Monday, 9 September 2019

Boars v Banstead 3rds: Strife In The Slow Lane

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…

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Boars v Park Hill: The Kids Are Alright

What a difference a fortnight makes, eh? And yes, I’m talking about the weather. This is a blog about English social/ friendly cricket played on a Sunday; of course I’m talking about the weather. A fortnight ago was the zenith of a mixed summer, when we started our game against Plastics XI on a damp pitch that seemed to sum up the season to date. Fast forward a fortnight and, after two weeks of mostly Mediterranean weather more akin to the heatwaves of the last two summers, we’re playing on a pitch so dry and hard, it could have been mistaken for a nun’s withering stare. Two weeks ago, it was “bowl first at any cost”; this week it was “bat first at any cost”.

The Boars were in good shape, despite having lost three or four regular players to our sister Sunday team, the Rhinos. Missing were Andrew Counihan’s Venus fly trap-like catching hands, Sujanan’s panther-like fielding and ability to swing the ball in at pace, and John Smither’s serial-killing habit of making Charles Manson look like a British Red Cross volunteer. Every year, our square seems to rise above the rest of the outfield by another inch; when it’s finally dug up, a few of us reckon the fruits of Killer’s labours will be found underneath.

Boars XI: Neil Simpson*, Andrew Suggitt, Aleem Sajjid, Ian Bawn, Oli Miller, Dave Barber, Pranav Pandey, Kosta Niskou, Bob Egan, Kaleem Sajjid, Dan Money

We welcomed a couple of new faces to the team, and welcomed back an old one; Pranav, formerly of Raynes Park Former Pupils, and Dan “hairstyle perilously close to a man bun” Money, described by his good friend (and Rhinos captain) Tom Allen as an off-spinner – which was news to Dan – were making their Boars debuts, while Suggs returned to the team for the first time since we’d played Hook earlier in the season. A brilliant slip fielder and possessing the ability to ricochet the ball 50 yards off his knees, his thrust forward whilst batting is also a joyful sight to behold, reminding one of a champion duellist curling out the words “En garde!” whilst lunging forward with epee in hand. I was slightly worried for Dave Barber, as he was playing his third 40-over game in three straight days: his first day was spent chasing leather against Old Ruts in 30-degree heat, his second was spent taking a catch, watching his fellow batsmen rack up a decent total and inventing “Cricket Dogging” in the bushes against Wimbledon Corinthians, and then today. Kosta, the 11 year-old who marked his debut with a fifth-ball wicket against Plastics, was also back in the team.

We were welcoming Park Hill CC. Sadly they were unable to host us earlier in the season due to availability issues, and when they arrived this time around they only had nine players. Up stepped my daughter Hannah to join their ranks for the day, and so they had at least ten. Ian, the Park Hill skipper, and I went out to the middle to do the toss, which I won again (I’ve lost about five in 32 now), and happily invited Park Hill to field first.

Aleem and I opened the innings, and as the cry of “Bowler’s name: Lawn” floated over to the scorer’s table, a flashback to last June exploded inside my head and I felt the colour drain from me somewhat. Lawn. Dave Lawn. Their opening bowler from last year…the one whose swing and seam bowling twisted and turned me in my crease for three balls before I outside-edged one into my off-stump; the one who dismissed four of us for a duck after I’d opted to bat first; the one who helped reduce Aleem to one scoring stroke off the bat in seventeen overs. He was taking the new ball, and part of me suddenly got a little jumpy. True enough, he was getting the new cherry to move from ball one, and I resigned myself to just seeing him off and hanging in there, but that meant we took our eye off the bowler at the other end, Claire Daniels. Our encounter with her last year was the first time any of us had played against a female player, and it produced a little mirth from one or two of the team who clearly weren’t used to such a sight; they weren’t laughing, however, when she took their wickets shortly afterwards. And today she was bowling from the John McCarthy End with good pace and eliciting good bounce; Aleem was taking care of anything over-pitched or a full-toss, but I couldn’t deal with her at first as she either hit me on the foot or got me to nibble outside off.

We settled down quickly, though, and runs began to flow. Aleem is in great form against the new ball these days and gets his first twenty runs at a rapid pace, whereas I have to scratch around for a couple of overs before scoring a little more freely. Aleem received a major scare when he played back to a ball from Lawn that kept straight and low and was rapped on the pads; Joel Wilson may have been the only other umpire in the world that wouldn’t have given it out. Survive he did, and we brought up our fifty partnership pretty quickly. But with the score on 71 in the 12th over, a contentious moment occurred. Claire had been no-balled for a delivery above waist-high that I still can’t remember facing; three balls later came a full-toss quite wide of off-stump that I tried to hit through cover. Kaleem at square-leg called no-ball for over waist-high; Bob, the standing umpire, had no choice but to withdraw Claire from the attack. The law is the law, and to her huge credit Claire took the decision very well. To finish the over, on came Lush, a leftie: I joked to the keeper, Prem, that he was probably the man to get me out. First ball, it bounces once. It bounces twice. I lower my bat to defend the ball, but what I really needed was a broom; the ball goes under the bat, and I hear the unmistakeable death rattle as the stumps behind me are successfully rearranged. I’d been done by a pie man. I looked up after about five seconds of staring at the ground to see a Pukka Pies wrapper floating in the air towards cow corner, and wondered if it was the one Lush had just taken the ball out of. I felt sorry for Claire; all that bowling, that toil and hard work, had been for nothing but softening me up for a pie man to take a wicket she deserved more. If she hadn’t been no-balled the second time, would that wicket have been taken? A truly “Sliding Doors” moment, if I ever saw one. 71-1.

Andrew “Suggs” Suggitt took my place, and to my chagrin Lush was taken out of the attack after just two balls. Still the runs flowed; Aleem and Andrew were swapping boundaries, but on the stroke of drinks, the game dynamic changed. Ian Jeavons and KP were bowling in tandem, and on the last ball before drinks, KP had Suggs trapped leg before. As everyone tucked into a welcome couple of gulps from the jugs of purple and orange, we were on 108-2 and going really well, especially with Aleem still batting and just eight runs short of a fifty. The last time he was in the 40’s at drinks he perished in the next over…surely lightning couldn’t strike twice?
They say that one wicket brings two; not only did that adage come up trumps again, but it also signalled the Park Hill fightback and brought our innings to a near-standstill. And it was Aleem who perished, seven balls later, when just five runs had been added to the team score and he was still on 42. KP, fortified by the wicket and now bowling a much better line, hit Aleem on the pads in front of all three stumps. Up went Suggs’s finger, and the Boars batting froze: just 16 runs came off the next seven overs, and 14 of them had been scored in one over alone (from the returning Lush), as KP and firstly Jeavons applied the tourniquet and strangled the intentions of Ian Bawn and Oli Miller. That 14-run over had been scored off new bowler Blake (Jeavons now bowled out), and Bawny was suddenly able to free his arms and send pull shots whistling to the Cannon Hill Lane boundary. KP wasn’t to be denied another victim, though; with the first ball of his last over, he breached Oli’s defences and sent the bails flying into the slips. We were 129-4 at the end of that maiden over with only 12 overs left to post a defendable total; KP took the plaudits for 3-24 from his eight, and Park Hill had well and truly fought their way back into the game.

If Bawny was going to see us to the promised land of 170-180, he was going to need a wingman. Enter Dave Barber. Still fresh from three days’ warm-weather cricket and discovering 1970’s copies of Razzle in the bushes of Wallington whilst looking for lost cricket balls, “The Demon” helped steady the ship and put the team back on course. The first of his two boundaries was powerfully-struck enough, but the second one was pulled so hard to long-on it could’ve had a rocket attached to it. At the other end, Bawny skilfully mixed up singles with boundaries and, over the next five overs, the two of them put on a partnership of 42 runs. It couldn’t last, though; Gujela joined the attack, instantly looked a threat, and bowled Bawny with his fifth ball. 171-5 was now looking an imposing total, and we’d wrestled back the initiative. Dave and Dan “Legal Tender” Money (and that wouldn’t be the last of the money-themed jokes, not by a long chalk) saw out the next couple of overs until Dave was bowled by Gujela, who now had 2-1 off two overs.

