I nearly did not write this column. It was just too bad. There are so many ways of failing at cricket and somehow I seemed to have run the whole gamut in May and June. After two winters of training in an effort to get my maiden century, it felt like the whole enterprise was a waste of time and money. Why write a column to expose my inadequacies. I even thought of giving up the game, or just telling the skipper ‘bat me at number nine’.
The season had started out with such confidence. With the help of my coaches, Phil Knappett, and Paul Weekes (of Middlesex fame) I had completely changed my batting style lifting the bat high as the bowler comes in, holding my head straight and waiting for the ball. In the nets it worked perfectly. I was creaming the ball, scoring imaginary countless boundaries every week. Weekesy even tore his hair out one week trying to get me out with his best efforts. Or at least he said they were.
In the real matches, though, the whole thing was going disastrously wrong. After 12 games, I had scored a princely 85 runs at an average of 7.16. My ploy of playing for North London’s fifth eleven on my free Saturdays had been particularly unsuccessful. ‘You don’t seemed to have scored any runs this year’ said Ian, a kindly fellow who had just knocked up a useful 60, ‘but last year you were hitting fifties all the time’. If he weren’t such a nice bloke with no side, I would been tempted to show him a cricket bat from close up. My North London scores were, indeed, 3,6.6,7,4 and 1. You can’t get much worse than that.
The problem was clearly in my head. I was looking good, hitting a few balls nicely out into the covers, getting a four or a two, and then having a fearful smear at a perfectly ordinary ball on middle stump. Or I would chip one to the nearest fielder, as if it were fielding practice, wave at a wide one and get a snick to the wicketkeeper or knock the ball onto my stumps. And so on. Not one of these dismissals could be put down to the skill of the bowler. Moreover, oddly, I never got a duck, so clearly I was seeing the ball OK. I just seemed to be willing myself to fail.
It was not until the end of June that things started to chang. In an evening 20 overs game I romped to 17 not out, even scoring the winning runs. The bowling was not penetrative, but those few runs gave me confidence, breaking an awful run of eight scores under 10, something that had probably not happened to me since my days as a novice teenager who, not having played at school, was hapless at the crease.
Then came the annual game for the Press Gallery against the House of Lords and Commons whose bowling attack had all the penetration of a dead sheep. We were chasing 139 and I came in at 50 for two. I had struck form. I had dispatched my first ball to the cover drive boundary, previously unexplored territory for me before the coaching, and was regularly hitting boundaries off the fast bowler – an Aussie chef in Portcullis House – who had claimed six wickets. At the other end, I was engaged in a cat and mouse struggle with a good young leg break bowler. Wickets kept on falling at the other end, and the last wicket partnership was left needing 40, but with the help of John, the wicketkeeper, another Oldie, we were winning it. We got to 131 and then stupidly I had a slog and skied it to Alan Keen MP, the veteran anti smoking campaigner who remarkably held the catch despite the fact his arms were fully extended as he took the ball. I had scored 45 but not won the match – most disappointing.
It set me up well for the next game, though. Everything seemed right for an assault on the target. I was playing for a scratch XI for North London against a similar outfit from Botany Bay who thank God are not stuffed full of Antipodeans but are based in Enfield. They were the usual mix of colts and veterans you find in the lower XIs of club teams and even sported Emily, who apparently played for the under 15s boys team.
I opened and suddenly cricket seemed easy. A couple of wickets were lost at the other end but the bowling was relatively friendly. A middle aged medium pacer who mixed up his good outswingers with some friendly long hops and a youngster who bowled flat straight ones. I was picking off the bad balls and swatting them to the nearby boundaries – we were at Ferme Park in Crouch End, a ground where the spectators can pick the pockets of the slip fielders. Cleverly, I hit the first couple of boundaries to the off, and the rival skipper thought, mistakenly, that this was my strong area, leaving the leg side relatively unpatrolled. I took full advantage peppering the boundary on that side.
A young leggie came on, bowling some beautiful balls but also, like the rest of the attack, delivering a bad one an over. Will, a young man who had not played for seven years, was at the other end and we put on 130 in quick time. Soon my 50 was being applauded but I had only one thought, reaching my hundred before the 45 overs promised by my captain were up. I nearly ran myself out, chipped a couple into areas with no fielder but offered no real chance. I had broadly kept count, and soared through the 80s, beating my previous top score of 80* achieved in 1974 and found myself in the nervous 90s. And nervous they were. By then my new partner was Ben and he offered me a second run to take me to 99 but I declined. I was praying for a bit of luck and got it. A good ball from their best bowler, an accurate seamer, found my edge and it flew into the slip area which had just been vacated a few balls earlier, reaching the third man boundary. I had done it! By then a little crowd from North London had built up watching me and they cheered loudly. I had not been as happy since the birth of my little daughter. I ended up on 106 not out and celebrated long and late. There were lots of handshakes and even a few hugs – the British male is loosening up.
OK, so it was not Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall in the attack and there was a girl on the field, but hey, the scorebook does not lie and I did hit 19 fours without offering a chance. And how many times in the past have I been dismissed by a rookie bowler whose father goes on to tell me proudly in the bar ‘that this was little Simon’s first ever wicket in an adult game’. ‘Simon will be lucky to live to get another one’, I wanted to say.
Two years of hard work had borne fruit. All those net sessions in deepest winter when walking round with a cricket bat is an embarrassment. The target was to score a ton before my 55th birthday and I did it on July 3, with precisely a month to spare. But it means more to me than just cricket. I had been so used to failure but now I can actually celebrate a success at sport. So sucks to all those horrible teachers, hopefully long dead, who used to berate my lack of sporting prowess on the cold fields of Raynes Park four decades ago. And us baby boomers just refuse to grow old gracefully. The only way to deal with this ridiculous ageing process is to fight it tooth and nail. And if that means working a bit harder to get the job done, then so be it.
However, Chairman, North London CC’s resident wag – so called because he is the club’s bossy boots – spotted the problem with my century straight away: ‘You may just as well go out and die now, you have nothing left to achieve’. A young man wise before his years. We discuss briefly how I should end my days and we decide that walking into the desert would be the best method. Fortunately, there are none in Couch End.