OK. Here goes. A post I’ve wanted to write for a while, on a subject that was a staple before HDWLIA “made it” , and which gets to the essence of my cricketing soul. I was a really ordinary cricketer, and I knew it. But I wanted to play. This week, those memories matter. It’s personal, so a lot of “I” in it, but I hope people recognise their own experiences, the people along the way. Please share those memories.
It has certainly been an interesting past few days in the cricket world. The One Day Series passed off as a 2-2 draw, not really satisfying the England fans as to the likelihood of winning the World Cup, but also not as bad as is being portrayed. Elsewhere New Zealand took care of business against Bangladesh in the first test, and there are various other limited overs internationals around. England are playing a T20 series that somewhat gives the lie to the need for context and quality to drive future engagement. It is pretty much passing the people by.
But what has dominated the airwaves, and certainly on here (readership – more than 3) since late last week is the debate over the future of English cricket and the role clubs have to play in that future. Which is awfully nice because for all the time I played club cricket, the authorities, international and county cricket players, and former internationals saw club cricket as an outlet for benefit functions, or roles as after dinner speakers at our annual do. They certainly didn’t bother us, and frankly, we were never going to bother them. They had their world, we had ours. We certainly never played to become something. We were a very small part of the recreational game.
The article written by Chris at the weekend has certainly caught the attention of a lot of people, Trying to follow it is a nigh on impossible task. But I’ll give it a go. I thought I’d give my experience of what it meant to play the game at a truly recreational level, the importance it had on my life, the joy and pain it brought, and how the attacks on it by the likes of Nasser, and the misguided, unbalanced nonsense, (and yes, Harry, if you deign to read this, I mean nonsense), have on an ordinary cricket fan and former below ordinary cricketer. In doing so, I relate to my experiences of cricket in South London, urban, congested space, many diversions on time, and I’d argue less cohesive. There are key differences between our club and those in villages, smaller communities and leagues. No one size fits all. This matters too.
Let me get one thing straight from the outset. I wasn’t a very good player, and have no delusions about my own competence. I didn’t play league cricket. My club played timed games when we were at home, and limited overs if that was the preferred format of the home team. We were a bunch of “Old Boys” (my team was linked to a school) plus their mates (I was the latter) who played Saturday games against the lower echelons of the region’s club teams (say a 3rd or 4th XI) or fellow non-league clubs, and on Sundays played friendlies, sometimes against quite decent opposition. We went down from one Saturday team and two Sunday, to, by the end of our club’s time, one Sunday team.
We often played some of the schoolboys in the team, but the desire from promising schoolkids then wasn’t to play T20, but to play league cricket – we lost one really decent prospect, but we were never going to keep him. We felt that playing league cricket would tear our club apart, so we never did it. We quite often played teams from clubs who played their “colts”, providing some adult development to younger players (we once played against a young Daniel Bell-Drummond). From our perspective, as the team’s core got older, so players dropped away. I stopped playing every week in 2004, and when my parents passed away in successive years, any appearances were fewer and further between. By 2007 I’d pretty much stopped playing club cricket. It could never be an outlet for my grief and adaptation to life without two of my core influences.
A damaged shoulder and a general lack of fitness in the late 00’s spelled the beginning of the end for the remaining work games. Playing in one where the opposition opener hit our very tame attack for 189 not out and walked off as if he was a world great, was another sign – I hated him, I hated being there. I was never a fan of fielding. That was my last 40 over game.
Now the thought of the pain of the days after playing terrifies the life out of me. It hurt enough when I was younger. Now I’m nearly ready to lift my bat up for reaching an age milestone, it sounds like the worst torture or pain could ensue – and horror stories from mates still trying act as a warning. I imagine a pain akin to the gout I came down with after I cracked the Sunday 1sts with a great innings (for me), and meant the rest of 1994 was a disaster of injury, pain and chronic loss of form.
I was a keen street-cricketer as a kid. We improvised, made local rules, had stumps consisting of post on a building, or bollards. The row into my house could double as a net. No cricket is played on my estate now. And it’s not to do with the proliferation of cars. It’s because the game is not visible. This has nothing to do with T20, or the Hundred. It’s not confined to cricket, but football isn’t played much now, like we did.
I wasn’t very good at school. I was a blocker. I had no real power. I could hit a pull shot, but all my attempts at cover drives or off drives, or even going over the top, seemed to have me holing out at mid-off or cover. I could hit a pull shot. I could block faster bowling. I hated fielding. I didn’t bowl very often. For that reason I was obviously our team’s opening batsman. I once wrote, what I think is one of the best cricket pieces I’ve written, about a traumatic game in 1982. If I get the time, I’ll link it on the Extra Bits. I got my first proper golden duck, and it resulted in carnage. I’ll definitely link it later.
