Monday, 16 September 2013

An acrimonious weekend

The season is over and, as is now traditional, it's about time I updated my blog after rather a long break. So, we need to talk about Saturday, because it was a classic of its type.

I was rather non-plussed at having not bowled the previous week at Onneley & Maer, so further to that I was, shall we say, just a tad peeved to receive the following text on Tuesday:
Hi m8 sorry 2 say haven't picked u this Saturday, we needed a keeper as Harper couldn't play so had 2 swap u, hope u can still cum down n support us with it bein last game”
So if Matt Prior broke a finger and had to miss a game, Swanny would also have to miss out? Hmm, I don't quite see how that immediately follows. Dropping me from the last game of the year is annoying enough without feeding me what is patently a cock-and-bull story of an explanation. I don't know what the real reason was, and I don't really care. There's a basic lack of candour about that message that I can't help but find pretty insulting.

Guess what turned up in my phone a few hours later?
Sorry lads just 2 let u no this Saturday game has been CANCELLED, Oakamoor can't get a team, please still cum down to the club 4 sum drinks 2 celebrate a gd season”
Played 18, won 2, drawn 1, lost 15. Presumably “gd” does not, as you would initially assume, represent a somewhat superfluous shortening of “good”, but instead stands for “gigantically disappointing” or some similar combination. It must do, after all, if that's good, what would be bad? Anyway, a couple of days later he's asking if I'm available as a friendly match had been arranged with a team called Enville and someone had dropped out since Tuesday. 

Well I wasn't going to turn down one final fling before the long, dark winter months of the closed season came along. I turned up and had a bit of a bowl in the nets, and after shaking off a few cobwebs I seemed to find a decent length and line, and although my top-spinner wasn't coming out too well my back-spinner was looking good and my leg-break was excellent. Enville took a while turning up but to be fair they'd come quite a way, and eventually a full 11 arrived.

“Bat first” my team-mates said, for no reason in particular except that's what they always say. So we won the toss and batted, and I was called on to umpire. The fielders were ready, the batsmen padded up, and Wayne was hovering over the scorecard as I walked out to find no-one had brought the stumps. A short delay later we began, Enville starting with one of the most curious opening bowling choices I've ever seen – slow, loopy, no visible turn and quite often wide. As it turned out this was a tactical master-stroke given that Joe was our number 2 batsman, it's just the sort of bowler he'll be a sucker for, and sure enough off the last ball of the over, Joe's first, he chased a slow, wide, utterly leave-able ball and spooned it straight into the fielder's hands. 3 for 1. You really have to wonder whether someone who by his own admission is pathologically incapable of ever leaving the ball really ought to be opening the batting, but I digress.

Azar came in and batted reasonably sensibly - he's on form after a century and a decent 40-odd in the last two games. He got out without scoring too many, I don't remember how, and in came Ox at 14 for 2 with the other Dan, and shortly after came the most Boycottesque run-out I've ever seen. Dan H played a powerful drive straight to a fielder, yelling “YES”, to which Dan O yelled “NO”. Dan H kept coming, Dan O again said no, but then made a fatal error - he left his ground to start running. He didn't get more than two or three steps before sensibly reverting back to his original decision not to run, but by that time Dan H made the run and grounded his bat just ahead. So we then had myself (umpiring), Dan H and Dan O all looking at each other as the bails are taken off at the other end, and everyone's looking at me to decide who's out. Well I knew, but didn't want to say so explicitly. “If Dan O left his ground, the person who next grounded his bat behind the line is in” I said, and a rather awkward silence followed as myself and Dan O looked at Dan H hoping he would do the decent thing and fall on his sword. He didn't, and eventually Dan O trudged off the field, his body language a symphony of disgust. “There was a run there” said Dan H a short while later. No Dan, there really wasn't, and certainly not one that was worth risking after 5 overs with 2 wickets down. 26 for 3.

So rather quickly, as so often this year, our innings crumbled to the point that when I came in the score was 72 for 9 with, once again, about 20 overs to go. Once again I greeted Jamie with a friendly “we must stop meeting like this”, but inside I was fuming. We have in our team probably half a dozen players who've made half-centuries at some point, and a couple who've made centuries. There's no doubt most of them can bat, but once again most of them had utterly failed to engage their brains even slightly, and once again Muggins here had to attempt to pick up the pieces as best as he could. Like I said, it was a classic of its type, and If I had posted reports on all my matches this year, most of them would have read like this.

So myself and Jamie went along in our usual way, me blocking anything threatening and leaving much of the rest, while Jamie slowly accumulated at the other end. “I'm not trying to hog the strike” he said at one point. “I don't mind a bit if you do” said I. Enville's bowlers were, without wanting to be too harsh, slightly below our usual league standard. They had two young lads who did bowl pretty well, moving the ball around at a reasonable pace, but they were still a little too inconsistent to be considered a real force. I wasn't having too much trouble, although my team-mates clearly weren't too impressed with my run rate. “Send it Heeno!” one shouted as I blocked a waist-high full toss safely down on to the ground with about ten overs still left. “That's why I'm still here and you're not” I replied.

