Saturday 24 March 2012

Tale Of The Tubs

The Irish cricket team? Live on national television? On a Saturday afternoon? Whatever next?

While we hardy cricket fans clinging to this wet rock on the Atlantic fringe raise our hats in gratitude to Setanta Ireland for taking such a bold step (and also to RTÉ for showing half-hour highlights packages this week), the broadcaster must have been equally delighted that Ireland and Afghanistan provided such brilliant entertainment in what could have been a disappointing, spuriously-billed ‘final’ to the T20 World Cup qualifying tournament.

Despite both teams having already qualified for the finals – Ireland by beating Namibia in the morning and hence going into their second crucial, high-pressure game in one day – and the only prize at stake at the end of an exhausting tournament being a place in a slightly less difficult group, they managed to produce an absorbing, pulsating match of the highest quality that fizzed along from start to finish.

Karim Sadiq depositing Boyd Rankin – probably the tournament’s best bowler - into the stands for six from the very first ball of the match (and subsequently being bowled by Rankin via his own head), set the tone for a game that would be dominated so fully by two batsman, Mohammad Shahzad and Paul Stirling that it was almost the first ever instance of a cricket singles match.

Both look unlikely cricketers, particularly Shahzad. Short and tubby, this pint-sized Obelix in a helmet that looks set to slip down over his eyes at any moment clumps inelegantly about the crease like a small boy wearing his dad’s pads. He runs as if he’s borrowed somebody else’s legs, his facial expression varies only between distraught and agonised and his running between the wickets is so chaotic that he gets more withering glares from his batting partners than he does from the bowlers he thumps to the boundary.

It shouldn’t work. It just shouldn’t work. But what an extraordinary batsman he is.

Once the ball leaves the bowler’s hand Shazad's personal cloud of chaos evaporates: one shot off Rankin, a controlled, open-faced clip that rocketed to the backward point boundary was one of the shots of the tournament. His brilliant 77 from 57 deliveries out of a total of 152-7 was the Afghans’ only individual score above the teens.

He has no fear either: when he collided with the giant Trent Johnston, almost exactly twice his size, while taking a run the commentators suggested both men had been watching the ball. In fact they were both watching each other and neither was going to give way. Shazad may have ended up sprawled on his back, limbs waggling like an upturned beetle, but he’d made his point and this paunchy pugnacious ball of energy and shots should make quite an impression in Sri Lanka.

Stirling, now 21, has lost much of the chubby midriff of his teens and developed a barrel chest in place of the breadbasket, but still has the air about him of a baby-faced, tousle-haired Phil Mitchell. He went into this game having made 153 runs in his previous three innings, coincidentally the exact target Ireland were chasing, and, after William Porterfield had his stumps splayed by the first ball of the innings, high on confidence and in the form of his life he took command of events in much the same manner as Shazad had in the Afghan innings.

His first ball brought four runs with an effortless cover drive that fizzed to the rope, the second was sent with a flick of the wrists to the square leg boundary, his third was sent skimming to the cover boundary after a step away and a blur of the bat - from then on the result was in little doubt.

Big-hitter and rapid-scorer he may be, but Stirling is no slogger: he has a wonderfully assured technique. When he cuts and drives, his head and torso remain perfectly still; all the power comes from his arms and his faultless timing. When he reached his fifty from just 17 balls it was the second fastest half century in the history of T20 internationals. When he and Gary Wilson reached their fifty partnership Stirling had scored 44 of them.

When he finally fell for 79 there was a small moment of panic in the Irish ranks as Kevin O’Brien edged the next delivery to Shazad behind the stumps, but the chippy pugnacity of Wilson and finally the Popeye-forearms of Andrew Poynter saw Ireland through to a hard fought but ultimately deserved win.

It was a match that had everything: brilliant and terrible fielding, breathtaking catches and village green drops, shots both beautiful and agricultural, backslapping smiles and gritted-teeth finger pointing. Most of all though it had two unforgettable individual batting performances that would have graced the final itself.

