Friday, 1 May 2015

TALKING CRICKET: ANGUS FRASER


Last August, paying a first ever visit to Lord's Cricket Ground, I had the pleasure of a long chat with Angus Fraser, the former England fast-medium warhorse, now Director of Cricket at Middlesex and one of England's fab four selectors. When I say long chat, I'm talking an hour and 40 minutes. At one stage Gus – an England selector, did I mention that? – had to field a call from Michael Atherton (I looked at the display screen), doubtless trying to get the inside line on the England team for the forthcoming Test series. "Do you mind?" asked Gus, ever so politely, "only I didn't realize this was going to take this long".

The first of the two features I pieced from our meeting, a career overview for Gleanings, was well received, being chosen for Guardian Sport's 'Our Favourite Things This Week' and eliciting a nice comment or two from the likes of Rob Smyth. Undoubtedly, this was in large part because of just how amiable and affable a man Gus is; it may also have had a wee bit to do with the interviewer being able to coax a few interesting answers from him. The trick? Keep them talking as long as possible, of course!

In the midst of working through his career highs and lows, I diverted things into his post-career transition from player to journalist, a fifteen minute piece-within-a-piece finally published earlier this week. 


"Life as a journalist is a pretty paranoid existence"

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

BAJAN MEMORIES


My second regular Cordon blog for ESPNcricinfo was as much about what I left out as what went in. What goes on tour stays on tour, they say. Perhaps.

Either way, publication of this piece has put me back in touch with three of the 16-strong touring party, and in the thread below several dusty and long-forgotten memories were pulled from the attic: (1) a player who managed to defecate while unconscious, stinking out the whole condominium, although not enough to rouse one of his roommates; (2) getting hustled when buying the ingredients for jazz cigarettes, the first batch we were sold being kosher, the second, from the same guy, later seen with a machete tucked into his basketball socks, probably better served to improve a pasta sauce; (3) a player buying the ingredients to cook a spaghetti bolognese in order to win the heart of an ebony princess plucked from the dancefloor of a nightclub; (4) said player not quite making it to the end of an intimate encounter before having to run through the streets of Bridgetown to catch a minibus back to the condos to pick up luggage and head to the airport; (5) a player downing a jar of local hot peper sauce, claiming it was "muppet" and "Haagen-Dasz"; (6) the many, many vodka-pineapples and rum punches drunk on the refined cultural experience that was the Jolly Roger cruise ship; (7) an inebriated player standing on the foot-rest of a bar stool and toppling Del-Boy-like flat on his face; (8) meeting ex-Windies and Essex all-rounder, the late Keith Boyce, and hearing him predict the decline of the then still dominant team; (9) getting into the local vibe by playing saucepans at the West Indies versus Australia Test match, the first session of which John Woodcock of The Times said was the best he'd seen in 60 years of watching cricket; (10) the tour anthem, the ubiquitous 'Hot Stepper' by Ini Kamozi.

Ah, good times. I'll never return as a youngster, but I will return for cricket one day. What goes on tour gets recycled as a blog about a blog, right?  


Once upon a Caribbean Cricket Holiday 

SHAHID IN THE SHIRES

Almost twenty-six thousand social media shares 26,000! For a yarn about North Staffordshire league cricket!

Alright, it was about Shahid Afridi's half-season playing for Leek (and Little Stoke), but still, that's a lot of people to be introduced to Richard Harvey, David Edwards, 'Tracker' Johnson and others that helped put the story together.

It's a shame I couldn't include comments from Dave Fairbanks, Brian Mellor, Pete Wilshaw and a few others, or that more stories emerged (from Rob Haydon and Adrian Butters) after publication.

Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable piece to write (finally), and, judging by the reaction and yes, I'm aware that Afridi is probably second only to Sachin in the list of most venerated cricketers these last couple of decades an enjoyable one to read.

Oh, and if you want to see the skit from Bo Selecta! that I imitated when greeting Afridi to the crease (and the editors at cricinfo thought it best to exclude), here it is.


Staffordshire's Summer of Afridi


 

ENGLISH CRICKET'S CRUMBLING PYRAMID


At the top, a shambolic World Cup campaign and the ongoing stink around Kevin Pietersen; at the bottom, falling participation levels in recreational cricket; in the middle, a county system that appears increasingly unfit for purpose with each year. Can English cricket regenerate itself, or is this the coming of twilight for the summer sport?

