Cricket: One devastating delivery and all hope of mastering the art of cricket drained away

MIKE ROWBOTTOM ON problems caused by a word out of place
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The Independent Online
Our foul pipe glistened in the unfamiliar sun. Fractured. But the news was not all bad.

"You can save the gully if you want," said our plumber, leaning well down into the watery trench to display the traditional badge of his trade.

"Oh good," I replied. "That's one good thing."

The gully. I had no idea what it was, but if it could be saved, then, surely, so much the better.

It would have been all right to have left it there. No one would have complained. But the word tugged at me.

Some years earlier, taking part in a cricket match, I had been despatched to the gully by my captain.

For whatever reason, I have always found cricket a difficult sport to get to grips with. Despite study - Sir Leonard Hutton's 1961 publication, aptly entitled Cricket, has been my guide in these matters - important cricketing facts, such as the correct grip for the leg cutter or, for instance, where to stand when sent to the gully, have always eluded me.

I have wondered at times whether this might be psychological, relating perhaps to a traumatic experience in my school fourth year, when, for reasons which have always escaped me, I was selected to open the batting in an inter-form match against my mate Jumbo.

He fancied himself as a fast bowler, and given his natural attributes - 6ft 4in, school 400 metres champion, arms down to his knees - the dreams were not without substance.

As my friend pawed the ground in the middle distance, the entire fourth form of girls arrived at the boundary, dressed for a cross country race.

I did what I knew I had to in the circumstances. I asked for middle and leg. As my batting partner gravely considered the position of my grounded blade - "Left a bit... right a bit... middle" - the words deckchairs and Titanic came into my mind.

Jumbo took a long time arriving, growing bigger and bigger, his long, hippy hair flying up under his school tie bandanna. But it took a very short time for the ball to scatter my wicket after it had left his hand.

Where do you go from there? Well, back to the pavilion, of course. But beyond that, such an event naturally causes one to consider one's future vis-a-vis the sport involved. Plus there was the fact that I had no talent.

Why, given that sad history, I had ever agreed to turn out again in cricket whites is a question I can't answer. A favour for a friend, I think it was.

Given my orders, I began a slow, ambiguous walk towards the wicket. In my mind's eye, I saw the star-bursts of field placing diagrams, with lines leading out from the wicket to marked positions.

Short third man. Deep square leg. Silly mid-off. And the prefacing rebuke of my guide book coming back to me: "In my opinion, there is no excuse for bad fielding."

I kept walking after I passed the wicket, heading, as I thought, for somewhere quite far behind it. Or was that third man?

When I was brusquely summoned by team-mates to join them near the stumps - mental note: gully stands with the slip fielders - I carried on a little further, as if checking an irregularity in the pitch which had been bothering me. But in my heart I knew I was safe.

It has come up again, that word.

If it is the mark of a truly good footballer that they always seem to have time, I fall into the other category. When the ball arrives at my feet, I am playing pass the parcel with something that ticks.

The ticking becomes louder with fatigue. At that stage of the game when you feel tiredness in your legs - in my case, about 20 minutes after kick- off - the need not to fail, rather than to succeed, becomes paramount.

After sending the ball on a feeble arc towards some jostled team-mate, you feel a shameful sense of relief. "You deal with it. I'm knackered."

Then the ball comes back to you.

At such moments, players like Danny O'Shea have been invaluable. Bow- legged, approaching 50, this grizzled veteran of semi-professional football still regarded attempts to dispossess him as a personal affront.

He had the power to demoralise from long distance. As some powerfully built athlete bore down upon you with a weaving run, Danny would shout out: "He's going nowhere" with such deep contempt that the incoming forward would visibly shrink and check, doubts about his real worth already beginning to assail him.

But not all of Danny's hoarse injunctions were as effective. Legs buckling with fatigue towards the end of one grudge match, I found myself in anxious charge of the ball with opponents moving in from all sides. What to do? Where to...

A familiar voice barked. "Mick! In the gully! In the gully!" The gully. Yes. The gully. Where was the gully exactly? Sort of, inside-left position, or...? I gave the ball back to Danny.

As I stood surveying the unearthed contents of my driveway, I considered how ignorance, or reluctance to disclose a lack of knowledge, had hindered me over the years, and how it needn't have been that way.

So I asked the plumber about the gully. It was the big concrete thing.