We live and move in a sea of miracle. (James Brown)
When I first started playing League cricket around fifty years ago, pre-season training consisted of a half-hour of batting and bowling in the nets followed by two hours of drinking. There was no knowledge or perception of match fitness – the newspaper representing the county I supported got into the spirit with a pre-season photograph of the pros ambling around a wet county ground in an assortment of ill-fitting tracksuits, accompanied by a caption like Ready for action.
In those days there were a number of top players whose girth was the subject of mirth. You certainly could not imagine the likes of Colin Cowdrey, David Shepherd, Colin Milburn and Phil Sharpe making a sliding stop or being part of a tag-team catching a ball beyond and inside the boundary rope.
In all the years I played League cricket, the level of fielding was generally poor. From slips to covers and beyond, it seemed to be a given in League and indeed some First Class quarters that average fielding was something you just put up with. Sure, there was an occasional great run-out as the cover fielder gathered the ball cleanly and ran out the striker with a direct hit, but those incidents were as rare as rocking horse manure.
My memory of League cricket as a player was partaking in or witnessing regulation catches going to ground, shots hit directly to a fielder hitting the rope seconds later and throws from the boundary taking around twenty minutes to reach the wicket-keeper. In one of my first competitive games, I was awarded my team’s fielding point for a few returns of the ball from third man. I didn’t break down in tears at the ceremony.
Today, it is hard to believe the guys are playing the same game. As I walk on to a ground to inspect the pitch, I am greeted by a posse of A-list Hollywood stuntmen with arms like tree trunks – the kind of guys you see on reality TV shows dragging a truck across the Sahara. In my day, the pre-match warm-up was a sly Silk Cut in front of the pavilion followed by a couple of catches in the outfield. Today, it’s an SAS-style miscellany of sprints, squats, ballistic throws to the wicket-keeper and push-ups for anyone who drops a catch, all coordinated by a sports scientist and director of cricket (whatever those roles actually mean). I don’t know if Liam and Noel Gallagher are cricket fans, but in two generations League cricket fielding has gone from The Importance of Being Idle to Superstar. I occasionally do a crude calculation of runs saved by these village green acrobats and I reckon the norm is around twenty runs an innings.
Direct-hit run-outs are the new vogue, balls hit like tracer bullets are plucked off the ground with one hand and a shot bludgeoned directly to a fielder that used to mean a ten-day stay in hospital now merits a cursory dusting down of the trousers. But the best barometer of this renaissance involves catches in the deep. In the seventies this mine, watch out! routine resembled the set of Harold Lloyd’s slapstick masterpiece Safety Last. Today they are either clutched from the clouds with one hand or two when a fifty-metre run and dive is required.
I have witnessed hundreds of catches over the years, most can be classed as no big deal, it’s all part of the job. But there is one catch that I think about in the tundra of Ikea while Mrs Umps is making merry with retractable blinds. And when I’m in the company of cricketing friends I hold forth on this tale because it gets to the very essence of recreational sport.
It involves a player I have umpired a few times who falls into the category of very good club cricketer. He bats four or five, fields at first slip and knows the game inside-out. Let’s be generous and describe this gentleman as amply proportioned, but despite carrying a few extra kilos, he is as agile as any of the guys on the circuit. I like his demeanour when he spills a catch – there is no head in hands, he simply assumes his position behind the counter waiting for the next punter to enter the shop. Bowlers know what he is capable of, so when a catch goes down, they do not provide the dramatics of a second rate repertory troupe.
The fielding team are under the cosh with a batter sending the ball to all parts of the ground. He’s a young lad with attitude and talent that suggests he will soon be rubbing shoulders with the semi-pros in the Premier League. The opening bowler is brought back to stem the tide and our protagonist contrives to drop a pretty straightforward chance.
Two overs later the same quickie bowls one a tad wider, the batter drives with power but the ball finds the edge and flies low and fast. I’m at square leg with a perfect view of the catch and to this day I can see his hands pluck the ball out of the tiny air bubble that was left before gravity prevails. And with the timing and technique of a player at the top of his game, he carefully ensures his fingers, and not the ball, are caressing the grass. To confirm the brilliance of this catch, the batter, who has turned to watch it live, walks off without the usual Umps, did it carry histrionics. It is a glorious moment of sporting prowess.
League cricketers’ meteoric rise to fitness and fame is something to be celebrated. As I watch their acrobatic dexterity, I recall how I wasted my years standing (literally) in the same spot. Today’s technical ability and fearless approach have made cricket more exciting and raised the level of participation. To paraphrase Mrs Umps as she settles down to one of her romcoms with the lower level of the Milk Tray box – it’s the field-good factor.