Here's a debut piece for the new Vice Sports UK:

English Cricket's Crumbling Pyramid





Thursday, 12 March 2015

TOP KNOCKS, PART THREE: LITTLE STOKE 2008




The scoreboard said 22 for 5. I picked up my gloves and stick, then walked shakily out to bat, feeling sick to the stomach, light-headed, trying to draw breath. It’s the final game of the 2008 season, my first back at Moddershall after a two-year sabbatical playing in the Nottinghamshire Premier League for Wollaton. The nausea hadn’t just popped up that instant, out of nowhere. No, the knots and wooziness had quite a backstory, a three-year fermentation process. Maybe longer. 

See, on the way out to the middle, with the whole season on the line, I had a traumatic flashback to the conclusion of the 2005 season, when we travelled to Longton for the third-last game of the season with a 17-point lead. By the time we left – scraping 53 all out in response to their 191 for 8, having been 21 for 8 – we were 4 points in arrears, the margin by which we lost the league. They had a gun side and really did a number on us, preparing a rock-hard green deck that would nullify Immy and help Alfonso Thomas (not to mention Dave Edwards, who bagged 6-fer). A terrible day. 

So there I was, three years later, walking out to the middle, 22 for 5, feeling nauseous, with two of the characters from that grim afternoon – still my worst as a cricketer – standing in the huddle, not doing a great deal to keep the glee off their faces. I didn’t expect Gareth Morris and Richard Harvey, Little Stoke’s skipper and pro, to show me sympathy, but knowing that we’d started the day needing five points to wrap up the title ought to have been enough for them not to look quite so triumphant. Or perhaps I’m misremembering, projecting my own swirling emotions onto their indifference. Like I said, I was nauseous. 

Harv (batting) and the author, two years later

Anyway, 22 for 5, season going down the pan, feeling sick, now or never – a moment when (very occasionally) you find inside yourself a strength, a resolve that you didn’t really believe you had. Or you sink, and just put it down to the odds being massively against you. 

Not long earlier, I’d looked at the scoreboard with relative contentment – we were skipping along like newborn lambs at 21 for 1 – and so set off on a lap of the pitch. I made it just past the Scotch pines before the second wicket fell. Then another one tumbled before I could extricate myself from a conversation. We cannot be throwing this away, surely. I needed to strap my mums-and-dads on, pronto. 

I think part of the sheer unpleasantness of these minutes – once I’d faced a couple of balls, been out there a couple of overs, re-normalised my breathing, got my head round the situation, the nausea dissipated quickly – was borne of the fact that almost everyone (outside the team, anyway) thought we had the title sewn up. In the bag. Five points from one game? Easy! I mean: easy, right? That’s 175 runs. Or 10 wickets. Or 150 runs plus 2 wickets. Or 125 runs plus 4 wickets. Or 100 runs plus 6 wickets. Or 75 runs – and even this seemed a fair way off at 22 for 5 on a snake pit – and 8 wickets. As anyone who played in Moddershall 1st XI’s final game of last season at Blythe will tell you, five points from one game is a fairly straightforward affair. Walk in the park. 

5 points from one game? Piece of cake!
It wouldn’t be quite right to call me a pessimist (I thought we’d win it … at least on Friday night, I did) but it would be downright negligent of a captain not to be aware of a worst-case scenario, to figure out its likeliness, and to react accordingly. Thinking about such a scenario gave me a sense of certainty that we were being far too prematurely congratulated. Seductive words, destructive consequences. Indeed, when the previous round of matches was completely abandoned (us hanging around at a completely waterlogged Wood Lane until we were 100% sure every other game in the division had been called off), The Sentinel’s cricket correspondent, assuming a 21-point lead over Leek with one match to go was pretty much job done, offered to shake my hand in congratulation. I refused, of course. That would have been tempting fate. Hubris. 

Here is how that worst-case scenario had played out in my mind: it batters down with rain all week (which it had done the previous week); the rain gets under our covers and saturates the pitch (which was standard); we lose the toss, get shoved in on a sticky dog, get ourselves rolled for not many (relegated Barlaston had bowled us out for 76 in our previous home game, although we skittled them for 62 in reply); we end up losing comfortably as the wicket eases – a wicket that, in any event, would be terrible for a leg-spinning pro. Well, guess what happened (there may have been a few clues in the preceding text)? 

