Quantum of Cricket

Catches: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.

This is a self-indulgent piece about a catch I took. It’s also about anticipation, satisfaction, and a whole heap of other -tions. It’s about playing alongside those that coached you when young, and about nurturing the next generation.

It’s mainly about My Catch, though.

Last weekend I played one of my rare league games for Kington 2nds. Due to a local festival on one of the grounds, the Seconds’ game was shifted to the Sunday. Unfortunately, not only was a knockout Cup game for the Firsts scheduled for the same afternoon, but also some sort of Important Match in The Other Sport. The consequent player shortage led to a Saturday-evening call-up for yours truly: desperate times, &c.

As it turned out, the Firsts’ game was conceded by the opposition – at a guess, also struggling to attract players away from the gluttonous pleasures of Kane vs Panama – so the player pool was nowhere near as limited as it first turned out. The temptation to stuff the Seconds with first-team players was nonetheless resisted, but at least ensured we had a full – if green – side; six were probably eligible for age-group cricket. Set against such youth were: a lad in his 20s, ancient by comparison; my U13 coach, still faithfully developing the youngsters; my alma mater’s history teacher; the father of one of our youngsters, coaxed back to the field after a 30-year absence; and myself.

As a line-up, it was one that our opposition could view with anticipation rather than apprehension.

Finding yourself old enough to be expected to set a Good Example can be rather disorienting. What approach should one take? The nurturing of younger players is a delicate act: fail to inspire them to work at their games, and you risk placing an artificial ceiling on their development; place too high a value on results, and you risk hiding the satisfaction they can gain simply from playing the game – or worse, eliminate it entirely.

Looking more widely, statistics will tell us that most youngsters won’t go higher than county age-group honours, if that. Yet that doesn’t mean that their potential should be underestimated as a matter of course, and the game of cricket is flexible enough for it to cater to both groups: those who might make cricket their career, and those for whom it will remain recreation.

Either way, both groups quickly need to learn how to cope with failure. For cricket is largely a game of failure, almost revolving around dissatisfaction. Take batting. Statistically, it’s tautological to observe that on average, batsmen score, well, their average. Yet the batsman who averages 40 will tend to feel 40 is a failure; the batsman who averages 30 will often fall in the teens; the batsman who averages 10 won’t be remotely happy with merely reaching double figures.

What keeps us going to the well, to employ one of the more irritating clichés bandied about?

Anticipation. Anticipation keeps us turning out in hope. Anticipation not necessarily based on any good reason, but of knowing, or guessing, what the feeling is like. We dream of delivering the inswinging yorker taking out leg stump, the straight six into the road, the one-handed catch at second slip. Our visualisation keeps us secretly optimistic: perhaps this will be the season, the day, the innings, the spell.

Just occasionally, it is.

My returns for the day read as follows: 14 runs; 3 overs, 0 maidens, 18 runs, 1 wicket; 1 catch. It won’t be enough to make the Hereford Times’ weekly summary of results, with its minimum qualification of 2 wickets or 20 runs (or is it 3 and 30?). It’s nothing to write home about, but may be enough to blog about.

At this point, if I was writing a match report, or making some comment on the professional game, I would probably start to pick apart those figures, attempting to make the case that despite their apparent lack of relevance, they really conceal a deep, crucial, perhaps match-turning significance; a significance that only an Insightful Cricket Writer or a Perspicacious Sports Analyst would be Clever Enough To Notice.

That isn’t the case. By and large, they are a fair representation in every respect. If anything, the bowling figures slightly flatter me; while it’s true that I had one boundary catch put down, it’s hard to claim that the ball deserved a wicket. The same goes for the one that went for four over young Katy’s head at deep backward square; a taller fielder might have taken it, but it was far from a good delivery.

Yet what the figures do hide are what might be termed first-person quanta: discrete moments of personal experience. If you’ve played the game for any length of time, you can make a fair guess of how a player might feel in general terms after his or her performances. Most of us probably know what a golden duck feels like. We can, even if we’ve never worked up to such heights, accurately estimate the feelings of a batsman run out for 99, and contrast them with that of a batsman run out for 100. The elation of a hat-trick, the satisfaction of a five-wicket haul, or the ignominy of having an over carted for 24, are all within our power to roughly comprehend.

