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Cats, cynicism and ankylosing spondylitis: All hail the reign of King Cricket

By Sam Blackledge

Every day I step inside a room which not many people know about.

Most days I offer a comment or a quip. Sometimes I stay quiet and watch.

It is said that if you use the internet in the right way, it will reward you.

Follow the right people, bookmark the right sites, type the right combination of characters and eventually you will find your niche.

The other people in the room are among the most intelligent, witty, kind and self-deprecating folk I’ve come across.

I have never met any of them face-to-face.

Welcome to the world of King Cricket.

At first glance – basic design, topical posts, stock images – it looks like just another cricket blog. But peer behind the curtain and you will find so much more.

Established by Alex Bowden in 2006, King Cricket has evolved into a self-sufficient online community, removed from the gibbering indignation and pitchfork-wielding ignorance of social media.

Allow me to introduce you to the gang.

There’s Bert, the wise old guru who sets impenetrable crosswords and is always ready with a rambling anecdote or scathing grammatical critique.

There’s Ged, the die-hard Middlesex fan who provides comprehensive reports of his global travels, accompanied by Benjy the Baritone Ukulele, Ivan the Smart Phone, Charley the Gent and Escamillo Escapillo.

Then there’s Ceci, Balladeer, Daneel, Mike, Bradders, Howe, Miriam, and of course Uncle J-Rod, who despite ascending to global media stardom still pops back occasionally to rub shoulders with the peasants.

I realise this probably isn’t making much sense. I sound like a wide-eyed fresher on his first trip home from uni, ranting to his parents about the zany antics of his new-found chums. Indulge me a little longer.

The rules of the room are fairly loose, but here are a few principles you must follow in order to become a full member:

An undying devotion to former Kent captain Robert Key.

Mild indifference to Warwickshire batsman Ian Bell.

A fundamental belief in the primacy and romance of Test cricket.

Deep loathing of ex-ECB chairman Giles Clarke.

A healthy dose of misanthropy and scepticism.

An appreciation of a rudimental Venn diagram.

A passion for the art of pedantry.

A penchant for a tortured pun.

Once a post entitled ‘West Indian cricketer name generator’ – take your mother’s maiden name and the town of your birth – attracted 120 comments. That was a good day.

Regular features include ‘Lord Megachief of Gold’, ‘Cricket bats pictured in unusual places’, ‘Matthew Hayden watch’ and many more.

We share jokes about grammar, science, mathematics, fallacies of logic, arthouse cinema, and everything in between.

Just last week, there was a thread about the precise definition of the word ‘amortise’, which sparked an in-joke about Just for Men hair dye, which led to Ged referencing Chico Marx.

The following day I found a group swapping puns based around the Italian bread Focaccia.

The chaos is all expertly orchestrated by Alex, the eponymous King Cricket. (He is at pains to point out that he never gave himself the title, but it has stuck nonetheless.)

His pithy posts are perfectly pitched, mixing anger, cynicism and on-the-nose analysis with baffling surrealism and jokes about ankylosing spondylitis.

He is not afraid to make a hard-hitting point about politics, governance or corruption, but will happily follow up with a picture of a cat looking conspicuously indifferent to a cricket book.

Above all he has an uncanny ability to say what we’re all thinking, without appearing to ever be trying very hard. He writes as both serious cricket journalist and ordinary fan.

If there were any justice in the world, he would be writing for a broadsheet newspaper or running the ICC.

But I doubt he would last very long, due to his tendency to describe himself as “largely unarsed”.

Although I was massive geek in my youth, I never quite embraced my geekiness until now.

Discovering King Cricket was like finding the friendship group I never had.

We tease, but it’s never spiteful. We listen to each other’s stories and share a genuine passion for our chosen sport and, more importantly, everything surrounding it.

Three years ago, Alex wrote a post asking why we keep coming back and whether the site is worthwhile.

The replies – all 199 of them – were heartfelt and largely free from the usual wisecracking irony.

