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Bill Outram was the first badger – the first cricket tragic – that I knew. I remember him, generally, seated across a picnic table outside The Plough Inn, a pub in our village where he and my father sometimes met for lunch – Ploughman’s, bitter and, typically for Bill, Spotted Dick. There was something of the old Stoic, the Roman senator, about his long, thin, downward face, up which expressions seemed to have to climb: its massive forehead, its massive brow, its massive, clarinetist’s upper lip. With rare exceptions (‘Bit o’ pud? Go on, finish it’) he kept a distance: obliviously, exotically and therefore fascinatingly adult. It was a surprise when he came, one July Sunday, with a newspaper and a pack of Boddington’s, to babysit – an emergency measure, we sensed, even as children. All afternoon we sat, deferentially, in front of the television. The sun shone through the windows, pivoting gradually across the room. Its glare caught the television, and the television caught our reflection, and we caught our reflection, seated across the action from us, a ghostly audience of three: my brother and I, at one end of a high-backed Coleman’s Mustard-coloured sofa, watching the cricket, and watching Bill, at the other end of the sofa, watching the cricket.

I had played the game once, in a small, hedged Somerset garden, and knew the gist. The bowler ‘bowled’ the ball at the batsman. He tried to hit the batsman’s wicket – three ‘stumps’, thigh-high poles impaled side-by-side in the ground – and so dislodge the ‘bails’, two thumb-sized sticks laid horizontally, in grooves, across the top of the stumps. The wicket was a delicate, symmetrical construction, and the batsman’s life depended on its protection. (For a batsman, in the course of an innings, and therefore in the course of most games, there is only one life. Bowlers may redeem themselves at the next attempt. Batting, like living, has its quietus; its exhilarations and its terrors are like those of mortality, or pinball.) Still, defence was only one half – the better part – of batting, because the batsman also hoped to whack the ball with his bat. And if he whacked the ball without it being caught by any of the bowlers’ allies – the fielders – he would have to decide if he could run all the way to the bowler’s end before the ball was returned by a fielder. A ‘run’. One run. Two, maybe, if he made it there and back to his end in time. Four, if he whacked it into the hedge. Six, if he whacked it over. The batsman wanted runs. The bowler wanted a wicket, to get the batsman ‘out’.

Now, for the first time, I was watching the pros. And these were England. (Losing, as it happened, to South Africa, though I’d yet to learn how synonymous losing could be with watching England, or how perversely pleasurable.) The match was played at Lord’s, in St John’s Wood – the Home of Cricket – and is remembered not so much for England’s defeat, or for being their first post-Apartheid encounter with South Africa, as for a ball-tampering scandal that engulfed England’s captain, Michael Atherton. It was also England’s second series under Raymond Illingworth, a former, and arguably this country’s greatest captain, who had been summoned, from the commentary box to the dressing room, to resuscitate a failing national team. English cricket had declared a state of martial law; Illingworth, the old war-hero, became its absolute head. It almost goes without saying that his rule as ‘supremo’ was as infamous as his mandate had been total. He axed several young batsmen, a middle-order of future hopes that had recently toured the West Indies – Hussain, Ramprakash, Maynard and, most outrageously, Surrey’s Graham Thorpe. In their place old sweats and obscure Yorkshiremen returned. Mobile phones were banned. Sunglasses were banned. Illingworth had even ousted the team chaplain, Rev Andrew Wingfield-Digby – appointed by the previous regime to offer ‘pastoral advice and guidance’ in an era before sports psychology.

Bill addressed his explanations (legal, biographical, statistical) towards the television. The four-pack of Bod stood before him on the floor. At the departure of every English batsman he commiserated, with great ceremony, by uncollaring a can. Each demise left a vacant plastic ring. Soon a canopy of plastic sprawled from a single can. When the fourth English wicket fell, Bill rose and said, ‘Should call Jo’. He returned after ten minutes, with more Bod. Two more wickets had fallen. ‘Wait till Thorpey gets back,’ he said to the screen. The procession of English batsmen continued. A waiting camera caught their expressions as they left the field of play: bemused-anxious, bemused-suspicious, the many shades of sudden waking. The Bod was soon finished, my first humiliation complete. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Bill, ‘Thorpey’ll be back.’