Nothing, however, is equivalent to actually going through them oneself, whether positive or negative. We may rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, but nothing compares to our personally experiencing the events.

Nor can we pass the experience on to others in toto. The best we can do is describe them, and, if we have even a modicum of the generosity of spirit that cricket at its best inspires, attempt to guide others to experience the same satisfaction. So here come a selection of precisely those moments, described in unnecessary and gratuitous detail. Because we’re being pretentious here, we’ll dub each a quantum of cricket.

It is the first ball of the match. I cannot ever remember having opened the batting for Kington in a league game. My opening partner, a young lad who has played three times in the past week – more than I have in a month – has asked me to take first strike.

In pounds the opening quick. It is a full toss, high – very high – in fact it is a no-ball. I aim to send it on its way with the bat; instead I get enough glove on it for the fast outfield to do the rest.

The score lies at 5-0, 0.0 overs. In retrospect I should have hit it for six, but nevertheless it remains the first time I can recall ever having hit the first ball of a match to the boundary.

Then I hit the next ball for four as well. Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s going to be my day.

It is the end of our innings and for much of it I have been scoring. Unusually, it has been a rare game in that I have been able to concentrate more or less properly on doing so, rather than thinking about batting orders, fielding player phone calls, arranging umpiring stints and so on. I’ve also been blessed with a competent predecessor on the book, so there have been few moments of alarm.

As I make my final calculations for batting analysis and bowling analysis, I realise, almost to my surprise, that the figures actually match. Bowlers’ runs + fielding extras = batsmen’s runs + all extras = the over-by-over record = the run-by-run tally. This is deeply pleasing.

I realise that the rest of the team have already gone down to the main clubhouse for tea. A balanced cricket tea may be too much to ask for, but a balanced scorebook is almost as delicious.

The batsman flicks it out towards mid-wicket. I am just backward of square.

This is not The Catch: it is a harbinger of what is to come.

To the observer, it is a neat bit of fielding, no more. Yet the first-person experience of it yielded close to perfect satisfaction. For once, every part of the manoeuvre clicks into place. Run across past the umpire; intercept low; roll; transfer ball to right hand; release and dispatch to keeper—all in one movement that is seamless, or as close to seamless as I can manage.

It’s just a pity it was wasted on an occasion when the batsmen weren’t running.

Katy replaces me at the top end and I in turn replace her at deep backward square. I know that I’ll be in business: the batsmen have been largely targeting the leg side, and her pace at the moment isn’t enough to trouble them if she drops short. Sure enough, one comes my way shortly, falling some way in front of me; I watch for the bounce carefully and gather it safely.

Again, the batsman pulls one down to me, this time along the ground. I don’t quite gather it as cleanly as the last time – I stop it safely enough, but don’t hold on to it immediately – but the net effect is another boundary saved. Murmurs of approval come from the friendly home supporters in front of the nearby pavilion, just a few yards to my right; in reality, it is no more than adequate fielding, however.

The two events confirm my suspicions, though: a catch is about.

Katy’s second over starts with a dot and a single. On the third ball, it happens. A little later than expected, but it happens.

An airborne pull shot is speeding towards me. The trajectory is flat and on another day it could be tricky to judge its speed and projected course. Today the sun is at my back, the ball is clearly visible, and – most importantly – since I have been expecting it, I am ready.

Perhaps to onlookers it does not seem that way. I don’t think I move very early. I have a vague sensation that the dozen or so spectators momentarily hush, but that may be either a false memory, or else a function of my sense of hearing temporarily reducing sensitivity in order to divert more “brainpower” to the eyes and limbs.

For, regardless of how it may look, I am locked in to it. It is not what is termed an instinct catch, one that either sticks or doesn’t, with few recriminations at stake. On the other hand, it is not a skier, with enough time to contemplate it, set oneself in the perfect position, draft one’s first novel, start a family, and finally drop the catch.