I played in my year side until 15. In the second year, we won one game. In the third year we won one game (and I missed it due to a wedding). In the fourth year we improved into a really nice unit, just in time to be broken up for the 1st and 2nd XI teams in the fifth year. I got into the school 2nd XI in my fifth year, but playing against older players was not what I needed with my limited game. One memory from that does stick out. We played a match on a Saturday afternoon, we were bowled out for 36, and yours truly had opened the batting and finished 11 not out. My reward? I was dropped the following week. I was at a fee paying school, most famous for producing, if that’s the word, the chairman of Crystal Palace, the current Conservative Vice-Chairman and Gary Bushell. Hardly Eton. I was raised in Deptford and lived on a council estate for 40 years. I’m hardly Little Lord Fauntleroy.
The love of the game did not die, and instead I turned to scoring. I think I’m still the only schoolboy from my alma mater receiving full colours (the top honour) just for scoring – this makes me odd in Chris’s book, and he’s probably right. I was pretty good, which might be scary. I had a system sort of based on Bill Frindall’s, but without his concentration span, but I was decent enough. I once got to do it for England Schools (South) in a game including Mark Ealham, Nigel Llong, Johnny Longley, Mark Alleyne and Paul Farbrace – Nigel Llong I’d met before – he was a really good bloke. I can’t be sure, but I also think Chris Lewis also played.
Contrary to normal school life, as the overweight one, I wasn’t taken the Michael out of, I wasn’t abused or ribbed, by my cricket mates. The batsmen loved their radial scorecharts for the hundreds and I felt part of the team while being the one who never played. Some were good friends at the time. For a while I played golf with a few of them before going off to university, but once away from school, I cut it adrift. I don’t have fond memories of my school, but I do of those chaps. I got to play in one game, against the staff. Otherwise my one year old GN Powerspot ***** would have been totally wasted. My work, such as it is, is in the Wisdens of 1986, 1987, 1988. And then off to university.
Throughout university, a friend of mine, who I still see occasionally, told me to start playing again. I held out for the summer of 88. But he persuaded me to play for his Sunday 2nd XI in 1989, and so it was, one overcast day at the former Fire Brigade Ground in Sutton, I made my debut. For the next 15 years cricket was a firm fixture. I played most Sundays, some Saturdays (although sometimes I wouldn’t get picked), and even went on tour. I felt like an outsider for a while, an oddball who would come and go like so many others. My debut saw my mate’s dad run me out for 5, the following week I put a short wide ball away for four first ball, and hit the second straight to cover. As an opener! I was in despair then, wondering if I could play, and thinking I looked a fool, but the following week, batting at 6, I got in, got into a partnership with a more aggressive player at 8, and finished off not out. Walking off I expected to be close to my school best of 28. When I was told it was 42 not out, it was as if I’d scored a double ton.
I doubt the likes of Nasser and Harry, who had the talent, coaching and back-up would ever experience a feeling like that. No-one was more astounded than me. I was floating on air. I felt that I belonged, and when playing for a new club, when battling your own self-doubt, that meant the world. Three weeks into my new playing era, I had a bit more power, a better balance and approach, and I had made some runs. The half century would take another year. But that 42 gave me something to cling on to. I wasn’t a waste of space.
That’s what club cricket did for a keen enthusiast like me. When I went up a level, I struggled. But what I could do, and what my team often appreciated me for, was see out the quicker stuff. I didn’t wear a helmet, but strangely I was never scared. We had a couple of Surrey Under 19’s to encounter, or some burly blokes wanting to take out their aggression at the weekend, and it was terrific fun. I loved that feeling of 1 against 11. I struggled with concentration when it come to slower bowling, but when someone was quick, I knuckled down. The bruises, and there were many, were worth it. It’s not about character building, it is more about pitting your skills against people of similar or slightly better ability. If a class player played at our level, he would stand out. We used to play on a terrible wicket at Reigate Heath, where scores under 100 were not uncommon. One year the hosts turned up with a chap who had played in the Lancashire Leagues and made a biffing 98. The year before one of our club stalwarts made 45 not out on it and said it was about the best he had ever batted. I made 20, and I agreed!