Thorpey returns, the very next match. He scores 72 and 73, personal vindication in a drawn cause. England go on to level the three-match series 1–1. Thorpey prospers. England decline. Illingworth is unseated. The old sweats, some now in their 40s, retire. Still Thorpey prospers. Still England decline. The axed batting prospects of England’s middle-order are now frustrating talents. Their best performances come in lost, or losing causes, career-saving rather than match-winning. As England cruise to ignominy, the viewing public forgets the taste of a series victory, and acquires a taste for kinkier substitutes – the heroic loss, the consolation win. At the turn of the millennium, England have achieved the nadir of a lifetime, a series loss at home to New Zealand. A mob gathers below the players’ balcony on the pitch at The Oval, in Kennington. ‘We’ve got the worst team in the world’, they sing, to the tune of ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’. And it is true, we are the lowest-ranked cricket-playing nation in the universe. The middle-order of yesteryear’s future are now icons of unsuccess. Their names are bywords for profligacy and spinelessness. ‘Yeah,’ a schoolboy will say to his teammates after a dashing 10, ‘bit of a Ramprakash.’ Of an indecisive shot: ‘such a Hick.’ In a half-decade of disgrace, Thorpey has been the honourable exception, our only batsman to average more than 40 runs per innings. Against the faster bowlers he prefers the back foot, and stands up on his toes, cutting and pulling with authority. And he is our best player of spin, his low hands and swift, decisive footwork capable of charming even the great Australian legspinner, Shane Warne. But still England decline.

Then, in the year 2000, success – joyous, unheralded, discomfiting success. First at home against the West Indies. And later that year, over the winter, in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Thorpey is supreme. Thorpeus Maximus, the conqueror of Karachi, still batting in near-darkness as England steal the series – England’s first in Pakistan since 1961. But all is not well with Thorpey. His marriage is disintegrating in public. To his team-mates he is known as ‘Shagger’. He quits England’s tour of India and returns home to face the tabloids, Nicky and the kids. England succumb to India. ‘Wait till Thorpey’s back,’ I say to my father, reassuring myself, as we drive along a lane in Devon.

It is April, the start of a new cricket season, and the smell of varnish in our hall is mixed with linseed oil and new leather. In the mirror by the front door, a figure, tricked out in new kit, is rehearsing his most authoritative cuts and pulls. Under the eave of a cow’s lick, the figure’s face stares out, palsied with composure. On this batsman’s legs, from the ankle to just above the knee, is a pair of pads (Kookaburra Bubble Plus) – on the light side, for this batsman is not a sprinter, and needs no extra encumbrance. On his hands, a pair of Kookaburra gauntlets – four foam-filled leather sausages stitched onto the backhand of a leather glove to protect his fingers, a cigar-stub for his thumb. At the hollow of each palm is a cluster of small holes, punctured for ventilation – a similar formation to those holes on the mouthpiece of the family’s ‘retro’ rotary-dial telephone. The leather is new, the stitches unyielding, and the bat-handle cannot be gripped as tightly as it could be with the salty old gloves, which flushed as quickly and dried as slowly as a long-unwashed bathroom towel. In his hands a bat, a Kookaburra, the Thorpe Limited Edition.

