One of the more amusing/annoying things about cricket is the perception of those who rarely watch that it is a quiet game, civilised and genteel.
It is the epitome of the English summer, the church or pub team lobbing the ball 22 yards with the (occasional) thwack of leather on willow as the verger/lounge lizard finally makes contact and everyone applauds before making their way off to sample the cucumber sandwiches.
Has there ever been a game so misjudged in the public consciousness? Club cricket is what it has always been, a sport that is highly competitive as is any other. In league terms, winning a division or a cup matters as much to those who do so as any Ashes win in the public consciousness. Yet it is has always been amusing to note the surprise amongst non-initiates when they see it.
Many years ago, my then brother-in-law came down to watch a match for a bit. He pulled me to one side and observed that it was very quick. “What is?” I replied. “The bowling, it’s really quick”. Looking up, I saw a decent seamer and nothing more. I was somewhat baffled and asked him what he’d expected to see because this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary and quicker bowlers played most weeks. He was astonished.
The same astonishment would be there at the sight of bruising, broken bones and stitches. How could this elegant sport be like this?
Patiently explaining that standing 22 yards away from a lunatic trying to knock your head off wasn’t quite what they thought it was, and that if they wanted to know what that was like they were welcome to don the pads and helmet and stand in the nets would then be met with a politely bemused shake of the head.
Certainly A & E departments up and down the land will roll their eyes at the mention of the game, their Saturdays and Sundays being filled with the regular sight of people dressed in white with smashed noses, broken fingers or wrapped in bandages stained with red. Indeed, many a cricketer feeling sorry for himself will be greeted with “Oh for God’s sake, not another one” by the triage nurse.
Players themselves are of course quite proud of this. Pub chat will tend to swiftly turn to the times facing a proper fast and nasty and the numbers of huge purple bruises across the rib cage that were regarded as badges of honour.
In order for it to be a real pub tale though, it requires more than to be just hit by a snarling wannabe Shoaib Akhtar, it must have been sustained in a manner that allows for self-deprecating piss-take.
To that end, if you are sitting comfortably, I shall begin:
As a player who opened the batting and kept wicket for many years in league cricket, the physical peril has always been part of the fun of it. Indeed, I was more or less the last generation to come through and bat without a helmet. That didn’t mean I never wore one, for sometimes you would have those who would be above 80mph on the speed gun. But it did become one of those things getting older that would be an internal war of the brain, one half saying “don’t be so stupid” and the other responding “I don’t do this”.
Eventually a close younger friend tore me off a strip saying that he really hated it, and spent the time watching me bat against quicker bowlers worried about me being hit. That hadn’t occurred to me at any point. Which is why it was selfish.
Walking out to the middle once and being greeted with astonishment by a fielder was one thing. Saying “why, do you have anyone quick?” when he was already bowling probably wasn’t the most sensible response I could have made. And of course when you’ve gone out without one, pride won’t let you then ask for it as you realise this bloke is a bit sharp. No one ever said cricketers are the brightest, though getting hit on the inside of the knee is far, far more painful than being hit in the box.
And yet the most downright embarrassing injury had nothing to do with the normal risk faced, and the consequences of it still make me cringe to this day.
For wicketkeepers live with mashed fingers, with bruised wrists and chins – as an aside, if the keeper is standing up, and you pad up to the spinner, don’t be surprised if you get a look of unremitting hatred from behind the stumps. That’s when the keeper gets hit, for the ball heads straight up off the pad, you aren’t expecting it and have no chance of getting out of the way. If you’ve ever wondered at the foul and abusive language behind the stumps, that’s why.
What you don’t expect is to get hurt when someone throws the ball in from the boundary. A simple cut down to third man, a jogged single. It happens thousands of times of a weekend. The throw came in, high and loopy. Moving forward to catch it, it was as routine as it could be. Until first slip thought it a great idea to try and catch it. Misjudging it, it instead flicked his fingers and deflected straight into my eyebrow.
Now this wasn’t remotely a heavy impact, and it didn’t hurt at all, but the thing about the face is that the skin is stretched tight and it tears. The other thing is that heads bleed. A lot. It’s a surprising feeling, one minute you’re standing there, the next a curtain of red is flowing across your eyes.
From there it was chaos, lying on the ground in no pain whatever as bandages are wound round with some team mates walking away because they feel queasy. Thanks lads.
By now bound up like the invisible man, our scorer suggests a trip to hospital might be an idea. You think? And off we go.
Arriving at A & E, the first question asked is whether consciousness was lost. Answering truthfully in the negative mostly from sheer embarrassment at the situation was met with rage from my escort, who pointed out that was adding about two hours to the visit. Sorry mate.
Looking around, I could see I wasn’t alone, indeed there were about three others all with the sheepish look of the cricketer embarrassed to be seen in public in whites. Well red and whites anyway.
