Sunday 24 August 2014

"Oh captain, my captain"

So at last, after four months, my team won a game. And what a game. A 136 partnership for the 9th wicket, and the final wicket falling with almost certainly 3 balls of the match left. If you don't believe me, here's the scorecard. However, there's one name you won't see on that scorecard - MINE.

On Friday night we came back from the annual cricket tour and I had a little mishap. Slightly less than sober I tripped up and fell face-first onto solid tarmac. Cue a lot of blood, an 8am visit to A&E to have a gash in my lip stitched up and a visit to the dentist to get emergency repairs to one chipped front tooth and another front tooth that had snapped in half. Well after that I really wasn't in any fit state to play, so I got Joe to captain, left the scorebook with him and went home for some rest and recuperation. What a game to miss.

There's a poem by Walt Whitman that you may have heard of lately in connection with Robin Williams's character in Dead Poet's Society. For me on Saturday, lying in bed feeling terrible and hearing that the team I've spent four months working my arse off to organise had finally won, I couldn't help but be reminded of it. Here's the first verse:
O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

     But O heart! heart! heart!
          O the bleeding drops of red,
               Where on the deck my Captain lies,
                    Fallen cold and dead.
Fate can be a right cruel bastard at times.

Sunday 10 August 2014

The middle third

Like the mighty Mississippi the season keeps rolling on, and there's now just half a dozen Saturdays left. One can feel the icy desolation of Winter approaching and it's that time where a certain desperation comes over you, as you strive to make the most of it before another season comes to a close.

Since I last found the time to post here the Fifths have shown a definite improvement, although as yet we still haven't won a game. We should have won one or possibly two but our batting simply hasn't been strong enough to take advantage of some very impressive work in the field. Our lowest ebb came against Onneley & Maer at home, where our 9 men conceded 247 for 3 before they declared and bowled us out for 24. Not the worst defeat I've been involved in, but this very much fitted the pattern of teams having one player scoring big runs that made the match unwinnable for us.

Three weeks later against Hales though we surprised ourselves. There was loads of rain around that weekend and we were amazed to get a game at all, but I'm so glad that the Gods allowed us a window to get a match in. I opened the bowling with Paul - a very impressive new player - taking the first over and at the other end, myself. The thinking was that I might as well get a bowl while the ball's dry, and I'd take myself off when it started to get too slippery. It never did though, and I bowled straight through - 15 overs, 3 maidens, 4 for 46 were my figures, with Paul taking 2 for 9 from 10 overs. We bowled them out for 95, but unfortunately I think we lacked a little belief in our batting and were bowled out for 59. We were all a bit peeved about that one but it showed us, for the first time I think, that we weren't quite the useless no-hopers we had been at the start of the season.

Next up against Norton-in-Hales you could see the improvement in the way the team played. Twice Norton threatened to take the game away and twice we pulled them back in, bowling them out for 167 - perhaps a bit high but not that far off a par score. Rhys Wilson was the star taking 6 wickets, and again it's as if he never previously realised his own strength. We had a bit of a shaky start before a shower of rain took us off, and with an hour lost we resigned ourselves to batting out for a draw, which we got without too much fuss.

There was another strong bowling performance the following week against Porthill, all the more impressive considering we had three players I'd literally never met before. All out for 116 with your humble narrator picking up 3 for 30 from another extended opening spell, and again I felt the sniff of a chaseable total. Sadly though we crumbled again and were all out for 45, and after getting ourselves into good positions three times without winning I think the guys felt this one was if anything more frustrating than against Hales.

This weekend we played the 4ths for the third and last time this year, but I was absent due to another commitment. I handed the team over to Manu, who did a great job getting the team together and leading them for the day. They held the 4ths down to 195 for 8 before they declared with five overs remaining, the wickets spread liberally between Rhys, Paul, James Waz and Manu, and this time instead of the 4ths having 2 centurions they only had one make it past 50. In reply there were some surprise performances with Callum and Waz both making the 30s and looking very good, and Ben making a nice 20 after some coaching in the week from a mate of his. Manu came in at 121 for 9 and muscularly saw the team past 150 for the full compliment of batting points but was bowled with about 10 minutes left of play. All out for 157 but another encouraging performance against a very strong side.