That brought Kosta to the wicket, and he and Dan did an excellent job in blunting the Park Hill bowlers. Lawn and Gujela were doing the bowling and ensured we didn’t get anywhere near 200, and after a couple of lusty blows for two runs apiece, Lawn finally got reward for his earlier bowling by knocking back Dan’s off-stump. Lawn and Gujela had traded maidens and, with an over to go and with Kosta and Bob at the crease, we were 180-6. Time for Kosta’s magic batting moment. Having scored his first-ever run against Plastics, it was time for his first-ever boundary, and off Gujela too. It was a sweetly-struck pull shot, right off the middle of the bat, and sailed speedily across the glass-like outfield to the Rutlish boundary. There was to be no more scoring as Kosta saw out the rest of the over; we all praised Bob for his sterling contribution of no balls faced for his 0 not out, and we closed on 184-7.

After another lovely tea interval, courtesy of Christine and Kiera, it was time to unleash our secret weapon: Pranav Pandey. A leg-spinner more experienced than his sixteen years would have you believe, I was going to open the bowling with him. Against Plastics it had been the twin threat of Shakil and Bawny that did the damage from ball one in the absence of your traditional pace openers, because we hadn’t had much pace that day; it was a trick I was keen to repeat. Firstly, Dan Money was to open the bowling from the John McCarthy End (see if you can count how many references to money you can spot in the following paragraph; best answer wins a prize). His medium pace was gentle but, when it was straight and on the mark, it was a threat. Gujela and Lush were the Park Hill openers and cashed in with a boundary apiece off Dan…then it was the turn of Pranav to take the ball from the Kingston Road End. His first two balls fizzed from leg to off past Lush’s bat, the third one was played back expertly with a straight, confident bat, and the fourth ball ripped past the outside edge once more to smash into the top of off and middle. We were all cock-a-hoop; the dusty, rock-hard track suited Pranav perfectly, and he was getting the right amount of revs on the ball to make it talk so much you’d need a gagging order to shut it up.

Forrest came in at number three, and instantly made a fatal error; he drove a ball from Dan straight to Kosta at mid-on and set off for the single. Kosta may be the right kind of short height for an 11 year-old but he’s got a pretty good arm, and his throw straight to the hands of Dan enabled the stumps to be broken with Forrest yards out of his ground. Park Hill were two down in no time, and we were s-centing more success. That brought Prem to the wicket, and from the off he looked ready to hunker down for a long stay. A single brought Gujela back to face Pranav; hitting against the spin, he drove high and long to the boundary for four. Pranav’s next ball landed in the same spot, turned a fraction more, and elicited the same shot from Gujela…but this time the spin had done for him. It went high but not long enough, and all Ian Bawn had to do at mid-off was wait for the ball to drop into his hands. It duly did, the dangerous Gujela was gone, and we had three of their wickets in double-quick time.

Two balls later, three down became four down. My very own daughter Hannah was the next batter to face Pranav’s trickery; the first ball spun more than the others and ripped off her outside edge, looping up in an arc in front of gully and slip to ensure her survival, but the next ball was even better. Shane Warne had his Ball of the Century; Pranav was bowling them for fun. Another ripper had Hannah offering a straight bat, only to see the ball whistle past and crash into the stumps. She looked at me with a shocked face, like somebody had stolen her lunch; I had to confirm to her that “yes, love, I’m afraid you’re out”. Pranav was apologetic, but I was having none of that – it was bowling to trouble far better batters than had been on display on this day, let alone the captain’s daughter.

Dan’s sterling spell came to a close; his effort had been top-dollar, his currency had been accuracy, he’d played his part in keeping Park Hill in cheque while Pranav caused mayhem at the other end. That brought Kosta into the attack. Fresh from taking 1-9 in his first match a fortnight previously, he was now bowling at Blake and from the first ball he was a threat: not too full, getting the batsman playing forward, and bowling a great line. With the third ball of his over he drew an attacking shot to leg from Blake; the bat missed, the ball didn’t. The crash of ash sent everyone Kosta-bound to offer their congratulations, and as Pranav was taking part in an epic and absorbing tussle with Prem at the other end, it got even better for Kosta. Claire Daniels had expertly kept out what she’d faced from Pranav, but Kosta got her driving at one that turned just enough from outside off-stump to turn her drive into a played-on dismissal. Once again – and for the 10th time in the match – the stumps had been broken. As Prem stood alone in keeping our young Boars at bay, we had six of his comrades back in the clubhouse.

None of this was planned. I’d never seen Pranav bowl before, and was hoping he was good as he sounded…oh boy, it was turning out that he was better than anything I’d expected. The fielding was excellent yet again, that hallmark of how much improved the Boars have been this season, and enabled the bowlers to build pressure. Plans don’t work that often in cricket at our level, but so far the day was going our way. Ian Jeavons joined Prem, however, and for a while our charge was stopped in its tracks. Pranav had been blunted by both batsmen, and when he’d finished his spell he’d notched 3-22 from his eight overs: probably the best Sunday bowling debut I’d ever seen. It was time to replace the wiles of spin with the wiles of seam, and Bob – the Fu Manchu of quick bowling – brought his inscrutable skills to the bowling attack. It immediately looked like being yet another of those days for Bob when a sliced drive from Jeavons went swirling between Oli at point and Dave at gully, and when both went for it but neither got it, the ball dropped harmlessly to the ground. That was followed straight away by another fortuitous slice that only a fly-slip would have pouched, and an lbw shout that would have had Bob making the review sign had it been a Test match. But he wasn’t to be denied; shortly before drinks – which is fast becoming the witching hour for all batsmen at this ground – he got another peach of a ball on off-stump to straighten even more, cannoning into Jeavons’s pads. This time, the appeal was met with the raising of the umpire’s finger, and Park Hill were in the 70’s for seven wickets down.

Drinks were taken, but the Boars machine went rolling on. Kaleem had replaced Pranav and was his usual self: giving the batsman nothing to hit for free, angling his left-arm seamers across and past the outside edge, as miserly as he was a threat. KP went for a big hit, sliced it skyward to where Bawny was waiting, and the catch was nicely taken. An over later, and with Prem offering solo resistance with some fine leg-side hitting, Lawn came to join him but lost his stumps to another Egan missile, and we were just one ball away from securing a handsome win.

Park Hill had only ten players, so it was Last Man Stands time. Appropriately enough, that last man was Prem. A fine shot off Kaleem brought up a fully-deserved fifty, but he was now finding it harder to hit boundaries against Bob now we’d packed the leg-side a little more to counter his favourite scoring stroke. In tandem with willing runner Lawn, Prem saw Park Hill to three figures with another boundary, but – just like the afore-mentioned Fu Manchu, when the world never expected to hear from him again – back came Bob. Homing in on off and middle, Prem’s miss only meant one thing; the ball wouldn’t. Three wickets for Bob saw Park Hill wrapped up for 102, and we’d won for an unprecedented fourth time in a season by 83 runs. Prem had finished on 56, and Bob and Pranav had been the pick of the bowlers.

As always, the result had been immaterial; to enjoy the day is the ultimate aim, and to win is a lovely bonus. Admittedly, it is true that it’s less enjoyable when you’ve been chasing leather in searing heat for three hours before being blown away by a bowling attack hell-bent on grinding your face into the dust. When you’re on top and in a winning position, you’re always a little perkier. But Park Hill are a good side who are more than a match for anyone they play, and we had to be as good as we were to beat them on this particular day. We exchanged handshakes as both sides congratulated each other, and it was lovely to see so many of them stay for quite a while for a few drinks.

And so there are now only four possible Sundays left on which to play cricket, and the shadows are beginning to lengthen. There’s a chill to the afternoon sunlight, and the groundsmen need a mower and a leaf-blower when trimming the outfield. Six o’clock feels like eight o’clock. Winter is coming. So it’s time to make the most out of every last Sunday; eke out every second spent at the club, share the jokes and the chat and the beer, before Brexit comes to wipe it all out!