We played mainly in Surrey, toured Berkshire and Oxfordshire, got the occasional fixture in NW Kent. We were based at South Bank Uni, and NatWest in Norbury. They were both batting tracks. We won when we should have lost, lost when we should have won, won a game off the last ball of the match by bowling the number 11 out, and lost a game chasing 200 when we were 180 for 2, and blamed the bloke who made 149 of them for losing it. I remember the screaming catches I took (both of them), those made by team-mates, freak bowling performances, people’s first hundreds, and most of all, I made many many friends. The ultimate honour was captaining the team in the filthy hot summer of 2003. We lost one game all year. I had some of those decisions that came off. But mostly we batted very deep. I tried to give everyone a game, if I could, but we were close knit and wanted to win. I found out how hard balancing that was when the following year I lost an opener bowler I relied upon, and players moaned more about their role. I wasn’t one of the better players, wasn’t dominating in a personal leadership role, and lost control. Cricket taught me an enormous life lesson.
1500 words in, and not a mention of T20 at our club. We played one game on tour, and it was boring. We played a timed game the day before, and it was exciting. Small sample size. We weren’t fans of 40 over games – it was that format that we lost our only game of 2003 – but that’s because we had a quite weak bowling attack. Our tactic was to let the oppo bat first, even in blazing hot sun, and chase them. We rarely played for draws, what was the point, but if in serious trouble, the technique in batting time was a good one. Club cricket is a massive mix of various standards, formats, abilities, playing conditions, and stories. It’s no more homogenised than football.
As 2005 passed there became a more distinct trend. Fewer kids playing for us or against us. Fewer people making themselves available for selection. Players looking for other clubs as we struggled to put out a team. Most of my team-mates were slightly older than me, but not by a huge amount. I was in my mid-30s coping without my parents, and cricket took a back seat. It wouldn’t have mattered a jot if we were playing T20 or a five day test. At that time the T20 format was taking off in England, and while it was talked about, no-one really wanted to play it. Talking to opposition teams, that was also the case. It was 25 overs for midweek work games, in the evenings, with 25 and out, but while they were lovely for my average, it meant I could never reach my holy grail playing in that format. I certainly wouldn’t have given up my Sunday for that short form being the permanent staple. For me it was the dream of everything coming together and getting to that promised land.
The holy grail was a century. I never got there. In many senses it is a feeling of great regret, but also a feeling of pride in that there was always something out there for me to try to get to, and kept me going. I was a much better player in my 30s than I was in my early 20s. But my two highest scores were made when I was 23 and 26. The latter is the one I will always look back on as the ultimate “missed opportunity”. Time was always never on my side as a player. I took a while to get going. I wasn’t a big hitter. But that day I got off to a flier. I had 50 by the time 20 overs had gone. With at least 45 minutes to bat, and the runs still coming, I top edged a sweep shot to a small boundary and was caught. I walked off not knowing what I had. I thought, mid 70s. It was 83. I had it in the palm of my hand and blew it. I never passed 65 again.
Club cricket was social, we liked a drink and a curry afterwards, or a Chinese in Streatham if it was a special occasion. I’ve met some of my best mates. I sing in a band where one is lead guitarist. We’ve gone to Australia and South Africa together, the second time to Oz with two other club members. When we meet up for a beer now, it’s all old times stuff. We used to go to the Oval test together as a team – up to 10 tickets per day – and I held the prestigious role of buying all the tickets for about five years. We’ve had club legends pass away, from our old leaders and role models, Brian and Vic, who played the game until late in life, and we loved them for it, to Kevin (who died tragically young of cancer – who we remember for an aquaplaning catch at Sidcup) and of course Neil, our wonderful, ebullient quickish bowler, who was taken ludicrously young in 2001. At his funeral, we were asked to take a moment when Neil made you smile. I remember that Sunday game, in the 1sts, when I made 39 in a run chase, and put us in a position to win. As I walked off, Neil bounds past, saying “Well Batted [Nickname], I’ll take this home from here”.
We loved the game. When I asked the club secretary what support we got from the Surrey Cricket Board, or whatever authority ran the game, the answer was none. We paid for the pitches and teas out of our subs, we ran at break-even, I think, and we were a typical non-league playing club of which there were quite a few. We never even thought we were on anyone’s radar up above. We were left to get on with it, and old pros never mentioned club cricket. Sure, we recognised some of the names in the league cricket teams we played, but they weren’t cricketers. Three were Chelsea footballers, an ex-Millwall goalkeeper, one a BT Sport commentator, another a musician. I once played against the drummer from McFly!