The final word must go to veteran commenter Bert, posting in that same thread.

“Some of the funniest things I have ever read are on here,” he said.

“There is always that sense of sitting at the match, mid-afternoon, slightly pissed, talking drivel with friends.

“Sometimes you laugh, sometimes they laugh, sometimes they just stare at you and cough gently before changing the subject. It’s hard to explain, but the cricket is central to this, without being dominant.

“That’s what makes this website different from Twitter. The article sets the scene; everything else hangs from it, even if the link seems occasionally tenuous.

“It doesn’t have to be long, or insightful, or even right. But it does have to be there.

“The cats know this. They’re not merely indifferent – they’re indifferent to cricket, which is not the same.”

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New memories and a familiar feeling

by Sam Blackledge

The cry echoed around the Nursery End toilets, bouncing off porcelain urinals. “Warwickshire, la la la. Warwickshire, la la la.”

Trott carried on, oblivious to the merriment. Scratch. Fiddle. Grimace. Flick to leg.

Returning to my seat in the lower Edrich stand, I realised I could relax. The job was nearly done.

 

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I can’t write about September 4, 1993 any more. Nostalgia is all well and good, but if you keep looking back you might trip over your own feet. A generation has passed; it’s time for new memories to be made.

Journalist Emma John tells of the “coming of age moment” when she crossed over into adulthood.

After years of being taken to cricket matches by her mum, one day she bought their tickets and made the arrangements herself.

Twenty-three years had passed since my first Lord’s final; 11 years since my last. Marriages, divorces, house moves and babies peppered the intervening period, but cricket carried on in the background like a familiar song at a tense family wedding.

 

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Surrey got off to a flyer, pinging long-hops and half-volleys to the boundary at will. Please not today, I thought. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. We need a win.

With the score on 45, Jason Roy took a couple of steps down the pitch and creamed a short-armed pull. Laurie Evans dived full length to his right and plucked the ball from the air.

We jumped up, cheese sandwiches and Country Slices flying in all directions.

A few minutes later Steven Davies was stumped down the leg side. Sangakkara appeared to be booking in for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but then he edged behind off Hannon-Dalby, sparking the sort of collapse usually only seen on eroding Cornish clifftops.

I’d packed a couple of beers, having carefully checked the Home of Cricket‘s strict alcohol allowance, and produced them when the fifth wicket fell.

I’d even remembered a bottle opener, the sort of detail which would have eluded me in years gone by when I was pretending to be a grown-up.

 

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Days like this always hit a natural peak. I went out after the match and had a few too many drinks which, mixed with exhaustion and adrenaline, took their toll in a mediocre curry house near Vauxhall.

The high point was probably during the second innings, Trott and Bell strolling towards their modest target, victory all but assured.

I laughed as a familiar feeling returned, like catching a whiff of a long-lost memory. Childhood Christmases; chalk on classroom blackboards; sunny days at the beach.

Later on, picking over how the final was won and lost, a journalist friend told me there had been rumours of disharmony within the Warwickshire camp.

“I reckon you needed that,” he said. I smiled to myself and nodded back. “I think you’re right. We did.”

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Once a Bear, always a Bear

Here’s a handy tip. If you are planning to break down on the M5 in the middle of an almighty rainstorm on a Bank Holiday Monday, try not to do it when there’s a vomiting pregnant lady in your passenger seat. It really takes the gloss off that winning feeling.

Let me start at the beginning. It’s September 4th, 1993. An eight-year-old boy is in the top tier of the Warner Stand at Lord’s, peering through the gloom to make out the figure of Roger Twose spooning the ball over cover point. Minutes later Dermot Reeve lifts the NatWest trophy, sparking a lifelong obsession with Warwickshire County Cricket Club.