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Merton Sunday Boars v Plastics XI: A Hope Opera

If ever a game existed that highlighted the difference a year can make in the travails of a Sunday social cricket team, it was this one. Last year, in the corresponding fixture, we were in the middle of a weeks-long heatwave that reduced virtually all cricket pitches to roads for the batsmen and heartbreak highways for the bowlers; and our game was no exception. Plastics – admittedly, with a couple of ringers in their team – piled up 298-7 from 40 overs on a baking-hot day, with Ian and Abdul conceding 140 runs off their combined sixteen overs and Jake and my three combined overs going for 50 runs…although it was Jake’s famous over that lasted longer than “War and Peace” that make more of an impression than the whiplash I suffered watching my lollipops getting slammed over my head and into the bushes by the sightscreen. In reply, we mustered 165 thanks to the combined efforts of myself, Abdul and Extras. This year, the gap between the two teams would reduce dramatically, but could the Boars get one over the Plastics and atone for the previous year’s crushing?

Firstly, the weather. There will be no talk of heatwaves when reminiscing about 2019. The batsmen who were feasting on all bowling last year are struggling to lick the crumbs from last year’s table; the squares have been greener than a cannabis farm for most of the season, especially on Saturdays, when the League batters have been reduced to batting averages that look more like bowling averages, and Sunday pie bowlers – whose averages are normally just about higher than their ages – have been the ruin of many a weekend. Flat is the beer and stale the cheese and cucumber when you’ve been bowled under your bat by an 11 year-old/ 60 year-old/ 80 year-old….which is why the tonnes of rain that fell during various times during the week threatened to reduce yet another weekend of cricket to games of over-arm skittles. Just for the fun of it, Mother Nature threw down another load on the morning of our game that hadn’t been forecasted, and dreams of playing on a decent pitch turned into a nightmare.

Then came the availability snags. A fantastic fillip for the club was the ability to field three teams on this Sunday, but the downside is receiving the dreaded “Sorry, skip” WhatsApp messages and e-mails that instantly puncture a hole in your line-up. I was two players down until the Saturday afternoon but, crucially, saw a young lad called Kosta at our home ground when I went to watch a bit of the Saturday 1st XI in action. He’s been coming down the club all season, watching the cricket, taking part in a little bit of the practice, showing that he’s capable enough of playing…and so I asked him – and his mum – if he wanted to play. Yes, he said. Great. One down. Sunday morning came, and I was still one down…so it was time to play the Daughter Card. Hannah is fifteen, likes the game but doesn’t play it often (always badgers me to pick her, though), but she made her debut in one of the worst games I’ve ever helmed two years ago at Trinity Mid-Whitgiftian and more than held her own. All sorted, I reasoned. I had my eleven. It was also the first post-Jake “The Cat” Curnow Boars game; his runs would be missed, as would his athletic, never-say-die fielding. The challenge was laid down to the team; his shoes would need to be filled.

Thankfully, as we got to the home ground, the rain had passed over and been replaced with bright sunshine and warmth. The outfield glistened but would dry quickly enough; I was more worried about the uncovered pitch. Sure enough, it was damp; a few rolls from the super-soaker lifted a little of the dampness, but not enough to squeeze it dry. No matter, I thought; I didn’t have a great deal of pace in our bowling attack and had already planned to bowl the slowies from the start anyway. I merely resolved to ensure I won the toss and bowled first; if we’d batted first, we might have broken the record for earliest finish of a Merton Cricket Club game (which we’d set against Ewell the previous September). Plastics arrived; Charlie, their skipper, and I duly went out to toss, and between us decided that – as I was intending to bowl first if I’d won, and he was intending to bat first if he won – we would field first. We tossed the coin anyway, just for show, and he won. If the game now went tits-up, I could legitimately claim to have lost the toss.

BOARS LINE-UP: Neil “The Fridge” Simpson; Abdul “Silver Fox” Hameed; Ian “Steel Testicles” Bawn; Oliver “Marauder” Miller; Andrew “Safe Hands” Counihan; Bob “The Dark Lord” Egan; Sujanan “Quiet Assassin” Romalojoseph; Kaleem “Special K” Sajjid; Shakil “Shakatak” Ehsan; Kosta Miskou; Hannah “Captain’s Daughter” Simpson.

At the stroke of 1pm, and under warm, blue skies, the Boars took the field; Plastics skipper Charlie and Mark were the opening batsmen. I’d asked Ian and Shakil to take the new ball and hopefully exploit the damp conditions and the general use of the pitch; sadly for us, Rob Turner had pulled out due to injury, but he’d have wasted his time bowling on what was a pudding of a pitch for the first hour or so of the game. Ian took the first over from the Kingston Road End and a full-toss got slammed to the boundary by Mark, but that was the last of his freebies as he settled into a probing line and length outside off-stump. Shakil’s first over from the Clubhouse End started with a ball that fizzed from off to leg that had the whole team purring. His fifth ball pitched in line with middle and leg and didn’t turn; it carried straight on, our appeal was imploring, and the umpire’s finger went up. Charlie was on his way for that Sunday Boars speciality – a duck. 4-1; what a start.

It got better in Ian’s next over. Bob now reminds me of one of my favourite footballers, Ruben Neves of Wolves: Neves doesn’t score simple tap-ins inside the box. Oh no. Neves only deals in twenty-five/ thirty-yard howitzers that rocket into top corners, and Bob doesn’t deal in straight-forward slip catches; not for him the stand still, hands cupped, yawn while the ball reaches you approach to slip catching. All of his slip catches this season have been tumbling, diving, sprawling moments of magic, and our second wicket was probably his best catch of the season so far. Ian elicited the outside-edge from batsman Bob and it flew low past me to slip, where Boars Bob brilliantly scooped it up off his bootlaces whilst diving to his left. No one could quite believe it, but we suddenly found ourselves on a roll: new bat Alex played for spin but Shakil cunningly bowled one that held its line and cannoned into the stumps. While Mark was somehow surviving at the other end and picking up runs where he could, 20-3 became 24-4 as Shakil’s rip and turn back into Phil forced him to chop the ball onto his stumps.

Kaleem replaced Ian from the Kingston Road End. “Special K” is in the bowling groove of his life and, time and again, he hooped the ball from off to leg, beating the outside edge. In a classic over, he set up batsman Jimmy brilliantly by bowling him two widish inswingers outside off-stump, which had Jimmy puffing out his cheeks in frustration, before bowling him one much straighter. Jimmy couldn’t resist the heave across the line, and departed to the sound of middle stump being knocked back. Meanwhile, the fielding was matching the bowling; Oli and Ian were proving hard to beat at point and square leg respectively; with “The Cat” now residing in Malaysia, these two were battling it out to become “The Tabby”. On top of that, young Kosta pulled off two brilliant stops at midwicket and had a run-out opportunity with a direct hit.
Pete Bishop was now at the wicket, and one of his first tasks was to needlessly run out Mark. The opener wasn’t looking that comfortable but was set on 30 when called through for a single to a push straight to Andrew; he returned the ball to me perfectly over the stumps, and as I broke them Mark was three yards out of his crease. Were we cock-a-hoop? Hell,yes! Plastics XI were 44-6; I’m not sure which set of players couldn’t quite believe what was happening.

That brought Joey Anderson to the crease, and he set out his stall immediately with a full-blooded pull off Kaleem for four. He wasn’t going to die wondering and I knew we’d get him sooner or later; what I didn’t realise was a Plastics batting revival had just started. The ball was also leaving Pete’s bat like a pistol crack, but on the stroke of drinks, and with the score at 78, Anderson tried one pull shot too many off Sujanan; the ball rocketed a mile in the air, Shakil steeled himself beneath it, and held his nerve – and the ball – to take a brilliant catch. Big, big wicket. Drinks were taken halfway through the 20th over; I was pinching myself. Getting them out for around 100 was a very serious possibility; three wickets were all we needed. Three balls, out of a possible 123. Surely, surely this was to be our day?

Young Kosta stepped up for his first-ever Merton over. The first ball turned off the pitch and sailed past new bat Peter’s outside edge; the second ball hit a bump in the pitch and rolled agonisingly close to the stumps. His fifth ball was wide, but full, down the leg side; sensing an easy boundary, Peter gleefully had a go at it, only to top-edge it to square leg. Kaleem put his hands together, the ball bounced in, then out…and then he pouched it safely on the juggle. Peter was out, they were 82-8, and Kosta had taken his first-ever wicket with his fifth ball. Everyone in the team rushed to congratulate him; it was a fantastic moment.

Little did we know, that was as good as it got.

