I mentioned on Friday that the village I live in, Limpley Stoke, was about to be involved in a cricket match against the next-door village, Freshford, and it was only by astute footwork that I managed to avoid playing in the game. However, as it was a historic occasion (the two sides have not played each other for many years), I thought the least I could do was go along to watch it, and I am glad I did, as I witnessed something I have never seen before in any cricket match.
As neither Limpley Stoke nor Freshford has its own ground, everyone decamped to the next village down the valley, Monkton Combe, where there is a magnificent cricket arena, framed in the background by a majestic road viaduct. The two captains had agreed beforehand that there were to be certain restrictions in the game: each side to have a maximum of 30 overs, no bowler to bowl more than four overs and any batsman who reached 25 to retire immediately, though he could come back in again later if needed. Clever stuff.
My preoccupation was somewhat different: to find the best place to watch from. If you watch cricket on TV, you will know that the best angle is from behind the bowler, as from there you can see the bowler run up and deliver the ball, and what the batsman does to it, all in the same frame. This doesn't work in real life, because in real life the action is obscured by the bowler and the umpire, and you can't see the batsman. On TV the camera is high enough to see over the bowler's head; in real life you would have to be fifty-foot tall, or sitting in a grandstand, or standing on a majestic road viaduct.
So I went further round the ground until I was watching the action from sideways on, and there I remembered Nick Humpston's theory of cricket-watching which says that if you watch cricket from the side you very often cannot see the ball; all you can see is someone running up and bowling an invisible object and the batsman hitting the invisible object and fielders trying to stop the invisible object. It would be quite possible, goes the Humpston theory, for skilled cricketers to dispense with a ball and mime the entire match, hitting imaginary balls and diving for imaginary catches.
Finally I ended up standing behind the scorer, reckoning that of all people on the field he would know what was going on, and that if he was not in a good position to see, then nobody was. It is years since I had seen a cricket scoring book being used, and I had forgotten the ingenious shorthand used so that on one page you can record what happens to every ball in a whole afternoon of cricket, and it was while I was standing behind him that the extraordinary thing happened.
Limpley Stoke were fielding. The Freshford batsman was facing a new bowler who had not so far bowled, and who was said to be pretty fast. The wicket keeper and the slips went back to a respectful distance and the bowler charged up to the crease. His arm came over, there was a pause, the slips leapt in the air, appealing, and the wicket keeper held the ball triumphantly aloft. The batsman looked confused, as he had not even seen the ball and was sure he hadn't hit it.
And for good reason. There'd been no ball. It was Nick Humpston's theory in action. (Nick himself was fielding at slip, so I suspect he was directly involved.) What had happened was that the wicket keeper had had the ball all the time, and the bowler had mimed his fierce delivery, with the slips and keeper pretending the ball had come through almost too fast to see. It was street theatre on a cricket pitch.
"What happened?" said the scorer. "I didn't see the ball."
"No," said someone who had been in on it. "There wasn't a ball. They were just pretending."
"That's all very well," said the scorer, "but how do I put that down? Is it a wide? Is it a no ball?"
"It's not anything, surely," I said. "If the ball is not bowled, it's no kind of ball at all."
"That seems fair," said the scorer, doubtfully.
Limpley Stoke, for the record, won narrowly by seven runs, but the moment I shall remember is when nothing happened.