View from the Bridge: 15

by John Morrison


15: Flannelled Fools

It's mid-May, the day of the Cup Final, so we can now look forward to a welcome break from footballing trivia. Cricket will enjoy an uninterrupted occupation of the newspapers' back pages for, oh, about six blissful weeks.

The members of the Milltown XI are career cricketers. At an age when county players are looking forward to the fruits of their second benefit year and ploughing the proceeds into a country pub or sports shop, we feel we are just coming to grips with the fundamentals of the game. This is why our opening bowler, a man of 46 summers, is still regarded as part of the team's youth policy. He probably has twenty more years of playing cricket in him; then, since he has only the one good eye and a limited knowledge of the rules of cricket, he looks forward to donning the umpire's coat full-time.

The league umpires - small, dapper, pipe-smoking men well into their anecdotage - are kept in a shed during the week. Every Saturday the team captains come and take their pick, slipping the nominal umpiring fee into the breast pocket of an immaculately turned-out blazer.

There's not a lot to choose between one umpire and another. They've all played cricket in their youth and, through the distorting lens of time, are convinced that the players of today aren't fit to lace the boots of the players they knew. If the umpires had a motto it would be: "The older I get, the better I was".

Actually we are suspicious of 'stars': aggressive young lads who pace out long runs and expect to bowl throughout an innings. Or arrogant batsmen who hint that they are accustomed to a better class of cricket, and only want a few games with us to hone their technique before attempting to catch the selector's eye. We prefer a level of mediocrity to which even the least of our players can reasonably aspire.

We don't need stars because we don't really need to win. We like to win, and the beers afterwards taste a lot better if we do. But we don't need to. The pleasure derives not from the grand plan (there isn't one; strangely, we only talk tactics after the game), but from the inconsequential details that makes cricket so fascinating to those who love it... and so utterly unfathomable to those who don't.

The cricket ground is a reclaimed swamp, wedged between the malodorous river and the canal, backing onto the abbatoir. The natural habitat only of flannelled fools and malicious horseflies, the ground is so small that even the thinnest of snicks through the slips is liable to fly over the boundary for six.

With water so close at almost every point of the compass, such a shot is the cue for a young lad to leap, with practised ease, into a canoe conveniently tethered at the canal-bank. He paddles towards the ball, fishes it out, paddles back, ties up, gets out, hurls the ball arrow-straight into the wicket-keeper's gloves, and sits down again, as if this was an everyday occurrence. Which it is.

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