The sun had been out for a while now and the pitch was drying nicely, which was also making batting easier than in that first hour or so. Jamie joined Pete at the wicket and looked like a wicket-in-waiting as he just about managed to keep out stumps-bound yorkers and full-length balls at the very last moment, but he soon proved to be the immovable object to our irresistible force. His obduracy was giving the in-form Pete licence to play his shots, and they were coming off; seeing he favoured the pull through mid-wicket, I pushed Andrew back ten yards from that very spot…you can guess where Pete’s next pull shot went. Agonisingly for us, it landed at Andrew’s feet instead of in his hands.

As much as everything had gone our way before drinks, everything was now going against us. Twice in the same over, Bob found Pete’s inside-edge, but on both occasions the edge was too thick and flew past me down to fine leg. In his next over, the luckless Bob induced a wild swing from Pete that went slicing over slip and gully to where no fielder was, and a shout for caught behind was also turned down. We also found ourselves powerless to stop Pete from farming the strike, and pinching singles off the 5th and 6th balls of an over became the norm. Pete brought up his fifty, and shortly afterwards the 150 came up. The innings finally closed on 171-8, and Pete was 86 not out; it had been a brilliant knock, probably the best I’ve seen at our ground all season. The game had now swung firmly in their favour in the space of 123 balls.
“It’s the hope that kills you” is now our new Sunday Boars motto.

After tea, Abdul and myself went out there to start the run-chase. The batting conditions had improved the more the pitch had dried out, as Pete and Jamie (who’d finished on 11 not out from his 20-over crease occupation), so it was up to us to do nothing silly and get ourselves in. We were settled in relatively quickly; Saril couldn’t get his line right and we knew we could score off his bowling as a couple of fours demonstrated, but Jamie at the other end was a different prospect altogether: slower, bowling to the end where it could either ping you between the eyes or roll under your bat, we decided to just keep him out and not take any chances. His first two overs were maidens. It was a good ploy; the runs began to flow from the other end. Abdul and I exchanged boundaries, a crunching extra-cover from me bested by Abdul’s giant six into the top of the bushes near the school. My four brought up our fifty partnership (we bat well, us two: the last time we batted, against Kensington and Chelsea, we put on 109), but then I allowed my concentration to lapse for just one ball, didn’t quite cover a straight one, and was bowled by Milburn. I was gutted, but we were 59-1 – more than a third of the way there.

Ian came in and soon mastered the art of the one’s and two’s. Anderson was bowling rippers down the hill, pitching on off and called wide as the balls keep turning nearly off the cut strip towards slip, and Abdul had dealt with him well…until the stroke of drinks. To be fair to Abdul, there was nothing he could have done about the ball that got him; extra bounce saw the ball balloon off his glove and into the keeper’s gloves. 81-2, but Abdul had looked really good. That brought Oli to the crease, but his stay was brief due to a piece of brilliance from bowler Newhurst, who somehow turned Oli’s rocket shot into a safely-taken return catch; Davies then came on down the hill and put his team firmly in the driving seat. Turning the ball from off to leg, he got a beauty to lift and caress Ian’s bails from their grooves; three balls later, he did exactly the same to Bob. 82-1 had become 90-5.

Hannah joined Andrew at the crease, and there came another magic moment: two balls after a push from Hannah had been caught on the bounce by a close-in fielder, a pull shot brought her her first-ever run. The cheers from the clubhouse could be heard in Raynes Park. She’s the first-ever female to play for Merton CC, and she’d just scored the first run ever by a female player for a Merton CC team. History had been made, and the moment seemed to rub off on Andrew. Where he’d been previously watchful, he suddenly became Andrew the ‘Ammer by smashing three fours and a six down to the boundary near the school. Between them they added 28 runs for the sixth wicket, but it sadly came to an end when Andrew was bowled by the returning Saril, and a decent shot from Hannah was caught safely by mid-on. 119-7 became 126-9, as firstly Sujanan was caught behind off Charlie and then Kosta – who also scored his first-ever Merton run, and looked more than handy with the bat – was run out.

That left Shakil and Kaleem at the crease; Merton’s last stand. 46 runs to win, 36 balls left in the match. Milburn and Davies were the death bowlers, and dot balls were dominating. Shakil was looking to go big, though, and several big swings had missed…but he didn’t miss for long. The bowlers were struggling for consistency, and no-balls were swelling the Boars total; Shakil then reeled off a succession of fours and a monster six, that left us – improbably, but not impossibly – chasing 17 runs off the last over. Kaleem was on strike; he went for a mow at the first ball and hit it straight back to the bowler for a dot ball, then made contact with the second ball. In the air it flew, seemingly wide of mid-on, but the fielder there had broken into a run and smartly took the catch, on the move, to end the innings and the game. We were 155 all out.

The margin of defeat was just sixteen runs; a far cry from the 140-run shellacking of last season. True, the pitch and conditions had been a very good leveller, but once again our bowling and fielding had been top-rate. Yes, we were disappointed not to wrap the Plastics up for around 100-120, but if you’d offered me 171-8 at the start of the day I’d have snapped your hand off. All that stood between us and victory had been Pete Bishop’s great innings and Jamie sticking with him while he scored them, and the fact that Pete isn’t a ringer in disguise softens the blow. From what a couple of his team-mates said, it was his finest-ever innings: sod’s law he makes it against us. Maybe next year we’ll get him for a duck. But to run a good side close, with an XI that featured an 11-year old debutant and the captain’s daughter who normally buries her head in memes and YouTube videos, is something to be proud of. The fact she’d also scored more runs that day than the 2018 Player’s Player of the Year caused much merriment inside the clubhouse; the beer never tastes flat when you’ve just taken part in a terrific game of cricket and had a lovely day.

It’s the hope that kills you: never a truer word has been spoken in jest. Every Sunday team like us should have it as their motto.

Monday, 5 August 2019

The Return Of Energy Exiles

I think mid-season burn-out is setting in. It's that feeling you get when, having had the scheduled opposition sadly withdraw their availability on the first day of the week, you spend day after day checking fixture websites every hour on the hour - like others check their Facebook and Instagram pages - and just want to close your eyes and go to sleep.

Golden Age were the unfortunate team we were supposed to be playing; it sounds like they're having one of those seasons when teams suddenly haven't enough players to put out a team on a regular basis. Having been there ourselves, everyone here can sympathise.

Four fruitless days searching for an opposition had started off my eye twitching, like Chief Inspector Dreyfus from the Pink Panther films, when Fixture Sec Janet got in touch and said that Energy Exiles, a team we used to play every season without fail until 2017, would like a game. Would I be interested? I bit her hand off via WhatsApp.

And so to the day. As we're becoming more confident as a team batting first and posting a defendable total, I'd harboured the desire all week to bat first if I won the toss. That was, until I saw the pitch. It was a lush, April green, as verdant as the entire square looks before the season has begun, and I suddenly didn't know what to do. Bat first, ride out the first ten overs, wait for the ball to lose its firmness and then cash in, as per what happens pretty much every week on our square? Or bowl first, exploit the greenness and humidity in the air, keep them to under 140 and knock off the runs when the ball's old and the pitch is flatter?

Then, as the oppo started to arrive, it rained. It was only a couple of showers, but it was enough to see the covers wheeled onto the strip. Bugger it, I thought: lose the toss and not have to make a decision...which is why, when myself and Bernard - the Energy Exiles skipper - went out to toss and I won, it took me about thirty seconds to say the magic words, "We'll have a bowl". The gut instinct had been to bat first...such a shame that my gut can't talk, unless there's a pizza in front of it.

I strapped on the keeper's pads and joined the team out on the field. We were welcoming back Bob (injury), Sam E (banished to Coventry), and Kaleem (brother's wedding), and it was to Johnny M and Sam that I gave the new ball to. Johnny M's plan was to just try and pitch the ball up, get the extra bounce and a little movement off the pitch to surprise the batsman; Sam's plan was to tear in down the hill and let the ball go at supersonic speed, and not worry about line and length. He's always had a knack for panicking batsmen into swatting rashly at short-length balls outside off-stump; sadly, he's not always had fielders with the requisite catching ability at third man and deep point to complete the trick and take the catch. Today, I was hoping, would be the day.