Fast forward to August 2014. The little lad looks on as another piece of silverware, sponsored by that very same bank, is raised aloft by Varun Chopra on a soaking plastic podium in a soggy corner of a freezing Edgbaston. The time is approaching 10pm. The crowd have been waiting for this moment for more than 12 hours. For the little lad, it is more like 21 years.

IMG_3701People talk about memories fading over time, growing blurred and out of focus. But back when my love for cricket was taking shape, long before HD TV, everything was happening in technicolour and surround-sound. I would pore over programmes, scorecards and autographs, absorbing every detail, feeling every crack of willow, every bead of sweat. In the 1993 semi-final, Reeve collided head-on with Somerset keeper Piran Holloway, leaving them both flat out on the square. I wasn’t there and I’m not sure I even watched it on TV, but I can still hear the ringing in my ears.

The glory years are well documented. Woolmer the mastermind, Reeve the talisman; Donald the enforcer, Lara the genius. Loyal journeymen like Small, Munton, Moles, Ostler, Penney and Piper. The champagne kept flowing and the trophies kept coming. As the team song went, wailed out of tune to ‘Perfect’ by Fairground Attraction, “It has to be…Warwick!”

The descent was quick and painful. Nick Knight dragged us through the turn of the century on willpower alone. In 2000, as we lost a rain-affected Lord’s final to Gloucestershire, we roared Donald on as he cupped his ears provocatively to the Edrich stand. It felt like the noise would make Old Father Time fall off his plinth. Watching it back on TV we could barely be heard.

I lost interest as I moved away to become a student, frowning wearily at online scorecards as a succession of captains tried and failed to establish a new identity for the club. There were moments of light – Championships in 2004 and 2012, a one-day trophy in 2010 – but my passion was fading. I had discovered drama and girls and guitars and snakebite, and later work and trains and smart trousers. There was no room for cricket.

IMG_3707I have never cared much for national identity. I don’t revel in England’s green and pleasant land, extol the virtues of a full English breakfast or grow misty-eyed at half-imagined memories of Shakespeare, Churchill or Princess Diana. I’m not familiar with the furthest branches of my family tree, and don’t have much desire to go digging for its roots. Since leaving Birmingham I have moved around a lot, every trip back to the Midlands just a smoggy reminder of awkward pubescence. I was almost embarrassed to call it my home.

I will turn 30 in a few months, and now realise I have measured out more than two-thirds of my life through cricket. On Saturday morning I drove my wife and unborn child to Edgbaston and parked in the very same spot my dad used when he took me to my first Test Match in 1991. It was a thumping victory for West Indies over an England team featuring Ramprakash, Lewis, DeFreitas, Hick and Atherton. The programme is available on Ebay, but I don’t need it. It was all ingrained into my six-year-old head.

IMG_3705I don’t remember much about what happened on Saturday evening. I watched most of the final through my fingers, squinting anxiously at the required run rate more often than the action itself. Flintoff hit two sixes and everyone around us went nuts. They saw the headlines. The journalist in me admitted what a story it would be. I sank in my seat. But he couldn’t finish it off, and then it was over.

Fireworks exploded at the city end. We elbowed our way round to the blue spaceship where the crumbling old pavilion used to be. Back in the day we would run on to the pitch and look up as a sweat-drenched Reeve – he always looked exhausted, whatever his role in the match – celebrated another triumph. They don’t do balconies anymore. Now they do selfies. I got one with William Porterfield. I wanted to grab the trophy and run away. Instead I patted him on the shoulder and muttered “Well played”.

I left empty-handed but for a bundle of programmes, a memory card full of fuzzy photographs and a sore head. On the journey home to Cornwall we came to a juddering halt somewhere between Bridgewater and Taunton, a pair of old plastic Lidl bags bearing the full brunt of my wife’s morning sickness. “Don’t worry,” she gasped between heaves, shivering on the hard shoulder. “At least the Bears won.”