I watched the second innings and it was curious to note the contrast between the sides. The 4ths were all serious, rather aggressive, and far too ready to turn on their own players when something went awry. The 5ths seemed almost to revel in the contrast: enjoying themselves, enjoying each other's company, backing their team-mates and cheering any noteworthy achievements. They're a really good bunch of guys.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

So where has my exceptional form come from? I'm damned if I know. My last three bowling performances total up as O36 M5 W7 R103, giving me an average of 14.71, a strike rate of 30.86 and a barely credible economy rate of 2.86. Yes, you read that right, two-point-eight-six. Maybe it's just a minor statistical fluke, or maybe after five years I have finally got the hang of this leg-spin lark...

Sunday 29 June 2014

The first third (and a bit)

I thought I'd post a brief description of how the fifths have been getting on. In short, we've had very little luck with rain, and when we have played we've been getting beaten by some reasonably big margins.

When I say we've had bad luck, I mean REALLY bad luck. Our first away game we had to wait for two hours while a boggy outfield failed to dry out before a heavy shower put paid to the match. Then the following weekend's home fixture was called off because our opponents couldn't find the players, followed by two away games cancelled shortly after we arrived and another away game called off shortly before we were due to leave Stafford.

Thus we've been restricted to playing at home, on that god awful astro wicket that's become the bane of my life. My team's pretty changeable and very inexperienced so I'm finding myself bowling more overs that I ideally would like to on that surface, and it's getting expensive. I'm feeling as if I have to chance my arm a bit to see if I can make the breakthrough, but that encourages me to attack more than I should, and any bad ball on that astro gets heavily punished. So far in 5 games I've bowled 21 overs and taken just the one wicket at the cost of 184 runs. It's just about the worst surface a team of inexperienced bowlers could bowl on, so it's no surprise we've been shipping a lot of runs.

As for our batting, more often than not we've been a little outclassed but we've had two matches where I was very pleased with our efforts. First of all we made 197 against Hales, sadly not enough to avoid defeat and it was a cup game so we didn't score points for it, but it was a pretty respectable score. Then against the 4ths - who look like they'll win the league this year - we faced a really impossible situation. I think it's fair to say we're the weakest team in the league, but the 4ths put out what I'm pretty sure is the strongest all-round team anyone in our league will face all season. We batted second and had no chance of chasing down 300, but we set ourselves to bat out the 50 overs against some very good bowling, and we were less than 7 overs short. I really liked the way the team was so focused on a single goal, and lots of players played their part.

I'm still feeling pretty inexperienced as a captain and I'm not all that comfortable fine-tuning my field settings, but the atmosphere in the team is exactly how I want it. I think everyone realises we're a team of new players and we're primarily about having a fun afternoon and enjoying each other's company. We don't want to keep losing week after week, but we understand that's the likelihood and we just have to make the best of it. There's a good attitude amongst the players, for example there's a group of five new guys of whom two or three play each week, and when our games were getting called off they'd immediately head into the nets for some practise.

That's how our season's gone after 10 out of 22 fixtures, and I've been starting to think about what happens next year. If the 4ths win the league they'll go up to Stone & District Premier league, while the 3rds may seek to switch to a different league. If the 5ths are still going we'll probably hang on in S&D 1st division and we should compete a bit more once our players have a season's experience under their belts, but if the 5ths were to be wound up there'd be no team for new players to start out in, so that'd be quite a loss for the club. I'm not entirely sure yet if I'll want to continue as captain (it's pretty stressful spending hours and hours each week trying to get 11 names together) so I perhaps need to think a little about possible succession planning.