The fateful day came. Having not managed a great deal of sleep – the result of insomnia plus diaphanous curtains plus early sunrise plus massive gut-churning dread that five months’ effort (the last seven or eight weeks of which was us keeping our noses in front while Immy, who’d been signed by Hampshire, did his best to make himself available) was going to come to a big fat zero – I found myself awake before 7am, and at Barnfields by around 7.30am (it was a 12.30 start). There was a lake in front of the scorebox. The rest of the outfield – before the new drainage had been put in – was like a swamp. To say it wasn’t fit would be like saying Carl Froch punching you in the face “might hurt a bit”. There were three of us there, then four, then two more. We mopped for a couple of hours, but it was like painting the Forth Bridge: no sooner had you “dried” an area than it needed doing again. Futile. Sisyphean. 
a short hit straight at Wood Lane

Around 9.30 I hit upon an idea (perhaps partly prompted by my inherent laziness), probably the most important cricketing idea of my entire life: I consulted the NSSCL handbook to find out what was the minimum boundary size. Apparently, it was 40 yards – not from the wicket ends, but from the middle of the wicket, a modification to allow Wood Lane, with their 35-yard boundary at one end and nowhere to expand, to meet Premier League criteria a few years earlier. We dried for another three hours, at which point, with the ground still nowhere near fit, yet with a 40-yard boundary marked out anyway, it was decided that a game would go ahead: 47 overs plays 39. 

Part 1 of the worst-case scenario had transpired. How about Part 2?

Well, the coin went up – I gulped, mouth like sandpaper now – and, sure enough, it came down on the wrong side. “We’ll have a bowl”, chirped Gaz Morris. My heart sank. Half an hour before the start I’d offered Little Stoke both tosses the following season if they could (pretty please) just let us bowl first today – 47 overs was plenty of time to get perhaps 4 of the 5 points we needed, maybe all of them. Bat first, and we could easily find ourselves in the proverbial. Morris – the former Longton player, the club we loved to hate – wasn’t interested, perhaps out of spite, perhaps out of a sense of fair play toward Leek. So, we were batting. On a sticky dog. 

Yep, 22 for 5: Roger Shaw (5), Andy Hawkins (9), Sam Kelsall (0), Simon Hemmings (0), Imran Tahir (0) all back in the shed; me walking out, head swimming – my nausea with a backstory…

blob and blobber: Sam and Immy
Just as Longton had been overwhelming favourites in 2005 (they had eight current or former Minor Counties players, plus Alfonso, plus two guys with Championship medals from other clubs), Leek were odds-on favourites for 2008. Well, they were until Tino Best had a total meltdown, until our best period of form – 138 points out of a possible 147 across 7 games – coincided with the six weeks they weren’t allowed a pro (aside from the ‘shamateurs’ they were paying, that is: Rob King, Dave Wheeldon, maybe Tim Tweats and Rich Cooper).

Furthermore, after two years away – two years during which I’d never completely shaken off the memory of that horrible afternoon at Longton – I’d poured my heart and soul into that campaign, a campaign that all came down to this day. Sure, I’d won two NSSCL titles, but not as skipper – not really, although I had seen the ship home in 1997 after Addo jacked it with six matches remaining.

And to add even more significance to it all, a Moddershall title would have been among the biggest shocks in the history of the NSSCL – as big as our win in 1997, or Norton-in-Hales’ in 2002, when we both won as newly promoted sides – given that the previous two seasons had been tense relegation struggles, and that the best two players, Iain Carr and Richard Holloway, had left, along with useful performers in Darren Carr and Joe Woodward. Between them, that was 59.1% of the overs bowled by amateurs the previous year. In addition to this, Shaun Brian shattered his femur with eight matches left and Martin Weston left mid-season having moved out of the area. That was another 35.5% of 2007’s amateur 1st XI overs. If you do the maths, that doesn't leave many.

Moose, post-femur
And in addition to all that, as mentioned, Hampshire had signed Imran Tahir with eight weeks remaining – a massive distraction at the time, with one or two semi-threatening letters sent to the county in search of compensation. As it turned out, Immy was available for six of our last eight games, schlepping up the motorway from Southampton, just as caught up in the drama of it all – this highly unlikely bid for the title – as we all were. Perhaps a little too caught up, actually, going by his attempt to whip a length ball (off a respectable seamer, on a sticky dog) over mid-wicket, first ball. It sure was a long old drive for a golden duck. 

It was Immy’s guilty, dejected face that I passed as I walked nauseously out to the middle at 22 for 5. When I got there, it was Amer Siddique’s boat race I saw. Never normally shy of confidence, he offered some sort of unconvincingly positive word for me – I’d recently done a massive PR job for him, drafting an email of apology after he’d cried off from one of our games at the last minute to “get back to Leeds after a row with my Dad” when in fact he’d gone to Arsenal’s meaningless pre-season tournament and been tagged in Facebook photos – but he wasn’t exuding permanence, or control of the situation. In fact, he was getting mercilessly sledged for the bottom-handedness of his technique (among other things). I told him not to crack, to keep it together, to not whip. He cracked, he whipped, he was caught off the leading edge at mid off. They shrieked and cackled. We were 44 for 6. That became 45 for 7 when Morris trapped Dom Wright lbw. No, not again...

