April 23, 2013

The village cricketer emerges from hibernation

Sam Blackledge
It's that time of year when you retrieve your mouldy whites from the boot of your car and coax your groaning limbs into them for a spot of cricket

Nothing so satisfying as a gentle push down the wicket to survive to face another delivery © PA Photos

April is here again, which can only mean one thing. The nerves, the excitement, the aching muscles, the freshly cut grass - and the rain. Another cricket season has arrived, bringing with it a unique stew of emotions that can only be properly understood by the journeyman village cricketer.

Such a creature spends his life in a constantly shifting state. The moment stumps are pulled on the final day of the season in September, he retreats into hibernation. Christmas comes and goes, the calories pile up, the thick winter garments shield his fragile frame from the harsh weather (at least in the UK - the species' southern-hemisphere variant has an altogether different routine).

Then just as our man is getting used to life under covers, the clocks lurch forward, the days grow longer and he is reminded once more that the stench coming from the boot of his car is caused by seven months' worth of filthy, grass-stained, unwashed whites.

The more fastidious JVCs will have been attending winter nets, keeping themselves trim and in form, looking ahead with relish at the challenges to come. Let's not concern ourselves with these oddballs. They are the exceptions that prove the rule, the teacher's pets, jogging around the boundary before the day's play while their team-mates look on, wheezing and incredulous. These eager beavers will go on to top the end-of-season runs and wickets tables. But are they happy?

The journeyman's season begins with a series of crucial examinations, starting with the aforementioned kit bag. The first thing to say is that it will not be in the state it was this time last year. Pieces of protective equipment, some of which are crucial to our hero's hopes of continuing his cricketing dynasty, will have been lost, damaged or soiled. How, why and where this happened will remain a mystery. Holding his nose, he takes the plunge. A stinky slew of jockstraps, socks, sweatbands, plasters - ooh look, a fiver! - and the bag is empty. At least the bat is still in one piece. It even has some red spots in the middle. He doesn't remember that bit.

The next stage of our brave warrior's preparation is the physical MOT. An off-season sat on your backside watching Sky Sports News and eating Jaffa Cakes can give you quite a crick in the neck. Another year has gone by and he's not getting any younger, despite the Warne-endorsed hair transplant and box-fresh trainers bearing the latest fluorescent "go faster" stripes. Testing the joints with a few gentle stretches, the feet are the first to give way. Those knees aren't what they once were. And the old back - these days it seems to straighten in instalments. A 15-over spell up the hill into the wind? Sure skip, why not. Let me at them.

The first game of the season is finally here. What will this year bring? A dropped catch here, a scampered single there, dodgy decisions, even dodgier pitches - and rain. So what keeps the journeyman going? What makes him want to do it all again? It's the hope that maybe, just maybe, this will be his year.

He is stationed at mid-on, the default fielding position to keep the weak link out of trouble - not too close so he'll drop a catch, not so far as to expose his weak arm. He stretches again, rubs his hands together and gives a half-hearted battle cry of "Walking in, lads!"

The hard new ball hurtles in his direction for the first time. Best-case scenario: it thumps cleanly into his hands and he polishes it nonchalantly on his groin, trying not to check whether his palms really are on fire. Worst-case scenario: his bravery deserts him and he avoids the leather missile which trickles to the boundary for four.

If he's lucky, the captain might throw him the ball as the opposition's innings drifts to a close. A couple of overs of utter dross will inevitably follow. Long hops or full tosses, which are better? There's only one way to find out…

Once his fielding duties are complete the journeyman can put his feet up, safe in the knowledge that he is unlikely to be required for a good few hours, if at all. He will busy himself with tasks - filling in the scorebook, changing the tins on the rusty old scoreboard, totting up the day's fines. He might even do a bit of umpiring, but when he gets a bit bored and gives a dodgy lbw decision he is pulled out of the action.

Finally, just as he was thinking about changing into his civvies and lining up the first pint at the bar, the old campaigner is required to strap on his pads and wield the willow. There is no hope of winning or even saving the match, he is merely the stepping stone between the opposition and a comprehensive victory. But he strides purposefully to the crease, takes guard painstakingly slowly, adjusts his ill-fitting helmet and surveys the field. "This is it," he thinks. "All those years of hard work, all that time spent wondering whether it's worth the effort. This is my moment to shine. I'll show them all what a journeyman is made of."

The fateful crash of timber fills his ears. A golden duck. A fine flipping way to start the season.

Sam Blackledge is a journalist with a local newspaper in Surrey

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