Sunday 4 May 2014

Decisions, decisions...

Well today saw one of the worst decisions in any game I've ever played. Since I have a very strict policy of not arguing with umpiring decisions, one can deduce that the umpire in question was me...

We were playing in the Sunday league at Nether Whitacre, quickly becoming something of a jinx ground for me after last year's game was called off after one of my least favourite car journey's ever. This year we played and the one important detail to record here was that I bowled two reasonable overs and took my first wicket of the season. Nice to get that out of the way, and pleasing that it was a well-set batsman on a large score. It was my second ball, a top-spinner, and I was hoping he'd pop it into the air, which he duly did to Rich, a first team player and a very solid pair of hands. Sadly the subsequent 10 balls went for a few runs, but the ground was a curious one with very short boundaries at either end and to one side, with a more normal boundary on the other. Ideally I'd have wanted to bowl from the end with sweeps and pulls going to the longer boundary, but I didn't. That's why even with only two balls I was significantly unhappy with I went for 2 runs per ball - the fours were just too easy.

Anyway, in the end they lost five wickets for a huge score and we were left chasing something ridiculous like 291 from 40 overs, and Chan (the captain) asked if I'd do the scoresheet. I said I'd scored 100 overs yesterday for the 3rds (our game was called off) and I'd rather not do any more today, so instead the fateful decision was made to have me umpire, with Waz at square leg. We started very fast, boundarys all over the place. In the third over came the first big decision for me.

Thursday 17 April 2014

And so the campaign begins

All the waiting is (nearly) over, and so on Saturday I start my first season as a team captain with the new 5th XI. The Thirds have had a few problems with the ground they're renting and their game is off this weekend, so my selection's been relatively easy with a few more players to choose from than will I imagine be the norm. The team's got a good mix of core 5th team players, juniors and a smattering of 3rd XI experience and we should at least be reasonably competitive.

For me personally pre-season has gone pretty well. I haven't had to entirely re-learn my bowling action and I've been able to find a good length more often than not. My batting is what it is but my bat just keeps getting better - I'm not sure it was properly knocked in before but the ball's been really flying off the blade on the few (but increasingly frequent) occasions when I've found the middle. I'll probably place myself at about eight in the batting line up, and hopefully I can get the team to bat through its overs more and I'll be able to look to score some runs this year. There's still issues, particularly a tightening of my right bicep that's throwing my bowling off occasionally, but I'm feeling confident enough and that's tended to be the main factor towards whether I bowl well or not.

As for my captaincy, I'm starting to believe that I am just about ready for it. I've had a decent four year apprenticeship in the fourths and especially towards the end of last year I was starting to really feel as if I was reading the game well, particularly on those two or three occasions where I unilaterally positioned myself right underneath catches, even if I did drop them. One great thing about being captain is I'll no longer have that nervous feeling as the overs tick by of wondering when, or even if, I'm going to be brought on to bowl, but I'll have to take care not to inflict that on others. There's a lot for me to learn and a fair amount of "fake it 'till you make it" in terms of being vocal in the field and giving off the right physical messages with my body language.

I found an apt quote today, and given the team I'll be leading will probably lose more often than it wins I think I'll make it the team motto. It's from Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics:
The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.
In my view what I need to get right is to get the team really playing as a team with everyone knowing their role, keeping everyone happy and seeing if I can make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Ultimately I'll know if I'm doing a good job based on how easy it is for me to find 11 players each week. It's going to be a really fascinating challenge.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Some advice for you Dave

Regular readers (hello to both of you) may have heard of Dave Thompson, an obsessive leg-spinner who blogs at and who I've been in contact with pretty much since I started. By astonishing coincidence, he has also found greatness, i.e. captaincy, thrust upon him by his club's elders this season, and he's written a couple of posts about some of the challenges he's facing. All very familiar to me, but since his blog doesn't seem to allow me to post comments I'll have to give him my advice in a place he's bound to find it: Here.