Amer, just about to whip (probably)
Then we heard some bad news. Contrary to sketchy rumours that Leek’s already-relegated opponents, Barlaston, were going to bat first if they won the toss – a spiteful move to deny them the chance of gaining 25 points, handing us the title before a ball was bowled – it emerged that the Moorlanders were batting first and doing rather better than 45 for 7. As I looked at Gareth Morris’s face and thought “No, not again”, wicket-keeper Ali Whiston strode out. I wasn’t confident. It was a case of digging in, grinding out what we could: 75, maybe 100… 

The innings is largely a blur – ‘the zone’, I think they call it – of blocking and leaving and smothering and kicking, with the occasional full-blooded attacking shot. Consecutive inside-out fours off Gaz Morris, bowling left-arm spin at leg stump, stick in the mind, mainly because the ball finished up in Lake Scorebox. Never have I been so grateful for 40-yard boundaries.

A lot of balls were spitting off the pitch – indeed, my first stroke of luck had been the ECB bowling restrictions that forced 17-year-old Dan Colclough out of the attack after he’d bagged the first five wickets for zip. Another major slice of luck came with my surviving a close lbw shout off the bowling of Nick Bratt (14-8-25-1 on the day). It was adjacent, and he looked mighty aggrieved, even more so when I popped his very next delivery over long-on for six, the ball being caught by Andy Hawkins out worrying in front of the old garage. It would have gone for six whatever, but here came the salvation of those 40-yard boundaries: out of my 71 runs, I hit 5 sixes (almost certainly the highest ever percentage of a score I’ve managed in maximums), although a couple were only check-drives, another couple badly mistimed sweep shots. C’est la vie. 

Whisso: googly picker
When Ali Whiston fell at 117 (we’d added 72 runs), and Baggers followed 5 runs later, leaving us 122 for 9, things were still looking dicey. Thankfully, Matt Stupples and I eked out the final 3 runs, earning us the absolutely crucial third batting bonus point – a scrambled scruffy run that meant we’d only need 4 rather than 6 wickets. I’m not sure I’ve ever punched the air in celebration at reaching the 125, nor am I likely to again (100, maybe, but not 125…). But then, it was understandable: I’d managed to hold at bay the negative thoughts, the overwhelming dread that our season’s underdog efforts were going to fall down a hole, to score 71 out of 103 runs and enable us to post – not a winning total, but surely enough for us to snaffle the four wickets. 

Heading out to field, there’s no doubt we were nervous, particularly when Little Stoke reached 65 for 2, with danger man Richard Harvey just having smeared a couple of large sixes off Immy over the shortened long on boundary. Another couple of big overs for them and the tension would have just been too much. 

Thankfully, I had the foresight, or the hunch (call it what you will), to station our most agile catcher, Simon Hemmings, at mid-off for Sam Kelsall’s underrated little low-trajectory medium-pacers – not to mention the fussiness and dictatorial streak to make sure it happened, rather than Any Old Joe fielding there – and sure enough Shemm held on to one of the all-time great catches, a fully horizontal ‘superman’ to dismiss a violently slapped drive from Harv. One more required.
 
Immy then clean bowled Dan Hancock with a googly the following over to give us the fifth point, before peeling off for his now trademark deliriously celebratory run to deep cover, pursued by nine of his teammates. Not me, though. Not immediately, anyway. I was too spent (and, again thinking worst-case scenario, I was worried we might get docked points for a slow over rate!). 

It was, by some considerable margin, my best day on a cricket field. Certainly my best innings. We had an emotional, hour-long de-brief in the dressing room after the game during which I thanked everyone, in turn, for their specific contribution. The night finished with me, Amer and Shemm still buzzing away at 4am at Thornbury Hall (no loss of consciousness, no broken bones).

And I will never forget Maurice Knight – a tear in his eye, carpe diem in his heart – coming up to shake my hand as we left the field as champions. “That’s the best knock I’ve ever seen in club cricket, Scott”. Again, emotional. I suspect he will have said the exact same thing to Dave Housley last September, mind… 


 

TOP KNOCKS, PART TWO: CHECKLEY 1999



Stone CC
The Stone Charity Cup final is played over two midweek evenings in July, 16 eight-ball overs per side. You bat first and fourth (or second and third), and there’s a ‘last man stand’ rule (and, if Amir Wasim’s behaviour for Hem Heath in 2000 is anything to go by, you’re allowed to kick the ball away from fielders if they’re about to run you out, but let’s not go there…). It’s obstinately quirky, but a lot of fun to play in. It usually draws a good crowd and produces a reasonable spectacle, since Stone (which always hosts the final) is invariably a decent surface for batting: it spins a little, the bounce is on the low side, but with a covering of grass you’ll get adequate carry for cross-bat shots. 

