April 18, 2012

The blame game

Batsmen will be batsmen and bowlers bowlers, and never the two shall see eye to eye

As Jon Johnson headed through the dressing-room door, bat poised for the hurling, his customary post-dismissal grimace was dispersed by an expertly aimed custard pie. From the back came a loud bark, dripping with furious disdain: "Yeah, Jon, that was me, Ron Dadoo-Ronron, demon of south bloody Yorkshire. That's for being back when you should have been forward, you futhermucker."

Flinging his helmet at a defenceless fire extinguisher, then grabbing a towel to wipe his face, Jon kept hold of the bat, gathered himself to his full six-foot-three and began walking towards Ron, albeit fuelled more by pride than confidence. Taking on a six-foot-nine ex-nightclub bouncer was not high on his list of things to do before he died.

Mopping his oily brow and trying in vain to conceal the wok-sized patch of sodden sweat covering his capacious belly, Don "Throbbing" Harden, the manager, stepped in. "Come, come, boys," he pleaded, ushering victim and assailant towards him. "You know that's not the way we do it round here."

"Stuff it, Don," snarled Jon, spitting custard. "I'm not taking bloody part in any more of your moronic Truth and Reconciliation sessions. The last time I was fined for not running a three hard enough, even though my laces had broken, my left little finger was cramping up and I had a migraine the size of Birmingham. And..."

"Actually," interjected Don, wiping a blob of custard from his monocle and drawing himself up to his full five-foot-four (in platform heels), "it was for running one short when we needed two to save the follow-on. Still, don't let the truth get in the way of a good moan."

"Actually," chirped Ron, "I love those sessions, love 'em. That's how we get to the nitty gritty, sort out the bankers from the bunts." He walked towards Jon, twirling a pair of the sort of frilly undergarments not normally seen outside the more upmarket French brothels. "Scared are we, Jon? Whatever happened to the Jon Johnson we used to know? Can't imagine a bloke who went on three tours of South Africa being frightened by anything as gentle as the truth, can you guys? Whoops, that's right. You pulled out of three. My bad. Something about not feeling quite right about the way you were planting your right foot, was it? Ah well, water under the bridge, eh?"

Jon cocked his right fist and walked forward with the sort of reckless bravery he hadn't felt since secondary school, whereupon he thought better of his baser instincts and stopped. He knew Ron would never punch him - rumour had it that the bowler wrapped his precious right hand in honey-soaked cotton wool after every day's play - but a knee to the groin was well within the bounds of probability, and he'd discarded his box. Besides, the consequences of doing what he'd wanted to do for the past five years did not bear contemplating - other than to remind him that attempting to de-prettify Ron's face would be about as wise as challenging King Kong to a spot of kick-boxing.

After glugging on a Cola-Coca Zero ("The players' choice"), Jon cleared his throat and resorted to that globally renowned Johnson wit. "Hark at you, you pansy. You say you have to wear those knickers because, as you so exquisitely put it, they 'centre' you. You've got more superstitions than someone whose mother died after walking under a ladder, past a black cat and having a heart attack while waiting for a No. 13 bus."

It was all Ron could do to hold himself in check. Ever since he'd nearly killed that opener from Harare with a bouncer, his greatest horror, the source of his nightly nightmares, had been the thought of spilling blood. That said, he'd become twice the bowler as a result, concentrating on swing and variations in pace. With the exception of that darned Saffer whose name he couldn't even say out loud for fear of setting off his allergies, he was the best, most feared, paceman on the circuit. The price may have been high, but it had been eminently worth paying.

Inclining his head to accentuate the gulf in height, he sneered at Jon. "I was going to call you a flat-track bully, but that would be an insult to the great Graeme Hick. You couldn't bully a mouse with three legs and a bad heart, let alone a bowler. You seem to think your job is to stick around and bore them into submission, or else play flashy wafts without actually watching the ball or knowing where you're hitting it, much less where the fielders are. Aside from all that, of course, you do a bang-up job."

Jon's head drew back as if yanked by some invisible puppeteer. For once, he fumbled for words. Twice he started to speak, but nothing came out. When he tried again, the hesitancy was clear to all. Even Don was sniggering. "Look… are you sure… let me get this straight. Are you impugning my contribution to this team?"

