Cricket, lovely cricket

An essay about my love affair with  the world's most wonderful game, which began when I was wearing short trousers. It's been an on-off romance, to say the least

Day after long summer’s day, my best mate Martin and I played cricket together. Picture a village green with players in their whites, ladies preparing sandwiches for the cricket tea and the gentle sound of willow on leather. Then pan out a few miles to Martin’s house, No. 2 Gaunt Road, on the newly-built Gleadless Valley council estate, in Sheffield, where two ten-year-olds are playing doorstep cricket, with a size 3 (i.e. too small) bat, a tennis ball, and a pink milk crate for a wicket.

Martin is bowling tricky underarm leg spinners - the pitch (his mum and dad’s front path) is only 15 feet long, so bowling overarm is a non-starter. He regularly beats the edge of my bat. After a while we swap places and I bowl my predictable off-spin, which he handles with ease, driving the ball elegantly into the covers (next door’s front lawn) or through mid-wicket (the road).


Every now and then, I’d try to surprise him with a leg break, spinning the ball the other way. This never went well. It always came out as a googly – also known, in cricketing circles, as the wrong ‘un. In my case, to paraphrase Wallace in The Wrong Trousers: ‘It’s the wrong ball, Gromit, and it’s gone wrong.’ Although not as wrong as the time I was playing cricket with our next-door neighbour Steve Hanstock in his back garden.


Steve suggested we should try bowling with our ‘wrong’ arm. I took up the challenge eagerly and sent my first ball hurtling miles off target, smashing the window of their shed. That was the day his parents decided the Hanstock Oval would be removed from our Test match rota.


Martin and I did all our schooling together, from the age of five to eighteen. We moved from Hemsworth County Primary to the City Grammar School, where cricket was on offer in the summer term. Both of us, though, chose to do athletics instead. In my case, and I suspect in Martin’s too, this was because we didn’t want to put our parents to the expense of buying a set of whites, when they’d already shelled out for the PE kit we needed for athletics, as part of the school’s standard uniform. So we would spend our Wednesday afternoons chucking a discus or a javelin, and shooting the occasional envious look across to the cricket square.


The nearest club to our homes was Norton Oaks CC, across the road from the landmark water tower that marks the divide between the southern end of the Gleadless Valley estate and the posh houses on Norton Lane. In our early days at City Grammar, we and a bunch of friends would often sneak on to the Norton Oaks pitch with our bat, ball and stumps for an ad hoc game. This was our first taste of a real cricket club, with a clubhouse, a scoreboard and a proper wicket. We would play until the sun went down, or until the club secretary turned up and chased us off.


My mates and I would spend summer holiday afternoons at Bramall Lane, watching the great Yorkshire team of the Sixties, captained by Brian Close and boasting the likes of England all-rounder Ray Illingworth, wicketkeeper Jimmy Binks, legendary fast bowler Fred Trueman, and a bespectacled, up-and-coming opening batsman called Geoffrey Boycott.


In those days, the Lane had football stands on three sides, with a large expanse of grass and a stately old cricket pavilion on the fourth. When the football was hoofed out of play on the pavilion side of the ground, the ball boys faced a long chase to retrieve it. But in 1974, construction work began on the new South stand, Yorkshire cricket moved to Abbeydale Park, and the breathless ball boys heaved a sigh of relief.


In my mid-teens, I turned out for the school team a few times after one of my pals handed me down a pair of whites he’d outgrown. It was a kind gesture but, as I was about the same size as him, the trousers immediately came under severe strain, particularly when I squatted down to keep wicket.


A few years later, in my early 20s, I made a solitary appearance for a workmate’s team when they were a player short. We were bowled out for the embarrassing total of just 10 runs and the game was over before the cricket tea arrived. And that seemed to be that - an inglorious end to a playing career that never really got started.


But after a mid-innings break of 35 years, I was back in a set of whites, when my sons Joe and Rory started to play for our local club, Gresford CC, in North Wales. There followed three seasons of absolute joy, playing occasional games with my boys for the Sunday XI.