In 1999, the year Moddershall won four out of five trophies – North Staffs & South Cheshire League title, Talbot Cup, JCB knockout, and this, missing out on the Staffs Cup after a loss to Knypersley in the quarter-final – we faced Checkley in the Charity Cup final. They were a feisty team with a smattering of talented players (if not as much depth as we had) who seemed to have a special dislike for Moddershall – either because we’d half-inched two of their best players in brothers Iain and Darren Carr (cousins of two of their stalwarts, Gavin and Andy Carr, also brothers), or as a legacy of previous rivalry in the North Staffs and District era (we joined the NSSCL in 1990, them in 1995). 

They batted first and made around 125, if I recall correctly. Early in our reply, Roger Shaw gloved a ball from Jason Carrigan that went through the top and was caught in the gully. He hadn’t worn a helmet, and neither did I when I crossed him on the way out, first wicket down. “They’re all coming out with no lids on, Jase”, someone with highly tuned observational skills piped up. It was true – but, as I say, Stone was not a bouncy pitch and I didn’t really have time to let one ball disturbing the surface make me scurry for a helmet (post-Phillip Hughes, things might be different). 

Carrigan was a good bowler: lively pace, hit the seam, bowled good lines. But he was not an out-and-out enforcer – certainly not at Stone, anyway. Predictably, he tested me out with a bumper, which meant my first scoring shot was a hook for six that hit their dressing room window. The testosterone was now being released left, right and centre: me, them, our dressing room. OK, if you’re going to bounce me, I reasoned (hormonally), then I’m going to run at you (a strategy that wouldn’t really have worked on a springy deck!). Thus, the next memorable shot involved me charging Carra and pulling him, while still on the run, over long on for six, just clearing the fielder on the top boundary, who’d snuck in a few yards. 

I’m not sure whether I was ‘in the zone’ or just ticking slightly wildly, but it soon become apparent, with that slightly macho shot, that I’d aggravated the sore back with which I’d finished our Talbot Cup game the previous Sunday. Annoying, too, as I was just starting to enjoy myself: good deck, good form, licence to have a swing. I told Hawk, my partner, that I might have to retire hurt. I could feel it stiffening up by the minute. He advised against it: “No, mate: either use the pace or just play golf shots, with your forearms”. It proved to be wise counsel. 

Gavin Carr, a few years later
Bowling by this time was Gavin Carr: tubby, hyper-competitive, accurate and, if you were lining the ball up well and balanced, just about the perfect guy to face on a road. Feeling simultaneously in the groove and stiff as a wardrobe, and not sure I could carry on much longer, I eyed up the gap at deep extra-cover, between the clubhouse and the old tea hut, and decided it looked the most inviting and plausible boundary option. 

Gav bustled in, hard and purposefully. I glanced at the gap, my gap. At the last second, just as he was throwing that barrel physique into his delivery, I shuffled away a foot or so, opening up the offside. Gav was bang on the money, as expected, as desired. His low-trajectory wicket-to-wicket stock ball thus became one to smack over extra-cover, which I did, with a slight fade (golf shots, remember!), for a one-bounce four that felt pretty good. It certainly surprised the bowler (and myself, truth be told, as all the best shots do). 

At some point during his run-up to bowl the next ball, an idea flashed into my head (last-minute pre-meditation, you might call it): having done the golf shot, I now remembered the other advice offered by my recently self-appointed batting mentor, Hawk: use the pace

So, the instant before Gav threw himself into his delivery stride – i.e. so he could see what I was up to – I again faked to back away, only this time I quickly bounded back across the stumps, showing them behind my legs. I got the synchronisation of movements just right – not too early, not too late – allowing me to pick up yet another accurate length ball from Gav miles over deep backward square leg as I fell over to the offside. Man, I timed that ball sweet… It landed on the roof of the third house down from the scorebox, prompting an almighty roar from in front of our dressing room from Iain Carr, Gav’s cousin, not one usually given to such outbursts. It was the single greatest cricket shot I ever played – and, I can now say without fear of contradiction, the greatest shot I am ever going to play. 