IMG_3715This was about more than just another game of cricket. This was my childhood, my heritage, the little lad rediscovering a lost treasure. People love to disparage my home city, and there was a time when I would have joined in with them. Now I want to puff out my chest and defend its honour. Whatever name they attach to the team, it doesn’t matter. I want to wrap that bear and ragged staff in my arms and protect him from the world. You don’t have to be a trained psychologist to work out the hidden meaning. Witnessing your team winning a trophy as an eight-year-old is impressive. Not many people can claim to have done so at the age of minus six months. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many. Come on you Bears.

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Ronald and me

CRICKET England 9THE obituaries, whenever they come, may begin in similar fashion. Born in the West Midlands in the 1980s and brought up in Birmingham, he developed a love of cricket at a young age. A determined individual with a baby-faced complexion, his worst enemy was his own self-doubt. It turns out Ian Bell and I have a few things in common. Unfortunately that’s where the comparisons end. Bell is now the 12th man to play 100 Test Matches for England. At the time of writing, I haven’t even played one.

Every cricket lover has a few heroes, but die-hard fans develop much deeper and more complex relationships with the men in the middle. Bell made his first class debut at the age of 17, three years older than me, as Warwickshire began to emerge from an almighty hangover following the champagne-drenched success of the mid-90s. It was clear that Bell had all the talent, but in a narrative that would become familiar to England fans a decade later, it was a frustrating beginning. I would sit in the members’ stand at Edgbaston watching him compile the most technically correct 20-odd before nicking a length ball outside off stump to the keeper. It became a bit of a running joke, almost as if he was embarrassed to possess so much talent and didn’t quite know how to use it.

As Bell became established the inevitable England calls came, but he never seemed to rack up a huge weight of championship runs, relying more on his potential. Praise offered to youngsters early in their career can often end up as an albatross – in a quote so often cited that it may not even be accurate, the one and only Dayle Hadlee said Bell was “the best 16-year-old I’ve ever seen.” If Dayle has not dined out enough on tales of backyard cricket with younger brother Richard, the bars of Christchurch will surely echo to the tune of ‘I told you so’ long after Bell finally hangs up his pads.

Our man shuffled nervously on to the international stage in 2004 and endured a well-documented struggle in the following summer’s Ashes, a timid new boy in the playground, out-thought and out-fought by the big bad Australian bullies. Many things would have been different if England had lost that series, not least that Bell may have disappeared back into the Edgbaston shadows like so many before him. Jim Troughton, anyone?

Over the next few years I grew up, morphing from a timid teen into a slightly less timid 20-something. University, the clichéd move to London, the first office job, the burgeoning relationship. I followed Bell’s progress from afar as he went through his own growing pains, glad that I didn’t have an army of angry fans venting their spleen online every time I slipped up.

So much of what I saw in the development of Ian Bell, I saw in myself. The puffed-out chest, the ill-conceived attempt to grow a little beard; transparent attempts to become a man, to impose himself on a world which was scary but which he so badly wanted to conquer. He couldn’t rid himself of the Brummie accent or the shy interview demeanour, but he knew he had the talent and backed himself to reach his goal.

Cricket - Second Test - Day Three - Bangladesh v England - Shere Bangla National StadiumSlowly but surely, almost unnoticed amid the management hokey-cokey and Pietersen histrionics, he became a senior player. He even won the fans round, shedding the ‘Sherminator’ tag and gaining the much more glorious moniker ‘The Sledgehammer of Eternal Justice’. My friends and I still refer to him simply as ‘Ronald’ (as in ‘sounds familiar’: ‘it rings a Ronald’), his middle name and a strangely fitting epithet for a man who, despite the fact that he will be remembered as one of the most gifted sportsmen of his generation, is still just a kid from Coventry made good.

Last summer, as he took a break between the Champions Trophy final and a career-defining Ashes series, I saw Bell visiting his teammates at a Warwickshire second XI match. He arrived in a pricey-looking 4×4, accompanied by his wife and young son and exuding a palpable aura. His mere presence prompted awed whispers and impressive glances from the sparse crowd.