It took the first two overs of the day to realise that day would have to wait; we were bowling on a quick bowler's graveyard. Johnny M struggled to get his line and length right and was swatted, hockey-style, to leg for a couple of boundaries; Sam was barely getting the ball above waist-height thanks to the featherbed pitch if it was straight, getting the ball to rocket through to me at keeper if it was outside off-stump, enabling their openers to swing their bats at will with no fear of being caught on the hop. The odd ball would beat the bat, but as the ten-over mark neared, their openers already had 80 runs on the board. Johnny M, it turns out, was still nursing a knee problem from the previous week; Sam's genuine hostility had been neutralised by the deck. Time for a change, and, just as the free-scoring Khan had clocked up two boundaries to sail past fifty, the change worked. Sujanan had replaced Johnny M at the Clubhouse End, and now watched as an attemped lofted drive flew to where 'The Steriliser' had just taken his position at mid-on. Johnny M was a picture of concentration as the ball dropped towards him and nestled perfectly into his waiting hands. Finally, as the humidity had risen and the temperature got hotter, we had our first breakthrough.

Kaleem replaced Sam at the Kingston Road End, and the batsmen suddenly found that they couldn't score a run. 'Special K' was putting every ball on a perfect length on off and middle, and in his second over got his first reward. Shahid was the batsman who saw the ball in the slot for a big, booming drive, didn't see it swing viciously late, and was still staring skywards when the ball perfectly bent back middle stump. Kaleem's jaffa was back; not bad for a fella who had hardly bowled in five weeks! And two wickets suddenly became three just five balls later; after a lot of prodding, Omshed flashed hard at a ball outside off and succeeded only in nicking it to me behind the stumps. Wow, what a turnaround - from scoring eight runs an over, the Exiles had lost three wickets for six runs in four overs, and 'Special K' had bowled that rarity of Merton beasts, the double-wicket maiden.

Keith, the dogged left-handed opener whose two colt sons were also playing, was still there at drinks, giving absolutely nothing away. We'd succeeded in neutralising his favourite scoring area by packing the arc between gully and point, but we didn't look like getting him out. Still, at drinks, they were 112-3; having whipped 80 runs off their first ten overs, Suj and Kaleem had restricted them to just 32 off the second ten. Having looked at one point like we were staring down the barrel of a total of 300, the game was back on an even keel.

The temperature rose; the pitch was once more becalmed. Bob replaced Suj and instantly applied the nous and skill that makes him still a dangerous bowler (in six overs, there would be just six scoring strokes off his bowling), while Rob gave Kaleem a breather and concentrated on accuracy over pace. Keith had been joined by Jonny at the fall of the third wicket, and he was skilful enough to keep out the good stuff and wait for anything slightly off-beam to hit to the boundary, and for a few overs not a lot happened. Bob rendered Keith virtually strokeless, and when Suj replaced Bob for his second spell, Keith tried to flick him down leg-side. The glance was firm, but not firm enough; the nick flew into my right glove, and finally Keith's defiance had been broken. 33 overs he'd been there for his 54, patiently taking singles, rotating the strike with a succession of right-handed batsmen, frustrating all of us in the field.

It was the first of three wickets in three overs: Rob, in the last over of his spell, finally got Jonny to glove one to me for a fine 41; Suj finished his spell with a delightful inswinger that had Jibs swishing at thin air, with nothing but the sound of his shattered stumps to keep him company on his way back to the pavilion. 163-3 had quickly become 166-6. Bernard and Jam crashed the ball to good effect against Kaleem and Sam, until Bernard tried one heave too many off 'Special K' and spooned it up to the waiting Johnny M, who pouched his second catch of the innings. The final over was left for Sam to bowl - who, for his second spell, had parked the pace and brought leg-spin out of his locker instead - with the Exiles on 198-7 and looking to go after every ball. But their single off his second ball was the last run they scored; his third ball sailed past Jam's flailing bat and crashed into the stumps, while his fourth ball was launched into orbit by Faisal, who tried to run two while it dropped to Suj at wide-ish mid-off. Suj nervelessly held onto the catch, and - with the youngest player, Evan Roberts, now at the crease - Sam was sensing a hat-trick. With the whole field brought in for the hat-trick ball, young Evan repelled the 'Widowmaker' and the one after that too - the final ball - which brought the Exiles innings to an end on 199-9.

It had been a terrific, committed, whole-hearted Boars fightback with the ball and in the field, epitomised by point-blank stops close to the wicket from Kaleem and Rob. We'd halved their run-rate after that first ten overs, from eight an over to under four an over, and taken nine wickets for 119 runs. Against the odds, we'd restricted them to under 200. There were only three genuine catching chances, none of them easy, and we'd taken them all. Kaleem had finished with 3-30 - having been 4-2-2-2 during his first spell - and Suj 3-34. Those two bowlers had spearheaded the fightback, and got their rightful rewards.

After another wonderful tea break - during which your correspondent downed a cold lager in one, as cups of tea and squash just weren't going to cut it - we padded up for a bat and looked to chase 200. Tellingly, a couple of us looked very drained after two and three-quarter hours in the field, but nevertheless Jake and Aleem walked out to open the innings. But Jake wasn't long out there; haven't belted one ball for four, he went for a big hit and was bowled off his inside-edge. Andrew 'Safe Hands' C was promoted up the order to three to allow me to recover a little longer, but after stoutly defending his wicket against some sharp and accurate bowling, he slapped one to square leg and was caught. Dave 'The Demon' suddenly found himself out in the middle against an opposition with their tails up; Aleem, at the other end, looked untroubled as he started to find the boundary regularly. Faisal had dismissed Andrew and now came for The Demon, trapping him in front lbw.

I joined Aleem in the middle and found the bowling to be accurate but the pitch as spongey as earlier in the day, so it would be a question of waiting for a loose ball to hit. An ugly top-edge off Faisal flew high over gully for four to get me off the mark, but Aleem was transformed; hitting some sparkling fours, and looking like a man back in prime form. I took four from Jam with a straight drive before reverting to type and shovelling a full-toss straight down Keith's throat at mid-on. Unhappily for me, it was a carbon-copy of my dismissal the last time I'd played the Exiles in 2017, and we were 59-4. Even worse was to follow, when I discovered my youngest daughter had eaten the meat from all the pork pie quarters and put the pastry cases back in the dish.

Johnny M banged a couple of crisp, well-timed fours, but went across the line to the next ball and was plumb lbw as the ball smacked into his pads. Kaleem joined his brother at the wicket and almost knocked him flying as they collided going for a run, but they safely negotiated the next two overs. Drinks were taken and we were 90-5; maybe we weren't too far out of the game, after all...

Four balls later, in skipper Bernard's first over, disaster struck. Aleem hit his first shot that could be called catchable, but catch it Ahmed did at deep-ish mid-on, and Aleem had gone on 49. That seemed to be it for the run chase, but we still had wickets in the bank. Bernard was weaving some kind of bewitching spell on the batsmen from the Clubhouse End, and after Sam and Kaleem had picked up a boundary apiece, Sam went big against him and was bowled. 104-7 became 105-8 next over, bowled by young Evan, as he got Rob to try and tickle him down leg; all that moved was the leg-bail as the ball sent it spinning to the ground. The young colt was engulfed by his ecstatic team-mates, and when he'd recovered Bob pulled him violently to the long-on boundary for four.

Next over, next wicket: Kaleem tried to flick Bernard to leg, sent the ball about forty metres into the air, and the wicket keeper pouched it safely. Bob delayed the inevitable as Suj joined him, by punishing some loose stuff to notch three boundaries in what was the penultimate over; Bernard, predictably, wrapped it up by trapping Suj lbw. 122 all out saw us lose by 77 runs, and Bernard had the scarcely-believable figures of 4.1 overs, three maidens, one run, four wickets. You could argue that we hadn't really applied ourselves with the bat, but the fielding had taken a lot out of us and the Exiles had bowled very well. Aleem was our stand-out batter, and Kaleem the stand-out bowler. However, it was one of those days when, once again, we'd shown our Boars spirit in the field when the chips were down and we were getting spanked to all parts; we stuck to our guns and gave ourselves a target to chase. The fact we didn't is a moot point; I was consoled by the fact that England had bowled like an utter drain against Australia at Fortress Edgbaston, and there was a large supply of cold lager behind the bar to slake our thirsts. Happily, as a club, we've also rekindled a friendship with a long-standing opposition in Energy Exiles, and we look forward to pitting our wits against them next year...

