Martin Johnson column – Cricket! A game for men in white coats…

It’s not long now until the first Test between England and Sri Lanka gets under way at Headingley, and let’s hope Alastair Cook wins the toss and fills his boots with a big hundred. But what if he’s out in the first over? A long and boring day awaits, sitting in a chair watching someone else get all the runs, occasionally having a stab at the crossword, and – given Sky’s penchant for those close-up balcony shots – trying to remember not to yawn or pick his nose.

Over that same Test match weekend, however, in some other part of  Yorkshire, a first-over dismissal may also befall a batsman opening the innings for Blubberhouses CC 2nd XI in the Theakston Nidderdale Cricket League Division Five. But unlike Cook, he can at least find something more exciting to occupy himself with for the rest of his team’s innings than stare at a newspaper trying to fathom out the answers to five across and fourteen down.

It is a well-known fact that one of the more difficult tasks a person can be asked to undertake in life is to try explaining cricket to an American, and never is this more true than if the task is being attempted while pointing out the game’s subtler nuances on one of the village greens of England.

Especially when dealing with that peculiar tradition – in club cricket at any rate – of dismissed batsmen returning as umpires.

“So let me get this straight. That batsman guy who was out has now come back again wearing a white coat, and is now called an umpire?”

“You’ve got it,” you reply, whereupon our visitor ponders for a while…

“So, if some other batsman guy in the same team is out, but the guy who’s been out himself but is now the umpire says that he’s not out, then he’s not out, right?”

And when you confirm that he has summed up the situation more or less perfectly, the American wanders off in search of a darkened room in which to lie down.

Seriously, what other sport is there in which a decision can be given, possibly determining the entire result of the game, by a member of one of the two teams?

And in what other sport can such a miscarriage of justice – instead of resulting in carnage – be amicably resolved by an apology over a pot of tea and a buttered scone?

There is something uniquely therapeutic about taking the car out for a Sunday afternoon spin, happening across a game of cricket on the village green, and passing a gentle hour or so watching from the boundary edge. Even when the cricket isn’t entertaining, the dialogue usually is, and most of us have had a chuckle when a batsman gets bowled middle stump having an agricultural heave, and arrives back in with some implausible excuse.

“Bad luck, Bert. What happened?”

Bert replies: “Swung both ways and then nipped back at me. Bloody unplayable it was.”

In the world of village cricket, this is followed by him unbuckling one of the team’s two sets of pads, handing them to the next man in, and unzipping his fly to remove the protection from his vital bits. Which in this case is a rolled up copy of the Exchange and Mart, because there is only one box in the club’s kit bag. Along with five gloves, four of which are left-handed, and a couple of bats, one without a rubber on the handle, and the other so old it’s got Len Hutton’s endorsement on the front.

And with just one ball for each innings, every time it flies over cow corner and into an adjacent meadow, the game can’t go on until it’s found again. I was at one such match when an impressive cover drive was only prevented from going for four by a superb piece of fielding just in front of the hedge by a spectator’s black Labrador.

Anyway, off went the dog, pursued by its owner, both sets of players and several spectators, and when the ball was finally retrieved, it had been so thoroughly chewed that quite apart from being perfect for a spot of reverse swing, a really skilled practitioner could have made it loop the loop.

This being village, rather than Test, cricket, the game miraculously managed to stagger on without a fourth umpire running out with a box of spare balls to pick from, nor did everyone leave the field when it started raining. And as for light meters being consulted when all 11 fielders are wearing sunglasses, play didn’t stop even when you could see the moths being lit up by the dipped headlights from the cars passing by at the back of the ground.

The old umpire Arthur Jepson must have had his roots in village cricket when, in that famous Gillette Cup semi-final that was still going when the Nine O’Clock News came on, Arthur turned to a player querying whether it was too dark to carry on and said: “You can see the moon. How far do you want to see?”

Village cricket appears oblivious to most of the golden rules applied by its Test match cousin, which means that batsmen who have been at the crease for a long time are totally unaware that this is not possible without being revived at regular intervals by people running on with water bottles and fresh sets of gloves. And they’ll never get the hang of complaining about people moving in front of the sightscreen until they actually go out and buy one.

In short, barring the kind of downpour that would only allow the next man in to reach the crease in a pedalo, the game always goes on in village cricket, hence the fact that many of its heroic deeds are performed in the evening gloaming.

It might involve the local Brathwaite tonking sixes over the pavilion, but more often than not it’s the completely useless number eleven trying to block out the last over for a draw.

Surrounded by fielders, every ball is accompanied by howls of anguish as it zips past the outside edge, but somehow he survives.

After which tradition dictates that it’s off to the pub, where that post-match pint has never tasted so good.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday May 6 2016

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