It is, of course, my twelve-year-old self, dreaming in the mirror. Thorpey, you see, bats left-handed, which is why I spend so much time with my reflection. I am, after Thorpey, a Kookaburra boy. Expensive equipment, but after a couple of calls to the manufacturers in Leatherhead (made, precautionarily, from a payphone) and a letter of marque forwarded from an old cricket coach, telling my prodigy in false statistics, I have secured a sponsorship deal, and a third off all Kookaburra products. I have even bought an extra rubber tube – in (Thorpey) yellow – for my bat-handle, to be rolled up and then out, like a condom, over the bat-handle’s original rubber grip. The man himself, so I read, wears two, sometimes three; he finds it makes the bat feel lighter. That season, on the bus to an away match, I attempt four, hoping to last longer at the crease. In my kitbag is a white headband – the Thorpey signature – to be worn under the helmet and revealed only if drenched, because sweat is time, is runs, is glory. But I am too insecure, and too much of a Ramprakash, to flaunt it. So it gathers dark fluff in the depths of my kitbag, along with the showily spacious box in which my genitals feel agoraphobic. I am no Thorpey. I am that unrare thing: a batsman who bowls.

I am also, by now, a badger. Cricket is one of the more beautifully, certainly one of the most elaborately notated games. This scribal tradition is known as ‘scoring’. It is the job of the ‘scorer’ to keep a record of every delivery, however uneventful, and produce a scoresheet. The best-kept scoresheets can make an entire match legible, even to a reader who was never present. As with reading a musical score, the incidents, the movements, even the dynamics of a match will play out before the mind’s eye, just as music will, for a practised sight-reader, in its ear. My brother and I have even developed an all-weather pursuit, scorebook cricket, in which we write the music ourselves. (Planet Zog XI v. World XI, in which Um Toot the alien topscored, to list one scorebook-cricket encounter.) At night I read Wisden, a record of all international and English county matches, printed annually. Each match appears as a scorecard, a condensed version of the scoresheet; the tune, rather than the full orchestral arrangement, but more than enough to go on. Who could read of KJ Barnett (Gloucestershire) or WK Hegg (Lancashire) or V Nagamootoo (West Indies) and not invent a face?

Playing cricket, watching cricket, the two are inseparable: so much of ‘playing’ is watching. Those who have batted or are waiting to bat might as well be watching a screen. Even those on the pitch – the two batsmen, the bowler and his ten fielders – can feel superfluous. In this sense cricket is a more complete reflection of war than, say, football. Less Andy McNab, more Guy Crouchback. Cricket admits comedy. A contest is taking place, but it involves a high degree of individual inaction, helplessness, even obsolescence. Standing at ‘square leg’, as I often did, the fielder feels this keenly. Minutes pass without the ball coming his way. And because he is standing fifteen yards behind the batsman’s arse, it’s unusual to see what the batsman is doing until he’s done it, at which point it may already be too late. The ball miscues off the edge of the bat, away past him, out to ‘deep square leg’.

In cricket the point of conflict is momentary, involving batsman, bowler and often, but not always, a fielder. The rest is given over, sometimes to planning, redeployment, consultation, joking, teasing, inane encouragement, but mostly to silence and thought – reflection, interpretation, arithmetic, worry, fantasy, prayer. The athlete, the artist, the spectator, the statistician, the oracle – they are all called upon in the playing of the game.

Inanimate things also play the game: the weather, the pitch, the ball. They participate – with each other, and with animate things. (Think fog and London, or rain and Chesney Wold, in Bleak House.) The cricket ball is covered with leather; a raised ‘seam’ of string, sown into the surface, divides the ball into hemispheres. A new ball has a confectionary look – hard, shiny and lacquered. It stings the skin and bruises the knuckles. An old ball looks touchingly organic, like a Halloween pumpkin, the leather beginning to undulate and split, along a line at ninety degrees to the seam, revealing a grimace of string. It is softer to catch, and leaves a red residue. On wet days it will watercolour a catcher’s palms.

A ball’s degeneration is a central ecological process, and may be ministered to the bowler’s advantage. To create ‘swing’, for instance, so that the ball swerves through the air on its way to the batsman. In the first few deliveries of an innings one side of the ball will inevitably lose more of its lacquer than the other. The fielding team agree to call that side the ‘rough’ side, and set about polishing the other, using only saliva and trouser-leg. Quite soon, one side will be smoother than the other, and therefore more aerodynamic. Placing his index and middle fingers either side of the seam and supporting the ball from underneath with his thumb, the bowler – normally a faster one – then tries to hurl the ball at the batsman with its seam upright. (The trick here is to keep a locked wrist at the point of release.) With any luck, and by a process still not conclusively agreed upon by scientists, the ball will be sucked in the direction of the rough side. Humid and overcast conditions are especially conducive. ‘Swingin’ like a monkey in the trees boy,’ a voice may call out, ‘like a monkey in the trees!’

