Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Report from Our Cricket Correspondent by Beyond the Pale

(With brief explanatory note re. the provenance of the document)

Richard Wilson The Cock Tavern, Cheam, Surrey circa 1745

Richard Wilson: The Cock Tavern (Tate Gallery)

(Ed. note: As rosy-fingered dawn inveigled her roseate dactyls into the shadows still enclosing the pleasant village of Quatt in gentle slumber, a vague form gradually began to take shape upon the quiet lawn before the Cock Tavern: a crumpled, prostrate and inert body, its limbs splayed in awkward disarray, its head tilted oddly to one side as if improperly attached, its several eyes impressed with strange ancient coins--one to each of the three--upon which infinitely small hieroglyphic characters were seen to have been inscribed. A party of local investigators, led by Prof. Greengrass of the Univ. of Stockholm (emeritus head of the Department of Cuneiform Studies), removed these unusual coins and subjected them to scholarly analysis. Upon one of them was discovered and decoded the micro-inscription of the remarkable essay to be found below. Upon the second was found the tiny image of a profile head, thought to be that of Ricky Ponting. Upon the third, the coded text of a most extraordinary confession of human error, beginning: "Margin, over recent days the stab of compunction has deeply penetrated my ancient heart and pervaded it with a state of profound misericordia. Should in later times my remains be found, and this coin inscription along with them, all the world may at last plainly know: I have wronged you, good sir, and must now end my days by uttering these abject last words: I am deeply sorry, I have erred and must now accept the mortal consequence of my misdeed. I shall therefore now imbibe a potion of hemlock-laced cider and lay myself down here in this shady place forever, seeking whatever solace may be found beyond the troubled knowledge that my days ended with the commission of a Grave Crime, for which, I know, apology is required even as I also know forgiveness neither can nor should be granted. Signed, Beyond the Pale." )

As the league reached its climax on the final Saturday of the season, the teams at the bottom of the table played each other. Quatt went into the match bottom of the table with Madeley just above them and knew that a win was the only result possible to guarantee they could lift themselves away from the foot of the table. Twenty-six consecutive years in that lowly station was a total many found difficult to bear. Others counselled courage, recalling the famous victories of the past (though mean-spirited questions have lingered concerning the possible memory impairment of some of our senior members).

Having won the toss the home side decided to take the game to Madeley and batted first. On a lush and damp outfield boundaries were going to be even more difficult to come by than usual. But the reassuring sounds of leather on willow, the applause, the calls for out, all served to calm the nerves of the tense populace.

Beyond the fence--extended, with a net added for the safety of spectators, by community-minded members of the Club--a throng of at least sixty local citizens paused with baited breath awaiting the fated outcome. Bravery in the hearts of all, and a squirt of cream in the tea thermos, our trusty milkman having made his way especially early from Wolverhampton to fortify us for the test.

At that perilous point in the proceedings a naked young woman was seen to rush upon the pitch singing out happily in what sounded to all of us like that strange barbaric language the frightful Norse invaders employed when they barged our grounds some while back. Older members of the club, remembering, began to quaver and list dangerously toward the dampened turf.

Events took a happy turn however when a proud native son, the emeritus historian Professor Greengrass of the University of Stockholm, pince-nez dangling into his disturbed chinwhiskers what with the excitement of it all, emerged unexpectedly from the surrounding bush and began to thrash the unclad intruder quite smartly with his cane.

The rude pitch-invader was seen to exit sharpish, laughing wildly and uttering curious high-pitched cries later interpreted to us by the heroic professor--himself an accomplished linguist--as signifying "More, more!"

Seemingly inspired by the untoward events, openers Paul Chadworth (34) and Mal Chiddick-Wibble (15) got the home side off to a solid start notching up 42 in the first 10 overs before Chiddick-Wibble was bowled. With Paul Twittenham and Nigel Ballsworthy both going cheaply, Quatt had a wobble at 49 for 3 before Stephen Thong-Jones came to the crease and he and Chadworth put on 60 before Chadworth was caught running off into the woods grasping at willow branches, seemingly in hopes of securing a firm switch with which to punish the unmannerly female should she be bold enough to dare a return.

With all eyes now divided between the pitch and the copse from which another dangerous intrusion seemed liable to issue at any time, Drivel took advantage of the youthful visitors' distraction to knock up a seasons best 70 not out, including 10 fours, and with Trevor Beaver-Eagersley (25) put on another 49 and then with Graham Hedgebets (9) another 23. Members of the Quatt Ladies Cricket Support Group moved among the crowd with tissues, mopping many an anxious-fevered brow. Calls went out for a supplementary supply of tissues. But in evidence of the fortitude of all, the match went boldly on.