It’s a fact of village cricket life that the serious stuff is played on Saturday, in organised leagues, where there’s a healthy dose of sporting needle. Sunday games are friendlier affairs, with teams usually comprising a couple of old duffers and a bunch of promising teenagers hoping to break through into the second eleven. At 55, I was our club's senior duffer.


One of my most vivid memories was an away game against Chirk CC, one of our local rivals. Chirk is a North Wales border town, notable for three landmarks: the 13th Century castle - part of Edward I’s ‘ring of iron’, built to show the unruly Welsh who was boss; then there’s the Kronospan plant, where they turn pine trees into fibreboard, to make kitchen worktops; and third, but by no means least, the Cadbury’s chocolate factory.


When Kronospan and Cadbury’s are in production at the same time, they produce a heady aroma, unique to the town. I guess you might call it pine au chocolat. I’ve certainly never smelt anything quite like it.


As we pulled on our kit before the game, the captain asked if I’d like to open the batting with my 15-year-old son, Rory. Something - perhaps it was the funky Chirk air - made my eyes start to water. I told him I’d love to. By the time we walked out to bat, I felt so emotional I couldn’t speak. This was a moment I would never forget. On our way to the wicket, my boy broke the silence.


Rory: ‘Dad.’


Me (barely able to hold myself together at this unforgettable moment of father-and-son bonding): ‘Yes, son.’


Rory (quietly, but firmly): ‘Don’t embarrass me.’


It’s every 15-year-old’s burden to live in mortal fear of being embarrassed by your parents. Usually, the problems arise when you crack a Dad joke or – Heaven forbid - treat them like children in front of their mates. I look back fondly on an occasion when I was presented with a golden opportunity to embarrass both of my sons at the same time, in front of an audience of several hundred.


As a sixth former, my daughter was to direct a school production of The History Boys but she couldn’t find anyone to play the headmaster. And without a headmaster the show couldn't go on. I told her if she really, really, REALLY couldn’t find anyone else, I’d step in, never expecting to be taken up on it. A couple of days later, she handed me my copy of the script and the rehearsal dates.


Considering that my previous appearance on stage was forty years earlier, in the chorus of City Grammar’s end-of-year production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe, my comeback went rather well.


On the final night, all of my family were in the audience. As I made my first entrance, out of the corner of my eye I spotted my sons. They were 19 and 18 but the look of dread on their faces told me that, for one night only, they were 15 again, with ‘Don’t embarrass me’ written all over them. To their relief, I turned in a (head)masterly performance, although they did make a point of telling me they’d noticed I forgot my lines at one stage.

Back at Chirk Cricket Club, with my emotional balloon utterly deflated, my thoughts turned to practical matters. ‘By the way, Rory, my hamstring’s playing up a bit, so no quick singles today, OK?’


'Yep, fine.’


In the third over, he hits a handsome cover drive that zips over the turf but goes straight to a fielder. The ball has barely left his bat when he bellows ‘YEEEESSS’ and sets off for a run that existed only in his head.


I scamper a few desperate strides before my dodgy hamstring gives way, bringing me to an instant and excruciatingly painful stop. It feels like I’ve been shot. I look up to see the fielder’s throw arrowing in. I hobble a few more steps but the game is up. I’m about to be run out by a spectacular margin.


But fate intervenes, in the shape of the Chirk wicketkeeper. The ball thwacks into his gloves. Then it pops out again. Flapping like a distressed seagull, he tries, and fails, to regain control of the ball, which plops to earth about a metre from the stumps. Meanwhile, I hobble a bit further, powered by the thinnest sliver of hope.


The ‘keeper is now scrabbling around on the ground. His hand-eye co-ordination has deserted him, along with the rest of his motor functions. To the relief of his teammates, he finally picks up the ball. Then he drops it again. I take a few more stumbling, slow-motion steps and finally – unbelievably - make my ground. Clutching the back of my leg, I turn to see Rory and the umpire laughing their heads off.


Of course, the scorebook records none of this drama, just the bald statistics: R. Benson out for 30, his dad undefeated on 58. Come on, the duffers!