Ireland and Afghanistan meet again this summer in two one day internationals at Clontarf on 3 and 5 July and a four-day game at Milverton on 9-12 July.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

An Extraordinary Ordinary Man: Remembering Graham Dilley

When I was a small boy I had a poster of Graham Dilley over my bed. He was side-on in his delivery stride; every limb, muscle and sinew as stretched and taut as could be. His head was tilted; only his cheek and that mane of curly blond hair visible. Most notably the only part of him touching the ground was the toe end of his right boot as the picture caught him in that extraordinary slide that prefaced every ball he bowled.

There were other heroes on my wall: Botham, Richards, Willis, Border, Gavaskar, all of them like supermen to a cricket-mad schoolboy, but Graham Dilley had pride of place because he was different. Because I thought he was like me.

He should have been a superman like the others: he had the blond hair, the blue eyes, the good looks, was an England fast bowler, potentially the golden boy of a generation, but there always seemed to be something anchoring Graham Dilley to earth; an ordinariness that kept him in our realm rather than the stratosphere of Botham and Richards.

There was something of us all in Graham Dilley. You wanted him to do well not just for the England cause but because he was somehow one of us; from the small boys like me dreaming of playing for England to the club cricketers standing on street corners on Sunday mornings waiting for their lifts, he was representing every one of us on the biggest stage.

He came from Dartford, just down the road. He played for Kent, as unspectacular a county side as there was at the time. He plodded back to his mark with a heavy-footed gait after every delivery. His bowling action was a coach’s nightmare.

Yet when he thundered in on that long, curved run to the wicket, hair streaming behind him, just fleetingly, just for the split second when his whole body was cocked for delivery, his eyes were fixed on the batsman and his toe slid along the crease, then, then he was a superman.

His slinging action should have been inelegant and unwieldy. Most of it was, to be honest, but just for that fraction of a second when his delivery arm was pulled right back, his left arm pointed at the sky, his head tilted and his whole being was perfectly balanced, the very tip of the toe of his boot the only thing in contact with the earth, then he was beautiful, then he was graceful, then he was a superman.

I’d spend hours trying to emulate that toe-end delivery slide in the back garden, flinging a golf ball down at the trellis in the gathering gloom as blood orange sunsets made skeletons of the trees, ruining plimsolls and more often than not falling flat on my face. I was hoping to feel just a sense of that split second when time seemed to stand still, that moment when Graham Dilley became a superman. It never happened.

It’s probably appropriate that what Graham Dilley is best remembered for is being at the other end in the famous Headingley test of 1981 as Ian Botham clawed England back from the brink of defeat to inspire one of the greatest victories in the history of test cricket. He didn’t look like Graham Dilley - he was batting for one thing, and the mass of blond curls had been somehow subjugated beneath a helmet. He looked awkward and ungainly, but, as Ian Botham said later, he was enjoying himself. He played his shots and his 56 was the cushion between defeat and famous victory.

He was the ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. He was one of us.

Graham Dilley died this morning at the criminally young age of 52 after a short illness. When the conversation turns to great England bowlers it’s usually a while before his name comes up, but to me as a small boy, he was up there with and above the legends.

He was my hero.

He was Graham Dilley, he was all of us, and in that moment caught on the poster above my bed, he ascended from the ordinary to the superhuman. As of this morning, he's in that moment forever.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Self-indulgence Special: What Writing For Wisden Means To Me

As I write this my tux is hanging up in the spare room, all dry-cleaned and spruce. It takes a lot to get me into a tux (and from trying it on I can safely say there’s also now a lot of me to get into a tux) but tomorrow night I’ll be in London wearing the soup and fish on one of the proudest days of my life.

On the bookshelves behind me are three rows of little yellow books. All have the same spine; the only difference is that the year and the edition number rise as you browse from left to right.