I made 72 from 44 balls as we finished the first night with a lead somewhere in the region of 40 runs, a sizeable amount for them to claw back. I’m not sure we thought we had it absolutely sewn up – that would have been hubris – and the fact that we got on it that night should not be taken as a sign that there was any complacency. That was just what we did: we had a few lagers. Win or lose, always booze

Anyway, after six or seven pints of Jim’s Carling – he kicked us out around 1.30am – I was dropped off in Stone town centre, where I bought myself a doner kebab on the advice of my nutritionist (myself), then zig-zagged home down Lichfield Road, just opposite the scene of that night’s strokeplay. Resisting the temptation to sit cross-legged on the hallowed square and soak up some positive energy (I think it’s called chi, but I’d have to check with my spiritual guru), I shoved a bit more reconstituted lamb in my gob and staggered the last few hundred yards home, ready for a good kip. Unfortunately, however, I had misplaced my house keys – I’d only moved permanently back from Nottingham two weeks earlier for what ought to have been the last few months finishing off my Masters (in an uncanny omen of things to come, it took me another year) – and so, despite being 26 years old, I suddenly regressed to a fearful 16-year-old as I contemplated waking up the old chap at 2.30am on a week night. (There was no hidden key.) 

I figured Dad wouldn’t have been overly chuffed at being roused, notwithstanding me basically having played like Viv Richards earlier (and thus being more or less entitled to be banging on the door, several sheets to the wind). So, putting my education to good use, I decided to take the safer option: I would deploy the neighbours’ wheelie bin to bunk myself up on to the garage roof, and from there climb over the house roof and in through the back bedroom window, which, on a sultry summer’s night, I knew to be open. “Yes, that’s the better option”, I assured myself, overlooking the fact that I hadn’t been blessed with the archetypal cat burglar’s frame. And that I was drunk. And that I had a bad back. 

So, in the dead of night, as the almost-defeated Checkley players slept soundly in their homes, there I was ‘borrowing’ next door’s bin – a very light bin, too, I thought, prematurely and mistakenly pleased with how easy it was to manoeuvre into position against the steel garage door. Next, I stood on the protruding bumper of Dad’s squat little red TVR Vixen, and, in the brief moment of balance attained by leaning backward and pressing my calves against the boot, visualised my short leap on to the wheelie bin. (I can’t quite remember, but I think the aforementioned spiritual guru once told me that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single leap from a car bumper to a wheelie bin while p*ssed on a Tuesday night. It’s something like that, any road…) 

And then I leapt. Nay, soared!  

The house on the left is my old place; wheelie bin in shot here
In the Hollywood re-telling of this story (I believe George Clooney has signed a pre-contract to play the lead), they will no doubt slow this moment right down for maximum drama. If they do, there will be not a flicker of distress on my face, no sign of the massive catastrophe that was probably less than two seconds of my life away. I thought I’d nailed it, see. But I hadn’t. No, I hadn’t. Where earlier my footwork had been assured and nimble, now it was clumsy and imprecise. I landed right on the left-hand edge of the top of the wheelie bin – the wheelie bin with absolutely no weight at all inside it, that is – and it instantly gave way from under me, flipping sideways like a skateboard and crashing loudly into the garage door, waking up every dog within a half-mile radius. At the same time, I fell from the height of the wheelie bin – and again, the film version will have this in super slow-mo, only now there will be a look of utter horror on my face – straight on to a tarmac drive, all my weight landing on the point of my elbow.

I’m not going to lie: it hurt a little bit. Not as much as the following day, when the anaesthetising effects of alcohol were out of my system and the x-rays had confirmed I’d shattered it here and there, pretty much everywhere, actually, making even the slightest movement dizzyingly uncomfortable. But still a very lot.

I lay there a while (I can’t be sure of the time spans involved now), groaning and feeling faint, when I noticed the garage light come on. Dad used to be a heavy sleeper, but the sound of a wheelie bin slamming into a suburban garage had penetrated the thick fog of unconsciousness and alerted the slumbering head of household to the fact that there might be DANGER! afoot. He must have been slightly disappointed – and I dare say a little irritated – to have found his son lying on the drive, bladdered.

I was in too much pain to explain that I was in a lot of pain, and that I wasn’t drunk – or rather, wasn’t just drunk, there was another thing happening – so he left me there. For the wolves and coyotes.

Some time later, after all the lights in the house had been extinguished and with me no closer to being given the kind of urgent medical attention I needed, I rolled myself to my feet, paced backwards and forwards several times, up and down the driveway, with the sole aim of forgetting about the massive pain, then I headed inside. I poured a glass of water, guzzled it down, then set off for bed. Unfortunately, the throbbing pain chose that moment to deliver its decisive blow, and, half-way up the stairs, I blacked out, cracking my head on the banister as I fell a few steps backwards to the floor. More ouch.

