Saturday, 29 June 2013


The championship-winning season of 2008 was, as you might expect, an exhilarating ride. At least, it ended up that way. Moddershall had finished the previous two seasons grateful to have survived a relegation struggle and the prospects for the following summer were not helped by the loss of the team’s best two cricketers, Iain Carr and Richard Holloway, as well as very capable all-rounders in Darren Carr and Joe Woodward.

I had stepped into the captaincy from the outside, after a two-year stint in Nottinghamshire, so, initially, was unaffected by the pessimism about the place. Even so, I wasn’t convinced we had the ammunition even to stay up, let alone do what we did. But I wasn’t yet wholly gloomy about things. However, the irate reaction of Andy Hawkins after the Chris Lewis game – the season opener against Porthill Park when, in Baltic winds, we were denied a certain win by (the umpires’ interpretation of) the light – brought home both the severity of the task (why get so het up about a few points unless every one was seen as gold dust?) and the mood in the camp.

Our problems, it seemed to me, could be boiled down to two: batting and bowling.

The batting was either inexperienced or, well, a bit too old. Bowling-wise, we had lost 73.16 % of the previous season’s first team’s overs, which would rise to 79.08% with the departure of Martin Weston one game into the second half of the season, and to 96.47% (NINETY-SIX POINT FOUR SEVEN) two weeks after that, when Moose had a one-tonne electronic control panel fall on him, shattering his femur. Ouch! But the cupboard was fairly bare to begin with. Indeed, after our second league game – a draw away to Longton (more of which in a moment) – I asked Dave Edwards and ‘Taffy’ Kenvyn, old sparring partners (not literally, because I’m not mental) not known for their charity, whether they thought we had enough to stay up. They may or may not have chuckled in response – the memory fails – but I do recall them saying: “No chance. Immy will definitely win you a couple of games”. Which was kind of them.  

It was true: we had Immy – Immy! – also returning to Modd after a two-year hiatus. And as the ancient Greeks used to say: “Where there’s international class leg-spin, there’s hope” (although, having said that, going into the fifth game he had 4 for 236 at an average of 59…). 

However, an almost equally important job was done that year by a couple of other twirlers (if that’s not too extravagant a word for them): SLA Matt Stupples, who subsequently left for what he thought would be the green pastures – well, the dustbowl-a-rama – of Stone and now languishes up at Swynnerton; and Cheadle refugee Roger Shaw, who went into the season fresh as a daisy after his hip op (coincidentally, his favourite genre of music), a procedure that definitively put paid to him taking up the wicket-keeping gloves again. No, after a twenty-odd-year first team career with the mitts on – lazy feet, great hands – he’d now be grazing. And tweaking (more of which in a moment).

If Imran Tahir would be the obvious and clear favourite for our season’s Best Actor Oscar – speak to any of Leek’s paid amateurs that year and they’ll suggest that, like Eddie Murphy in Nutty Professor, he pretty much did everything – then Stupples and Shaw were pleasantly surprising nominees for the Best Supporting Actor gong. In fact, it’s almost no exaggeration to say that Rog’s bowling success that year – its origins a winter-net hunch born of desperation – gave me more pleasure than anything else all summer. Almost. I’m pretty sure he was in the top ten of the Premier League averages until the latter stages, before you needed 20 wickets. It certainly provided a kind of gleeful, slightly delirious pleasure for our team, seeing this keeper-for-life tie up or dismiss several decent players (his 14 burgled scalps included Staffordshire players Rob King, Paul Goodwin, Darren Long, Ross Salmon, Dave Fairbanks and John Hancock). And a team that laughs on the field is a healthy one.  

Anyway, the toss at Longton was the first time I’d come face to face with Nathan Astle  “probably the biggest name the league’s seen since Mushtaq Ahmed”, parped Nigel Davies the previous year (before being ousted by him as skipper – that’s gratitude! – and heading for Nantwich. Again). The pitch was as green as spinach and we lacked the tools to exploit such conditions. So, not particularly logically, I shoved them in. 

Moose – who (possibly only accidentally) had beamed Astle the previous year, a delivery which I’m led to believe hadn’t been that well received (or played) – is generally an overhead conditions man, and both he and Baggers went for over 5 runs per over on a wicket they should have enjoyed. Immy, meanwhile, was neutralised and toiled away for figures of 27-6-89-1. So, with 40-odd overs gone and Longton already close to what I felt was par, I brought on Rog the Dodge for a first ever bowl in the top flight (which, coincidentally…). 

It wasn’t a complete surprise to him. I’d already primed him at winter nets. He laughed at the time (“dunner be bozzuk”), but wasn’t really the nervous type, so, come the Big Day – he hadn’t been required first game out  the gamble didn’t seem that great. Sure enough, out rolled his offies, slow and accurate, just gripping a touch on the tacky surface, and he returned a cheeky little 4-0-14-2 (the victims: Edwards and Kenvyn, neither of whom, bizarrely, mentioned him as a potential factor in our likely survival). Still, Longton scored 238-8, declaring after 56 of the game’s 110 overs. 