That’s why what Hussain and Gurney’s comments in particular hit a spot. We never thought we were any good, and I had no aspirations other than to be the best I could be. To compare us to thinking we were close to any decent class, would be saying I would be ready for the Masters because I birdied the short par 4 6th at Beckenham Place Park. Once. Gurney went out of his lane more than once. This was possibly the most egregious nonsense.
These men and women are enthusiasts, living a little dream, but only at our own levels. Could I make 500 runs in a summer? Could I make a couple of fifties? We weren’t blocking anyone. Our older players would have dropped out if kids wanted to play, for the good of the club. Pre T20 era and post-it. But as the years went on fewer and fewer teams were available. Enthusiastic, non-league teams dropped away. More established club sides often filled their Sunday team with a couple of 1st XI players, who could dominate games, and make it a little dull, but often because they couldn’t find anyone else. Grounds disappeared – my work ground, and another we played at, is now set aside for football courts. Others are now the training centres for Millwall and Crystal Palace. Clubs, established clubs, merged, to survive. As cricket disappeared from the screens, so did cricketers, so did teams. Causation or correlation? I don’t have the answers. But to throw it on older players blocking younger ones seems daft to me.
I loved club cricket. I love it more now that I don’t play it. It resonated on so many levels. The friendships, the rivalries, the days we clicked, the days we fell apart, the laughter, and recriminations, the utter tapestry of life encapsulated from 1pm on Sunday to when I returned home that night. I got to learn some leadership skills, certainly some personal characteristics, and I found out more from the game each time I played. I learned I could never cover drive, and that I could hit a lovely cut shot, but could never keep it down. As I got older, I played them both on fewer occasions. As I got older, I opened on rarer occasions. I was down at 5, 6 or 7, that was good for the “get them over the line” 20 to 40 not out in a run chase. I loved that role. I was quite often the other one with the good player in a decent partnership. It’s a nice thing to be.
This may be the utterances of a bygone time, the musings of a cricketing relic, but what I am is a lover of the game, of what it brings. I had no real ability. I made myself the limited player that I was. I wished I could have played longer games rather than shorter ones, well, certainly from the batting standpoint (not sure about the fielding). I have so many stories, many I wrote in the early days of How Did We Lose In Adelaide, that I’ve never put on here because I don’t think they fit. Maybe I will to fill in the days.
What we’ve seen on here this week is that club cricketers around the country have read Chris’s amazing piece. It is the most hit piece on this blog ever. The only time I ever beat it was the equivalent of a steroid injection – KP retweeting a post back in 2014. Chris captured the moment. He was/is a far better player than me. Sean was a bowler, so obviously he is mad. Not sure about Danny. But it doesn’t matter. We played the game because we love it. We found our own reasons, our own motivations, and our own friendships through it. To be told that we, in some way, are part of the problem, that we are blocking the path by playing old fashioned games, that we should move out of the way and if we can’t play T20 we are somehow hindering the future does cut very, very deep. They may not mean to, although it is hard to square that supposition with Gurney’s attitude on Twitter this week, but you are insulting those that, in a number of ways, pay your wages. I’ll come on to that in a future post. The one message for now is that instead of telling us to play T20, and losing the strivers, the nudgers and nurdlers, the players trying to improve themselves and make bigger scores, that the decision should be left to club players. T20 isn’t the only answer. Celebrate all forms. Yes, even the winning draw (we never had that playing league cricket).
We all have our own tales to tell about our cricket performances. I’d love to hear your stories on here. We’ve a bit of time to fill before the World Cup. But the message from me is clear. I learned from older players, was geed up by younger players, made many friends, were happy for them when they did well, happier when I did, and hated every player who made runs against us. I shared my weekends with people who loved what they did, most of the time. I had decent runs, and I had 1994. I hit a bloke I couldn’t stand for six into the back gardens, and can still remember that feeling off the bat, and that stare when I did, the strut down the wicket, and my non-striker mate who knew the backstory saying “****ing hell. You enjoyed THAT!”.
I have always said the pro game should not tell the fans how to support the game. I stand by that. More of that in a follow-up.
To club cricketers of all ages, gender, shapes, sizes, races, abilities, enthusiasm, paces, eyesight, speed, and skill, thank you for doing it, and for those I met on the way, thank you for the years of enjoyment and despair. I owe the game more than it can ever pay back. I know a lot of you feel the same. The love of the game. Perhaps pros should recognise that before shooting off their mouths.
UPDATE – The link to the Cricket By Numbers piece, reproduced on The Extra Bits…