Calstock 1st XI v Menheniot-Looe 3rd XI: Match abandoned
The visitors’ dressing room, a small wooden shack barely big enough to contain 11 players and their kitbags, rattled and swayed in the wind. The rain which had been hammering on the roof for the last hour began to ease off. “We’re going to give it another go, lads,” the home captain said apologetically. Two balls later our own skipper was trudging back, clean bowled. (Peering through the gloom, it took the rest of us a second to realise what had happened, as the umpires had dispensed with the bails in the first over). Before the number three batsman had reached the middle the heavens opened again. Game over. Welcome to the start of the cricket season.
We are the third team of Menheniot-Looe, a village club in south-east Cornwall. A newcomer to the area 12 months ago, I played a handful of matches as we endured what the club chairman described as a “difficult season”. Played 20, won 4, lost 14, no result 2. Difficult is one way of putting it.
The withdrawal of the league’s 12th side meant we finished bottom and were given the choice of being relegated to division six or staying where we were, and the players voted for the latter. So here we are again, a motley crew of jaded old pros and keen but green youngsters, embarking on another summer of pain, frustration and cheese and pickle sandwiches.
I have decided to blog my way through the season, providing an insight into the strange and unique world of lower league village cricket. I am currently reading Simon Hughes’ ‘A Lot of Hard Yakka’, a wonderfully funny book about the former Middlesex bowler’s life in the county game in the 1980s. Inspired by this, along with Barney Ronay’s ‘Any Chance of a Game?’ and Harry Thompson’s ‘Penguins Stopped Play’, I hope to recount some of the odd, awkward and uplifting stories that will inevitably result.
First up, the keener members of the team have been back in training. Since January we have been gathering for indoor practice on a Sunday morning, where fast bowlers use the humid atmosphere to swing the ball round corners and spinners despair at the plastic matting which kills any semblance of turn. This week saw the resumption of outdoor nets, the moment many of us realise that a winter spent sitting on our backsides eating Doritos and watching Pointless has left us slightly past our physical peak.
Every village ground has its own little kinks and quirks. Maybe the door to the home dressing room doesn’t lock, or there’s no hot water in the visitors’ toilets. Menheniot is one of the most picturesque grounds you could possibly come across. It looks joyously unspoiled – until you strap on your pads and take guard in the nets, and discover the setting sun is shining straight into your stupid helmeted face. From 6pm to 8pm on Tuesday and Thursday evenings the earth rotates on its axis and the club’s most accomplished first team batsmen are made to look like clueless rabbits, blinded by the most powerful floodlight in the universe.
For our final practice before opening weekend, some bright spark had the idea of setting up a portable net on the square, with the sun behind the batsman. This resulted in the bowlers letting go of the ball and squinting down the track to see whether it had reached its intended target, simultaneously shielding their two remaining marbles in case the missile came hurtling back towards them.
Even at this level everybody is expected to have a decent bash at all three disciplines – batting, bowling and fielding. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe myself as a specialist bowler – specialist non-batter might be a better fit – but I am keen to improve my willow wielding. As a boy I played in men’s teams from quite a young age, perhaps too young. I never quite conquered my fear, perfectly logical in my own mind, of being seriously hurt by a hard leather missile propelled by someone twice my size and three times my age. I have toughened up a bit since rediscovering the game in my mid-20s, but my batting technique still leaves much to be desired. I back away, my body exposed to the leg side bouncer, flicking airily at anything wide on the off side and, crucially, leaving my stumps exposed.
After running through my repertoire on Thursday night, I got a bit of on-the-spot coaching. Making an initial movement back with my left leg before pressing forward improved my balance and gave me a chance of covering my wicket. I creamed a couple of half-volleys off one of the first XI quicks, sparking astonished cheers from the queue of bowlers behind him. It didn’t last – I have particular trouble picking the length of slow, loopy spinners – but I felt I had taken a small step, back and across, in the right direction.
My bowling, although inconsistent, is coming along. As with many sports, what kills you is the fact that one minute you can bowl the perfect delivery, hit the ideal tee shot, play the inch-perfect snooker, and the next minute you’ve lost it all and you’re dragging, hoiking and spooning like you just discovered your opposable thumbs. Graeme Swann once said his single piece of advice to a young spinner would be simply: “Spin it.” Accuracy is all well and good, but if you’re doing nothing with the ball you’re not going to take many wickets or have much fun. Mind you Swann’s sometime colleague, Matthew Hoggard, described his approach to bowling thus: “I just wang it down and hope for the best”.
So here we are at Calstock, the first match of the 2014 season having been abandoned after just 4.2 overs, in which we managed a measly nine runs for the loss of one wicket. We did well to get on the park at all – 55 other league games around the county were cancelled before a ball was bowled. As we accepted our soggy fate and headed off, someone piped up with the inevitable comment: “We’re unbeaten this season.”