Saturday, 13 July 2019

The Camel Slayer

Well, well, well. They say you should always expect the unexpected in sport; with us, you should always expect the following:-
1)      To field first.
2)      To collapse at some point when we bat.
3)      Someone to nick all the jaffa cakes off the tea table before I’ve even got my spikes off.
What is always unexpected, and almost always pleasurable, is a win. When, however, the win is more comprehensive than almost any other win you’ve ever played in, it can be a struggle to comprehend. On this day, though, the struggle would turn out to be most definitely real…

Our old friends, Sopwith Camels, were the hosts as we made our way to the Roebucks Cricket Club in Bromley for our latest Sunday adventure. Minds thought back to when we played them at our place earlier in the season, to when he had them 41-5 and dreaming about skittling them out for under a hundred, only for their post-drinks batting and our fielding to go off in wildly different trajectories, and we ended up losing a game by 90-odd runs that we really should have nailed to the floor.

The Roebucks is a lovely little ground. The boundaries are slightly shorter than the bowlers would like, but the clubhouse is lovely and huge automated gates have to be passed through in order to get to the car park. I’d said to myself all week that, if I won the toss I’d bat first, but as I went out for the toss with their skipper Richie, I had a wobble. Thankfully, I lost another toss…and we were put into bat.

 Lots of familiar faces returned to the Boars fold following the Six-a-Side tournament the previous week, and it was Jake and Aleem that opened the innings. The first ball brought a “Sliding Doors” moment to the fore; what if their man at cover had held that catch off Jake? The Cat would’ve notched another entry into the Sunday Boars burgeoning Duck Club, and the entire day would’ve turned out markedly different. Thankfully for us, the catch didn’t stick, and Jake then did to the next ball what he spent the next few overs doing: creaming it mercilessly to the boundary. Through point, over midwicket, over long-on…the ball left his bat like a pistol crack, and Sopwith were stunned into silence in the field. Aleem was also looking positive in the shot, but as Jake sent the scoreboard whirling – and John Smither’s faculties, as he tried in vain to keep on top of the scoring – Aleem looked for the ones and twos and gave Jake the strike whenever he could.

The fifty partnership wasn’t long in coming up, and the bowlers who had terrorised us in previous encounters weren’t getting any joy out of a pitch offering them little. At least the tight boundaries meant no rummaging around in bushes looking for the ball, but Jake kept making their fielders chase, with Aleem also sending the bad ball to the rope. Harry Deans, torturer-in-chief in the corresponding fixture last year, came on and was instantly dispatched for four by Jake, and shortly after that, another boundary took Jake to his fourth Sunday score of 50+ this season, and past 400 runs for the season to date. But, with drinks on the horizon and the score on 91, he tried a big hit too many and was bowled, but what a platform he and Aleem had laid; our best opening partnership for some time, having been put into bat, and with plenty of batting to come. Even at this early stage of the game – the quarter point – we were looking in very good shape.

I replaced Jake and immediately got into the shots, slicing Vinay over cover for four. Despite never looking totally convincing, and seemingly unable to play the ball along the ground much this season, I put on 30-odd with Aleem and was on 23 when the old warrior Hughie entered the attack. Having watched me try to thump his son Harry around, he got his third ball to me to move from leg to off, pass my outside edge, and clink into off stump. I’d been done again by the wiles of a Sunday bowler; crucial for Sopwith, as our nemesis/buddy JP was limping on a previously-injured leg and only bowling two overs.

It was time for us to kick on, and inevitably wickets started to fall; Aleem, though, was still there, untroubled, unfazed, fully-focused and playing the anchor role to perfection. Mustafa smashed a six off near-enough his first ball but then top-edged one so high it came down cold, and poor Andrew Counihan fell lbw to the only ball of the entire innings that bounced no higher than ankle height. We approached the 150 mark, and Moh – making his Boars debut after squllions of years at the club – was off the mark with a super clip through point. He doesn’t play too often but he makes batting look easy when he’s in the groove, and he was soon in the boundaries. He was ultimately castled by a ball that probably should’ve been knocked into Kent, but the incoming Johnny M started doing just that. Confident, crisp and hitting the ball with purpose, his first boundary was a pull to backward square off his hip, and his second was a cracking shot through midwicket. As Aleem patiently ticked over, Johnny fell to a fantastic catch by Richie in the gully: the shot was good and seemingly rising over the cordon for another four, but Richie plucked it out of the air with his right hand – having injured his left hand earlier in the innings – for a one-handed wonder. Johnny M hadn’t trudged off long when Aleem followed him; a booming drive to the long-on boundary just didn’t quite have the legs, and Harry Deans took a fine tumbling catch. We groaned: not because Aleem had got out, but because he’d done it on 47. If ever someone had deserved a 50, it was that man on this day. Our innings was dissolving, but he’d been the glue that had kept it together. The wickets were tumbling to one bowler: Nikhil, son of Vinay (one of two dads & lads duos amongst the Camels).

Bawny duly contributed to our Boars Duck Club, his blob being the 23rd of the campaign so far, and we were eight down. Sujanan’s first act was to belt a swirling six over midwicket, but once he’d perished, Rob followed shortly after. We were all out for 191; a fantastic team effort. In a 35-over game such as this, you’re looking at 150/160 minimum if batting first, so to have nearly 200 on the board was wonderful. And an omen suddenly fluttered into thought as well; our previously two wins in 2019 had happened when we’d batted first, and in the other occasions when I’d beaten Sopwith – twice, in 2011 and 2014 – we batted first then. Hmm. Nikhil had got fitting reward for his golden arm with a fine 5-for; 5-36 to be precise, for the architect of our wicket rush.

The Camels innings started off in comedy fashion. Realising we didn’t have a square leg umpire, out sauntered – and I mean, he sauntered – their guy to umpire…in a pair of white shorts that looked like an oversized nappy, topless, with a cup of tea in his hand. He looked more like a 1980’s bullion robber on a Costa Del Sol villa balcony, and more mirth followed two balls into Suj’s opening over when, with the batsman’s trousers sagging around his knees, the ump was forced to dip into the batsman’s crotch area for the trouser laces – having pulled his trousers up for him – and tie them together.

Suj and “Killer” Smither opened the bowler and started well; John almost picked up a wicket in his first over, as a fend towards the gully area just fell slightly short of the straining Moh. Killer, who hadn’t realised the umpire was keeping his cap stuffed down his shorts so he could keep his hands free to count Killer’s balls, then almost struck with a chip to Couns at point, but that too just fell short.

It was Suj that made the breakthrough, bowling one so gun-barrel straight it hypnotised the batsman into forgetting to move his feet as it thudded into his front pad. It pitched in line, it hit in line; if it had been a DRS review, there’d have been three red lights on the screen. One down, nine to go, but that was merely the appetiser for a Smither banquet that had us all gasping in both joy and disbelief.

Every serial killer has one or more accomplices: enter the ring of fielders on the off-side. Moh at gully; Couns at point, Mustafa at cover, Johnny M at mid-off.


 Not one Black Knight, of Monty Python fame, but four: unlike the Black Knight, they stayed on their feet and kept their hands poised and ready to pouch anything even slightly aerial. They strangled everything that came their way as a good murderer’s accomplice would, and it was their catches that helped Killer burn through the Camels top and middle order like a dodgy curry through a porn star’s arsehole. First, Killer extracted a wild drive that flew up and into the safe hands of Mustafa; next, another expansive shot flew not where the batter intended, but instead to Mustafa again, whose bucket hands made no mistake for the second time in rapid succession. Three balls later, with the dangerous JP now at the wicket but at the other end, catching practice came Couns’s way as he gobbled up a regulation chip to point. The Camels were 24-4, and we were pinching ourselves. It had to be said that Killer had bowled so much better in the past for approximately zero reward; but, on this day, that stop-off at Gregg’s had seen him take on board a lot more of their stock than just a takeaway mocha. Every ball was now seen as a potential wicket-taking hand grenade, but still the Camels played their shots; sure enough, a lusty drive merely took the edge and spooned to Moh, waiting gratefully at gully to swallow the catch. 28-5, and Killer had four. Could he? A quick check confirmed that he’d never ever taken a five-for. As the umpire switched Killer’s cap from his crotch to his armpit – fuelling speculation John would have a new head of curly hair by the middle of the week, fuelled by the transfer of crotch-to-cap testosterone – all the Boars crouched around the wicket even keener than before.

