Revelling in glorious heritage of participation

It is sometimes said that you know you've hit middle-age when policemen start to look young, in which case I crossed that threshold some years ago.</p>The rather disconcerting stage I appear to have reached now is that generals are starting to look young. Major-General Andrew Ritchie CBE, anyway. He is the head honcho at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and a remarkably fresh-faced fellow. His predecessor, I am told, looked very much like Mr Burns of The Simpsons</b>, which is comforting to know. Generals should have a bit of vintage to them. They really shouldn't look like people you went to school with.</p>Anyway, a week ago yesterday I passed a pleasant 10 minutes or so chatting with General Ritchie in front of the cricket pavilion at Sandhurst. There was a match taking place between the Wanderers, the name by which the Sandhurst staff team is known, and the Padre's XI, a side assembled by Captain Angus MacLeod of the academy's chaplaincy. As an old university friend of the padre, I had been invited to participate. And so it was that I sat, padded up and almost raring to go, when General Ritchie stopped by to watch.</p>It was Heritage Day at Sandhurst, its glorious grounds and venerable buildings open to the public. A military band played, a hot sun stood to attention, the lake sparkled, General Ritchie had every reason to feel proud of the spectacle.</p>Oddly, the spectacle included me. In the Heritage Day publicity, the public were invited to explore the grounds, listen to the band, and "watch a cricket match". A couple of hundred of them duly sat around the boundary, and clapped politely every time a four was scored, which, when I took my turn in the limelight, happened every couple of balls.</p>Alas, I was bowling at that point, rather than batting.</p>Loyal readers might recall that I wrote about my adventures in the Padre's XI this time last summer. Regular cricketer though I was in my youth, I am now a once-a-year merchant, desperately trying to recapture a barely-remembered proficiency. By which I mean a barely-remembered proficiency at getting into my whites. There never was too much of the other kind.</p>But perhaps I am being unfair on myself. After all, in the match last year I took a rather smart catch at second slip, just when the two opening batsmen were beginning to cut loose.</p>I remember the catch vividly, perhaps more vividly than is altogether healthy. The bowler, a wiry young cadet, was pretty quick, and the ball flashed to me at around the height of the navel - if His Generalship will forgive me for using such a word. Miraculously, I got both hands to it, failed to hold it, but then snapped it up again as it headed inexorably earthwards. As all this happened I collapsed to the ground, forced off my feet by a combination of velocity and surprise. The other players gathered around. The skipper, I recall, was laughing.</p>This year I was again posted at second slip, but no chances came. Then I was called on to bowl. I am not an especially fine bowler; my colleague Angus Fraser might even describe me, on a good day, as utterly crap. My stock ball is the slow full-toss on leg stump. Unsurprisingly, I was given a thorough pummelling by the Wanderers opening bat, Major somebody, but with an admirable 50 behind him he attempted one on-drive too many, and was comprehensively bowled. By me.</p>This was almost as exciting as my slip catch last year. I was tempted to pull my shirt over my head, Ravanelli-like, and belt round the boundary taking the plaudits of the crowd. But in the nick of time I realised that it would look cooler not to celebrate too extravagantly, in fact hardly to celebrate at all. I allowed myself a modest smile. The other players crowded round. The skipper, I couldn't help noticing, was laughing again. "How many column inches is that worth?" he asked.</p>Not too many, I hope. I am aware that I might be considered self-indulgent for sharing with you an account of my own sporting exploits (five overs, definitely no maidens, 1 for 43). But one of the joys of sport is that no Test match at Lord's is more important than a third XI match on a dog of a wicket, no football international more meaningful than a Sunday league bottom-of-the-table match... as far as the third XI and the amply-girthed stalwarts of the Sunday league are concerned. In which respect, sport, if the padre will forgive me for saying so, is very much like sex. Kristin Scott-Thomas and Ralph Fiennes might do it more watchably, but spectating is really no substitute for taking part. Especially in front of a general.</p><a href="mailto:b.viner@independent.co.uk">b.viner@independent.co.uk</a> </p>
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