As I got more comfortable and the end hove into view I started swinging a bit more, but I wasn't connecting with many. I edged one through slips for a single and also played a beautiful straight-drive punch just past the stumps for two. I did pop up a dolly of a catch that was inexplicably dropped, but we got to the last over with Jamie on strike. After two balls I was back on strike, left a wide down the off-side, then left a wide down the leg-side. After a fatal hesitation Jamie called for the run, and after a further hesitation I set off but I was at least a couple of yards short. I couldn't help but chuck my bat a short distance out of a little bit of frustration, something I've never done before, but it's no biggy. It was just a pity to get run out with a red-inker so close, and I don't blame Jamie for calling for the run and told him so. We'd taken the score to 125, a partnership of 53, and I'd faced 48 balls for my 3 runs while Jamie was the top scorer on 43 not out. Just imagine if the proper batsmen had just played properly...

Can I say at this juncture that I don't really like being typecast as Brigadier Block? I'm accepting of it, I don't mind it, but I don't like it. What wouldn't I give to come in at 190 for 9 with two overs left and swing away for the hell of it, but it just never happens in this team. I don't bat at 11 because I want to, I bat at 11 because it doesn't bother me, and I know it would certainly bother other people, so it's just simpler for all concerned. I don't bat the way I want to, I bat the way the scoreboard dictates I should, and 75% of the time that means eeking out the last 15-20 overs giving the strike to my partner as much as possible. I'm doing a job, and given the partnerships in the 20s, 30s, 40s and now 53 that I've been involved in over the last three years, I think it's fair for me to say I do a pretty effective job overall. But I'd rather not have to, and it's not what I'm here for.

So what am I here for? Why do I spend my Saturday afternoons here rather than somewhere else? What do I spend my weekends driving to far-flung corners of the county for? I pay for the petrol, and I also pay my membership and match fees, buy tickets to all the dinners and adding on my post-match Guinnesses I'd estimate somewhere in the region of £250-300 of my money has gone straight to the club this year alone. And why? So that I can bowl a few overs a week and test my bowling against the batsmen. That's why I'm here. Anything else, everything else, is secondary. Anyone who knows me who doesn't get that must have spent less than half a second thinking about what I want to get out of the day when I turn up and pay my fees.

Now last week against Onneley & Maer I did have a little sulk after not bowling, but I didn't complain, because I don't really like to and I don't think it does me much good. Also, I would hope it goes without saying that I wanted a bowl, and that, not having had one, I would therefore be a little miffed. I wasn't too chuffed when I was then asked to do the scorebook, but rather than embark on a rant I simply said a firm no. When I turned up again on Saturday it did cross my mind to mention to Chiggs that I wanted a bowl above anything else, but I decided not to, as surely he knew this anyway.

We started fielding with Sam and Joe bowling, and Joe bowled pretty well picking up three early wickets. Ten overs passed and I began to wonder when I'd be coming on to bowl. Fifteen overs passed and I wondered some more. I thought about asking Chiggsy but again, surely he'd bring me on at some point, I don't want to be a pain. Sam and Joe were replaced by Dan D and Jamie, and Chiggsy asked me which end I wanted. I pointed to Dan's end and he said something like “Well Dan's going to bowl four and then we'll see”. On the match went, and I calmed down a bit as it seemed I'd be coming on next change. The drinks break came and went and Jamie was replaced by Dan O after rather a good spell including 2 wickets, and then after about 28 overs Dan D at “my” end was taken off. Well I hadn't heard anything, but maybe I'd missed it. I started walking to the end and may even have taken my hat off before I saw Waz measuring out his run-up. Well If he wasn't going to bring me on by that point, I knew damn well he wasn't going to bring me on at all. I exploded.

“I asked you which end, I didn't say you were going to bowl.”
A couple of overs pass.
“It's a tight game mate, what do you expect?”
“**** off”

A tight game. I've heard that before. Every game seems to boil down to the same thing: a vain attempt to stem the run rate. If you can do it, fine, but our results would suggest we can't do it well enough for that to be a successful tactic. Once again I go back to runs scored in our innings. We rarely put on enough runs to make opposing batsmen consistently have to take risks in chasing down our target, so we never gave ourselves the chance to bowl them out, especially since few bowlers at our level can defend and attack simultaneously. Shane Warne and Glen McGrath's most underrated secret weapon was playing for a team that guaranteed 350+ first innings runs. 

What "keep it tight" boils down to is an attempt to avoid losing the game, rather than an active effort to win it. The game was tight after 30 overs, but after 20 they were looking precarious with 5 wickets down and a way to go. That would have been the time to toss me the ball and see if I could remove the last of the middle order batsmen, but "keep it tight" came first. Every problem looks like a nail to this team, so they reach for the hammer even when other tools might work better. Not a single one of their batsmen faced a single delivery of spin all game. A whole aspect of their batting went un-examined.

I fielded the rest of the game without saying a word. In the end Enville won by 2 wickets with 5 balls remaining, I shook their hands, congratulated them on a good game, and stormed off.
“Come on mate, help us put this stuff away” says Chiggs.
“**** off”
“It's a team game mate...” Is it really.

