What was our life like? I almost don’t remember now. Though I remember it, the space of time it occupied. And I remember it fondly. (Richard Ford)
From an early age I had grabbed the football and cricket baton from a sports-mad father who spent many a car journey talking about the two occasions he saw Donald Bradman bat, how he blagged his way into the 1951 FA Cup Final between Newcastle United and Blackpool and how he was offered a trial at the age of seventeen as a goalkeeper for a Second Division club – but he wasn’t good enough.
In the summer of 1967, I was eleven when I went with my parents to Bude in Cornwall for our holidays. We stayed in a typical Brown Windsor hotel that provided a resplendent afternoon tea with a resident pianist, followed a few hours later by a hearty four-course dinner (different pianist) and a B-list maître d’hôtel sporting a stained tunic.
The hotel boasted a snooker room with a full-size table. At that time I had seen snooker a few times on our black and white television (yes I’ve heard Ted Lowe’s comment a thousand times) but I had never seen a table live. Dad hung up his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and chalked a cue before rattling off a fifty-something break. I was enthralled as he potted the reds and colours with perfect control of the cue ball. You never told me you were any good at snooker, I said. You never asked, he replied. This was my introduction to the thrill of sport, a meritocracy transcending age and class and providing joy to a fifty-plus guy and his enthralled son.
I was okay at football and cricket and at sixteen I persuaded a local cricket club to give me a few games that became two seasons before I left home to make my way in the world. I got some runs, wickets and catches and it was in one of my earlier matches that I first experienced an umpire’s decision going against me. I nicked to the keeper but I waited – you never know you may get lucky. After a few seconds the umpire shouted Are you walking sonny, or are you going to make me give you out? This act of humiliation stayed with me the rest of my cricket career and from that day onwards I always walked on a caught behind.
Nearly fifty years on, and with the boot on the other foot, I give an LBW in which the impact of ball on pad was middle and off with the ball continuing its merry way to halfway down middle stump. I get a look from the batter that suggests that this felony will ensure I spend the rest of my life in a dark, windowless room swapping six pebbles between the pockets of a white coat. Someone is angry.
In my playing days, a game of cricket was a liberating experience, an afternoon and early evening full of promise and camaraderie. I always remember the captain’s poignant advice the first time I went out to face the music: If you and your partner are still there, we can’t lose the game. So don’t even think about hitting the ball off the ****ing square. With my head over the ball and allowing the bad deliveries to go past the bat I earned the nickname Stonewall Jackson for my ability to grind it out at the crease and earn a draw. I look back on those days as a privilege – the changing room banter, tension in the middle, post-match revelry and smutty jokes on the way to matches. I knew my limitations but I was desperate to jump over the enticing one hurdle that mattered, scoring a half-century.
It happened in 1978 in a pre-season friendly, batting for my university against a local technical college. I was playing well and had reached twenty-something when a finger spinner came on. Ignoring the words of wisdom from my previous captain I got greedy and mistimed a straight drive. I was ready to embark on the long trudge back to the hutch but fate was on my side as the bowler somehow contrived to drop a fairly easy catch. I accumulated another twenty-plus and completed my fifty with a straight off drive for four and repeated the same shot next ball before holding out at mid-off. I can tell you more about that knock than what I had for breakfast today.
If space wasn’t limited I would also tell you about running a marathon, scoring some cracking goals in five-a-side football (I’m still playing at sixty-something) and playing squash at club level. I also tried golf but I was completely useless, save for another holiday snapshot. Playing with Mrs Umps on a pitch-and-putt in Norfolk I only went and hacked a seventy-yard three-bounce hole in one. When returning the clubs, the guy from the leisure department of the local authority was not impressed with my demand for a Toyota Avalon, or failing that, a tailored Green Jacket.
My love of sport is confounded however by an insignificant cohort of doom-mongers on the League cricket circuit who choose despair over joy. We come off for rain – Come on Umps, it’s nowhere near bad enough to come off (an hour and a half later they win under a cloudless sky). We call (or don’t call) a wide and out of the bottle jumps the overused term consistency as evidence of an umpire’s alleged incompetence. Then there is the anger displayed over just about anything; a run-out call, dropped catch, batters talking too much between overs, lousy balls that last five overs, scoreboard two overs behind. If only Carlsberg did picking a fight in an empty room….
Compare this with a growing number of gifted teenagers who get regular games with their clubs in the League (some of them also playing representative age-group county games). Talented and driven, their eyes are dancing as they savour every moment of the match experience. Emulating their mentors with bat and ball, they have no bone to pick with Umps; they’re having such a good time, they’re having a ball, just as I did all those years ago.
They will carry the baton for at least thirty more seasons, accumulating runs, wickets and experiences that they will pass down to their children on car journeys. They will tell their young teammates to enjoy every moment of every game and respect everyone on and around the village green. And when they raise their bat for the last time, they might consider giving something back to the game that has given them so much – and become an umpire.