I received my first Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack on my thirteenth birthday: on the day I became a teenager I took ownership of my first Wisden. For a cricket mad kid it was like being admitted to the best club in the world. My cricketing exploits would never make its pages - on the not unreasonable grounds that I was crap - but owning a Wisden made you feel like you really belonged to something; that you had a stake in the game.

Wisden is the world’s most famous sports book. Since 1864 it has been the main resource for cricket statistics and the source of some of the best cricket writing around. While moving with the times – Wisden is even on Twitter now – the little yellow book has always stuck to its founding principles and maintained a gravitas and respect that are rare in the modern world.

My Wisden collection now parallels my life: I have one for every year since I was born. The steady progress of yellow spines along the shelves is a useful reminder of one’s mortality; the yellow brick road of existence creeping slowly and inexorably along the shelf of life. Or, you know, something.

There’s currently a space next to the 2010 edition because this year’s Wisden is not published until tomorrow. This is always a time of great anticipation for the cricket fan, but for me the most notable aspect of the 2011 Wisden is that I’ll be in it.


In Wisden.

At the end of last year the editor Scyld Berry e-mailed me out of the blue and asked me to write a piece for the 2011 Almanack. I’ve written a lot of stuff over the years for all sorts of publications and formats and have loved pretty much all of it, but this invitation knocked me, well, for six (apologies, I’m still too overawed to weed out clichés however appropriate they might be).

I replied to Scyld saying yes within around a quarter of a second of his e-mail hitting my inbox, gave out an almost canine yelp of delight, ran to my shelves, started pulling out random editions and leafed frantically through them, briefly examining Sheffield Shield matches from the late seventies and obituaries of men whose entire lives are summed up in a single sentence detailing their three appearances for Northamptonshire in 1954 in which they scored 21 runs and took two catches, and thinking I’m going to be in there, me, I’m going to be in Wisden, until I was sitting cross-legged on the floor surrounded by thick little yellow bricks as if a small yellow house had just collapsed around me.

I can safely say that writing for Wisden is by far the proudest achievement of what I laughably call my career. It doesn’t get better than this. Part of me won’t believe the piece is actually in there until I see it for myself (and even then I still might take a bit of convincing) but tomorrow night I’ll be asphyxiating slowly in a bow tie, spilling gravy down my dress shirt and using all the wrong cutlery at the publication dinner in the legendary Long Room at Lord’s Cricket Ground. The bible of cricket, the holy of cricketing holies and, well, me.

I am not a religious man, but there’s every chance you’ll catch me tomorrow night genuflecting in front of the bust of W.G. Grace.


Because I have a piece in Wisden.

Friday 8 April 2011

"Charge him, sah!" Ireland's first Wisden Cricketer of the Year

At midnight last night Wisden announced its Five Cricketers Of The Year, an annual tradition dragged into the 21st century by the fact that this year there are only four - the fifth would have been one of the Pakistani cricketers banned for spot-fixing cricket matches last summer.

One of the lucky quartet to make the cut is Eoin Morgan, the Irish batsman who has become a key part of the England set-up. However, Morgan is not – as many including me initially suspected - the first Irishman to be selected as one of the cricket bible’s players of the year. In fact he’s not even the first Dubliner. That particular honour goes to the remarkable and eccentric figure of Robert Montagu Poore, one of Wisden’s cricketers of the year in 1900.

Born at Carysfort House in Blackrock, Dublin, on 20 March 1866, Poore showed no interest in cricket until well into his twenties; taking up the game after being posted to India in the army (he would serve in the Boer War and the First World War, eventually becoming a Brigadier-General).

He learned the game by watching matches and studying the Badminton Book “as thoroughly as though he had had to get it up for an examination” according to an interview he gave Cricket magazine, but took to it so well that when stationed in South Africa in 1896 he was selected for the South African team to play against England, appearing in three Test matches.

It wasn’t until he was posted to Britain in 1898 that Poore played in England, but it was the 1899 season that was to make his name and earn him the Wisden accolade. He scored 1,551 runs for Hampshire at an average of 91.23 - including a triple hundred against Somerset – an average not bettered in England until Don Bradman in 1930.

