Country Matters: My finest hour on an outrageous wicket

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The Independent Online
WITH the national village cricket competition entering its advanced stages - the final will take place at Lord's next month - I hope it will not seem immodest if I recall one or two highlights of my own career on the field.

It was the simultaneous demise of both our fast bowlers that gave me my break. When George went down with piles, and Terry's wife ran away, the lads said, 'Come on, Duffy: you're big enough. Surely you can put down a few a bit quick?'

Until then I had been an off-spinner. When I came to play for the village, I seemed always to be put on when our opponents were 140 for 3, and my craftiest deliveries were despatched into, or beyond, the pond in the shrubbery on the mid-wicket boundary. But bowling fast? The idea had never occurred to me.

Now I took a prodigious run and expended every ounce of strength. The result was less farcical than most of my colleagues had predicted. Once I had calmed down, and slowed down, I found I could bowl at medium pace with just enough meanness and accuracy to annoy batsmen into making mistakes.

My finest hour came as a complete fluke. We were playing away to needle opponents who had an aggressive young slob of a fast bowler. When we arrived, in the middle of a dry spell, it was clear that one end of the wicket had been watered to the consistency of a pudding.

The home side muttered something about a hose having been left on by mistake, but to us it looked suspiciously as though they had doctored the track for the benefit of their speed merchant.

Alas for their stratagems] Our captain won the toss, put them in, and threw me the ball. My first over was routine, but in my second the ball began to behave outrageously. Probably it was vapour rising from the wicket that caused it to veer about so violently: in any event, it became exceedingly elusive.

All I had to do was to let fly in roughly the right direction, and the vapours did the rest. One ball would swing away to the off and cut back inwards off the pitch. The next, delivered with exactly the same action, swung in and cut away.

Soon the home team were twelve for five wickets, all taken by me. 'Well, I'm buggered]' cried their umpire, not once but many times. 'Bloody ridiclus]' he kept saying (that word being reduced in the local argot from four syllables to three). He clearly thought the whole thing was grossly unfair - and so, by God, it was. But as the fault was not ours, we carried on without compunction. 'Serve the bastards right,' muttered my captain as yet another banana delivery found the stumps.

I would have finished with nine for five, had not the slob of a bowler snicked one boundary through his legs. So in the end I had nine for nine. By the time we batted, the moisture had burnt off, leaving the pitch innocuous, and we won a crushing victory.

Village cricket is immensely enjoyable for those who play, but only a moderate spectator sport. Much of the fun depends on the idiosyncrasies of the players, which are well known to the team and to other locals, but not to visiting onlookers, who miss most of the jokes. What stranger, for instance, could have appreciated Old Bert, a simple-minded but loyal supporter, whose cracked, falsetto cackle was much imitated by the boys, but who would astonish them, when they sought to ape him, by deliberately out-cackling the worst of them, higher and crazier than any of them dared go?

'Wassthescore, Roger?' he would ask every few minutes.

'Five hundred and four for

two, Bert,' came the regular reply.

'Cor - thassgood, ainit? Ha-ha-haargh]'

Our field took a bit of knowing, as well. When it was made early this century, a layer of brushwood had been laid out under the topsoil, for drainage purposes. This had compacted and sunk unevenly, leaving the outfield a maze of treacherous undulations, which fetched down many an unwary visitor flat on his face, or caused the oncoming ball to leap up and strike him amidships.

As groundsman, I was much harassed by moles and rabbits from the surrounding common. We never got the better of the moles: attempts at gassing, flooding and flattening them with the roller left them unmoved. With the rabbits, we perfected a technique of suddenly driving on to the ground late on summer nights, with a spotlight and shotgunners mounted in the back of a pick-up truck. Generally we could knock off several as they sprinted for cover - although every now and then our fusillade would flush a courting couple out of the undergrowth.

Our struggles with the ground, as well as with rival clubs, bound us all together with a strong team spirit, which manifested itself especially during away matches. Most of our opponents were close at hand, an echo of the days when the whole side would travel to a match in a single horse-drawn wagon, but ancient feuds put several villages out of bounds. They had, at some stage, behaved so rebarbatively as to render further contact intolerable.

On forays further afield, the team was at its collective chippiest. Once, far down in darkest Wiltshire, we sensed even before the game began that our hosts were above themselves. They began boasting how, the week before, their fast bowlers had shattered the opposition. 'Nobody could touch 'em,' somebody said, whereupon Cyril, our umpire, murmured, 'What were they bowling, then - wides?'. We won that one by a street.

The chief social event of every winter was the Cricket Dinner, held in the village hall. There was never any fear that the evening would be a failure, for it traditionally ended in a riotous singsong. The only difficulty was to find a speaker of sufficient weight and wit.

One year, faute de mieux, I decided to dispense with a speech, and instead read out passages from the classic description of a village match in A G Macdonell's England, Their England. This brought the house down - but not as convulsively as did the man we found for the next year.

How we came across him, I do not remember. He drove all the way from Essex - over two hours - and when he arrived, our hearts sank. He looked, and seemed, extremely dull, and showed no interest in cricket. He ate practically nothing, and drank mineral water.

But the moment he stood up, he was transformed. In seconds he had the place in uproar. People were howling and crying with laughter, clutching at their neighbours for support. Several of the punters fell from their chairs and had to be assisted in the direction of the bar.

For all the essential frivolity of cricket, the club served one worthwhile purpose, in that it created a focus for the village and helped to reunite the community, which had been diluted by the scattering of indigenous families and the invasion of commuters. In my day - not that long ago - we never reached Lord's, or anywhere near it; but we were happy on our own ground, and reckoned that in a quiet way we were doing a bit of good.