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May 6, 2013

The day I became a semi-international

Jon Hotten
Jet-lagged and in unfamiliar conditions, but Japan gave their best  © Anthony McGowan
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They say that international cricket is no place for the fortysomething player, but then Sachin's taking no notice of that. Forty is the new 30, anyway. So what about the semi-international game?

Having been ignored by the England selectors for my entire career despite repeatedly stressing my availability, I've played for the last season for the Authors XI, a team that once featured Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and PG Wodehouse but fell into inactivity until its revival in 2012 by its current captain, Charlie Campbell, and novelist Nicholas Hogg. Results are best described as patchy, so the news that Hogg had somehow arranged a fixture against Japan, the 37th-ranked team in the ICC international list, was met with equal amounts of incredulity, excitement and fear.

The venue was Chiswick House; it was the first match that Japan would play on a tour to mark the 150th anniversary of cricket in their country. While the Authors arrived in Chiswick via the usual combination of scrounged lifts, delayed trains and traffic jams, Japan came on a coach. They looked chillingly young, and they immediately embarked on proper fielding drills with those flexible plastic stumps and tiny traffic cones, apparently oblivious to the lumps and bumps of the early-season outfield.

Japan Cricket's 150th anniversary came to light only last summer. Until then they had thought it was next year, but a historian had chanced upon a line in the Wisden obituary of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson that referred to him taking part in "the first game of cricket ever played in Japan", between the Royal Navy and a team of civilians in Yokohama in June of 1863.

Enquiries to the Harrow School archive, the British Library, and the MCC Library at Lord's produced sepia images of both teams, and documents that told the story of the game, one of the most remarkable ever played and surely the only match in the history of cricket in which both sides were armed.

It took place against a background of political tension between the European (mostly British) merchants of Yokohama and the Japanese population, following a failed Samurai attack on the Europeans and retaliation from the Royal Navy, who had their men o' war anchored ominously offshore in the bay. With a stand-off in place and the Europeans unwilling to leave Japan unless they were offered compensation for lost trade, a cricket match was suggested to pass the time. Rawson, who was just 18 years old but already a veteran of the Second Opium War, was a part of the Navy team that rowed ashore fully armed from the war ships.

Players from both sides had guns shoved in their belts, and the Royal Navy's wicketkeeper carefully laid his revolver behind the stumps at the start of each over for fear of it going off as he crouched down. There's no scorecard or official record of the result, although the polar explorer Sir Albert Hastings Markham, who played for the Navy, claimed later that they gave the Yokohama side "a jolly good licking".

More importantly all 22 players appear to have survived, and their re-emergence from an unlit corner of history meant that Japan were here, fresh from the plane and ready to open their tour with a 30-overs-a-side game against the Authors, before travelling to Lord's to play MCC on the Nursery Ground and then heading to Scotland for three more matches.

In the tour brochure there was a picture of Japan's ground, an artificial wicket set in a vast and unbroken flatland that seemed to stretch to a snow-capped Mount Fuji in the distance. It carried a sense of something both alien and familiar, which must have been how the pretty, tree-lined oval at Chiswick House seemed to them. They were blurred with jet lag, wrapped up against a chill wind and contemplating a pitch with more than a tinge of April green: it was fair to say that conditions would favour the home side.

Cricket's not big on TV in Japan, in fact it's not on TV in Japan, and so much of their experience of the world game comes from clips on Youtube. There was a nice moment just before the match began, when a couple of the squad received their caps in a little ceremony on the pitch; perhaps with an eye on a dominant future or maybe because they look good on Youtube, the Japan cap is a bright red version of the baggy green. One player set his new baggy red proudly on his head where it stayed for the rest of the day, the big number 70 stitched on the back.

It was hard to know how good the 37th-ranked team in the ICC would be. Slightly worried that we might not be able to give them a game, Charlie had, after a week of phone calls, found us a ringer in Ed Giddins. He would be the second England international to have turned out for the Authors (the first was Ed Smith, who played against Gaieties in a revival of the traditional Authors v Actors match that we'd nonetheless lost comfortably).

Ed hadn't bowled since last year, but he produced a superlative first over, moving the dark new cherry off the seam and past the bat six times out of six. From the other end and under low dark cloud, Nick Hogg's outswing was equally testing and the Japan openers responded with skill and heart. They survived and then began to hit the odd loose ball. Charlie Campbell took the Authors' first semi-international wicket leg-before, and after 15 overs, the score stood at 62 for 1.

Something strange had happened to us. Whether it was the presence of Ed or a desire not to let ourselves down against a team that had flown halfway across the world to play cricket, every bowler - Nick, Charlie, historian Matthew Parker, children's author Joe Craig, political publisher Sam Carter - and the usually deeply unreliable old lags like me in the field had come together in some way. We were fighting hard. Every now and again I'd look at the batsmen in their one-day kit with "Japan" emblazoned across the back and think, "We're actually playing an international team here…" It was a good feeling.

With seven or eight overs to go, Japan at last broke the shackles. The boundaries came, and not even Ed could stop them. He nearly split a finger throwing up an instinctive hand in his follow-through at a straight drive that rocketed about a foot above his head from the aggressive and unorthodox No. 5, Yoshitaka Uehara. They closed their 30 overs on 182 for 6.

It transpired that international sides don't bother too much with tea. Instead, Japan had the cones back out and were running through another daunting fielding practice. The temperature had dropped a couple more degrees as the openers went out, and in light that would have had Dickie Bird wondering if it was his bedtime, quick bowlers Ogawa and Takada were soon running in, uttering loud, pro-sounding grunts as they delivered the ball.

Earlier I had asked Ed how fast he thought he'd bowled. "73mph," he responded with disconcerting accuracy. The Japan bowlers looked equally quick. They were a little loose, though, and Sam and novelist Richard Beard had us up around 50 before Sam went leg-before. Then Joe Craig went in and batted like the kid hero in one of his books, lifting the spinners over the boundary and into the trees. He and Beard both passed 50, and all of a sudden we needed 30 from the last five. Taniyama, a lithe legspinner, really began to rip the ball and first Richard and then Joe fell. Runs were scrambled. A couple more wickets went down. The tension grew. The lights on the scoreboard glowed.

How many Japan cricket fans will look for the game on Youtube?  © Ian Wylie
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With two overs left, the Authors needed eight runs to beat Japan. In those circumstances, you need an ice-cool celebrity biographer and Ben Falk found a couple of big shots. The winning boundary skewed from his bat with four balls to spare to cue what would have been described by the papers, had there been any there, as "unbelievable scenes".

It was a tremendous day, probably in the top three I've ever had on a cricket field. In deeply unfamiliar conditions and with everything against them Japan had lost narrowly, but it was obvious that there was lots more to come from them. They were young, athletic, driven; devoted to a game that has had the smallest foothold in their country for a century and a half. They weren't even armed. The next day 1500 people turned up to watch them play the MCC at the home of the game.

As for the Authors and our already fading semi-international careers - well, there will always be Japan. Have that, Geoff Miller (but I am available; still).

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jon Hotten
Jon Hotten is the author of Muscle and The Years Of The Locust, neither of which is about cricket, and writes the blog The Old Batsman, which is. @theoldbatsman

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