Let your handshake be a greater bond than any written contract. (Steve Maraboli)
There is no greater sporting ceremony than the captains of England and Australia cricket teams meeting next to the wicket ahead of the first Test in an Ashes series. A moment that celebrates cricket’s past, present and future greatness, the toss proudly announces that the protagonists in the greatest rivalry in world sport are about to lock horns again.
I treat the pre-match League cricket ceremony with a similar reverence, usually arriving earlier than the hour before play stipulation of the League. The assignment of checking overhanging trees, sight screens and pitch markings can wait until my colleague arrives, so I change, don my Panama and join the posse inspecting the wicket.
My old dad used to tell me not to engage in a discussion when you know nothing about the topic, his wise words resonate when it comes to the tittle-tattle of how the wicket is going to play. Over the years, I have seen tracks that look like a minefield providing the perfect balance for bat and ball, and those that resemble a newly laid athletics track play like the beach in the Battle of Anzio.
Compared to the frenzy before a Test match, where former captains provide a workshop on soil erosion as they press car keys, coins and an occasional JCB digger into the surface, the League cricket equivalent is fairly tame with the club captain and chairman in quiet reflection as they peruse the strip. Before I arrive at the square, they will have already decided what to do should the coin land the right way up.
As the game’s preparatory ceremonies unfold, other stakeholders make the pitch inspection pilgrimage and the word from both camps is that this is going to be a good toss to lose (code for each captain does not want to be guilty of making a wrong decision). Unlike football and rugby where the toss is a ceremonial ribbon cutting exercise to determine which team will kick-off, the cricket toss can have a big influence on the result of the game, even before a ball is bowled.
The general consensus is that it’s better to bat first, with runs on the board adding pressure for the side batting second. So on a day where there is little or no cloud and the pitch looks like a road (cricket parlance for a good batting surface) it would be surprising for a captain to put the other side into bat. But as anyone who has traversed Manhattan will testify, not all roads are equal, and I have seen a few winning outcomes for captains who decide to bowl first under good conditions for batters.
Half an hour before play, the captains join us in the middle. It’s rare that a League cricket match will not follow the same procedures of a Test match with captains sporting a blazer and cap. But really, the young man who appears on the square with a club blazer is doing himself and the club no favours with the accompanying training shorts and flip-flops. And as if we don’t have enough meaningless statistics in our regulated lives, some bright spark has estimated we make fifteen thousand handshakes in a lifetime (it must be true, I read it online). And top of my out of order list involves people whose handshake is like a cheese sandwich in a goldfish tank. While a bone crusher greeting may be a tad uncomfortable, at least it displays a modicum of respect and it always leaves me with a positive impression.
The pre-toss banter between the captains is more scripted than improvised. Stock lines include asking where we had officiated last week (I can barely remember what I had for breakfast); reflecting on the Kiwi bowler who is out of action for a few weeks; how the club has literally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory twice this season; how consistency has been lacking; how difficult it is to get a team together so we are struggling a bit today (aha, some reverse swing psychology making its way onto the village square). And if I was a betting man, I would lay the house on one of the skippers responding to our pre-match talk about Law 42 (players’ behaviour) with the Pavlovian: You won’t get any problems from us, umps. (After the game I make a note that Kaiser Chiefs’ I predict a riot is available in the bar’s jukebox).
The coin is flipped and I’ve seen captains looking way higher than its trajectory in the hope that divine intervention will ensure it lands with a result. It’s either an immediate we’ll have a bat/bowl or there is one of those uncomfortable pauses you find in job interviews when the candidate repeats the question the employer has asked because he doesn’t know the answer.
And so the ceremony is complete. But before we head off to liaise with scorers there is the small matter of our match fees. Call me old fashioned, but I much prefer the money to be presented in a sealed C6 envelope with Umpire on the front. But there is an unscientific cohort of one-skipper-in-ten whose Friday night may have included one too many. He empties his pocket with accoutrements that include items that do not require a plug here, along with my payment in the form of creased banknotes and a betting slip that includes the side’s batting order on the back.