After debating the monumental unfairness of life at receiving stitches (eight of them for the record) from a truly stunning nurse while looking like I’d gone six rounds with Mike Tyson, we got out of the hospital and ambled back to the game.
About five miles away, his mobile phone rang. So I answered it (he was driving of course, we’re a law abiding bunch). “Um. Where are you?”. “We’re about 15 minutes away, why?”. “Oh we’re eight down”.
My driver then decided he wasn’t so law abiding after all, while I debated the irony of being potentially killed in a crash trying to get back from hospital. As we pulled in to the ground, I got out and was met by the sight of team mates sprinting to the car carrying assorted pads, gloves (those are right handed ones you idiots) and a bat. Two of them are putting someone else’s boots on me, another two the pads (also right handed – was it so hard to find my kit in the changing room?) as the ninth wicket falls.
Now by this point the opposition are doubled over in fits of laughter at the chaos going on at the boundary edge as a grown man is dressed by people who have clearly never dressed another in their lives. Their skipper stepped in, removing any question of being timed out by saying that since I had actually got there before the wicket fell, they wouldn’t be appealing. Good on him, it was a league game, he didn’t have to do that.
As any cricketer knows, walking out to the middle in someone else’s kit feels really strange. Plus having missed most of the game anyway, the whole situation felt surreal. It occurred to me I had no idea what the score was or how long was left. Ah yes, about five overs, no problem.
There was a short delay as I refused the helmet offered. On this occasion it wasn’t bravado either, for my eye was swelling up and if I put the helmet on I wouldn’t be able to see a bloody thing.
Naturally enough, the bowlers took that as a sign they could bowl bouncers, which I didn’t mind in the least as ducking those is second nature. The bigger problem was my ferret of a batting partner who had spied the 25 to win and was dead set on throwing the bat to try and gain victory. Given the league position (we were top, they were second) not losing was far more important than winning, and after a swift bollocking that I hadn’t come back to watch him get out, he eventually let me have the strike. To this day he insists he would have won it. Let’s put it this way, his highest score in 500+ matches is 20, and he has taken more wickets than scored runs. Which is quite an achievement. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in him, his finest moment was his squeal in another match when a genuine quickie flicked his calves with one down the leg side. I asked him that day if that was the quickest bowler he’d ever faced. His answer was priceless: “I don’t know, normally I can see the ball”.
The rest is entirely routine, the match was saved with few dramas. By now sweating, the next crisis came when figuring out how to shower and keep the dressing dry. Ah well.
I therefore didn’t think too much of events, it had been a bit odd, but nothing more; the pub that evening was full of people wetting themselves with laughter and getting home the same highly amused reaction was received. The day had been peculiar to say the least, but it was nothing that would merit much further consideration.
Monday was fun. I had a job interview. By this point the whole of one side of my face had swollen up, I had a black eye to be proud of and marvelled at how the body reacted so strongly to nothing other than a glancing blow.
When trying to get a job, I can recommend to everyone that “don’t worry, I haven’t had a fight” is not the best introductory line to prospective employers. Suffice to say I didn’t get it.
But it was Wednesday that was the worst day. Oh, by far the worst. For that was the day when the county wide newspaper reports on the weekend club cricket came out. And I was on the back page. The horror increased as I saw the angle taken, which was to compare me to Colin Cowdrey, using words like “hero”, “brave” and “courageous”.
It’s a sodding cut for God’s sake.
It got worse, there were 800 words describing the heroic ducking and diving against pace bowling (it wasn’t either heroic nor pacy), and that as my team mates fell to the challenge, I stood tall and repelled all boarders. Alone. Horatio at the bridge reincarnated.
The worst part was knowing this was just the start. The phone buzzed with team mates asking if I’d seen the paper yet, some total shit (you know who you are) thought it a great idea to fax the article to all my colleagues, the mother-in-law spent years teasing me about me being so brave, another total shit (and they were racking up the scores in the total shit stakes) decided to pin the article to the club noticeboard, while yet another took great delight in showing it to everyone in the pub. Pubs. Oh God, even going elsewhere didn’t save me.
For two bloody weeks I had people coming up to me praising me for the wonderful story they’d read in the paper. Naturally they couldn’t understand the sniggering next door from a team mate who had plainly primed them with the tale in advance. By this point I wanted to murder my captain who had spun this to the reporter with a skill Alastair Cook could only dream about.
Nearly 15 years later, I still cringe at the memory. I do occasionally get reminded of it, and have to put up with the bloody story being told yet again, with all the sarcasm that can possibly be mustered by the person telling it. Yes, Graham. You.
All of which says that cricket might not be a gentle sport, but there’s nothing so vicious as when your team mates decide to stitch you up better than a nurse ever could.
Over to you for yours!