January 2, 2015

In praise of the bus-pass cricketer

David Dawkins
There's a breed of player in club cricket without whom the English game would be much the poorer

Peripheral but central: James Clossick of the Bethnal Green Camel © David Dawkins

There has always been a species of club cricketer to whom the saying "can't bat, can't bowl, can't field" applies. For some, the long-standing tradition of the codger-cricketer is confusing: imagine explaining snuff to the twentysomething smoker of an e-cigarette. Why would you carry someone who can't contribute? But as we move through the 21st century the very idea of the creaking-limbed bus-pass cricketer has changed, especially in London. To address the demands of the fast-paced and discombobulating nature of a city summer, these modern elder-statesman cricketers have become lynchpins in the organisation of, enthusiasm for, and continued development of the game in the capital.

Every team in London has a story, and with the recent news from the ECB that participation in cricket in the UK is in decline, it's worth looking at the tradition of the bus-pass cricketer.

James Clossick is a 64-year-old bowler of legspin, and a No. 10 batsman for the Bethnal Green Camel. Playing in the North East London League, James took six wickets last season and averaged around two with the bat. Reflecting on his batting he says, "I'm one of these batsmen. I know exactly what to do, I just can't do it." But James represents more than his lowly total of wickets and runs, and he's not alone. At many clubs dotted around the various southern leagues there seems to be at least one player who, despite back pain and various other ailments, throws himself vigorously into the nitty-gritty of lugging kit around and into creating a warm atmosphere for a game played by all sorts of people in a cold city like London.

In a day and age when cricket is organised by email, when the club website or social media pages have replaced human contact, in a city where players come from different jobs, have different lifestyles, and earn vastly different sums of money, the role of a kit-carrying email chief, the old guy with a car and the Latinate medical ailments is now more important than ever before.

"I got into cricket," James adds, "because I'd been working at Butlins at the time and I'd moved down to London to be with a girl, but she dumped me and I was skint." He was just 18 and back then, for a lad from Wigan, London was a cold place. "I started playing cricket near Hendon, mostly to make friends. Thirty-odd years later, when we formed the Bethnal Green Camel I wanted to make sure that everyone felt welcome because we all come from very different places."

So what are the factors that help cricket endure? When the ECB announced a few weeks ago that the numbers of people playing cricket in England and Wales had declined, a period of soul-searching began. Questions have been asked. Is the T20 Blast up to scratch? Why did England sack a stadium-filling batsman? Will day-night games work? Do we ignore the British Asian community? These are all important questions but we're spending too much time hunting the big game; all of us looking for the most dramatic macrocosmic change to the fabric of English cricket while ignoring what we've got - a solid backbone of cricket running through the country.

But how often do we thank those responsible? Bus-pass cricketers are here to stay and this is good news for the game. Every club around the capital has a story to tell. In south-west London, the founding member of the Wimbledon Corinthians, Graham Pinkney, created the most competitive, visible and welcoming club in the area from a combination of rampant enthusiasm and grenade-chucking spin bowling. At Chingford CC a number of players over 65 play cricket every day during summer and contribute a tremendous amount to the culture of the club. One of them finally scored his first century last year. In short, a renewed respect is called for. What we're seeing more and more is that the older generation of club cricketers are the ones with the closest relationship to the traditions now in decline.

I ask James if sometimes he feels like he has taken on too much. "It's totally worth it. Down the council nets I'm always keen to get some of the local Bangladeshi lads involved. Partly because we're based in East London, but mostly because they're usually pretty good. Whenever someone starts sharing a net with us, I'll always ask, 'Have you got a club?' If they say no, I'll always say, 'Well then, have you heard of the Bethnal Green Camel?''"

There is a painting in the MCC museum titled The Cricket Match Between the Greenwich and Chelsea Hospital Pensioners by the 19th century artist and engraver Henry Thomas Alken. It depicts an electric scene of dashed singles and diving stops, and the description notes that many of the players are amputees. The painting is a reminder from the past that there is never one, finite way to think about age and cricket. In 2014 the bus-pass cricketer is a standard-bearer in the landscape of urban club cricket: a selfless, grandfatherly figure looking to pass on the traditions of social, competitive cricket to a younger generation. But the traditions have changed. If you need to share someone's box, they'll be the ones with an anti-bacterial wet-wipe to hand; if you forget your socks, no matter, they always bring a spare pair. These old chaps help the whole thing come together and without them the game in the capital would frankly not be the same.

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