The wonderful thing about trying to achieve my middle age ambition of a maiden century is that I care so much. Age normally inures one to emotion, a brilliant natural protection against the depression engendered by those increasingly frequent trips to the dead centres, the crematoria and cemeteries, where you know that one day, all too soon, it will be your turn.
But cricket is all enveloping, a fantastic diversion from real life. You spend a whole afternoon in a separate little world, where nothing matters apart from the steady accumulation of runs and wickets and whether the tea is good. You are forced to focus on the game because it is the only thing happening in that universe apart, perhaps, from another match on a neighbouring square with another 22 temporary inhabitants of planet cricket.
Playing cricket can take you through the whole gamut of emotions in an afternoon, without a moment’s thought about financial problems, failing relationship, troublesome teenage children, dying mothers or even sex. That was certainly the case when I opened the batting for North London IVs against the wonderfully named Middlesex Tamils Social Club. Long before I reached the crease, I had already gone from feeling confident, to apprehensive and then downright fearful. And what about those grey clouds over there? Would they ruin the afternoon?
They might have been Middlesex Tamils, but three of them were unable to find the ground tucked away in Hornsey, (formerly in the County of Middlesex) eventually arriving 90 minutes late. So the Tamils took to the field with just eight players protecting a boundary parts of which is near enough to ask spectators to talk quietly for fear of disturbing one’s concentration. How, therefore, could I fail? But expectation quickly lapsed into terror. Being dismissed cheaply for a fourth eleven playing against eight men on a tiny ground would be a humiliation that would possibly banish my grand ambition for ever. That fear was compounded by the fact that the eight were all Asian, and somehow, in a kind of reverse racism, the expectation is that they are all excellent cricketers.
I therefore started off sketchy in the extreme. My partner, Peter, was womping boundaries with abandon and I was feeding him the strike with nurdled singles. We reached 50, of which my contribution was under ten, when he was given out LBW, quite unfairly, for a rapid 40.
Of the two bowlers, one was steady and reasonably accurate, while the other had a tendency to bowl short which fed my best stroke, the ever-risky hook. I got hold of one of his short balls sending the ball soaring up in the sky towards the longest boundary. At the other end it would have been six, but unfortunately I had chosen the wrong end and a fielder was lurking under the trees. He just needed to take a couple of steps forward to pouch the ball. My heart was in my mouth as I ran through shouting ‘Yes’, supposedly to call my new partner for a run but in reality an effort to put off the chubby fellow in specs waiting for the extremely high ball to arrive.
Then, thank God, he took a step back and allowed the ball to bounce over his head for four. It was what we rather cruelly call ‘a refusal’. The most famous such occasion was in Somerset when our former captain, John, who had understandably lost his nerve after having his jaw broken while foolishly umpiring in the nets, waved a fierce lofted off drive past him at long off with the immortal words ‘I don’t think so’.
The Tamils had tried to hide their worst fielder in precisely the spot where I score a majority of my runs. I took full advantage, deliberately hitting high in his direction, knowing that it was safe. By the time they replaced him with a better fielder, I was striking the ball harder and lower.
Quickly I was into the 30s and beginning to think of a half century. Then I hit out at one outside the off stump, there was a click and the wicket keeper, a sporting fellow who had declined to claim a previous ‘catch’ that clearly had hit my pad, appealed loudly. I was not in a mood to walk. The opportunity of glory just seemed too close. The umpire, a gentlemanly Aussie who was even older than me said ‘not out’. ‘Are you a walker?’ he asked me later. I had to confess that I normally left such matters to the umpire but would walk if I were totally certain. In fairness, I was not entirely sure I had hit the ball – there was a bit of the plastic covering hanging off the side of my bat and I think that’s what made the noise. Is that part of the bat, oh umpire in the sky?
I stayed, only for a cricketing deadly sin to take over: Impatience. I kept trying to get on the front foot to hit the bowler over his head but only managed to stroke the ball back to him or miss altogether. Over after over seemed to pass with only the odd single coming from my bat. Impatience gave way to despair. A century seemed like a total ridiculous fantasy. I would never get there, I was simply nowhere near good enough. If I could not do it against mediocre bowling on a small pitch against a side whose opening bowlers did not arrive until after the drinks interval, it was a hopeless cause.
Over the orange squash at the drinks interval, Reno, my wise veteran West Indian partner, told me to calm me down: ‘Wait for the ball to come onto the bat rather than the other way around’ he said sagely.
It worked. Suddenly, Geoffrey Boycott turned into Viv Richards. The fours were pinging off the bat, and not just behind square on the leg side. On drives, pulls and even a cover drive. Fifty came and went, another couple of boundaries and I was in the mid sixties. Reno was replaced by Alex the skipper but I just kept on bashing the newly arrived opening bowlers whose pace made it easier to reach the boundary. I started counting the number of 4s needed to reach my hundred. Eleven, ten, nine, eight – all the frustration had turned into excitement. One of the opening bowlers was pacy but banging them in short. Another pull. Seven.
Nervousness returned. I started to think of the awesome consequences of getting to the ton. How would I write any more of these columns? What challenges would I have to set myself? And would it count, really – there had been eight men for a lot of the time, perhaps I had been caught at the wicket, the bowling was lousy, the boundaries short. It wouldn’t really count, would it?.
I need not have worried. I forgot my coaching, did not keep my head straight and tried to drive a ball on the offside which ballooned up nicely to short midwicket. In an instant of lack of concentration, it was all over: 74 – three quarters of the way there, my second ever best score, but still all to do. The meter, cruelly, returns to zero every time.