The outbreak of the Boer War curtailed his season and would keep him militarily occupied for the next three years. A badly broken arm in 1902 meant that Poore would not play serious cricket again until 1904 but he would never approached the giddy heights of 1899.

Cricket was just one of his sporting dalliances however: he was one of the finest swordsmen in the army, a gifted polo player and was the West of India tennis champion.

At 6’ 4” Poore certainly stood out, while his insistence on wearing a pith helmet while fielding was just one factor in him being described thus by one cricket writer: "of all the people in the history of the game he seems to stand for the Eccentric Ideal.”

He remained robust and opinionated well into his retirement: when a few years before Poore’s death in 1938 a young cricketer solicited his advice on the best way to face the fearsome pace of Harold Larwood, Poore bellowed, “Charge him, sah! Fix your bayonet and charge him!”

Monday 21 March 2011

Me, My First Test Match And Geoffrey Boycott

I’ve just realised with the dismay of mortality that this summer it will be exactly thirty years since I first went to a Test match.

Prior to that I’d only ever seen cricket on television, introduced by a perennially windswept gantry-borne Peter West and narrated by the granite Yorkshire tones of Jim Laker. So when my dad announced that he’d secured tickets for the first day of the sixth Test between England and Australia for my eleventh birthday I was beside myself with excitement. For one thing it had been one of the most exciting series in history, lit up by the magnificence of Ian Botham. For another, I was actually going to be there, at the match, a matter of feet away from Botham, Bob Willis, Dennis Lillee, Rodney Marsh and Geoffrey Boycott.

The day couldn’t come around quick enough: when it did I’m pretty sure my dad emerged for breakfast to find me already standing by the front door ready to go, like a dog with a lead in its mouth.

When we got there The Oval, familiar from television, had with the addition of a third dimension been transformed into somewhere utterly magical. The quiet hubbub of conversation as people took their seats in the morning sunshine, the famous gasometers overlooking the ground, the scoreboards set at zero: there was a perspective and a depth I’d never imagined. The colours and sounds, gentle though they were, washed over and around me in way they never had on television.

We found our seats: front row near the pavilion, white plastic tip-ups from which my sandalled feet barely reached the ground. Somewhere a bell rang and umpires Dickie Bird and Barry Meyer strolled onto the field just a few yards from where we sat. So overwhelming was this proximity and so familiar their figures that I had to stop myself waving and calling out, ‘Dickie!’

The England team trotted down the pavilion steps and emerged into the sunshine. There were Bob Willis, Ian Botham and the captain Mike Brearley, his tufty grey hair visible beneath his cap: all my heroes, all so close. Finally the Australian openers Graeme Wood and Martin Kent made their way to the middle, wheeling their arms to loosen the muscles, their baggy green caps vibrant in the south London sunshine.

Willis paced out his run-up ready to deliver the first ball of the match as Wood took guard. From just beyond the mid-on boundary I watched these preliminaries utterly spellbound: it was almost like I’d been let in on a secret ceremony; you were never this intimate with the rhythms of a Test match at home in front of the television.

Dickie Bird held his out his arm as Willis stood at the end of his run, rubbing the new ball lightly against his trousers. The arm dropped, the word ‘play’ drifted to me across the outfield and Willis began his run, legs going like pistons, the ball in his right hand as it trailed behind him, hair streaming back from his forehead as he reached full pace. The crowd was with him, a few cries of ‘come on Bob’ merging and growing into a guttural unified roar as he approached the wicket. A whirl of arms and the dark red ball fizzed out of his hand, Wood offered no stroke and the ball whacked into the gloves of Alan Knott far behind the stumps. The entire ground seemed to exhale.

As it turned out this would be arguably the dullest day’s play of the only dull match of the entire series: the following year’s Wisden would describe it as “more an occasion for the Test match statistician”. There aren’t many people who will remember much about that first day, but for me it will always be far more than the tedious entrée to a long-forgotten draw at the end of a series already won. It was my first day of Test cricket, with its rhythms and rituals and its gentle pace.

