Tales of the City: How the empire was won

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At least, I thought, it's a lovely day for a public execution.

At least, I thought, it's a lovely day for a public execution. Cloudless sky, glittery sunshine slamming down on west Dulwich, 82 degrees in the shade according to Radio 4 News. As the taxi groaned through New Cross and Lewisham, I tried to imagine how quickly it would be all over, and whether the humiliation of the event would be worse than the pain...

"I don't know why you're so worried, Dad," said my daughter, who is nine. "You've played cricket lots of times." Indeed I have, child, I said, but that's with you and your siblings. We play with the half-sized bat I had at school, with my name carved into the wood; the bat I used to anoint with linseed oil every Wednesday evening before cricket practice next afternoon, at which I would be ritually dismissed for a duck. "I've never held an adult cricket bat in my hands," I squawked. "Nor faced a real bowler hurling a real cricket ball, as opposed to a tennis ball or a ball of rolled-up newspaper, at my groin like a speeding bullet." She sniffed. "Maybe you can get Mum to write you a note."

I am the least sportive of men. I cannot abide team sports. I have no interest in "winning" and "losing" at games. But I had to do this. My dear friend James is getting married soon and this was his idea of a stag night - or day. The best man had hired the pitch in Greenwich park, rung up 20-odd male guests and asked them to find white flannels and show up on Saturday. Saying no was futile. For the first time, I'd have to play in a whole match, complete with pavilion, sightscreens, sledging, fast bowlers, brain haemorrhage, communal showers, the lot. Most of my co-participants, I learned, would not be effete, unprepared London media types. They were Northern hard-nuts from Liverpool, Birkenhead, the Wirral - places where men grew up bowling huge stones at each other and hitting them for six with enormous clubs stuck through with roofing nails (and that was just the grammar school boys). They knew what they were doing. They probably did it every week, and celebrated victory by chewing raw meat and drinking the blood of the vanquished...

We lost the toss and were put to bat. I was seventh in the batting order, so (I reasoned) I might not even have to perform (under the blazing sun, under the eyes of the Wirral club-wielders) at all. Perhaps the openers would knock up 200 in an hour, and declare. Fat chance. As the London batting side lolled under the sightscreen, listlessly applauding and smoking (all middle-aged cricketers, I discovered, smoke during the game like laboratory beagles), I watched as the openers crashed out for one run, two runs, no runs... The Scouse bowlers were slicing through the Londoners like a scimitar through a spider's web.

Lying seventh in the order no longer seemed a safe option. "Put your pads on, John," said a kind chap called Nick, "and I'll bowl you a few just to get your eye in. You can practice your forward defensive stroke." No I couldn't. I never got that far in cricket practice. All I could do was an Irish-farmboy haymaker slog, which was neither elegant nor defensive...

And suddenly it was showtime. "Now look, John," said James, my captain, in Greyfriars sixth-form tones, "just staying in is more important than getting runs right now. Try and remember that. Good luck", and I walked out, under the broiling sun, to my first-ever grown-up confrontation with a speeding cricket ball. It was pure Nigel Molesworth. The pitch was approximately 3,780 miles from the pavilion. James's words turned into "Block everything, Molesworth, and do not slog. We nede 10 to win."

An hour later, I arrived at the crease. The strip of earth between wickets was as parched as the Sahara (me too). All around, the Liverpool assassins watched, grinning, as the blood drained from my face. They leaned forward as if craning for a better view of the action at Tyburn. I looked at the umpire, the groom's father, a kindly geezer called Ted. His face was impassive. An Easter island statue would have radiated more Christian sympathy. Behind him, a menacing figure in a satanic De Niro beard started lumbering towards me.

Everything suddenly went weirdly still. The fielders were silent, as though listening for an explosion, or for a trapdoor to open. I watched the lumbering bowler as though he were a mirage, dancing in the distant sunlight. And that's when I had a blinding epiphany. Even as the ball came towards me in 100mph slow-mo, I suddenly understood in that second why the British have for centuries taught boys to play cricket, taught them to stand and coolly watch as something amazing comes hurtling towards them - a ball, a shell, a destroyer, a torpedo, a tribe of Zulus, a crowd of rioters in Khartoum - and to stay calm and do something about it, like, pronto.

In my head, a flock of f-words clucked away - and then time restarted and I saw I had swung the bat with something between blind panic and embryonic heroism, and hit the speeding ball with a gratifying wallop. The fielders breathed out. The ragged crew by the sightscreen cheered. The bowler glared. I prodded the pitch cluelessly; but inside I was yelling with exhilaration. Being at the wicket was one of the most frightening experiences of my life (and I still wanted to get out of there fast), but now I understood for the first time about straight bats, and self-reliance, and grace under pressure, and why the whole idea of the British Empire was a natural extension of a national sport.

In the end, the Londoners lost to the unstoppable Scousers. I didn't care. I'd had a violent learning curve in a single afternoon. I'd gone out there as Fotherington-Thomas and returned as Rudyard Kipling...

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