Now, bearing in mind (a) Moddershall’s struggles the previous two seasons, (b) the opposition’s reasonably strong seam attack (Edwards, Kenvyn, Astle, Tom Oakes, Dan Cumming, Grant Thistle) and (c) the lush, green pitch, I felt the target was beyond us, so instructed the batters to aim for 175 and full batting bonus points, reckoning that banking some confidence would be useful down the track. This approach seemed vindicated when, after the very first scoring shot of our innings, a block through extra cover for two, Astle removed his second slip in order to plug that hole.

Unsurprisingly, the game petered out to a draw. Amer Siddique – whose self-confidence is best summed up by the fact that, the very day he met me, he described himself as “the best-looking Asian in Britain” – grafted hard for 60-odd. After the match, the captains met to discuss the game and mark the umpires, who, also oddly, were sat there with us as we deliberated, a new gimmick introduced that year that was presumably designed to promote more harmony (in the end, however, this transparency simply meant captains went through the motions with their marking). 

Astle, kindly, told me that he was “surprised we didn’t take the chase on” (kind to take the time, not the way he said it). I told him that I was surprised he didn’t declare earlier, that he batted on at least three overs too long, perhaps because he didn’t really know the strength of our team or state of our confidence  our narrative arc. He then told me he thought we were “a bit negative” and that we should have “gone hard up front, maybe for a couple of wickets, then re-assessed”. I told him he might have kept a few more catchers in – you know, beyond the second over… In truth, the pow-wow wasn’t excessively hostile, although, with me focussing less on his stature as a player and more, y’know, on the soundness of his argument, neither was it particularly amiable. We signed the forms, shook hands, and went our separate ways – us to the title, them to a slightly flattering third-placed finish.

Over the following weeks, Longton’s celebrated skipper appeared frequently in the local rag, The Sentinel, invariably bemoaning the “negative cricket” being played. Said paper seemed quick to trumpet the notion that the champions of 2003, ’04 and ’05 were playing “a positive brand of cricket” despite little evidence to support it. By the time we played them again, we were on a streak of 131 points out of a possible 147 (given the decision at the toss, whether 20 or 25 points were on, plus an abandonment for rain that yielded a fixed two points). The only game in which we hadn’t taken the maximum available haul was against Audley, which finished with them hanging on, nine down. 

This time round, then, we were a different animal – confident in both our ability and our gameplan. Also, I was reasonably sure the pitch wouldn’t be quite so green as the one at Trentham Road had been. This deck might well have started out that way – y’know, four or five weeks earlier, before the first game on it – but now, perhaps some eight or nine games into its remarkably long and incident-packed life (and it still had a couple more to go!), it had a slightly beige, sandy hue, like the outmoded suit of a clutch of wrongly-convicted 1970s terrorists waving outside the High Court some time in the early 1990s, post-appeal. Oh, and before we’re accused of trying to gain an unfair advantage, you have to bear in mind that, two weeks after this game, the 5’ 3” batsman Sam Kelsall would be our second seamer...

The game? We had been batting first, almost exclusively, and I had no hesitation in doing the same when the coin again fell in my favour. After I’d wiped the dust from it, of course. I cannot say Mr Astle was particularly frosty at the toss, but the only thing that was cordial thereafter was ferried out in two big jugs. First, Dave Edwards complained about the footholes and was ‘forced’ to go around the wicket very early on (I have to admit that I sympathised with him here; it wasn’t ideal and I wasn’t aware they were quite so bad…). The guy with 75 Test caps for New Zealand didn’t appear all that chuffed, either. 

We chiselled out 184 all out, which they’d have 51 overs to chase down. It was turning. Oh, it was turning (they had no spinner!). And big. But – and I think this is very important to stress here – six years earlier Astle had blasted the fastest double-hundred in the history of Test cricket and so constituted a considerable x-factor in my declaration calculations (rendered obsolete by a fine spell of round-the-wicket yorkers from Eddie, ironically enough) and subsequent tactics.

Anyway, an over before the aforementioned cordial was ferried on, twenty-five overs into their reply, Longton had made just 46 for 2. Nathan “I think you should have gone hard up front” Astle was fighting hard as the ball spat viciously from a surface that was more Mumbai than Moddershall. Mike Longmore was showing considerable skill but struggling to score, despite at times having four close catchers plus ‘keeper for company. But with them requiring another 139 from 26 overs, 13 of which would be bowled by Immy, I thought I’d try and entice a few shots: two skilful, well-set batsmen munching the next eight to ten overs would probably kill the game, so I asked Roger Shaw to have the last over before drinks.

