It was the former Spurs and England player Jimmy Greaves who coined the phrase about football being a “funny old game”; cricket, at times, can be even funnier. If you’re on the right side of the funny, great; if you’re on the receiving end, the funny tends to be gallows humour, something fans of cricket – especially those of an English variety – have been excelling at for generations. Earlier this season, after a run of endless defeats at the hands of Sopwith Camels, we shot them out for 64 and recorded a most remarkable – and unexpected – win. On this day, against a Banstead 3rd XI that weren’t showing that many changes from the team we beat by nine wickets exactly a year ago, it was us that copped a bit of a hiding. A funny old game, indeed.
Last year’s game, despite the end result, was anything but a stroll. Timed cricket was something this captain had precisely zero experience of; we bowled first, and I spent most of the Banstead innings scratching my head at slip, wondering what on earth was going on, when we were going to finish, who should bowl the longest, etc. We bowled well and we fielded tidily and restricted them to 211-7 from 41 overs, at which point they declared. Bowling with the older ball, nothing happened for their bowlers; Waleed Sajjid and I opened and racked up 94 in no time. When Waleed departed, in came Ian Bawn, and we didn’t lose another wicket. 213-1 was out end total off just 31 overs, to record the biggest win of my time as a Merton player. The following week, we batted first against Ewell and were bowled out for 40. A bloody funny old game.
Banstead Cricket Club is picturesque and laden with history and tradition, and has hosted cricket for 177 years. It’s near enough to the high street to enable you to pop to the shops, but far enough away to keep the scream of traffic insulated from cricketing ears, and when us Boars began to arrive we found to our happy surprise that we would be playing on the front pitch. Last year’s wonderful game was played on the back pitch, which was enjoyable enough, but there’s always something special about playing on a club’s “show” pitch. Ominously though, our Sunday Wolves team had been playing the Banstead 2nds on the front pitch at the same time we were putting their 3rds to the sword…and lost.
It was a fine day. The sky was blue and mostly cloudless, and a nice warmth embraced Banstead as James Harper, their skipper, and I went out for the toss. I called correctly yet again (oh, if only I won a grand every time I won the toss I wouldn’t have to shop at Sports Direct for my cricket boots), and had no hesitation in batting first; this season’s four wins have all been won when bowling second, and with Pranav Pandey returning for his second game after spinning his web around the Park Hill top order the previous week, the first part of the plan had, well, gone to plan – which was, bat first, get as near to 200 as possible, unleash Pranav and Ben from the start and tie their batters up in knots. Team-wise, we were – as always – much-changed. Andrew, Suj and Ben came back to the Boars after Rhinos duty; Rob was playing his first game in a month due to injury; Johnny “Steriliser” Milton was back in the ranks and we also welcomed a brand-new player, Azam Khan, who my fellow captain – Tom Allen – had reported, and I quote, “was a bit nippy in the nets”. Tom Allen also thinks Aston Villa are going to finish in the top four this season.
SUNDAY BOARS: Neil Simpson (capt, wkt); Aleem Sajjid; Andrew Counihan; Johnathan Milton; Dave Barber; Pranav Pandey; Azam Khan; Sujanan Romalojoseph; Bob Egan; Ben Drewett; Rob Turner.
As the clock above the changing rooms struck one, Aleem and I strode out to the wicket to open the innings. A good start was essential, I said; I’d made 92 not out in the win the previous year, but knew runs wouldn’t be easy to come by this time around. I wanted 180 on the board as a potentially winning total; it would be down to myself and Aleem to lay the foundations. The first ball of the innings, bowled by Bill Early, went a mile down leg side and bounced at ankle height. The second ball I can’t remember facing; the third ball pitched on leg stump, so I played forward…only for the ball to move late, beat the edge, and knock back my off-stump. If my head were a balloon, the sound of air screaming out of it would’ve deafened the locality; as it was, after a slow, doleful look at my shattered stumps, I was trooping off towards the pavilion for another duck. 1:02pm, and most of my day’s work was done. Ninety-two to zero in one year is reminiscent of the engine of a once-reliable car blowing up and spluttering to a crappy halt.