There was no denying it – the young Bear had become a superstar.

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Blasting off with chinos, chuckers and dodgy tins

T20 evening league
Menheniot-Looe (96-7) beat Teachers (about 70-7) by about 20 runs

On June 6 1994 I was sitting in the old members’ stand at Edgbaston, watching an innings which defied history and defined a generation. I was nine years old, and scarcely able to comprehend what was unfolding in front of me. Warwickshire’s Brian Lara was racing through the 400s, on his way to the first class world record which may never be beaten.

The moment he smashed the final ball of the match through the covers will be replayed and revisited for years to come. How wonderful for a young lad with a growing obsession with the game to witness such a historic moment. Unfortunately, I missed it. With Lara getting ever closer to the record, we had to leave because my younger sister had a piano lesson. I have never forgiven her.

The iconic image shows an exhausted Lara, arms aloft and bloodshot eyes squinting into the sun, the city end tins in the background showing numbers that have never been seen before or since.

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20 years later it seemed strangely fitting that my first victory of the season should finish with two teams exchanging sleepy handshakes in front of a broken scoreboard. Menheniot-Looe had definitely won this T20 evening league fixture against Teachers at Liskeard, but nobody was quite sure how, or by how many.

We batted first on an old fashioned sticky wicket. It was one of those surfaces where the bowler lets go of the ball and you have time for a cup of tea, a browse through the papers and a little snooze before selecting your shot. Our top order found it hard going, but thankfully Kieran’s unbeaten 30 – the maximum individual score in this format is some way off Lara’s 501 – helped us to a competitive score.

I joined Kieran just before he retired and shared a couple more partnerships with James and Malcolm. I faced a spell from one of their bowlers which was unlike anything I have ever seen before. Dressed in a black jumper and cream chinos, he ambled up to the wicket, paused, put his weight on to the wrong leg and hurled the ball in the vague direction of the other end. When cricketers talk about someone ‘chucking’, they usually mean he’s got a slightly bent arm. This guy actually threw it like he was either attempting a run-out or trying to cause an injury. Safe to say, most of his balls missed the target; he bowled five wides in a row before I managed to reach one. But when someone like that turns up your priority as a batsman is to avoid the embarrassment of getting out.

He was soon replaced with our own Zac, playing for the opposition as they were one man short. Having just got used to their gentle dobbers, Zac had that extra bit of pace and wasn’t offering any friendly looseners to his mates. He skidded one through to trap me LBW and then clean bowled our skipper Bill, leaping into the air in celebration. We wondered whether he knew which side he was on.

Our bowlers were much stronger than theirs for the most part. Kiwi Phil, the club’s new overseas player who has already inflicted a few bruises in the nets, bowled off a short run but was still too quick for the Teachers batsmen. Third team stalwarts Charlotte, Tom and Helena pinned them down, and I creaked my way through a couple of overs without causing too much damage.

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It was strange playing 20 overs a side. I felt I didn’t have enough time to stop and think. This can be an advantage – I enjoyed pushing the fielders for quick singles when I was at the crease – but things moved very quickly in the field. I tried to help Bill out with his field placings, which looks easy on TV but is much harder when you can’t see the big picture. When I came on to bowl I stupidly didn’t measure my run up properly and tried to race through my action. I hope more experience will bring less haste.

The general air of uncertainty wasn’t helped by the fact that the rickety old scoreboard collapsed and died while we were in the field. We were never quite sure how many runs, wickets or overs had passed, which I suppose I just adds to the unpredictability of short form cricket. Perhaps they should introduce it to the NatWest T20 Blast. “What’s the score, ump?” “No idea, lad. Just give it a whack and hope for the best.”

Sam Blackledge

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Back in the game: returning to the strange world of village cricket

by Sam Blackledge

I AM a journalist. I spend my days making phone calls, chasing stories, following tip-offs and generally making a nuisance of myself. It is an exhausting, exhilarating and all-consuming profession, leaving very little time for anything else. But last year I decided I needed a hobby, something to take my mind off the daily grind. So I joined my local cricket club.

