An email, a mad dash home, a cross-town trek. Arriving late, padding up, waiting on the boundary, taking off the pads after a single delivery, fielding, losing, drinking. This week I have played four games of cricket, losing three.
There’s something horrible about losing a game of cricket. Eight times out of ten you can see it coming, sometimes for hours, but there’s nothing you can do about it.
Each delivery whispers “wicket” seductively in you ear, before dashing off to the boundary for some other batsman. You feel every run at the end, deep in your stomach. The ones hit 100 metres away and the one that flash two feet past your outstretched hands. Worse are the unplayable balls that remove no bails.
I’ve lost three times, for three different teams, in four days, spent eighty overs fielding, 21 ‘umpiring’ because I was already out, scored two runs and bowled no balls.
“Three overs to come, three batsmen waiting, four runs needed. Now we’ve got our boot on your throat we’re going to keep pushing down,” I said to the opposition captain on Thursday. Gallows humour is sometimes all you have.
I should point out now I’m not very good at cricket. I love the game, but I never really progressed after dropping the sport as a 13 year old. I kept watching, spending days on the sofa in front of Tests, picking apart one side of a ball completely while watching Nasser score 207 at Edgbaston. I’ve seen England play Twenty20, ODIs and a few days of Test cricket at the Oval in the last couple of years as well as watching Surrey.
But until recently my last bat was in a junior size and I’d never owned pads or gloves. That was about to change.
Approaching 20 years after I stopping playing, I was asked if I wanted a game after a drunken conversation with some colleagues. I might have over-reacted. I bought whites for less than the price of a football shirt after my first game, then a bat, then gloves, pads, a box, more pads (thigh ones this time) new whites and three, different, bags.
I found that missing cricket because I was playing football annoyed me. I stopped playing football. I joined a new team so I could play on the weekends – I’d been pulled in and was hooked.
But once that first flush of lust, the quickening of the pulse and shy smile at the thought of pulling on whites and picking up a bat, has passed the drudgery sets in.
On Wednesday and Thursday we’d posted paltry scores, then somehow hung on and not lost embarrassingly early. It was still a nice way to spend a summer’s evening after work, and my mercy-mission across the capital to help one team out was rewarded by free beers.
Saturday was different. A 40-over game lasting well into the evening, we’d exploded in the middle order and then faded in the end to post a competitive total of 205. We asphyxiated their openers, cutting off space and air with a tight field and a tighter line. After 17 overs they’d scored just 50 runs.
Then something horrible happened. A man, who’d rather be at the theatre, came in. Every ball, regardless of its quality, was thrashed. After the 21st over we had a drinks break, he retired himself to go to the west end, and the score was 117.
The spell was broken and as afternoon slipped into evening the odds of victory lengthened with the shadows.
I didn’t go out for a drink after the game, I was bone tired after 40 overs fielding, 21 standing and six batting, flogging myself chasing lost causes as balls reached the rope a meter or two ahead of me, bruised by a ball I didn’t catch and facing a long journey by public transport before I could get food and clean the sweat from my body.
But the next time I get that email, I’ll come running back. Because the bitter taste of defeat doesn’t normally last long. The moments do. Like the grin after seeing a debutant thrash a ball straight over the bowler’s head, someone had never held a bat until a few weeks earlier, and the cheers from the boundary after I signalled a six not a four.