Now admittedly, there is a certain factual inaccuracy within that statement, as out of 17 games I played for the 4ths I did bowl in 10, but there's a telling grain of truth in there too. With five fixtures gone earlier this year I'd only bowled 2 overs, because the team had yet to put a decent score on. One week we started our innings at 2pm and were all out by 3, and when you look though our scores you will see game after game of scores that are simply well below par, interspersed with two or three frustratingly good performances where we did actually perform as we can. Early on in the season I tended not to mind so much if I didn't get a bowl, as I hadn't really got my action fully sorted and I assumed our batsman would shake off their rustiness. Saturday's scorecard shows they never did, because the problem was never poor form in the first place; it was selfish, wrong-headed batting by a significant proportion of our team.

I packed up my bags and got a pint, and sat down on a bench looking out over the main square, a ground I haven't had the chance to play on this year. After a while a friend came over and we had a chat, and he allowed me to have a pretty thorough bitch about things. He told me to cheer up and enjoy the day as the 1sts and 2nds had both won their leagues, and I tried my best, but it did feel strange being surrounded by happy guys who'd hardly lost a game all year when I'd been on the winning side just once. I spoke to Ali and we had a very useful conversation, about my bowling, about what to think about over the winter, all good, positive, forward-looking stuff. I congratulated Fozzy (1st team captain) on a successful year and he said something along the lines of he'd spoken to Chiggs and don't forget how difficult it is to make sure everyone gets a game, something like that. “But Fozzy, it wasn't a league game, it was a friendly game...” I said, and his expression seemed to change.

More unpleasantness. Dan D came over, looking rather stern.
“Hi Dan, you alright?” says I.
“You mentioned me.”
“You what?”
“They said you said something about me.”
Now this, I don't understand. I don't know this Dan very well, having only played three games with him, but from the little I do know of him, I like him as much as the next guy. His bowling is perfectly good, his fielding's fine, he's a perfectly good guy. I've never had a problem with him, of any kind, but it seems the other guys have been spreading little fibs. Charming... I reassured Dan and he seemed to take me at my word, thankfully, and we both seemed to spend a couple of seconds wondering what the hell was going on. One wonders what other little fibs "they" may have told.

...And yet more unpleasantness. A while later I was outside having a cigarette chatting and Chiggsy can't help but pop up and ask with a glint in his eye if I'd “calmed down yet”. “If you're asking if I'm still angry, yes. I am.” Chigssy has many attractive attributes but I'm afraid humility, tact and diplomacy are really not among them. Not even slightly. He can't help himself but twist the knife, and whether he thinks he's wrong or not, he'd certainly never admit it. This conversation inevitably takes place outside, with an audience, a scenario almost certainly not lost on Chiggsy. From a previous career I'm used to telling a roomful of people they're full of ****, so if Chiggsy thought I was going to be cowed simply because there was a crowd present he was mistaken.

Looking at Overs bowled per match played, and ignoring anyone who only played a couple of games, I'm way down in 11th place in the team bowling an average of 2.3 overs. Ahead of me are no less than 5 of the Under 17s that I give up my Sunday mornings driving them to their games, then either scoring or umpiring, so that they can get experience. Then the overs I need to get experience are given to them. I've nothing against them for bowling those overs, three of them are pretty fine bowlers, but I can't help but feel a little bitter about spending Friday nights coaching the juniors, spending Sunday mornings helping with the Under 17s, and then having MY cricket time on Saturday afternoons wasted as they get a bowl and I don't.

Looking beyond that particular gripe, I still don't see why my bowling was overlooked. It's not as if I've bowled that badly, and particularly at this end of the season my form's been pretty good. The last five innings I've bowled have proceeded thus: 2 wickets for 18 from 4 overs, 4 for 25 from 5, 1 for 41 from 5, 0 for 11 from 2, and 1 for 25 from 4. Overall that's 20 overs, 8 wickets for 120 runs at an average of 15.00, strike rate 15.00, economy rate 6.00. The economy rate is a little on the high side, but the other two figures more than make up for it, and in that sort of form I think it's fair to feel hard done by when I don't get a bowl in the last two games.

Well I didn't say all that to him as I didn't happen to have the figures at hand, I simply asked “what do you think I am in the team for?” to which came the reply “well you're a good team player.” I'm not sure I've heard a more insulting compliment, if that's what it was meant to be. When I hear that, what I hear is that I'm taken for granted, that if there's a dull but necessary job to be done I'm the man, but that my role in the team doesn't extend beyond that and my own particular goals are neither here nor there. 

“Chigsy, I'm not a batsman, and not a great fielder. I want to bowl. That's what I'm here for. So how is it I'm brought on after [insert a few U17 names here], the self same guys I get up at 8am on a Sunday, having kicked my girlfriend out of bed, to take to a match so they get experience, and then on a Saturday they bowl and I don't. I miss out twice Chiggsy, and that's why I'm so pissed off.” 

There was no attempt at reconciliation, there never is. It always falls on the other party to make the first move to patch things up, and I'm not playing that game again. I finished my drink and went home.

What a way to end a season.

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