The moment came on the first ball of the 12th over, and what a moment it was. JP was facing; Killer pitched it slightly shorter. It was a real pie; overflowing with steak and ale, Fray Bentos written along the seam, there to be pulled through midwicket for four. But JP mistimed the bounce and played the shot too early; the ball sliced neatly through his defences like a kitchen knife through a hooker’s ribcage, and knocked back off and middle. Killer jumped and yelled; we all jumped and yelled, then mobbed him as hard as we possibly could. After twenty-five years at the club, he’d finally taken a five-wicket haul. What’s more, they were 30-odd for six. I couldn’t process which of these facts was easier to take in, but as Killer tired and with only four wickets left to take, it was time to bring on the fresh legs. Rob “UMPIYAAAAH!” Turner came on to replace Suj, but if the Camels thought a change of bowler would bring them a little bit of a breather, they were sadly mistaken. Rob hit a good, quick line from ball one, and just two balls later he induced batter Brian to chop the ball onto his stumps. The Camels were 40-7 in just the 13th over; would we even make drinks? 

Bawny replaced Killer, who retreated to midwicket with our ovation ringing in his ears (and a phone call from Fred Dinenage, asking if he'd like to be on the next series of "Murder Casebook"), and proceeded to bowl a maiden – and, as a rarity, wicketless – over. Sam, their batter, had been unfazed by the carnage; he was the one to carry the attack to Suj and Killer, plundering boundaries with some very crisp shots. He almost came a cropper to Rob’s first ball of the next over, though, as a slash to slip was tipped over the bar by Moh, running all the way to the boundary for four instead. In the next over, Bawny joined the party by inducing a pull shot out of Hughie…straight to, waiting with eyes wide open in eager anticipation, Killer. The hands opened, Jaws-like, waited for the prey to fly nearer, then wrapped around it and gobbled it up. Eight down; us Merton “old-timers” barely knew what to feel.

Rob wouldn’t be denied a second time. A little extra bounce saw him take Sam’s outside edge, and this time Moh couldn’t have been better-placed to take the catch. 60-9; we don’t do this to other teams, I thought. Other teams do this to us.

Sensing the bowling would shortly be at an end, I called upon Johnny M to bowl the 17th over, the last one before the scheduled drinks breaks. And their last batsman? The Costa Del Cricketer, only now he was taken it really seriously: he’d put a string vest on. And he somehow nicked a single off Johnny’s first ball, a ball that narrowly missed the off-bail as well as it went flying between myself and first slip. Johnny then tried far too hard to get that last wicket, and leg and off-side byes were taken off the next three balls. The next ball was better; a straight one kept out well by the batter. Time for The Steriliser to clean up: with the final ball of the over, he took a breath, focused himself, and bowled a ball the batter could only shovel back in his direction. With Mustafa moving in from cover, waiting to pounce for the catch, Johnny got behind the ball, steadied himself, and took the catch that sealed our win.

64. ALL OUT.

Of course, we didn’t celebrate wildly or go mad. It was Sopwith Camels we’d beaten, a team we’d never show any form of disrespect to, and their handshakes and embraces in defeat were warm and genuine. They know we’ve hardly beaten them over the years, were overdue a good day against them, and today had been our day. And what a day! It was my first true win as skipper over them in five years of trying, following a hollow victory a couple of years earlier that hadn’t brought me any major satisfaction; it was the biggest margin of victory any team I’d played on had recorded (127 runs); it was the first time any team I’d played on had bowled a team out for double figures. Killer had ended up with 5-26. The catching and fielding had been like something out of League cricket, and proved we don’t fluke our performances from week to week; with the ball, and in the field, we’re now a team to be reckoned with. We’d totally dominated a game from start to finish; not even the nine-wicket win at Banstead in 2018 had been this one-sided. And yes, as I glanced at Bawny and Smither, team-mates of mine during the last nine years of at times painful shellackings and humiliating massacres, and Johnny M, four years a Boar and veteran of some of those beatings, I thought back to some of those times we’d fielded first in scorching heat, conceded 320, then been hustled out by cocky, talkative so-and-so’s with bad hair and appalling manners, for 80 or 90. And then had a beer to flush the game out of our system, wondering when we’d get a day like that.

That day had arrived, and it felt utterly amazing.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Game 2: Battle Of The Beasts (Part One)

BOARS v RHINOS, The John Innes Theatre Of Dreams, Sunday, May 5th 2019

Ah, the Interclub game; it must be as old as the game itself. Sometimes it’s well attended, and sometimes it isn’t; my first Merton Interclub was an eight-a-side affair on a freezing September Sunday. Last year’s, by sharp contrast, was a three-team T20 jamboree played on a warm, sunny Sunday, that was celebrating the fact we had three Sunday teams. Now it’s two, as a large group of Sunday players have switched to playing on Saturdays instead, and so the Sunday Interclub was back to the traditional two-team battle.

My Boars team had changes to make, but it was more like the team that will play week in, week out. Last week, for our win over Kingstonians, we had Paul “The Wall” and Rob J as honorary Boars; today, they would be in the Rhinos, the team more suited to them. In came Johnny M, “The Steriliser”, AB, Rob “Aaaargh” Turner (that’s his pirate cry when he appeals for lbw, not him in pain), Sam “The Wyld Thing” - fresh from cluttering up an A&E department on the Bournemouth tour after one lager shandy too many – and the return of the Dark Lord himself, Bob, after 18 months out of the game. “Killer” Smither was back too, full of recommendations to watch the new Ted Bundy film, prowling around the boundary, looking for fresh victims and painting a red ‘X’ on their kit bags.

The Rhinos were stocked with talent, and a look at their bowling attack caused a few Boars to check their life insurance. Tom had, at his disposal, the fastest bowlers in one attack for many a year. It was a bit like watching “Fire In Babylon”, the film about West Indies cricket under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards, only with pale people. But they could rightly claim to be the new “Nasty Fasties”; Matt Kidd was “Whispering Death”; Sam “Widowmaker” Egan would be “Grinning Death”; Iain Evans “Northern Death”; Rob Jordan “Antipodean Death”; and Tom himself would be “Rubbish Football Team-Supporting Death” (aka “The Solihull Slasher”). On the batting front, Jack and Arjun joined newcomer Andrew C and Ben “Austrian International” D to bolster their ranks, and with James P fresh from compiling a new list of Christmas cracker jokes to unleash on us all, our bowlers would have to be on top of their game to winkle them out.
None of us knew how the first home pitch of the season would play as well, with some of us having suffered at the hands of Grinning Death in the past; it would certainly be green, and I was hoping the previous day’s rain would draw a little of the sting out of their bowling.

The toss was drawn; Tom and I had a gentlemen’s agreement that we would bowl first, to ensure everyone had a full game (as events would transpire later, a good call). For the second week in a row, we were playing under lead-grey skies that brought a slicing wind to swirl around the John Innes Bowl; even in the pre-match warm-up (which is usually some of us dropping catches) some noses were already turning red with cold. The sight of Bob lighting up a Rothmans as he took up residence at first slip was a sight to stir the memory, but he was also keeping his fingers warm too. Maybe I should get all the Boars to start smoking when the weather’s cold.

It was Rob and Kaleem who opened the bowling and Jack and Paul who opened the batting, and an intriguing contest ensued. Tight bowling and excellent Boars fielding meant the openers were mainly restricted to singles, but they were still managed four runs an over. Jack, in particular, was finding his way to the boundary blocked by the panther-like performances of Killer and Jake, who’d spent the second half of the previous season regularly saving the Boars thirty runs an innings with his fielding excellence. Also, fine drives that - in July - would have raced for four were slowing and stopping in grass thicker than a Love Island contestant, and fours were being cut off for two runs only. Perhaps frustrated by events, Jack was first to go, bowled by “Special K” as he attempted a cut shot to the smaller boundary on off stump. That brought Arjun to the crease, and he too was finding the right shots but his way to runs blocked by determined Boars fieldwork. Paul, meanwhile, was finding the odd single to stop himself getting too bogged down; every now and then he would slam an on-drive to the boundary to demonstrate he had the power to go with his patience.