He's identified two issues that may cause problems with a team that, like mine, is pretty junior-heavy: scoring and umpiring. So here's my advice for Dave.

In the first place, get hold of a copy of Tom Smith's Cricket Umpiring and Scoring. It is the definitive text on how to umpire and score and gives a very good, if perhaps rather long, explanation of the correct way to fill out a scorebook. Secondly I'd add two rules:
  1. the captain needs to watch the batting without distraction so he knows how everyone is playing and can give appropriate advice and instructions, so he needs to have someone else do the scoring if at all possible.
  2. The scorer needs to be focused on the scorebook, so someone else needs to be keeping the scoreboard updated (unless he's in a scorebox that's designed to allow scorers to operate it from the inside). It doesn't ultimately matter whether the scoreboard is correct or not, but it very much DOES matter that the book is correct, and the laws specifically state that this is the scorer's duty, not anything else.
Tom Smith does have a very comprehensive description of umpiring but it's probably not the best teaching tool. For this you need to find a copy of "You Are The Umpire", which is a beautifully illustrated book with a whole host of scenarios designed to test one's knowledge of the laws. It should be a good book to pass around while the team is batting and gradually your team will learn what the laws say and how to interpret them.

Hope that helps Dave, and best of luck. It's funny we've both been handed this same challenge at the same time, but there's plenty of examples down the years to show that slow spinners make the best captains!

Sunday 23 February 2014

A new season, a new start.

There's some exciting developments at Stafford CC. After struggling to put out four full teams a couple of years ago we've now found ourselves with probably enough players to field a fifth team, and yours truly has been invited to lead this new experiment as captain. It's a very interesting new challenge for me, but it will be a massive task to keep a team together when we're short of players, especially given there's now four other teams with first pick, each capable of kiboshing my plans as drop-outs work their way down through the teams.

There's a short but very good piece on the Pitchvision website about the six important roles a club captain has to perform. It lists these as Selector, Tactician, Motivator, Rudder, Coach and Player. It's just about the best summary I've found anywhere, but in those six words lies a whole host of challenges and countless opportunities to screw up big time. I've only captained four matches so far, and they've been a bit hit-and-miss, but the big difference is this season I won't be a mere stand-in, it's MY team, and I can develop relationships and give people clear roles and forge a strong team identity. My opportunity here is much greater than it would be had I taken over the Fourths, as with a new team there's no "well this is the way our old skipper did things" to get in the way. Wish me luck, because I'm really going to need it...

Wednesday 5 February 2014

First net of the season

We're back in business for 2014, with my first net session taking place last night. There was a net session last week but I had stuff to do and had to skip it unfortunately. Last night was the first net for the U17s, so ahead of the seniors I had the luxury of an hour bowling to the little ones to get my mojo back.

For my first time bowling in two or three months it went reasonably well, although the speed was still pretty slow. There was a little movement in flight in evidence so that's a big tick as that means I've got some decent spin going. Added to that I stripped a bit of skin of the knuckle of my spinning finger, so it's fair to say I was trying... The end product was OK if we add in the caveat "at this stage of the season", and given that this is now my fifth pre-season I can feel I've started to get the hang of what to concentrate on and what not to worry too much about. There were a couple of balls that looped up and landed on the top of the net, and it really wouldn't be pre-season without them, but in the main I was very happy with how it went, and I think bowling at the juniors in October and November has prevented me from accumulating that thick coat of rust that I've struggled with previously.

As for batting, honestly after a couple of deliveries it hardly felt like I'd been away. That doesn't mean I batted well, just that it was the same as ever. I need to work on really watching the ball closely, but other than that it was nice to feel bat on ball again and I just need to keep showing up and keep facing deliveries. Whatever technical faults I have at this stage I need to work on seeing the ball better before I tackle them, so it's just about racking up experience.

Apologies if there's a lack of substance to this post, but as you can probably tell there simply isn't anything else worth saying. Good start and, er, that's it...