I was fascinated by how you’d see the swish of the bat but the woody ‘pock’ of contact would reach you half a second later, I was captivated by the shrinking circle of fielders as they walked in like stalking predators as the bowler ran up, and I was entertained by the banter in the crowd even though I didn’t understand some of the fruitier jokes.

Most of all I was astounded by the unprecedented proximity to greatness, something that midway through the afternoon provided one of the most memorable moments of my childhood.

Geoffrey Boycott came over to field just a few yards from where I sat. Geoffrey Boycott, the closest thing that England team had to a legend if you counted Botham as merely a superhero. Geoffrey Boycott, arguably England’s greatest ever opening batsman. Geoffrey Boycott, in immaculate whites and dark blue England cap, standing there, hands on hips, right in front of me.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Summoning a courage I never knew I possessed, I cupped my hands and called out, “we need a hundred from you tomorrow, Geoffrey”.

As my words died in the air I was instantly mortified. Had I broken a taboo? It wasn’t for the likes of me, a greenhorn, a jabbernowl, a nobody, to address Geoffrey Boycott unbidden, especially during a match. Not only that, addressing him by his first name too. What on earth had I done? Who did I think I was?

The great man slowly turned his head in the direction of this pre-pubescent chirrup. He looked straight at me with the same steely sharpness that faced down the terrifying likes of Dennis Lillee and Michael Holding. I swallowed hard. And then Geoffrey Boycott broke into a gum-chewing grin and winked at me.

When it was eventually England’s turn to bat the following day Boycott would make a flawless 137. At home, watching his innings unfold on the television, it felt as though every run he scored was honouring a promise he’d made to a skinny kid with a squeaky voice and wonky National Health glasses sitting just behind the boundary fence and thinking this was the greatest birthday ever.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

W.G. Grace And Me: The Last Days of The Champion

Everybody knows W.G. Grace. People with no interest in cricket know W.G. Grace. There can be no other sportsperson of any generation as instantly recognisable as the good Doctor – that giant, rotund frame and one of the greatest beards of all time in any field of achievement.

W.G. spent the last five years of his life in a quiet suburb of south-east London. In 1909, when in his early sixties, he'd moved to a large house called Fairmount which was – and is - just across the road from where I went to school. I used to walk past the austere frontage of the building on my way there and on my way home: it was an old people’s home then and twice a day I’d make a point of looking at the blue circular plaque above the porch and think about how lucky I was to pass so close to cricketing immortality.

Except W.G. wasn’t immortal. His achievements might be, his legend certainly is, but by the time he arrived in south-east London that giant frame was in a slow, terminal decline. The famous beard was grey, his features heavy. There was a sadness in his eyes; eyes that had been renowned for their twinkling mischief. In his time at the house he lost his beloved elder brother, E.M. Grace and then his close friend and fellow legendary cricketer Albert Trott to suicide. The Great War troubled him: two of his sons were in the forces and the Zeppelins heading for bombing raids at Woolwich Arsenal passed over his house, a terrifying experience for a population who’d never faced a direct threat from the air before.

With the school so close at hand and with it having a cricket field it’s no surprise that W.G. played there in his dotage. I played my first games of cricket on that same school pitch. I wasn’t very good, but in those early days of trying to keep my bat straight, tongue sticking out of the side of my mouth in concentration, freezing afternoons around the slip cradle and trying desperately to pitch it up, I developed a love for the game that has never dimmed. I made my very first runs and took my first wickets on that pitch. I suffered my first duck on that pitch. I’d bat low down the order for the school and scratch around for the odd run and streaky four off the edge.

One day stands out though; the day I was clapped off the field for the first time. It was after a match-saving sixteen not out on the very same pitch Grace had batted on more than seventy years earlier.

