You can choose love or hate…I choose love. (Johnny Cash)
A glorious late August day greets the penultimate match of the season. With nothing at stake – both teams are mid-table with promotion and relegation out of the equation – the visitors arrive with bags under their eyes that look heavier than the containers for their kit. Late night, umps, explains the captain, with an assumption that I wasn’t once his age.
On this ground, the baking sun and track combo are perfect for a run fest. The visitors’ skipper wins the toss, and rather than chase a thousand, he decides to bat. He knows the rules of engagement, anything short of two-hundred-and-fifty is going to lose, especially after the night the revellers appear to have enjoyed (not to mention the home club’s Kiwi batting import who comes in at three). Maybe this will be the once-in-a-season game where I arrive back at Umps Towers early. Mrs Umps will be busy in the kitchen.
You’re early darling. (It is not the first time in my married life that I have heard those words).
Cottage pie will be ready in an hour. Sort out your washing, I’ll pour a G&T and we can settle down to Midsomer Murders. (I’m living the dream).
Despite the perfect weather and track, the revellers are in long-handle mode and get bundled out for around one-hundred-and-sixty (lack of movement of feet precipitating a great deal of movement towards the pavilion). They are at least a century short of a target that would make the home team begin to worry. It is one of those innings where a batter gets to twenty and then loses the plot. The skipper, who’s seen a lot of summers and winters, collects a half-century and I’m impressed with a youngster making his debut for the firsts who comes in at nine and gets his head down to accumulate a double-figure score.
My colleague agrees with my precision that we could be out of here in two hours. The openers are reading our minds, dispatching a surfeit of wayward deliveries to the rope. At the first drinks break each has a half-century and the target is down to around thirty. The game will be over in half an hour and I look forward to Johnny Cash Live at Folsom accompanying me home.
And then from nowhere.
The debutant youngster comes on to bowl at my end. This is his big moment, leaving behind the circus of the lower Divisions to play some serious cricket which will eventually see him steaming in at The Gabba to deliver the first ball of an Ashes series. Marking a longish run, the lad means business, sending a few practice balls to a colleague and shouting to the guy patrolling the mid-wicket boundary: Give yourself five.
The opening ball is slashed over the slips for an ugly four but to be fair to the lad, he ensures the batter knows what he’s up against with a hands-on-hips stare honed in front of the bathroom mirror. The next three deliveries confirm he has some ability, but the fifth and sixth balls are short and comfortably dispatched to the mid-wicket boundary. Head down, the urchin collects his cap and trudges off to patrol the nether regions. His day will come.
Three boundaries in an over should be more than enough to rub the rookie’s face in a cow pat. But this batter is not going home until the stocks are erected for his teammates to throw rotten tomatoes at this literal new kid on the block. The batter walks down the track to meet his partner for an end-of-over powwow and declares at a decibel level that reaches too many ears:
Sending down that kind of cr*p, what does the kid expect?
Sure, I’d be surprised if the batters had invited the youngster to participate in a group hug after an unsuccessful first over with the big boys. But this kind of machismo is all about context. The finishing rope of a long season is in sight, we’ll be shaking hands in twenty minutes and from next week we won’t be seeing each other for another eight months (that said, a few years ago I bumped into a player at the local Asda meat counter on Christmas Eve).
The batter is simply picking a fight in an empty room. Even this thumping win cannot satiate his appetite – he also needs a slice of humiliation from the dessert trolley. It’s a kind of B-list psychopathy which would not earn him the subject profile on The World’s Worst Serial Killers (far more satisfying than Midsomer Murders).
Perhaps feeling a tad guilty, and having watched the TWWSK episode about a guy in Texas who confessed to a half century of murders, a couple of overs later the batter throws away his wicket hitting over a straight delivery from the youngster. Next over, the game reaches its inevitable conclusion and I’m soon on the way home in my UMP51 jalopy with The Undertaker belting out I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail.
At a red light with a queue, an image appears from my misspent youth. I’m twelve years old, playing summer holidays cricket with some mates on a recreational field that hosts a local League team. We cobble together an eight-a-side game, the weather is glorious and without a care in the world we set up a makeshift wicket in the outfield. I’m bowling and nab a wicket. A friend of a friend who has kindly agreed to make up the numbers and play for our opponents, comes into bat.
He blocks a couple and then misses a straight ball that hits the middle of middle stump. As he walks off, I can’t help myself:
If you want to play in our game, you’ll need to come up with something better than that.
I don’t want to play at all. Shut your ****ing mouth or I’ll shut it for you.