I have to admit, when Dad appeared at the top of the stairs I wasn’t as Zen as I might have been, letting off a wee bit of f-word-inflected steam at him for, y'know, having left me on the driveway with a fractured elbow. Truth is, I was angry at myself – angry for not having done the simple thing and just woken him up; angry that I’d be missing the second night of the final (and, it turned out, the Talbot Cup final, plus all but the last two games of our title run-in), missing the celebrations, and missing out on a nailed-on Man of the Match award.

Mum put me in a sling, then I lay down uncomfortably and slept badly. The following morning, bright and early, I went to A&E, where they gave me a better sling and better painkillers. Later that afternoon, I rocked up at Stone, where the Checkley players were a little surprised and perhaps a little happy to see the state I was in. 


With little to lose, they played aggressively, and well, on the second night, and we only just squeaked over the line, winning the first of the season’s bag of trophies. It was, as you might expect, a little bittersweet for me. But and here that education did come in handy I was clever enough never to climb on a wheelie bin again.

As was the case with what I consider my third best innings – when I passed out on a pub car park after winning MoM in the Staffs Cup final, ending up in Longton nick – the night of my second-best knock involved me becoming unconscious and ending up in a somewhat compromised situation en route to an institution. I don’t know what to make of all that, really, or what it says about me. It tickled Jimmy Adams, though. 


TOP KNOCKS, PART ONE: HIMLEY 2003



He had previous: legside short stuff from Adam Sanford

3rd place: 73 vs Himley, Staffs Cup Final 2003 

It goes without saying that it’s gratifying to play well in a cup final. And it’s equally obvious to affirm that it’s ultimately pretty futile when playing well adds up only to defeat, particularly in a game you seemingly had in the palms of your hands 40 overs in. Such was the case with the 2003 Staffordshire Cup final, a north-versus-south clash at home to Himley of the Birmingham League. 

Heading toward what would have been a very buoyant tea break, we had our visitors 205 for 9 with three or four overs left and a West Indian Test bowler to finish things off. At least, that was the plan. As it turned out, Adam Sanford came back and bowled a series of legside wides and ill-directed bouncers – we were slightly against the clock in terms of completing the innings before the cut-off point (6 runs per over you fail to send down in time), and his shorter run didn’t help him find his direction – so our opponents, who had knocked us out at the semi-final stage the year before, were able to post a daunting 245. It was a huge swing: they had the mythical momentum; we were deflated, thoughts snagged on what might have been… 

Things got worse at the beginning of our reply, too: a pinch-hitter experiment failed (Grizzly Adams) and our best two batsmen were dismissed cheaply (Iain Carr and James Cornford). We were in deep, 40-for-4-sized trouble when I faced my first ball. 

Himley had a decent attack: Tim Heap, who played 28 games for Staffordshire, opened the bowling with a canny seamer called Jim Mayer. They were backed up by former Worcestershire stalwart Stuart Lampitt and Stuart Wedge, an ex-England U19s seamer who had two years on the staff at New Road.

Having said all that, truth be told it’s not the toughest situation to bat, psychologically speaking: you know both that on a personal level you can’t do much worse than what’s come before, and that the team has almost certainly blown it. So, you focus, play the ball, and hope to restore some pride. 


Stuart Wedge
I remember two things about the start of that knock: immediately feeling in good nick – balanced, aligned, assured in my footwork and movement – and immediately copping a huge amount of abuse (in dulcet Brummie tones) from a fired-up opposition who were right on top, and knew it. Such is the game. 

My first scoring shot was to turn a rare half-volley (on middle stump) from Mayer between mid-on and mid-wicket for four (timing it well enough not to need to run), usually a sign you’re playing well. “C’mon then, you gobby fuckers”, I thought to myself, refocussing. My next half-volley, probably another 10 balls later, was dispatched over mid-wicket for a one-bounce four, back leg folding up behind the back of my thigh, earning me a prolonged chirp from Staffs bits-and-pieces man, Chris Tranter: “Looks loike woi’ve gorra flam-in-GOW arr 'eeear, lads”. Alright, big gun. 

I was grooving. In my bubble. Everything washed over me like a tropical shower, and under a game September sun I shared a couple of steady partnerships with Andy Hawkins and John Myatt, just about keeping us in the game (at least, judging by Himley’s slightly more concerned demeanour), the high point of which was an assault on a fairly average, though accurate leggie called Chris Pearce. The situation determined that he had to go the ‘d’. 

