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Sometimes recreational cricketers get a chance to face players of international-calibre, and to stand 22 yards from a pace storm
March 4, 2014
Mitchell Johnson's six-game reign of terror has reminded the cricketing world that there's nothing that quite compares to the heightened sense of anticipation aroused by having to face someone genuinely, bum-squeakingly, keepers'-gloves-thuddingly quick.
In a wonderful piece in these pages, Jon Hotten wrote: "To play [pace] is to confront the limit of your ability, and yet it's one of the experiences that is not confined to the professional player. Any cricketer can find the point at which the bowling is discomfortingly fast".
Indeed, it is one of the enduring charms of the English summer that recreational cricketers are often afforded the chance to pit their wits against international-calibre players and, while one can be made to look foolish by Test-class spin, or popgun by a batsman of that standard, both are infinitely preferable to standing 22 yards from a pace storm.
Depending as to your constitution, or your disposition, the anticipation can start several days, maybe even weeks, earlier. Such was the case for me back in 2001 when Mick Lewis - yes, of 10-0-113-0 fame - played for a rival on the back of a five-fer in a Pura Cup final performance in which he'd been clocked at 95mph, which we knew because Longton's captain had made a point of mentioning it to the local rag in a pre-season preview. Twice.
We, Moddershall, were the penultimate team to play them that year, more than enough time for the pitches to bake hard, for the tales to circulate (major trope: distance the keeper was stood back) and for my fret glands to discombobulate. By the day of the game - sweltering, sleepless - I fretted through 45 overs of their innings before a teatime refreshment of Mars bar, coffee cake, Red Bull and double brandy (d'après G St A Sobers). Fear, you see. Forget FDR - there was more to fear than fear itself. There was repeated bruising. Fractures.
|Perversely, I enjoyed it all. Every second of it. The fact that it was a slow pitch was a godsend. It's a real "game changer" when those primordial self-protective instincts remain relatively untroubled|
Thankfully, the next time such extreme pace sped into town we were spared the weeks of fear-fearing, for it turned out we had the privilege of being the first team to face Tino la Bertram Best, signed in 2008 with some fanfare by Leek to follow in the distinguished footsteps of fellow Bajan and current West Indies head coach, Ottis Gibson. There was no time for anticipation - ironic, inasmuch as, facing him, there was only time for anticipation.
I won the toss and invited the opposition to defer our encounter with Tino by three hours. It was a chilly, late-April afternoon. A stiff breeze blew down the ground and a team coming off the back of two relegation battles was mauled to the tune of 255 for 3 declared from 45 overs, leaving us 65 overs to chase.
Teatime involved fewer stimulants than in 2001. So, after a couple of sandwiches and a few frantic nicotine-tugs I dispensed some sage advice to the troops, reminding them to shorten their initial backlift as a safeguard against yorkers, to consider a trigger movement to get their feet a-dancing, to flash hard, and to relish the battle.
Tino scooted in downwind and quickly knocked over the top three. A run-out then cost us a fourth wicket, Sam Kelsall, and I entered at 30 for 4, barely having had time to chain-smoke half a dozen burners. As I beat my path out to the middle, trying to switch my heartbeat from gabber techno to bossa nova, I passed Tim Tweats at slip, an old Staffs junior colleague and good mate from when our fathers played together, who was grinning like a Cheshire cat and quite unable to stop himself letting out a gleeful, wide-eyed cackle: "He's f***** quick, mucker!" Given that he was fielding considerably closer to the boundary than the stumps, this was, I felt, a somewhat redundant observation.
I took guard: "
Six-feet outside leg stump, please". My legs felt hollow and heavy all at once and I was barely able to apply enough downward pressure to scratch out a mark. Ah, the utter stillness of that moment, scrabbling for composure, for saliva, brain a clamour of worst-case-scenario hospital tableaux, opposition's sadism turned up to 11. Then he was barrelling in, like a triple-jumper.
The ball did little sideways yet was positively battering into the blade. After a dozen or so balls of reflex parrying, most of which slipped off a dead bat to a very fine gully or backward point some eight or so yards behind square, Tino followed through and started to applaud me, sarcastically, though with a glint in his eye: "C'mon Geoffrey, there's a big crowd here. Play some shots, man."
I flashed back, rashly: "Well, if you slip me a full toss to get me going, that would help," forgetting the possible height range for that type of delivery, before quickly adding, "You're too quick, mate".
I couldn't tell you exactly how quickly he was bowling, only that he definitely wasn't the type to hold back and take it easy on clubbies. And why should he? After all, he was being paid - club members' "hard earned" - to do a job. No, he was bending his back all right; the grunts of a clean-and-jerk weightlifter were proof enough of that.
Perversely, I enjoyed it all. Every second of it. The fact that it was a slow pitch was a godsend. It's a real "game changer" when those primordial self-protective instincts remain relatively untroubled. All in all, I faced 29 consecutive deliveries, eventually seeing him out of the attack, during which time I managed three scoring shots:
First, there was a two fended off my kidneys, wide of deep fine leg. As I ran to the bowler's end, mid-off bellowed, "Steady one; one's the call…," more or less obliging me to dash back for two.
Next there was a thick inside-edged yorker that squirted out through square leg as I fell over to the off side, pinkies sending an express delivery message to the brain in that heavy head to get them out of there, sharpish.
Finally, the single most satisfying stroke of my innings, possibly my entire cricketing life: a cover-driven four, bat swinging perfunctorily from five o'clock through to seven, maybe eight, as the ball scuttled gaily away in front of square. To be fair to Tino, he again applauded me - genuinely, I'd like to think (shocked that I had more than a Collingwood-esque crab-jab up my sleeve), although I cannot be certain. He didn't beam me next ball.
(These were my trio of scoring shots, but my favourite "shot" of the afternoon was a leave alone to a good-length ball, foot out toward the pitch, ball passing under my eyes, bottom hand coming off the handle as the top-hand wrist cocked to bring the bat up and out of the way like a drawbridge. It felt in sync, as though my synapses were getting over their hesitations.)
Shortly after this battle was… well, if not won then not lost, I managed to york myself charging a spinner to be stumped for a Ramprakashian 27, and we were soon bundled out for 89, collapsing to a 166-run defeat. Well and truly bested, you might say.
Tino's figures, incidentally, were 11-4-23-4. It would never again get so good for him, Leek sacking him just six weeks later (with aggregate figures of 63-11-279-12) in an attempt to head off a certain ban by the league for accusing a refusenik umpire of being racially motivated. "Bubbly" his ex-team-mates called him; I suppose occasionally he shook himself up too much.
Us? Well, we won the title.
Scott Oliver tweets hereFeeds: Scott Oliver
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