A bowling change brought Sam “hold my liver” Wyld to the Clubhouse End, partnered by Killer – who, on the aforementioned Bournemouth tour, had been the one to transport Sam’s liver to the mightily-impressed NHS staff of A&E – came on at the Kingston Road End. It was Killer who struck immediately, getting Arjun to drive big; unfortunately, he got the height but not the distance, and Rob steadied himself to take the catch. Ben D – I’ll call him “The Druid”, as that is how one of the oppo teams actually wrote his name into the scorebook last year – came out to meet Paul, and for the next ten overs it was slow, steady progress; that was, though, after The Druid had slapped his first ball to just inside the Cannon Hill Lane boundary for three runs. Killer then came agonisingly close to removing Paul “The Wall”, after he chipped a return catch the height of Killer’s boot laces. He did well to get down to it, but couldn’t hold on. It required the kind of physical bending motion that would have most of us screaming for a tube of Voltarol for the lower back, but it was nevertheless a fine effort. The Wall had survived. Bawny, at mid-off, then fielded a sharp drive from Paul with a section of his anatomy lower than his stomach and higher than his knees, and we were all impressed that he got straight up without rubbing the injured part and wasn’t speaking in a squeaky voice (some of us had winced on impact). It was a great stop that, quite literally, took balls.

Drinks came and went; some pleaded for Bovril and coffee. The temperature hadn’t risen past eleven degrees for most of the time we’d been out there, but there was a warm glow emanating from the Boars performance so far. This talented Rhinos team were only 73-2 at drinks, and were probably expecting to have scored a lot more. We’d shown patience and bravery in the field for the second week in a row…but Paul was still there, chipping away, anchor stuck in the sea bed, an immovable object.

Once he’d retracted his scrotum from out of his throat and put it back where it should be, Bawny took over from the unlucky Sam – who’d bowled very well with no reward – and immediately had The Druid in trouble. After an lbw appeal was turned down, Bawny finally trapped him in front, and the Rhinos were 74-3. That brought new player Andrew to the wicket, who understandably was very watchful against Bawny after a few years away from the game. Time and again, Bawny almost struck again as every ball landed on a great length. At the other end, Johnny M – “The Steriliser” – had replaced Killer, for his first bowl since February, when an incident involving a skateboard and a hard concrete floor had put his lower arm in a cast for a number of weeks. His first couple of overs demonstrated his rust, but he was soon in his stride and bowling well; smooth run-up, good pace, and the ball in the right area.

Then, Bawny struck again, getting one to fizz through Andrew’s defences to shatter the stumps. It was a wicket-maiden; he had 2-2 off four overs, and the Rhinos were being steadily strangled of runs. Patience brings reward, and Paul finally reached his fifty. Without him, the Rhinos would’ve been in big trouble, but we’d found him a hard nut to crack…that is, until The Steriliser bowled an over that turned the innings firmly in our favour. With the fourth ball of his fifth over, he finally got pierced Paul’s armour and bowled him; The Steriliser was ecstatic. That brought Grinning Death, Sam E, to the crease; a man known to put the ball into the road when he feels like it. But two balls later, an almighty heave to the Cannon Hill Lane boundary only succeeded in ballooning up over his head, looping through the air to the slips, where the sprightly AB – who’d also excelled himself in the field – held on to a tumbling catch. The Steriliser brought out his trademark Death Stare (copyright: Johnny M), and the Rhinos were suddenly rocking at 111-6.

James P, unrecognisable in clean white kit, and Matt K took up residence at the crease, and found the returning “Dark Lord” Bob ready to bowl at them, having taken over from Bawny. The last time he’d bowled, he’d suffered a shoulder injury and was coming in off three paces. This time, he was off his longer run-up and generating pace and length that made every ball one to think about. In his second over, JP became his first victim; having faced three balls down the leg-side, the fourth arrowed in on off-stump and found its target. In the next over, from the other end, Special K returned and bowled a lovely in-swinger to castle Rob J. 125-8 became 129-9 as Bob dismissed Matt K, and he almost helped Kaleem pick up another wicket with a diving effort at first slip that popped into his hands and popped back out again. The damage was minimal, however; Rob “Deadshot” T, who’d characterised every lbw appeal with the pirate cry of “Aaaaargh!” that we’d all join in with, returned to take over from Kaleem and struck with his second ball, bowling Iain “Northern Death” Evans. It was the 38th over, the shell-shocked Rhinos had been bowled out for 135, and we’d taken their last six wickets for 24 runs. Of the bowlers, only the unlucky Sam W didn’t take a wicket, and they’d all played their part in us needing a little over three runs an over to win the contest.

A lovely tea came and went – the Jaffa Cakes went a little quicker than everything else – and so Jake and I went out to open our innings. We knew what we were in for: pace, and lots of it. So far, though, the pitch had proved to be a little docile in terms of awkward bounce (only Rob T had gone one ball to truly rear up unexpectedly to the height of the batsman’s head), but we were still needing to be watchful. Tom opened up against me, and until I stepped about two feet outside my crease, had me in trouble – I got off the mark with an uncertain edge through where a fourth slip would probably have been standing. Jake opened up against Iain, a pacy, skiddy bowler who gives you nothing, who opened with a maiden over.

So, we were very tentative in the first four overs, nicking singles where we could. Me striding out of the crease finally paid off when I thumped Tom high over mid-on for a four that only just made it to the long-on boundary; I then managed to put his full-toss into the fence and repeated the trick against Iain by hitting him into Rutlish school. I then tried one drive too many off Tom, though, and just as Jake and I had taken the score to 24-0 in the seventh over, I inside-edged him onto my stumps. The rest of Iain’s spell was metronomic; after I hit him for six, there were only two scoring strokes off his bowling. Grinning Death replaced Tom and opened up with a maiden; AB was the batsman, and couldn’t lay a glove on Sam’s pace. Iain got his reward an over later by bowling Jake, and Sam shattered AB’s stumps moments later to make it 27-3. Aleem, facing Rob J, played for out-swing that never came, and shouldered arms to one that sent the bails into the slips; Matt K found the edge of Bob’s bat, and Arjun calmly took the catch. We were 40-5 and fading quickly, but the bowling had been excellent. Every ball was on the money, and they’d given away not a single short ball, full toss, wide or no-ball. No freebies were coming our way, and I was quick to remind the Boars that we wouldn’t be facing this quality of bowling for the rest of the season.

At drinks, we were 41-5; Bawny had been in a while, and hanging around valiantly; one ball from Rob J changed all that, though, and Arjun took his second catch of the innings. Matt K then picked up his second wicket, Wyld caught Allen, to have figures of 2-1 from three overs. Then came the partnership known as the “Packet Of Two”; the Johnnies that always perform. And perform they did: Killer and Steriliser, batting in perfect harmony, mixed aggression with defence and compiled the second-highest, and most entertaining, stand of the innings. Johnny M finally hit our first boundary for twenty overs by thumping Matt K to long-on; Killer then joined the fun and hit a four of his own. All good things must come to an end, and Rob J got one through to clean up The Steriliser. Four balls later, Killer provided Matt K with his third wicket by snicking to Jack behind the stumps. The Johnnies, although not ripped off after use and thrown into the bushes for the foxes to sniff around, were back in the pavilion.

Rob and Kaleem opened the match by opening the bowling, and now they were to close the match by providing the last stand. Rob looked really good with the bat, playing out to the covers and looking rarely troubled, but with the score on 68 Sam E brought proceedings to a close with a caught and bowled to dismiss Kaleem. We’d lost by sixty-seven runs and had the tables well and truly turned on us, but there’s no disgrace in being dismissed for a low score by a bowling attack like that. All five bowlers took wickets, all conceded no more than two or three runs per over, and we’d only hit five boundaries in the 30.3 overs we’d faced. It had been a fascinating game, dominated by bowling and fielding, with cricket as the winner.
Merton was also the winner too, so technically the Boars didn’t really lose!

Part Two of this “Battle of the Beasts” will close out the season, in a little under five months from now. The skies will be grey, the air will be cold, and the grass will be long. All of these things can be guaranteed; I’m hoping a similarly-keen contest can be guaranteed too.