Having looked at an over from the non-striker’s end, I got to face Pearce, ready to push the accelerator. He floated me up a googly around off stump, which I threw my hands through and slapped over extra-cover for six, over toward where the new scorebox has since been built. A couple of balls later I got in a bit of a tangle running at a leg break that drifted outside the line of my pads; again, I thrust my hands at it, flicked hard, and was amazed to see it go for a flat six over mid-wicket (against the spin, of course), the ball bouncing back onto the field from the scotch pines. Oosh! In his next over, I once more shuffled down the pitch, this time to a ball that was in the slot, which I sent clean over the old scorebox and into the copse at the back of the pavilion with a slow, rhythmical swing. Buzzing. 

Stu Lampitt

By the time I charge-pulled Lampitt for a fourth six Himley were starting to get a little bit worried. However, I promptly nicked off to the same bowler – trying to run him to third man to keep the strike – and that was pretty much that. Their celebration told me I’d played well, and a couple of the lads I passed on the way off said as much, not something hard-nosed Brum teams were particularly disposed to doing. 

Anyway, with none of their team having made 50, nor taken more than a 3-fer, I was given a fake pewter tankard as Man of the Match, augmented by £20 from my match sponsors – a proud, beaming Mr and Mrs Oliver. “There you go, son” they cooed, perhaps hoping they were contributing to my future well-being. Not so – in fact, the very opposite of that. See, I’d somehow managed to forget to eat properly for almost the entire day, a state of affairs that hadn’t been rectified by the time a few of the team found ourselves in the Butcher’s Arms, Forsbrook, necking whiskey chasers with pints of strong lager. 

After several such invigorating combinations, the pressure on my bladder built to the point where it sent a rather insistent message to my brain to the effect that it needed to be urgently relieved, preferably on the outside of my trousers. I made a beeline for the toilets – those hardy urinal cakes trying vainly to hold back the acrid stench of piss – but they were busy, and I didn’t have time. So, I hit the car park. Pretty much literally.

Unsurprisingly, my now swimming head’s collision with the cool night air combined with an unlined stomach to cause a sudden plunge into unconsciousness – although, not before I’d dropped my trousers and relieved myself, pretty much all of which avoided my garments. 

And there I was – lying flat on my back on the car park, trousers round ankles like a slave’s shackles – when my teammates came and found me an indeterminate number of minutes later. And there I was – lying flat on my back on the car park, trousers round ankles like a slave’s shackles – when the ambulance service found me and indeterminate number of minutes later still. I’d probably have felt embarrassed had I been conscious (I knew those drinks would prove useful!). 

Anyway, despite being almost completely unaware of anything except the woozy blackness that had engulfed me, I’m told I wasn’t overly keen on getting in the paramedics’ ice cream van, a view I expressed via the medium of wildly flailing arms. Quite rightly, they left me lying there on the car park of the Butcher’s Arms in Forsbrook (to die of hypothermia), trousers round my ankles. It was left for Longton Police to come and scrape me up. 


Butcher's Arms
...Next thing I know I’m in a cell, having vomited on my clothes. It’s now morning. I’m sporting a button-down blue jumpsuit made from j-cloth-type material – unrippable, just in case you have the urge to hang yourself. I didn’t, although I wasn’t overly chuffed with my circumstances: pukey clobber, small change, no mobile phone. Still, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. No, the duty officer was a familiar face – Dave Stones, no less! a teammate of several years at Moddershall. I’d have preferred him to look slightly more surprised to see me. 

After pecking at a pretty average English breakfast (watery tinned mushrooms like gobbets of catarrh), I needed to figure out a way to get back to my folks’ house. Lack of mobile phone meant that the only people I could call to ask to come and collect me – I didn’t really fancy sitting on a bus in my jumpsuit, clothes stinking away inside a Kwik-Save carrier bag – had to come from a very short list of numbers that I remembered off the top of my throbbing head. 

Addo didn’t pick up. So, reluctantly, sheepishly, I touched base with the folks – whose last contact with me had been to see me handed the Staffs Cup MoM award, remember – and Mum came to pick me up. I said my farewells to PC Stones, and with that I was out of the door, feeling (I guess) like prisoners do on their first day on the outside, blinking into the light, trying to shed as quickly as possible the film of shame that has clung to them. 

The journey home was taken in a heavily charged silence – that is, until Kath got what was on her chest off her chest. Earnestly, she said it: “Scott, you’re thirty, not sixteen…”

She was right, of course (both with the maths and the implicit meaning). I didn’t need to answer. There was no answer. The journey slipped back into heavy silence. 


Still, I’d played half-decent the previous day, so not a total disaster…