One square-leg umpire can see it all. His long perspective is composed of loafing cricketers, fields, ditches, straining cow-parsley, lugubrious cows. The other square-leg umpire gets to look at loafing cricketers and a red-brick council estate. I am that man, and I have seen that council estate set hard against the boundary's edge in more village cricket grounds than 10 times the number of counting-stones I have in my umpire's coat pocket. I am addicted to cricket.
So is Marcus Berkmann, my captain for the day, who is even now crossing the rope with the purposeful self-possession of a man striding to the middle at Lord's. In his mind, Richie Benaud is saying, "Next man in is Marcus Berkmann. This tenacious right-hander is dismissive of anything dropped short outside the off stump." Berkmann arrives at the wicket, takes guard, hefts his Slazenger and adopts a fierce Gooch-like posture, the toe of his bat up behind his head like a periscope. I jingle my counting- stones anxiously. I do not want to have to give my host out LBW.
But I need not have worried. Berkmann prods a ball dismissively into the off-side field and ambles a single (sleeves rolled to the optimum stylish point half-way up his forearms). Next over he gets a slow, straight ball on a length. He wonders whether to go forward or back, to hit the ball hard or drop it down at his feet and, momentarily but quite visibly, he wonders what his hero Derek "Rags" Randall would have chosen to do in the equivalent situation, facing Dennis Lillee in the memorable 1977 Centenary Test in Melbourne. Then the ball arrives, and Marcus decides in high panic to leave his feet where they are and not play a shot at all. The ball hits the stumps. He is out. He has, however, equalled his top score for the season so far. Marcus Berkmann is completely useless at cricket.
However, he has written a very funny book about it - being useless at cricket, that is, yet hopelessly addicted to it. The book is called Rain Men and it is essential reading for the host of British chaps who have stood at deep midwicket in drizzle and gathering darkness, belly laden with half a hundredweight of rock cakes and a mind to reflect on "the best shot I ever played on a sticky East Anglian wicket in 1976". Rain Men is unconscionably close in provenance to Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, being about the weakness of men in the face of their weaknesses, but it is also an altogether different book, being about cricket not football. A thundering distinction.
"Good heavens, yes," says Berkmann, who is round-faced, faintly posh and indefatigably sunny. "Fever Pitch is mostly about Nick Hornby, a bit about football, a bit about masculinity and a lot about growing up. My book is about cricket."
So that's it, then. To consider football is to consider life by other means, whereas to consider cricket is to affirm that there is a point at which life stops and cricket begins.
Almost but not quite. Cricket, says Berkmann, is by definition a marginal thing in life. To play it and to be obsessed by it is to act weird in the eyes of society. Whereas fixations on football, and its pop-cultural masculinist sibling, music, are acceptable social rites enabling adolescent boys to attach a sense of order and community to a world that is profoundly confusing and lonely, being obsessed with cricket is a deviant activity. Cricket, he says proudly, is esoteric. "It's about the fierce assertion of individuality above all things. Every cricket team is full of odd people who don't fit in."
Berkmann's team was founded at Oxford 15 or so years ago by the young undergraduate Marcus and his speccy friend from school Harry Thompson, both of whom achieved brilliant third-class degrees in their chosen subjects. The team was called the Captain Scott Invitation XI "because Scott is history's most famous runner-up - he did everything in the right spirit but unfortunately was useless". Harry has played in every single match the team has ever had - today's is the 300th. Marcus has greened his creams almost as often, at a career average of three (top score 35, second- top score 10). Between them they "run things", one of them captaining on Sunday, the other on Saturday.
The team is, in its Saturday captain's words, "not so much posh as clever", made up of media chaps, suits and, on occasion, Hugh Grant. Indeed, Berkmann will have none of my suggestion that cricket, by itshistorical glorification of the individual and maverick spirit, is at heart a social institution dedicated to the maintenance of class distinction. "That's rubbish," he says. "And you know it." Yorkshire league cricket teams looking for a side of floppy-coiffed southern wusses to duff up wouldn't even sniff at them. The Scott XI are amiable, slovenly, uncompetitive (except with each other) and, with one or two exceptions, talentless.
Berkmann's own chief area of competition within the team is in not coming bottom of the batting averages. "My main task each year is to identify a possible rival wooden-spoonist and put him in higher up the batting order than is strictly appropriate, so that he gets to face the fast bowlers." The team is also habituated to sending out new batsmen with special instructions to run out team-mates who have been scoring too slowly. "Harry is the most boring batsman in the world," says Berkmann with venom. "He has only one shot and it's a crap one.
"We are generally happier if we lose narrowly than win brilliantly," he continues, dragging his gaze away from the television in the pub in which we sit, which has cricket on. "If we win by six wickets then that means that five players don't get to bat. If we win by nine wickets then there are likely to be lynchings. The point is that everyone should be able to have a go and be useless in his own chosen way."
Captain Scott scrambled to 118 all out in their innings. A poor total against relatively friendly bowling. Lower Quinton meanwhile have nudged and clobbered their way to within two runs of that score for the loss of seven wickets. The end is nigh when the village's hardest-hitting batsman slogs violently at a ball from Bob, Scott's owlish leg-spinner. The ball goes up and up and is out of sight before it starts its journey to earth somewhere in the region between mid-on and the boundary. I am fielding at mid-on.
I turn, I run, I dive as the ball hurtles downwards like a howitzer shell. I fail narrowly to make the catch and graze my elbow nastily on a clump of dandelions. Lower Quinton complete their two runs while the ball is in the air.
We trudge off the field. Harry is consoling. "Bad luck with the dropped catch," he says. "Do you think that if you'd run in a straight line towards the path of the ball, and not zigzagged from side to side, and not thrashed about in the air with your arms, and then put your hands together as the ball fell into them, you might have got closer to holding on to it?" But then Harry would be sympathetic like this because he has to live with being the most boring batsman in the world. Cricket is like that. It brings out the best in all of us.
'Rain Men: the Madness of Cricket' is published by Little, Brown on 15 June (pounds 15.99).Reuse content