The second year of my self-imposed cricket challenge has already begun. Older readers may remember that I set myself the task of scoring a century before my 55th birthday which is on 3rd August.
I have no illusions about this. The only way to achieve this goal is through hard work, training and coaching all winter. Indeed, in the 2003 season, the cricket lessons, the first I had ever taken in my life despite a lifetime at the crease (well, rather a huge number of sessions cut short there), definitely improved my game.
And so did playing against poor opposition. Some people may think that turning out for North London’s 5th XI and scoring 77, the best of my season, was cheating. Well, we were actually plaing some other team’s fourth XI, so there. With another three 50s, one scored against the illustrious Somerset village of Bagborough, and a total of over 700 runs at an average of 22, it was by far the best season I had ever enjoyed.
So for a second winter, my coach, Phil, worked hard at ironing out the deficiencies borne of 35 years of trying to guess how to bat. My weakness – and my strength – is a tendency to hit every ball I can on the leg side. Certainly, anything on my legs is despatched without a moment’s thought, but once the bowler cottoned on to my technique – or lack of it – by bowling outside the off stump, either the runs dried up or I lost my wicket.
The coach, therefore, attempted to get me to stand more upright, in particular keeping my head straight. Week after week, my cricketing colleague, James (far too young to warrant a detailed mention in this magazine, I’m afraid) were put through our paces by Phil or, occasionally, the Middlesex all-rounder Paul Weekes. In essence, it is an attempt to test out the old adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Well, this old pup is certainly still learning them. Changing your style in cricket is a slow business but this year I am another few degrees straighter and I do not seem to have lost much of my ability to see the ball. Indeed, my proudest moment of the winter was when Paul spent a whole half an hour session trying to his damnedest to get me out and only bowled me last ball when I had to hit a ‘four’ to win – one of those silly net conventions that keep you focussed.
The trick he taught me was to wait for the ball. People with a good eye and no technique like myself tend to rush to hit it, instead of waiting for the last nanosecond to bring the bat down. Delaying the shot like that is very frustrating for the bowlers, too, since every time they think they have got through you.
Armed with the winter’s training, the season started almost unexpectedly early. Sure, there is always a game scheduled for the last weekend in April but that is generally a piece of fiction designed to ensure the fixtures secretary feels fulfilled.
Not this time. The sun shone all week, a necessary prerequisite for a game that early as otherwise the groundsman will all too readily call the game off. Even then, the trials and tribulations at this level of cricket are such that the game was nearly called off because of a dispute between the groundsman and our landlords, North London, but it was resolved sufficiently for us to play on the artificial pitch.
Ralph, the captain of our team, the Beamers, promptly lost the toss and not only did we have to spend a torrid time in the field, but I had to do the duties behind the stumps which, though hugely enjoyable, are exhausting. We were playing Black Rose, a team which in the mould of Diana Ross and the Supremes should really be called André and the others. André (so named because his mother fancied André Previn, he informs us) is unique. He has the ability to hit virtually any ball for six. His rather inelegant style belies a fantastic natural aptitude. Foolishly, we get two early mediocre batsmen out, only to let in André at No 4. Twenty for two in ten overs becomes a hundred in twenty. We are being destroyed, our tidy Indian spinner hit for 40 in two overs. Then Ralph, an offspinner, comes on and immediately bowls André, who has hit 75 in ten overs including two sixes into the next field and another over the netting into tennis courts 100 yards away. Black Rose wilt to 143 all out.
No chance of a ton, then, but a game to win. I bat at six and take on board all the lessons, slowly putting together the runs for victory. There is no rush, and apart from a couple of fours, both on the leg side, my partner Andy and I settle for singles. I have faced 30 balls scoring 17 without a single error when suddenly the blood goes to the head. I whomp at one from the steady left armer outside the off stump and miss. And then unaccountaly, I do the same thing to the next one and am bowled. How can I make such a basic mistake after a winter of 25 training sessions? Cricket is a mind game, that’s how – it’s played in the head.
But there is still a match to be won, and it becomes very exciting. Andy starts stroking the ball about but then hits a full toss to midwicket. The tail wags, and six are needed off the last over with one wicket left. Two runs are scrambled off a no ball and the two are needed off the last ball. We get one off a misfield but the last man is run out attempting a second. It is a tie.
In the bar afterwards, we ask James why there was only six balls in the last over, when he had called a no ball for a beamer. But he hadn’t. Yet it is in the score book. He had, indeed, stuck his arm out but he says he was just stretching it. We do not confess that to the opposition. The scorebook never lies.
Cricket is, after all, a team game and my ambitions can wait. It was just as enjoyable playing and contributing to such a splendid game with such a brilliant ending as achieving my goal. Well, almost.