I was about twelve. At the time it was the best feeling of my life and I didn’t want that walk to end. I’d not made a hundred or even fifty, I’d scuffed around making sixteen, but I’d helped to save the game and it felt brilliant. I felt like a cricketer, at last.

The greatest player of all time had walked off the same pitch across the same ground in the golden twilight of the ultimate cricket story. I was far from being even the greatest cricketer on the field that day, but my feet fell in Grace’s footsteps back to the pavilion: where his cricket life had been coming to an end, mine was just beginning.

I’d never scale the same heights, nor even pull on to the approach roads to the foothills, as The Champion, but I like to think that for all his achievements over an unparalleled half century of cricket, his applause had still made him feel as good as mine did that day.

In the dark days of his final years he must have looked forward to those matches. His movements may have been slower, his reactions blunted since his heyday, the games on local fields for and against local clubs not quite as spectacular as test matches against Australia, but as soon as he stepped onto that cricket field the worries and heartbreak must have receded. He must have felt young again. He must have felt just like I did. Like a cricketer.

A little over a year after his last game on that field, his health having deteriorated after a stroke, W.G. died at Fairmount on 23 October 1915.

When I walked past his old house that evening dragging my cricket bag with me, the applause still echoing in my head, I had an extra spring in my sandalled step. I looked up at the blue plaque and nodded to it.

You know, cricketer to cricketer.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

The Sad Swansong Of Harold Turner

It was the most one-sided match in cricket history and I was on the wrong side. However, I don’t remember that day because we nearly pulled off the world's most ill-deserved draw, I remember it because it was the last time I ever saw Harold Turner.

Harold was nearly seventy-five years old when we gathered that day at a gas board sports ground in the depths of Surrey in the depths of the 1980s. He’d played for Totterdown since before the Second World War and was still turning out every week, arriving on his moped wearing his open-face peaked helmet; his ancient brown leather cricket bag strapped across the back of the bike. His bat, circled with thick bands of yellowed tape to protect cracks and splits from long ago, was so old it was stamped with the endorsement signature of Patsy Hendren, a cricketer who’d retired in 1937.

Harold would park himself in the slips - where he’d take the odd catch as long as it came straight at him - and bat at number eleven, where he would block what he could with an effective defensive dab shot of his own devising that dispensed with the need for any footwork at all. He never took a run but nobody minded: Harold Turner's place in the team was there for as long as he wanted it because he was a lovely, lovely man.

On this particular day we fielded first and it was soon clear the opposition were far too good for us. Every shot seemed to find both the middle of the bat and the gaps in the field and by the time the innings closed at tea the gas board had rattled up 275 for the loss of one wicket. Even the wicket was a fluke: a fizzing, arcing, low-trajectory cover drive that was about to fly over the boundary for six when our captain Sid half-heartedly waved his hand at it only to find the ball smacking into his palm and sticking there.

After tea, I opened the batting and watched as wickets fell at the other end with crushing regularity. Just as the last twenty overs were signalled we lost our eighth.

By this time we’d scored ten. Ten. We were 10 for 8 and I was top scorer with two thanks to a streaky edge through the slips. Actually I was second top scorer - there'd been four byes.

My dad walked out to bat and we resolved to leave any ball that would miss the stumps and play only the straight ones in an effort to achieve the most unfair draw in the history of the game. Twenty overs between outright humiliation and, well, outright humiliation combined with daylight robbery.

Time passed slowly and the number of remaining overs on the scoreboard gradually, almost glacially clicked down into single figures. Dad and I shouldered arms at anything we didn’t actually have to play and blocked the rest - as an exercise in concentration and patience it would have been pretty impressive were it not at the arse end of the most humiliating performance in Totterdown’s (and possibly cricket's) history.

We added no runs to the total but runs were irrelevant: we just had to bat out those last overs.