As a teenager I was a decent player. From the age of about 12 I would go up against senior teams, men three times my age and twice my size, and every now and then my looping legspin would get the better of them. It certainly bamboozled my peers when I played for my school team.

I had tentative trials for Warwickshire but drifted away from the game as other interests took over – college, university, relationships and then the world of work. When the 2011 season started, more than ten years had passed since I last hung up my whites.

The first net sessions were eye-opening. Though my passion for cricket had remained strong since I stopped playing, I had forgotten about the senses of the game. The hot, sweaty smells of kit bags, the echoing acoustics of the indoor school, the weight of the bat, the hardness of the ball. Everything was alien, like relearning a language I had been listening to all along.

As a naturally shy person, banter has never been my strong point, and sports clubs are not the most welcoming environments for people like me. I decided fairly early on to keep my head down, concentrate on my cricket, and made half-hearted attempts at small talk whenever the need arose.

Quickly realising I no longer had the control to bowl leggies, I switched to offspin, although there was precious little spin as I struggled with my action when practice moved outdoors. As a schoolboy it took all my effort and concentration just to get the ball down the other end. But now taller, older and uglier, I was dishing up all sorts of rubbish, unable to find my radar or settle into a rhythm.

My first match came along soon enough, a friendly fixture for the Sunday team, and I was a bag of nerves as we fielded first. No matter how much you practise, nothing can prepare you for the moment when you are standing at mid-off and a ball is cracked in your direction. Time slows down and speeds up all at once. It’s fight or flight. Every bit of my instinct was screaming: “Hard ball. Very fast. Get out of the way.”

To simply move, of course, would spell disaster. Quite apart from conceding a boundary, I would have been marked out as a problem fielder, a weak link to be hidden away. All these thoughts were racing through my head when the ball slammed into my ankle, looped behind me and the batsmen scampered a single.

Over the next few months things got slightly easier. My first wicket came with a neat caught-behind in my second game, and I celebrated a bit too enthusiastically. I soon realised that no one really celebrates on Sundays. Towards the end of the season we arrived for a Sunday home game to find one of the opposition players warming up by running around the boundary. Our laidback captain looked on, incredulous. “What’s he doing?” he spluttered. “It’s Sunday.”

My bowling was improving in fits and starts, but batting was a different matter. I scored seven runs, with a top score of 5, at an average of 2.33. Chris Martin, eat your heart out.

Many cricketers claim that they can remember every shot, every run and every moment of their greatest innings. I never quite believed it, thinking the statistical detail of their autobiographies came not from memory but from carefully studying the pages of Wisden. Now I am beginning to catch on.

That glorious 5 – a career best – came in my only match for the Saturday second team. It was a warm afternoon, FA Cup final day, and we endured a crushing away defeat – conceding 278 and managing just 106 in reply. I came in at No. 10, with the game in its final throes, the opposition’s two spinners bowling in tandem, and survived 27 balls before being caught at silly point.

It was great fun and summed up everything I love about the game. Nothing seemed to matter – the hopeless match situation, the fact I hardly knew which end of the bat to hold, the agonising cramp in my legs from 50 overs in the field – and yet it mattered more than anything else. I was in my own little world, battling my demons, playing a sport I cherish and that I had thought I would never play again.

After a couple more wickets, a shocking dropped catch and a fair bit of rain, the season ended. My statistics tell the story of an expensive part-time bowler and tail-end batsman with a tendency to get out clean-bowled. But my memories are of so much more than that.

I recently returned to winter nets ahead of the coming season. It is still awkward, terrifying and challenging. My bowling is slightly better, my batting seems to be getting worse. I still have trouble working up the courage to talk to anyone. But it’s great fun. I’m doing it for my 12-year-old self. I think he would be proud.

This piece first appeared at Cricinfo.

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