June 10, 2013

And the rest is history

A wicket off a long hop and a memorable six: oh for the golden summer of 2002 (or was it?)

Nothing quite so historic like a good ol' village cricket friendly © Getty Images

This is probably the most self-indulgent column I've ever written, but I'm going to try to justify it on two grounds.

First of all, I'm actually on holiday right now: if you read this when it's posted, I'll be in Cuba, having my first break from writing about sport in two years.

And secondly, the planets seem to have come together to remind me of the golden summer of 2002 (note: it wasn't really golden, and it might have been 2001 or 2003 - I can't remember). Browsing hotels in Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds a couple of weeks ago, I came upon the village of Kingston Bagpuize, somewhere I hadn't thought about since the incidents of that summer of what for the sake of ease we'll pretend definitely was 2002.

Last week, the Authors XI published a book of memories of their first season since reformation, a volume that includes a chapter by the historian Tom Holland that comprises - to the surprise of nobody who has met him in the past year - a lengthy and gleeful description of the only six of his career; this tale includes the only six I have hit - let's say so far, although the chances of me picking up a bat again are remote.

And, most conclusively, in the final week of May, I spoke at the London School of Economics at an event to mark the publication of The Numbers Game, a book that interrogates the use of statistics in football; in that summer of 2002, I inflicted grievous damage to the reputation of statistics in sport. Frankly, not to have written this column would have been to deny my destiny.

I was living at the time in a flat in Chelsea, which was far less salubrious than it sounds (indeed, one of the reasons we left was that somebody threw a milk bottle filled with petrol, the neck stopped with a lit rag, into the lobby). One of the people I was sharing with was PJ, a friend who ran a team in his home village of Toot Baldon in Oxfordshire with his brother. Every weekend he'd traipse up there to play in another friendly and, every now and again, if they were short (which was often), I would tag along. The standard was low: essentially PJ, his brother and two or three others could play and the rest of us made up the numbers.

I only ended up playing two games that summer (which is why I suspect it was 2002; the football World Cup intervening to keep me away). The first match I played was at Kingston Bagpuize which, certainly at the time, was notorious for being flat and quick, a batsman's dream. I opened - more to do with the fact that I was a nervous waiter and didn't mind long stints umpiring, than any ability - and was bowled for a duck fourth ball, driving too expansively at a ball that came back into me from a quickish kid of about 16.

We rallied, though, and had scored somewhere around 280 or 290 when we declared - more than we'd usually bother with, but their track was notorious. With a bit more than an hour remaining, they were well set, cantering along at about 170 for 1, their second wicket having put on over a hundred and scoring comfortably more quickly than the run a ball or so they needed. PJ, having run out of orthodox options, tossed the ball to me. "Take the pace off it," he said, although given my natural mode was meek offspin - and I use the word "spin" quite misleadingly - there wasn't really an option.

The batsman was meaty and bestubbled, biffing his way to a seemingly inevitable century. I reckoned I had three balls before he worked out how bad I was and started carting everything to cow. The batsman, though, was never foremost in my mind: the first thing was to remember to take the sun-hat off. I completed that successfully. The second was to devise a run-up that didn't leave me stuttering like a Lipizzaner horse at the crease. I just about managed that. The third thing was to actually release the ball vaguely in the direction of the batsman. I did that as well. It was a bit full and a bit leg-stumpish, but he played it with needless respect and defended back down the pitch.

Confidence raging, I bowled a slightly quicker one, rolling my fingers over the top of the ball - pretty much the only thing I ever did. To say it fizzed into his pads would be an exaggeration, but it certainly hit his pads as he attempted to drive through mid-on.

It was now or never, I decided: time for my wicket ball, the floaty wide, non-turning offbreak - what many have described as "a long hop". It's not a phenomenon I can explain, but I reckon at least two-thirds of the decent batsmen I've got out (who over the past quarter-century must total perhaps as many as six) have fallen to this ploy, scooping ridiculously into the off-side ring. I tossed it up and knew when it left my fingers it was just wide enough and just slow enough to tempt him. Sure enough, he thrashed at it, was through the shot too early, and spooned the ball to cover.

I bowled just one more over, then declared my job done, finishing with game-changing figures of 1 for 7. The Kingston Bagpuize momentum slowed, the game drifted to a draw. I can't even remember who the opposition was for the only other game I played that summer. I know the pitch was craggy and the outfield clumpy, and know we bowled them out for 140-odd. As so often, batting second on a slow pitch proved far easier, mainly because we had a target and knew we had hours to eke out the runs - which suited me, eking being my natural mode.

We crawled to about 70 before the other opener went, playing far too aggressively, perhaps in the knowledge that most of our lower order was already holed up in the pub. PJ's brother came in and, as I nudged and nurdled and was dropped twice, started carting the ball all over. An awareness dawned that, a) I was on course to a maiden half-century, and b) that I might not have time to get it. They brought on a left-armer who bowled round the wicket. He dropped short and I helped the ball round the corner, over deep fine leg for a six that landed with a satisfying splash in the stream just beyond the boundary. That took me to 44, my highest-ever score, but alas it wasn't enough. PJ's brother hit three boundaries in the next over to win the game by nine wickets and leave me stranded.

Still, there was a certain satisfaction when the stats came out at the end of the season: averaging 44 with the bat and seven with the ball, I topped both lists. PJ still refuses to believe I carried the team that summer, but the figures never, ever lie.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here