Yet from my first-person perspective, the thought of dropping it simply doesn’t intrude.

The ball starts to die. Staying stationary will result in a half volley. At the last moment, I fall forward to the ground and pouch it at arm’s length a few inches proud. I rise and hold the orb aloft with one hand.

The entire movement forms a perfectly natural, fluid, indivisible quantum of cricket.

The crowd, or at least what is likely to be as close to a crowd as I’ll ever play to, erupts – or at least applauds cheerfully, perhaps as much out of surprise as much as anything (remember, I’m not a regular these days).

Taking a diving catch, in front of a pavilion of friendly supporters, on a stunning summer’s day, to secure an adult league wicket for a young girl – it’s one of Those Moments that could almost have been scripted. (If she goes on to greatness in the game, I’m definitely claiming that this constituted a key part of her development. At the very least, it might be enough to get her in the Hereford Times, since she bowled the new batsman with her very next delivery.)

It’s not a catch that was born great by virtue of its difficulty: it was a good catch, but was never going to be otherworldly. It didn’t achieve greatness by virtue of the match situation: it did nothing to seriously call into doubt the impending loss that was shortly thereafter sealed. But it did have greatness thrust upon it, in that in one fell swoop it repaid the hope faithfully invested in The Game match after match, season upon season, year upon year.

One trivial event, over in one moment, only fully appreciated by one person, can be enough to encapsulate everything good about our infuriating, befuddling, wonderful and ultimately rewarding game.

Bonus-point fiasco reflects poorly on Pembrokeshire league

It will go down as one of the most infamous declarations of all time. In a case widely reported across the globe, Carew CC, in Pembrokeshire, declared at 18-1 against Cresselly CC. The declaration ensured they would lose the match, but crucially denied Cresselly bonus points, thus safeguarding Carew’s position at the head of the league table.

At this point, I don’t wish to comment extensively on the moral ramifications of Carew’s move – plenty of other have done so – save to observe that their action was contrary to the very essence of sport: to provide a contest. Nor do I want to discuss the intelligence, or otherwise, of Cresselly’s decision to insert Carew after winning the toss, if, as has been suggested, they had been warned that an early Carew declaration was a distinct possibility.

What I would like to focus on is the role of the league in this affair. By and large, they appear to have received little attention; however, in my view, they do carry a measure of responsibility for allowing the situation to occur in the first place.

Here are the Pembroke County Cricket League bonus point rules (section 12(d)):

Bonus points (awarded for performances in each innings and whatever the result of the match):-

(i) Batting: In Divisions One & Two the first batting point will awarded [sic] when 40 runs have been scored. Thereafter one point will be awarded for every additional 40 runs scored up to a maximum of 5 (200 runs). […]

(ii) Bowling: For each two wickets taken by the fielding side in an innings – 1 point, i.e 2 wickets in an innings – 1 point; 4 wickets in an innings – 2 points; 6 wickets in an innings – 3 points; 8 wickets in an innings – 4 points; 10 wickets  in an innings – 5 points;

(iii)  In the event of a team batting short for any reason and their opponents capturing ALL available wickets, then the maximum of five (5) bonus points shall be awarded.

Brief consideration should reveal the problem: the side batting second is actually penalised for bowling well, since doing so may limit the number of batting points they can then obtain. A team that sets 200 and then bowls the opposition out for 34 would score 10 bonus points, whereas a team that bowls out the opposition out for 34 and chases them without losing a wicket would only score 5 bonus points.

Post-hoc wisdom is extremely easy to throw around, of course, and league administrators – often volunteers wearing many different hats, giving up their free time in order that others may play – cannot ultimately be held responsible for the deliberate actions of the teams they attempt to serve. They do, however, have the responsibility to ensure that, to the best of their ability, the rules they set out are fair. Quick consideration of these bonus-point regulations should have revealed that they were inherently unfair; at worst, the rules could actually encourage teams to bowl badly in order to concede enough runs to chase later.