As the ball gets older, it swings less. Normally at this point, the ‘spinner’ is summoned. In order to defeat the batsman, the spinner relies on the ball moving from right to left, or left to right, when it hits the pitch. He does this by rotating the ball as furiously as possible – a trick of wrist and fingers – and releasing it in such a way that the rotation of the seam is perpendicular to the batsman in front of him. Clockwise, in the case of an offspinner, counter-clockwise, in the case of a legspinner. He hopes that when the ball lands, its seam will bite into the pitch, changing the ball’s course.

The qualities of a pitch dictate how the ball is likely to behave. Or misbehave. A covering of grass allows the seam to grip, causing the ball to jag left or right. If the sun has been out, a pitch may be crazy-paved with cracks, in which the ball may jam and deviate. A cracked or crumbling pitch is a spinner’s paradise, known as a ‘bunsen’ (bunsen-burner, big-turner). A hard, grassless, compact pitch is the graveyard of all bowlers, and is known as a ‘road’. The sort of batsmen who thrive only on ‘roads’ are scorned as ‘flat-track bullies’. A disintegrated or lumpy surface is the slaughterhouse of batsmen: the ball, like a cornered rat, leaping at his throat or scuttling past his toes.

As with other sports, though perhaps more palpably, cricket is played in the head. The most successful players are the ones who can hush their thoughts at the vital moment, who think least when the game gathers, every 30 seconds or so, to its actual punctum. As a boy I was obsessed with technique; but technique, I tell thee, only goes so far. Concentration, restraint and outward appearance are more important, especially for batsmen.

Batting should be a performance, its aim to subdue and intimidate the bowlers and fielders. Some prefer to act authoritative, some steely, some carefree. The first off-screen performance I remember was given by a tall, blubbery opposing captain. Between balls he would mosey a short way towards square leg, stop, study the field, raise the bat so that its bottom pointed towards the heavens and, by a snap of the wrist, spin the bat-handle between his hands. He twirled and caught his bat with a nonchalance more menacing than any shot he played – a mannerism I’m now convinced he took from watching Alec Stewart, the then-current England wicket-keeper.

Staying in character is not easy, which is why so many batsmen engross themselves in props. For the first ten minutes of an innings, a batsman’s brain is an antenna for every species of intrusive thought. The game’s longueurs throng with his vanities, self-doubts, self-reproaches. The waiting feels interminable, designed for psychosis. Survival is the only therapy. At a certain pass the voices go and batting gets easier. The individual is absorbed into the situation. The brainstorm resolves to a trickle of cunning. Instinct takes over. The enemy then is hubris, and the suicidal whispers of complacence. Being ‘in’ is exciting, but ‘getting out’ has its glories too. The satisfied batsman foresees his going – the applause, the approval, the congratulation, the smile he’ll give, the modesty he’ll affect – and it begins to seem like relief. The sleep of death.

Satisfaction begins, in my case, anywhere past twenty runs, but I’ve rarely touched this state of grace, and almost never as a boy. Instead of discipline I had superstition. The lucky thigh-pad, the lucky arm-guard, lucky shirt, lucky pair of trousers, lucky jock-strap, lucky box, lucky pair of boxers and a lucky pair of socks – the power of each charm inversely proportional to its cleanliness. Between balls I would joggle my helmet and thrust my chin forward like an ape, then back like a carp, to snuggle its bum into the plastic buckle of the chinstrap. As the bowler ran towards me, I would tap my bat twice on the ground and slowly, evenly whisper three Amen’s. My Howard Hughes moment came at the age of fifteen, when, for the duration of a season, I would take a pre-match shower in the same cubicle, shampoo myself twice with a particular sort of Head & Shoulders and tear all the hair from my nipples, ritualising the circumstances under which I had scored a chancey 87 not out (still my highest score). As half the matches involved catching a bus that left minutes after the end of lessons, I would be forced to sprint to the relevant cubicle, praying, with all the desperation and self-loathing of mania, to find it empty. I kicked the habit at the end of an unsuccessful season. The nipple hairs returned, stronger and crazier, and remain, two thickly hanging baskets on the otherwise blasted heath that is my chest.