Andrew Counihan came out to bat, and discovered for himself that the ball to dismiss me was no fluke; every ball bowled was wicket to wicket, landing on a perfect length, and for those of us who can barely move our feet in the bath, let alone at the crease, a sort of torture had begun. Mustafa bowled the second over and was pacy, getting good bounce out of the wicket; neither Aleem or Andrew were being allowed to bat expansively, and we had eked out five runs from the first five overs. Andrew finally got our first boundary by edging Mustafa through an empty slip cordon, but after pulling him for four in his next over and taking a single, Mustafa claimed his first scalp. Of the three fielders positioned on the off-side, Aleem had the misfortune to pick out the middle one as he cracked a short-length ball with some ferocity; it went down Read’s throat, and we were 20-2.
The pitch was proving to be very slow; the bowling slower still. Local knowledge was paying dividends for Banstead. Johnathan joined Andrew; the scoring still resembled a person with chronic constipation in urgent need of a laxative. Surely they could find a way to collar Bill Early? No chance. Over after over he wheeled away; dot after dot, maiden after maiden. Runs were coming off Mustafa at the other end, but Early was saving the scorer a fortune in pencil lead by tying up our batsmen in all sorts of knots. Johnny and Andrew were finally able to exchange a couple of boundaries, as Mustafa made way for Neil Sunderland, who – naturally – was a slow bowler, and notched a maiden with his first over. Eight balls later, Andrew was cleaned up by Sunderland; he reached a little too far forward to play defensively…and the stumps were knocked back. 41-3 after 15 overs became 50-4 five balls after drinks; Johnathan was well dug-in, but Dave tried to get a bit of power into a lofted drive, miscued and scooped it up to the waiting Harper.
Pranav came out to bat; the two youngest players were now at the wicket. Alan Lester had replaced Bill Early, whose eleven overs had included six maidens and only yielded an unbelievable five scoring strokes; once he’d bowled his customary maiden first over, Lester struck. Johnathan by now had become strokeless; his feet weren’t moving and he was drawing nearer and nearer to playing across the line. When he eventually gave in to temptation, Lester’s delivery was far too straight, and for the third time in our innings the stumps had been broken. Johnny had played really well for his 21, showing great patience and power when he’d had to chance to break free from the shackles before frustration had overcome him.
Azam came in and looked to push the scoring on. He miraculously kept out a Lester yorker that was taking out middle stump until the bat edged it a cigarette paper’s-width past off-stump and down to third man for two, but in the next over he went the way of Aleem, seeing a perfectly good hit go straight to a fielder – Harper again – who doesn’t appear to drop anything. 64-6 in the 28th over was at least forty short of where I wanted us to be; Banstead’s bowlers were on the kind of strangling spree that gets serialised and shown on Netflix, and my hopes of declaring with a reasonable score had evaporated. Someone had to go big; sadly, it wouldn’t be Suj. Only two more runs had been scored when he played all round a straight one from Lester, and I had no choice but to raise the finger. At least I wouldn’t be alone in the Duck Club; he was the 34th Boar duck of the season, and we were 66-7.
Pranav was still battling away, showing great maturity for his young years, but he had been backed up well and truly into his scoring shell. Bob joined him and hit a great boundary, but then became the third batsman to pick a fielder with a good shot: this time it was Sunderland taking the catch off the bowling of Nick Hunt. Bob and Pranav’s 21-run partnership was the joint-highest of the innings, which couldn’t have told the tale of our innings more eloquently had Stephen Fry been reading it. Nearly 38 overs had been bowled, and we were barely getting the ball off the cut strip, let alone the square. An anxious glance at the clock saw the long hand dropping to 3:20pm; we didn’t have any batters left to go big, so we’d have to suck up our low score and try to defend it as stoutly as possible. I told myself that 3:45pm would be the cut-off point for our innings, regardless of where our score was. Besides, I’d remembered how nice the sandwiches had been the previous year; if we couldn’t attack their bowling, surely we’d do a better job getting stuck into the teas.