Astle was on strike and, to my amazement, played out a maiden, showing all the sprightly intent of a student stoner deep into the second week of the World Snooker Championships. As ever, Dodge shuffled in to the wicket, as though in carpet slippers, and, predictably enough, dropped it on the spot. But he was hardly putting monster revs on it. Still, The Man With The Fastest Double-Hundred in Test History (TMWTFDHITH) – a man who, as I may have mentioned, had advocated us “going hard up front” in conditions tailor-made for his attack – declined to do anything rash before the refreshments. Not against a man who, ten weeks earlier, had never bowled a single over in first XI league cricket. Oh no. 

True, Rog had racked up some thirty-nine first-team overs by this stage of his career (averaging a Muralitharanian 9.76). And they do say a spinner reaches their peak in their 40s. But still, it was all quite baffling. Even more so when you consider that the only man fully back on the boundary for TMWTFDHITH was on the sweep, while both mid on and deep mid-wicket were ten yards off the edge – something of a concession on a club-sized ground for a man who smote eleven huge sixes that day in Christchurch. Off Flintoff and Caddick. (Just to give you the full picture of the potential runs available for the hypothetical Adventurous Batsman, the other fielders were the 45 man, square leg, straight mid-wicket, slip, point, and mid off.)

Now, I have to confess that, during the drinks break, I was starting to bristle at it all – partly because I wanted Astle gone, but mainly because I felt he was being a hypocrite, not practising what he preached. It certainly appeared he’d had something of a u-turn on his “go hard up front” ethos. So, upon resumption, I kept Rog on, only I now slid square leg into short leg  short leg!  with the express instructions to start gently sledging Mr Astle. I had the perfect candidate for Radio Chirp, too: thick-skinned Lancastrian Mick ‘Rick’ Astley, in for his first game that year. He’d earlier grafted out a not-pretty but pretty useful 27 at the top of the order and in 2004 had received – and withstood – some fearful sledging from the Longton hyenas as his unbeaten 46 got us over the line in a low-scoring game.

Rog – who, I think I’m right in saying, still hadn’t developed a doosra by this stage – floated out his next over, short leg now in place, yet still TMWTFDHITH played him from the crease, patting back a second maiden (or perhaps getting off strike with a leg-bye toward the end). It was all starting to become a tad surreal (at one stage I’m sure I started to hallucinate Rog bowling in massive wicket-keeping gloves, trying to impart spin on the ball yet failing due to giant sausage fingers). Meanwhile, Astley chirped Astle and I briefly and sheepishly (for me) started to slow handclap, saying (stealing a sarcastic line I’d been on the receiving end of a few years earlier): “Really bringing the crowds back, this is…” He glared at me.

Anyway, as victory drifted away from us, TMWTFDHITH at least went up a couple of gears, smearing a straight six off Immy before falling for 43 a little later while attempting the same shot, skying to mid-off with the score on 117 and just over eight overs left. Longmore fell in the same over, but a few late blows took them to 158-6, only 27 short (that’s 85.87% of the required runs, compared to our somewhat pathetic 81.93% at Longton). I walked off in the direction of Astle, standing at the head of a line of players, for the customary hand-shake, and – momentarily distracted by how incredibly crooked one of his fingers was – heard him say: “don’t ever f**king bag me out on the field again, mate”. Oh, right.

I sat in the dressing room a while, briefly de-briefed the team, then went for a beer and to fill out the various forms. I was told by the umpire – the then League Chairman, who presumably had a part in the new lets-all-sit-down-together-and-hug-it-out marking procedure – that Nathan had already filled out his bit. Oh, right.

TMWTFDHITH’s great friend, Chris Cairns, had a motto in cricket: Go hard or go home. Naturally, therefore, I assumed Astle had done an Elvis and left the building. He hadn’t. 

So, having taken care of the necessaries, I went over to where he was holding court (with a team that, I later discovered, had only good words to say about him), tapped him on the shoulder  “this aggression will not stand, man”  and asked: “Nathan? Excuse me, Nathan? Nathan?I’m not being funny but what, exactly, was the difference between what we did at your place and what you did today?” 

He told me, curtly, that we had a world-class spinner playing – I assumed he wasn’t referring to Rog, who finished with an average of 13.86 that season, at a superior strike rate to Immy – and refused to discuss it any more.

Oh, right.  

Previous columns for Moddershall CC's newsletter, 'Barnfields Buzz':

BB01: The Grass Isn’t Always Greener… | On club loyalty
BB02: The King and I | Early forays in the press box and meeting IVA Richards 
BB03: Chris Lewis: Still out in the Cold | The coldest cricket match I ever played 
BB04: Sam Kelsall: Role Model | How a 15-year-old's standards inspired a team to the title

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