Quatt finished with an impressive highest ever total of 202 off their 40 overs. Credit must go to the visitors for putting out a young and inexperienced team and for giving them all an opportunity to bowl. The temporary suspension of good manners was now being overlooked if not indeed quite forgotten, though brief flicks of glances beyond the greensward indicated the earlier fears of further unsporting conduct had not entirely subsided.

Opening for the visitors, Blunden-Pease and Crock-Offit looked dangerous as they put on a quickfire 45 before Pishley Smarm had Blunden-Pease trapped lbw for 22. Smarm finished with seasons best figures of 3 for 11 off 5 overs. A gentle breeze stirring the drooping appendages of the willows brought an occasional glimpse of what appeared to many pale and tender flesh, while these qualms were assuaged by others who opined the apparition to be merely heat-induced hallucination.

When Blunden-Pease was caught by Ben Densmore off the bowling of Drivel in the 14 over with just 52 on the board it looked all over for Madeley. With only Percy Kneckshaw providing any resistance, knocking up 12, the young visitors capitulated as wickets fell to Norman Egglesworth (2), Peter Drubbingham and Stephen Bingely-Fitts, Madeley were eventually all out in the 31 over for 78. An ominous rumbling in the sky suggested the thunder gods may have been looking on all along, and were perhaps not entirely pleased. But our local men, now heartened by a great resolve, and showing impressive bulges in virtually every pocket, labored on to complete the great work so nobly begun.

Quatt took all 23 points to ensure that they wouldn't finish bottom of the table. As the long day closed, members of the club formed exploratory parties to forage the woods for signs of the vanished intruder from the north, uttering strong expletives indicating their noble intent to deal with further misconduct in firm Quattian fashion.

The reputation of the Club and the spirits of the village now restored, all adjourned to the Sombre Arms, Professor Greengrass at the forefront, to quaff a victorious flagon. It had been a day etched into the annals forever.

Scott’s miscellany - Ringo37

The helmets-for-goalposts kickarounds of Der Kleine Frieden – the ‘little peace’ that broke out along the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914 – have been well-documented, and represent perhaps the best-known examples of sport played in the greatest extremity. Less celebrated, though, is a game – or, rather, a series of games – that took place in an even less hospitable environment three years earlier. These games were conducted at -20°C, in winds of up to 30mph; to glance at the opposing line-ups gives a fresh meaning to the term ‘journeymen footballers’. These were the games played by the crew of the Terra Nova at Cape Evans, Antarctica, in the autumn of 1911: wearing the skipper’s armband for one side was Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

The members of Scott’s ill-fated last expedition were keen to take exercise whenever they could, and football was a popular pastime. To picture these men hoofing the ball around the ice-sheets is to conjure an image familiar from Sunday morning park pitches, complete with the usual personnel: the enforcer (hard-as-nails Irish seaman Tom Crean bore a passing resemblance to late-period Roy Keane), the ringer (skiing ace Tryggve Gran had played for the Norwegian international side) and the quavering rookie (young Russian pony-groom Anton Omelchenko had never even seen a football before arriving at Cape Evans).

But there is surely more to our appreciation of these knockabouts on the edge of hell than home-from-home sentimentality. The story of the Terra Nova expedition is a story of heroes, and, particularly, of an ensemble heroism that will be fondly familiar to the British sports fan.

British sporting culture has had its individuals, of course, from Shackleton to Boycott, from ’Enry to Henman, but precious few of these have won over the British public as completely as have the country’s greatest sporting teams. Why? Is it simply that these ensembles – the thirteen of Sydney 2003, say, or Ramsey’s 1966 eleven – offer something for everyone (allergic to Botham? Try a Brearley...)?

I prefer to think, instead, that we appreciate these motley crews not because they have something to offer everyone, but because every one of them has something to offer. This may be why, for instance, the identikit beanpoles of basketball – or, for that matter, what Nick Hornby has called the ‘interchangeable physiques’ of our present-day Premiership ‘elite’ – fail to entirely charm the majority of British sports fans; why we’re more comfortable throwing in our lots with the ill-assorted likes of a European Ryder Cup outfit or a medley of touring Baa-baa mavericks.

This affection for the ragtag mob, with all its varieties of appearance, class, age, race and size, can certainly be found in the Antarctic histories. It can be found, too, in the clich├ęs of the sports pages, and at any number of points in between, from the Beano’s Bash Street Kids to The Great Escape. Sports fans have a tendency to succumb easily, it’s true, to the cult of the individual, the icon, The Greatest, The Special One. But surely our enthusiasm for the team ­­– the place where even an oddball can find an oddball-shaped hole – says more about the importance of individuality than such hero-worship ever could.

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