Ben came out and kept Pranav company; Pranav didn’t seem able to open his arms and get expansive, but he didn’t look like getting out, either. Naturally, we were keeping an eye on the England/Australia Test match at Old Trafford, and I reckoned one or two Pranav’s could’ve kept England in the game. Pranav clipped a lovely boundary off his legs and Ben pulled Hunt for four, but then Mustafa returned, refreshed and revitalised. Despite having done a load of bowling in the League the day before, he’d lost none of his pace, and the ball to dismiss Ben was a beauty; quick and straight, it clipped the off-stump with such force that the bail went skimming halfway towards the boundary and the ball ended up nestled against the sightscreen.
That was with 42.5 overs gone; Rob stepped out as the last man, and I confirmed our innings would end after the next over. That over, bowled by Hunt, was started but not finished, as Rob lunged forward and was stumped by Beaumont. He became member no.35 of the Boars 2019 Duck Club. We were all out for just 103 in 43.3 overs, or 262 balls (with one wide), in 165 minutes. Banstead had bowled an astonishing 15 maiden overs; almost a third of all overs we’d faced. We hadn’t done ourselves justice with the bat, but I did have seven bowlers to call on – bowlers who could exploit conditions of turn and bounce. To win from here would’ve been more of a miracle that anything Ben Stokes can do, or indeed ourselves a year earlier…but remember, cricket is a funny old game…
And the tea was as sumptuous as I’d hoped. Crab meat, pulled pork and sausage and brown sauce sandwiches. Deep fill. Having to open your mouth really wide, just to take a bite. Cookies as big as a munchkin’s face. Butterfly cakes. Onion rings. Chewable, easily digestable pizza. Such things are what dream teas are made of, and I made sure nobody – well, me really – went hungry. On the telly, England were sliding inexorably to an inevitable defeat, having done that horrible thing of raising all our hopes earlier in the day. Being shot out for 50 at about noon would’ve been better for us England fans to see; we could’ve just got on with the day and let the Aussies celebrate. To have them drag it out until the sun was going down is akin to cricket waterboarding. I’m sure our human rights are breached whenever England are chasing down Australian targets. Or maybe they’re all honorary Boars; after all, our team motto is “It’s the hope that kills you”. Only an English team could come up with a motto like that and keep smiling.
Back to our game, and the Boars bounded onto the ground, keen to make quick inroads and get a foothold in the game. For the third game running, I chose to open with our own slowies, Ben and Pranav, to bowl to openers Stott and Sultan, and we almost made the perfect start from the very first ball of the innings. Stott attempted to pull Ben square but it went to where Pranav was standing at leg gully; agonisingly, it missed his fingertips by mere centimetres. What a start that would’ve been! At the other end, Pranav was getting prodigious spin and beating Sultan’s outside edge, but Sultan had quick wrists and when Pranav dropped one just a fraction too short, he was on it like a flash to pull it powerfully for four.
It set the tone for the first ten overs; as they looked to score predominantly to leg, the batters were either flailing and missing or hitting the ball into the gaps, a problem exacerbated by the fact we’d been playing with only ten players since around 1:30pm. And the luck was with the batters: time and again, chips and edges went either side of fielders, or dropped behind them. I smiled ruefully from behind the wicket, as I remembered how well our batters had picked out their fielders with an accuracy the pre-shitstorm Tiger Woods would’ve been proud of.
And then, a breakthrough. After Pranav rapped Irfan on the pads for an unsuccessful lbw appeal, Ben struck at the other end. It was Stott pinned in front, and the umpire’s finger went up.