Ron laughed. The sort of dismissive cackle he reserved for batsmen who'd just been duped by his super-duper 45mph slower ball, the one he'd dubbed "The Quiet Rattlesnake". Nothing like inventing your own nickname. Anything to stop people using your actual name. His father's obsession with Phil Spector had been the curse of his teens.

Arching his expansive, furry eyebrows, he scanned the room, pulling the silent but riveted onlookers into the exchange. "Impugning? IM-bloody-PEWNING? You can tell Jon went to Eton and Oggsford, guys, can't you?"

After a suitable pause for dramatic effect - not that anyone dared say anything in response - Ron turned back to Jon, fixing him with the Medusa-like glare that had frozen so many opposing openers. On his third wife's insistence, he'd had that fabulous photo of pee dribbling out of Yuvraj Raina's flannels framed and hung in the downstairs loo of their Dubai penthouse.

"Well yes, since you asked, I am bloody impawning your contribution to this team. You and all the futhermucking batters."

"Listen to him. He doesn't have to maintain concentration for hours on end, does he? Bowls six balls and has a rest. Bowls half a dozen overs and then has a kip at slip or long leg. Pops off the field to put his feet up every couple of hours and gets the twelfthy to do his work for him"

Don inched forward again, mopping his brow with renewed urgency. "Hang on, Ron. Don't you think you're being a bit, erm, harsh? Everybody tries his socks off. Everybody. You know that. We all know that."

Ron turned his head slowly towards the manager, almost sadistically. He wasn't laughing now. Peering down at Don's sweaty, puffy face, he lowered his voice to a whisper: "Really? Oh do shut up, you silly little man."

Ron then turned back to Jon, who'd turned a paler shade of white. Now, at last, he felt as if he knew what that statue of Geoff Boycott on his front lawn felt like. Ron let him have it.

"Every match on this bustard tour we've worked our tits off, mate, knocking the oppo over for next to nothing, mate, and all you lot have done is fanny around or moan about so-and-so being a chucker. Whingers. Too hot is it? Dearie dearie me. You gits get to stand around most of the time. I can run three in the time it takes you to slouch a single. You should try running in before every ball."

Jon knew he couldn't just let such a slight pass. Casting around the room for sympathetic faces, he let rip. "Listen to him. Just listen to him. He doesn't have to maintain concentration for hours on end, does he? Bowls six balls and has a rest. Bowls half a dozen overs and then has a kip at slip or long leg. Pops off the field to put his feet up every couple of hours and gets the twelfthy to do his work for him. Tough life."

All of a sudden, a resounding crash stilled the room, followed closely by the tinkle of falling glass. Outside, through what little remained of the window pane, the players could see the match referee, Alan Broad-Crowe, writhing on the ground, a badly bent batting helmet at his feet. Ron, Jon and Don all swung around, searching for the source.

Up went the right arm of the physio, Con O'Reilly, the self-styled "Belfast Cowboy" (Van Morrison had sued him but the legendary singer-songwriter lost because he'd never actually copyrighted his nickname). "Yeah, that was me," he stated flatly. "Wanna make something of it?" Even Ron shrank from the challenge.

Con scared everyone. Brought up on the Shankhill Road at the height of the Troubles, built like a Sumo wrestler on a gluten-free diet, he didn't do fear. He didn't often speak without having a prone body beneath his cigar-like fingers, but when he did, everyone listened, even Ron. "Youse guys are pathetic. Blame, blame, blame. Whinge, whinge, whinge. If I had a penny for every time a batter moaned to me about the bowlers, I could buy a ranch in California. And if I had a penny for every time a bowler moaned to me about the batters, I could afford to buy California. I've never heard…"

At this, in walked the coach. Con stopped mid-tirade. Silence descended again. Nobody, not even Con, messed with Arfon Rose, "Fon" to one and all. Surveying the wreckage of the window, he cast around the room and smiled softly. "Creative friction, eh? Keep it up lads. Now just keep it going until we get to India."

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton