What's the furthest you've been for a golden duck? Last month, having hooked up with an old club pro of ours while holidaying in New York, I made a round trip of six hours and 45 minutes - from my lodgings in Manhattan's Upper East Side to Queens, and from there to New Haven, Connecticut - all for a largely hightlight-free one-ball innings. Chuck in the journey from Nottingham via London and Reykjavik, and that's 5600 miles.
Not that I went to the US specifically to play cricket, of course. But I did want to catch up with Adam and see what standard of club cricket might be available Stateside to an ex-West Indies Test player. I only realized he wasn't joking about me playing having emerged from the Jamaica St Subway at 10am into an already vicious heat to hear, "Whassup, Scott. You're looking fit". It was nine years since I last saw him, and my middle-age spread had spread.
Sanford's two passengers, Dominic Ricky and Cassius Burton, were tickled enough to drop their impassive, Marlon Samuelsesque air, although Dominic at least tried to pretend he was laughing at a text message. Initiation complete, I was now part of the team: the Hamden Combined Caribbean XI of the Southern Connecticut Cricket Association.
We pulled out of Queens, past Flushing Meadows, on the eve of its big two weeks, Manhattan's Tetris skyline receding in the distance, then headed north-east along Interstate 95 through scenery lifted straight from a Great American Novel: ancient trees, wood-panelled houses, a giant landscaped golf resort. An hour or so later we were in New Haven, sweeping past the Yale University stadium and arriving at our venue 15 minutes before the scheduled start - or 45 minutes before the opposition, if you prefer, which didn't amuse a couple of my colleagues. Spicy rice and grilled chicken were shared around and a crescent of flags from various Caribbean islands was planted alongside cars hunkering in the sole, narrow strip of shade offering dubious protection from the infernal sun.
The pitch sat in the middle of a large square field, empty except for the cars, a portaloo, and a wire-mesh baseball practice fence long since reclaimed by vegetation. It was flanked on two sides by trees, on a third by a disused basketball court and, to the south, a row of those quintessentially American colonial houses, all turned indifferently away as an alien game attempted to take root in a space abandoned by the quintessentially American sports.
My two travelling companions put together a high-class second-wicket partnership of alternately elegant and savage strokeplay that confirmed to me that I was comfortably the worst player in our vehicle
As the nominal away side, when the opposition finally did turn up we were able to watch them toil under that unforgiving sun, nailing down (and, later, rolling up) the hessian-matting playing surface to a convex strip of baked earth below - the equivalent of being spared the on-off-on-off of covers on a drizzly English afternoon. The barbecue was fired up, and Adam's wife went to pick up supplies: booze, ice and meat. Toss won, we would bat. I was pencilled in at No5. I was also to be entered on the scorecard as Pepler Sandri, a third alias of the week, having done a Scientology 'Personality Test' a few days' earlier as Michael Johnson.
The opposition, Brass CC, were mainly middle-aged, mainly of Pakistani origin, a tumbleweed crew with no supporters, which made their dedication to the game all the more admirable. The bowling was respectable without being especially challenging, yet the outfield's thick, clumpy grass made boundaries difficult to come by. Adam and I supped a cold beer - "It's a social game," he declared - as our two travelling companions put together a high-class second-wicket partnership of alternately elegant and savage strokeplay that confirmed to me that I was comfortably the worst player in our vehicle. Ricki, 23, had played for Guyana Under-19s, moved to the USA two years ago and was now working in a warehouse while entertaining hopes of playing some league cricket in England. Burton had played first-class cricket for Jamaica and List A for Combined Universities and Campuses. Their pedigree was evident, and accentuated by the keen-but-limited triers padding out both sides.
Our fortysomething skipper, Jermaine Clarke, had played for Nevis as a youngster before emigrating 15 years ago. He now presented a radio show in Bridgeport, on which he'd interviewed various reggae legends. That may be why he didn't seem especially impressed by the tunes boom-booming from Sanford's vehicle, or it could just have been that unmistakeable air of captainly vexation, a condition brought on by having your decisions judged on the actions of your team's unruly limbs. He asked me how I played. I said I'd try and play the situation, upon which he poured me a large neat rum from a bottle marked "Moonshine", and suggested 190 was par from the 40 overs.
Next man in, Grayson Pacquette, told me he'd driven three hours from Boston. "Man, that's a long way for a blob," I observed. The Gods had a smile at that. I went in with 4.1 overs left, feeling juiced and loose. The rest was a badly timed Sarfraz shimmy, a death rattle, a rueful smile, a broad grin from Pacquette (who made a breezy 54 in our 278 for 9) and a 100-metre trudge off: in itself, a long way for a blob.
The interval brought more beers, barbecued chicken thighs, cremated sausages, a slug of Hennessey, and talk of putting together a team for a US$10,000 winner-takes-all T20 tournament in Boston. I wasn't invited. With no pavilion to bring together these two camps of nomadic cricketers, there was no teatime interaction between the teams, which may have contributed to the febrile atmosphere at the start of their innings, as relentlessly chirp-filled as anything I have experienced. I don't think it was the booze.
Armed with a new white ball and still built like the proverbial brick outhouse, Sanford was getting ludicrous bounce and carry (we had the most redundant mid-off in cricket history). The batters were plainly out of their depth, and our fielders let them know as much. Every ball. Those proud men responded to the suggestion that this squawking was "all part of the game". "That's fine," said their 50-year-old bespectacled No. 4, between fending off throat balls and calling Sanford's partner "chicken" for bowling a leg-side wide, "but where I'm from, everyone has an AK47". Amidst all this I snared what history will record as a screamer in the gully - not a total disaster, then - and, in the quickly dying light, Brass called it quits at 118 for 9 after 25 overs, sparing their No. 11.
After another post-match beer we were on the road, snared in the slow chug of weekend traffic heading back to New York. Three hours later, deprived of a shower after a day in the stinking heat, I stood (self-consciously) on a packed subway wondering whether mismatched teams of such mixed abilities was really the ground on which a cricket culture can flourish. But then, the sheer vastness of America - its smallest state, Rhode Island, is comfortably larger than the countries from which most of my team-mates in New Haven hailed - means that concentrating these pockets of passionate immigrant cricketers in competitive leagues containing teams with a more even spread of talent is nigh on impossible. Yet such are the requirements of the grass roots.