it out to cover. I might have picked up a run, but it wouldn't have been a priority. This time I made a really conscious effort to direct my push into the cover point gap. Two runs. The next ball swung into my pads - usually I'd have missed it, and I did so this time, but while I normally just tend to have a waft as I fall over to the off side if it's down leg, I really tried to remain still. The ball clipped my thigh guard and ran away for a leg bye.

And so it continued in that vein - I made 40 odd at about a run a ball, largely in singles and with the occasional boundary. I got out, of course, trying to hit a six, but this time the ball definitely deserved it: a slow full toss from a spinner that ended up in deep midwicket's hands. I really feel like this innings could be a watershed.

The problem, of course, is my fucking job that has me working weekends. Never mind youth unemployment, the cost of this recession will be measured in thousands of runs that were never made by a crap cricketer.

A few lines on the stuff that doesn't matter (i.e. everything other than my batting, motherfuckers). This was now our eighth(?) tour to Cambridge, which really is a great place to visit. Wonderful grounds and pitches, fantastic pubs, spotty teenagers in Millets' clothing to laugh at.

Saturday's game was against a combined College side. Like us, they were (ridiculous) playing essentially their first game of the season, so everyone was very rusty. They won the toss and batted, which was the wrong decision on a damp track. Our first over went for seventeen. The next yielded two wickets. In the end their rusty batting was worse than our rusty bowling and they only set 150-odd, but had they put together a total of, ooh, 40 more, I think it might have been a different game when we batted. With my innings and that of a new recruit who played exactly the sort of knock I never seem to get away with (lots of lusty swings interspersed with a few edges and mishits) we were over the line and in the pub pleasingly early.

Woke up on Sunday feeling as hungover as I always do on the second day of this tour. Remembered that I'd only had four pints. Fuck. We played the amiable bunch of chancers from a pub we always visit on the Saturday night. Fortunately the hoppy, lustrous, delicious local beer was on tap, and I managed to drink myself into a state of vaguely acceptable equilibrium.

This was a fun game - we gave our tail end a good go, which I always enjoy watching as these days we have a top order worthy of the name and their chances to bat can be a bit thin on the ground. I came in at the end and hoicked a quick 20.

We then ended up unleashing our two best bowlers on them - we were in the fixture sec/captain's nightmare scenario - only a couple of our very best players available for a long-standing fixture from the days when we were very bad, they'd kindly travelled all the way up from London so had to be given a bowl, end result a terrified pub line up facing eight overs of searing antipodean pace. Four wickets fell, but on the plus side no one was killed. Beers, singing, home.

Eight years, and it's still fun. Mind you, it's a depressing yardstick by which to observe the ageing process. First time round I went clubbing on the Saturday night till 2am, drank blue vodka loopy juice and slept on a pool table. This time I was wrapped up in bed by midnight and wondering if I shouldn't have had that extra glass of wine with dinner.