Bowling is equally a performance, but harder to fake. Control is all, and accuracy in a match requires hours and hours of mechanical repetition in practice. ‘Never you mind. When you can land six balls in the same place, then I’ll show you how to bowl an inswinger.’

The history of my action is brief. I began by bowling right-arm slow, slow-medium at a push. When I realised I would never be anything other than medium-slow I became an offspinner. For a season, I flirted with a combination of the two – slow-medium offspinners, bowled off a longer run-up to generate more pace – a combination I thought I had invented. (In fact I was reviving a style of bowling common at the turn of the twentieth Century, its most famous exponents being the statistically mythical GA Lohmann and SF Barnes.) Ever since, I have been an offspinner. The least taxing of all the bowling arts, offspin is typically the preserve of the fat and the old. The casual offspinner ambles up and gently turns his arm over. The maestro bobs to the crease, jumps, lands side-on, and brings his bowling arm over with such force that he pirouettes around his front foot. To spin the ball he grips it between his first two fingers and his thumb, and on release turns his wrist, as though he were yahooing the volume on a stereo-set, flicking the ball round and over the top of his index finger, out of the front of his hand.

Common sense would suggest that slower bowling would be easier to whack. This is exactly the sort of sense that slower bowlers prey upon. Apart from spin, the slow bowler’s main weapon is ‘flight’, a rush-of-blood-inducing trick of trajectory. Ideally, the ball loops up, taking with it the batsman’s hungry eyes, before dipping sharply. The batsman is drawn forward, and commits himself to a swing. But the ball lands further from his bat than predicted, and spins onto its edges, miscuing into the air; better still past its edge, onto his pads; best of all past his pads, and onto the wicket. The sound of ball on stump is appropriately a ribbit. The batsman will hear the death croak, will know his indiscretion, before he sees the wound.

It is a cool September evening, and I am sitting alone, at the Oval – the home of Surrey, and, once upon a time, of Thorpey. Surrey are locked in relegation combat with Derbyshire; a place in the first division of the English County Championship may be at stake. This is notionally an event. They charge for tickets, fourteen pounds per day.

There is a row of seats to each spectator; the stadium seems more soiled than empty. Those present have a lost, stranded or sentenced look, and are moved on, stand to stand, by the encroaching shade. I am sunny-side, with the topless old rockers, the crossword-and-orange-juice platoon, the undischarged bankrupts, the nervous breakdowns. Away to my left, a shattered tenor cries ‘Suh-raaay!’ in mock-support, and collectively we chuckle.

In the middle of the pitch, 50 yards from my plastic chair, is the world’s number-one-ranked batsman – tall, slouched, bearded, jumpered – the South African Hashim Amla, battling Derbyshire and the sense of occasion. Think Ovid in exile. Think Napoleon on St Helena. He’ll never be Thorpey, sure, but I’m a fan. As floodlights kaleidoscope the players in shadow, Amla plays a couple of exquisite cover-drives – front-foot to the ball, the bat swung vertically, front elbow high, the space described by his arms a perfect parallelogram. Within sight of his hundredth run, he edges the spinner and is caught. Time for a cigarette. Making my way up the stand, I pass a man in a boater, canvas bag beside him, marooned in the shade of an upper tier. He is veiled in a hardback – old, coverless, cloth-bound. It is a volume of Dryden’s prose. He is watching the cricket.




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