As the setting sun turned the Surrey sky a deep orange and the trees turned into dark silhouettes there were two overs left: we just had to survive twelve balls. Dad faced the first. The bowler thundered in and sent down a delivery on a good length homing in on dad’s middle and off stumps. He didn’t get forward quite enough, the ball struck the bat higher than he’d intended and lobbed in a gentle arc back into the hands of the bowler. There were delighted yells from the gas board team: eighteen overs of stonewalled frustration and now they just needed one more wicket.

As dad headed back into the pavilion, in the fading light I saw a familiar portly figure begin making his way slowly towards the middle. Harold appeared out of the gloaming - his cricket clothes yellowed with age, that ancient bat in his hand - like a ghost from cricket's golden age. I met him at the corner of the square as the fielders resumed their places.

“We can do this, H,” I said, my mouth dry with the tension. Harold brushed back a thin strand of white hair from his forehead and looked at me through eyes that had more than half a century of experience behind them. He’d been in closer finishes than this; he’d made more runs in his lifetime than I ever would.

“I’ll try not to let you down, son,” he said.

I patted him on the back and went back to the non-striker’s end. Harold walked to the wicket, planted his feet either side of the crease and looked up as the tall gangly fast bowler pounded in, whirled his arms and arrowed a good length ball at Harold’s stumps. The old stager performed his trademark dab shot and killed the ball stone dead in front of him. It wasn’t a textbook shot but it was one that Harold had developed as the years advanced and his mobility declined. It served him well.

Just four more balls for Harold to survive and then it would be down to me to see out the last over.

The next two deliveries were wide of the off stump and Harold stood motionless as they passed. Each was greeted with a mass exhale by the fielders. The third ball was straighter and given the Harold Dab.

The bowler thundered in for the last ball of the over, whirled his arms and sent the ball pinging towards Harold’s off stump. To this day I don’t know whether it moved off the seam or a crack in the pitch or what, but instead of meeting Harold’s ancient taped willow in the middle there was an audible snick as the ball flicked its edge. The slips were already leaping into the air when the ball thwacked into the wicket-keeper’s gloves.

All out for 10, we’d lost by 265 runs. Some kind of record for Sunday afternoon cricket surely.

As the umpires removed the bails and the opposition skipped towards the pavilion in a flurry of back-slapping and the throwing of sweaters around shoulders I walked along the pitch to where Harold still stood, leaning on his bat, just staring down at the crease.

“Never mind H,” I said, resting my hand lightly on his shoulder, “that last one moved a long way. Anyone would have snicked it. It was unplayable.” He didn’t say anything, just turned and commenced the long, slow walk back to the pavilion. As septuganerians go Harold was a sprightly one, but on that walk back from the wicket he was suddenly an old man. Something in his gait had changed; something was different. I walked with him, and by the time we reached the dressing room the rest of the team were already changed, in the bar and commencing the submerging of sorrrows in golden fizzy liquid.

I showered and dressed as Harold piled his kit slowly and thoughtfully into his ancient cricket bag. I started collecting the assorted items of club equipment strewn around the room into the big canvas bag in the middle of the floor while Harold sat there looking utterly crestfallen. His eyes were red around the rims.

“I let you down today, son,” he said eventually, looking at the floor.

“Don’t be daft H,” I said, “it wasn’t down to you. They were too good for us and we were rubbish. It’s not your fault, we didn’t deserve anything.”

He said nothing; the only sound was the slow, echoing drip of the shower.

Eventually we walked out of the pavilion together and headed towards the clubhouse. Harold put his bag across the back of his scooter, lashed the bat to it and put his helmet on, looking out at the dark empty field we’d left half an hour or so earlier.

“Not coming for a drink, H?” I said.

“Not today son, no.”


He paused, still looking out at the field.

“I just played my last game for Totterdown.” he said.

“Don’t be daft, H.”

He eased himself onto the scooter and started the engine.

“No, I let you down and I let everyone down. It’s time for me to call it a day.”

Before I could protest further he kicked the scooter off its stand and accelerated across the car park into the gathering darkness. I saw the indicator light winking as he turned out of the gate, illuminating that faithful old bat, and then he was gone.

None of us ever saw Harold again.