As a separate, much less serious example, I once played in a friendly match a few years ago with a curious format. Each team was to receive two innings, and a set number of overs for those two innings. If a side was bowled out, any unused overs were carried over to that team’s second innings. A few moments’ consideration of that format reveals that it similarly militated against the essence of bowling. Teams bowling in the first innings had an incentive to not take wickets, since quickly bowling out the other side would allow the batting side to preserve valuable overs for their second innings; if anything, it encouraged bowlers to bowl defensively, focusing purely on run-saving (of course, one could fairly level that criticism against limited-overs cricket in general, but we’ll leave that for another day).

Let’s return to Pembrokeshire (and, beautiful area that it is, who wouldn’t want to?). The league rules are not hard to fix. Some options would be to:

  • Remove all batting bonus points, thus ensuring that both teams always have the chance of 5 points.
  • When calculating bowling bonus points, treat a declaration as a loss of 10 wickets, thus preventing teams from artificially denying their opponents the chance to acquire bowling points.
  • Give chasing teams batting points based on a proportion of the setting team’s score (e.g. 1 point at 20%, 2 points at 40%, etc.), rather than at fixed intervals; this would stop teams closing their innings just short of bonus-point boundaries to prevent their opponents the chance of batting points.

One rather expects Pembrokeshire County Cricket Club to be reviewing its rules this winter. The changes it makes will, no doubt, receive rather more attention than usual.

Report: Sam Curran holds Middlesex to draw

Fifties from Sam Curran and Ben Foakes held off Middlesex on the final day of their County Championship meeting at Lord’s.

Many are the batsmen that have failed to add significantly to an overnight score; rather fewer are those that have failed to add significantly to overnight centuries; even fewer are those that have not done so twice in a match. On Saturday, Kumar Sangakkara added a mere single before edging Franklin to Rayner for 114; on Monday he added all of four runs before edging the same bowler to Simpson.

It nevertheless meant that Sangakkara had scored runs on each of the four days in the match, on what could yet be his final appearance at Lord’s. If it proves to be so, what better way to sign off?

Almost as if sensing the opening that his departure offered Middlesex in the game, even the angle-grinders in the Warner Stand ceased their ear-assaulting screeching. The Surrey lead stood at a mere 112, with the first non-specialist batsman at the crease.

Any Middlesex hopes that this would open the game up were quelled by Sam Curran and Ben Foakes’ partnership of 83 for the sixth wicket, only ended on the stroke of lunch when Curran nicked Rayner behind for his first scalp of the match. They were aided by the curious decision of Franklin to postpone taking of the new ball until the 95th over. With the old ball offering no appreciable movement, and Middlesex well up with the over rate, there seemed little obvious reason to persist with Rayner, who till that point had found little turn from the pitch. Sam Curran found Rayner to his liking, driving the off-spinner over long-off into the Pavilion for six.

That being said, the new ball also offered little to the bowlers. While Curran was the beneficiary of the decision to not include a third slip – Finn being the unfortunate bowler on two occasions – by and large there was limited movement either off the pitch or in the air, and consequently few alarms. Rayner briefly livened up proceedings by bowling Tom Curran through the gate for a spirited 22 – Curran being caught out by one that did, for once, turn, but the Surrey tail resisted in a way they had not done in the first innings, ensuring that within an hour or so after lunch the game was already heading towards handshakes.

Much of this was down to the resistance of Foakes, who was content to quietly survive. In the first forty-five minutes after lunch, he scored all of five runs, building pressure through time-consumption while his colleagues built it through run-contribution. He was left unbeaten on 67 after Malan’s part-time leg-spin cleaned up Meaker, whose off-stump was pegged back by a traditional leg-break, and Footitt, who chipped his second ball to cover.

Middlesex’s intentions as regards pursuing their target of 242 in 39 overs were called into question by the retention of Compton in his opening position. After Gubbins fell early, caught behind off Sam Curran – a decision he did not look entirely happy with – Middlesex were content to trundle along to 13-1 at tea, with 33 overs remaining. A trickle of runs followed after the interval, and although there was late excitement when Compton swiped Footitt to deep square-leg, both teams agreed to take the points for the draw soon after 5pm.