December 10, 2011

An ice way to keep cricketing

When winter sets in in Newfoundland, there's no need to despair; there's another sport you can take to

The groundsman's report for the 1628-1629 Newfoundland cricket season wasn't promising:

"From the middest of October, to the middest of May there is a sadd face of wynter upon all this land, both sea and land so frozen for the greatest part of the tyme as they are not penetrable, no plant or vegetable thing appearing out of the earth untill it be about the beginning of May."

With that news, Sir George Calvert petitioned King Charles I to be allowed to abandon his Colony of Avalon and relocate to the warmer climes of Maryland. Religious disagreements and economic woes were cited as contributory factors, but as a Yorkshireman it was surely the lack of decent cricketing weather that bothered Calvert the most.

Nearly four centuries on, and things haven't improved much. It's still pretty much hopeless attempting outdoor matches in St John's before June.

So what does a Newfoundland-based cricket lover do to stave off the depths of Decembrian despair, or the funk of a February freeze?

Playing in an indoor league is sufficient for some. Across in Quebec, meanwhile, the Pirates of the St Lawrence take up cricket dans la neige.

When it comes to slow-burning games with complex rules, however, there is only one element of the winter sporting programme that comes close to cricket. If you're prepared to modify your sweep shot, embrace a new form of spin bowling, and adjust to a different concept of a good length, then you're ready to go curling.

The aim of the game is to slide polished lumps of granite across a sheet of ice and into a target called the house. More stones in the house results in more points. The name "curling" refers to the way the rocks are delivered with a gentle twist, imparting a curve to their trajectory across the ice.

"I took up curling ten years ago as a totally desperate sanity-maintenance activity," says Pat Carew, an ex-Zimbabwean who moved to Canada via South Africa. "I even convinced my wife to join me.

"Turns out that curling is a complicated and difficult game to play well. During our first year my wife declared it the "stupidest, dumbest sport" she'd ever played. But it is a fine winter diversion between cricket (and golf) seasons for me - and my wife almost enjoys curling now."

Curlers work in teams of four. One delivers the rock, two use brushes to sweep it on its way, and one calls the shots. I went along to a St John's rink to give it a try, sure that an English bowler could seamlessly become a Canadian curler.

I was quite wrong. Trying to apply wrist- or fingerspin to a rock weighing up to 20kg is a risky endeavour, and more revolutions actually equal less curl. A Shane Warne ripper was out of the question.

I then wondered if my rigorously coached bowling action might help me glide across the ice on the front foot, delivering a stone with tremendous elegance. It didn't. I ended up patenting a strange, scuttling manoeuvre, quickly dubbed "The Herringshaw Shuffle" by my curling friends. They fell about laughing; I just fell about.

That's not to say there are no transferrable skills at all. If you combine the footwork of Sachin Tendulkar with the stance of Peter Willey, and can play lots of forward defensives in very rapid succession, you'll be able to wield the broom effectively. Sadly, with none of those skills, especially on frozen water, I just ended up doing lots more shuffling.

Trying to apply wrist- or fingerspin to a rock weighing up to 20kg is a risky endeavour, and more revolutions actually equal less curl. A Shane Warne ripper was out of the question

Cricketers of my limited dexterity might struggle to become curlers, then, but what about curlers becoming cricketers? Across in the mainland, at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club, Steve Ferley is leading the charge, trying to introduce winter sports aficionados to the charms of cricket.

"For years," says Ferley, "curlers and other sports players have watched - often with varying degrees of bemusement - as cricket was played. There was always a passing interest, but little by little, the dormant interest was awakened."

The osmosis might have taken a while, but suddenly there's an array of crossover cricketers, many of them coming to the sport late in life. "We've got 40 year-old curlers, nationally ranked squash players, golfers and rugby players," Ferley explains. "And ex-baseballers who know a thing or two about hitting ball with bat.

"Toronto probably isn't alone on the late-learning front," he notes, "but there can't be many other places where you can see 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds learning the game, generally having a ball and improving. And rumour has it the next stop is a UK tour!"

If they make it, they might like to visit Sheffield, the original home of Yorkshire cricket, and the only city in the county with a curling rink. Combining the two sports might be possible.

Ferley has some top tips on that front, having attempted six-a-side ice cricket on the Toronto curling rink. "The tennis balls froze very quickly," he advises, "and needed to be replaced after about three overs. It was also a challenge to play an elegant forward defensive and not simply continue skating slowly forward in Swan Lake mode."

He noted also that the native-born, ice-familiar players had a distinct advantage when it came to quick singles. Perhaps a stint on the ice might be a means of improving a batsman's leaden footwork. And if only George Calvert had realised this, perhaps Newfoundland's sporting history might have turned out differently.

Liam Herringshaw is a medium-paced palaeontologist who moved to Newfoundland from the UK to improve his chances of opening the bowling