The scoring rate was four an over but, with 39 on the board, we’d chalked up a wicket. The unlucky Pranav had been replaced for a debut bowl by Azam, and here’s where Tom’s “he’s a bit nippy” comment had us turning the air blue. Expecting him to move the ball around a little at slightly quicker than medium pace, slipper Bob and I positioned ourselves about fifteen paces behind the stumps and waited for his first delivery. It arrowed towards new batter Harper like a rocket; startled, Harper hung out his bat and got an edge that went past me like an 80 mph tracer bullet. Bob didn’t try and take the catch as much as put his hand in the way of the ball, shaking his hand vigorously and counting his fingers as he watched the ball sail on its way to Ben at third man. A bit nippy, Tom? Moves it around a bit? Azam is seriously, seriously quick, and his howitzers were either just about kept out or let go by the batter to thud heavily into my gloves. In the next over, shortly after Dave had had a shoulder injury scare, the same batter edged the same bowler through to Bob on the volley; it was so quick, I didn’t even see it fly past me, or the parry Bob got in to take the fire off the ball. All I saw was Bob sprawled on the floor, the appreciation of his team-mates (and his own swearing) filling his ears, wondering what on Earth was going on, hoping his hands would still be able to hold a pint glass at the end of the game. Meanwhile, the score had flown up to 78-1 in the 15th over. Dave was next to cop a hand injury, as Harper cut a Ben delivery with such force it effectively hit Dave on the hand rather than Dave field the ball. A word beginning with the letter F hung loudly on his lips for an eternity as he screamed through the pain. Unbeknown to him, he’d also saved three runs.
Rob replaced the excellent Ben, and immediately blew away four weeks of injury misery by making a breakthrough. Firstly, Irfan brought up an excellent fifty; his innings had been full of power and precision, and rolling his wrists to put the ball where our fielders weren’t. But it was 50 and out when he tried to turn Rob’s third ball through leg gully, only to find Pranav standing and waiting to take a fearless, unflinching catch above his left shoulder. It had been a long time since we’d heard Rob’s celebratory pirate cry of “Aaaaaargh!”; it was great to hear it again. And there was more joy in the very next over; Azam finally got reward for his searing pace, getting an unplayable straight ball to rip through Harper’s defence and clatter violently into the stumps, reminiscent to this cricket viewer of a certain Steve Harmison (without the height or North-East accent). That made it 78-3, and drinks were taken; we’d put the brakes on their innings and the faintest nibble of a comeback was visible. Just twenty more maidens, and we’d win. Could we? Could we?
Rob couldn’t be got away, conceding just seven runs from the thirty balls he bowled and really tying up an end, but – with Read and Ives at the wicket – Banstead weren’t to be denied. As Suj came on for the last few overs, it was Ives who hit the winning runs, pulling a great shot for four in the 25th over. At least we’d taken them as far as we could; the luck wasn’t with us in the field, but we’d paid the price for being at least fifty runs short in our own innings. A better performance with the bat would’ve made for a thrilling finish and undoubtedly a classic encounter, but it wasn’t to be our day. We’d squashed their hopes a year earlier, this time the roles were reversed. As Jimmy Greaves once said, it’s a funny old game.
And England had, indeed, lost; but at least we’d expected it. The beer at Banstead was great, the ground was bathed in that beautiful, slightly watery sunlight you only seem to get in September, and we’d had a good day. Back at the clubhouse, Joe Gun enthralled us with tales of his latest wonderful discovery; lettuce in a tuna sandwich. Christine, the Merton CC tea-lady, had provided this culinary marvel, and Joe had reacted to it like an African child seeing snow for the first time. We were lost for words; how could we tell the great man that Christine has been putting lettuce in sandwiches since, well, she started doing the teas? Joe, though, was in raptures. We expected tears of beatific joy to roll down his face at any moment, like a nun seeing a statue of the Madonna weep tears of blood.
He’s led a very sheltered life, has our Joe…