As a celebrated writer and author of 11 books on cricket, Stephen Chalke has the game lodged deep in his heart. This is his account of a life spent entangled amongst the sport’s humble roots.
We’re worried about participation down here in Wiltshire. The clubs are all running their under 13s and under 15s, but too many of the youngsters are drifting away from cricket in their late teens and early twenties. It’s too long a game for people with busy lives, they say. In Bristol they are even floating the idea of turning their Saturday league into a Twenty20 competition.
Last summer was as bad as I have known it. We had football’s European Championships, then the Olympics, and of course the weather. The bloody jet stream that never moved. The only real summer we had was in March.
I was the third team captain at my club, Winsley, and raising an XI was 18 weeks of hell. Winsley is only a little village outside Bradford-on-Avon, but our first team had gone up into a division which included big town clubs such as Cheltenham and Swindon and they didn’t win a game till mid-August. I’ve never seen Charlie the captain so despondent.
Ben, the seconds’ skipper, never seemed to have settled his side till the end of the week. He was always “waiting to hear back from Harvey Burgess” (who didn’t actually make a single appearance) or “trying to get through to Ian Alsop” (ditto).
One Friday morning in June, when I’d just about got 11, Ben sent me a text: “How many have u got? Im down to 5 and charlie wants 2 of them.” He and I spent the whole evening finding players till finally we had full teams. On Saturday it rained.
One lad sent me the same text eight weeks running: “Sorry Stephen no can do. Definitely available next week.” I’m told he’s “keen as mustard” this year.
The great thing about texts is that you don’t have the embarrassment of ringing up and getting repeatedly rejected. You just fire off the texts – “Winsley 3rd XI are looking for one player for Saturday. Could it be you?” (well, you don’t want them knowing you’re five short) – and, if they don’t reply (as several never did all summer), what the hell! I have a friend, Pete, a good cricketer in his time, and I got him to play once in 2009. He took six wickets and greatly enjoyed himself, and every week last summer I texted him. Every week he replied, too: “Sorry not this week but do keep asking.” Then in late August he rang me: “You’re not going to believe this, but I can play.” On Saturday morning the heavens opened.
But maybe texts aren’t as persuasive as phone calls. “Oh come on, we’re playing at Marlborough. That’s a nice ground. I tell you what, you can open the batting.” I joined Winsley when they started the 3rd XI in 2009. I was 60 years old, winding down my cricket, and they were looking to recruit some experienced players. “In fact, we’re looking for a captain. Perhaps you’d like to do that. No one at the club wants to.”
“Don’t touch it,” my friend Adrian told me bluntly. “They haven’t got a 3rd XI. You’ll spend all summer on the phone, and you’ll finish up forfeiting half the games.”
I took no notice. It was a fresh challenge. A last chance to fulfil my Mike Brearley fantasy. Only at this level of cricket it’s not the subtle bowling change that wins the game; it’s the last desperate, never-give-up phone calls on Saturday morning.
We were put in the bottom division of the Wiltshire League and, for all Adrian’s warnings, we had a wonderful summer. A lovely mix of young and old, a great team spirit and a thrilling end-of-season run chase on the slope at Norton St Philip, 229 in 45 overs, to win promotion. At the awards evening they gave me the President’s Cup.
One 18-year-old lad, Jim, new to cricket, hit 130 at Devizes. I was umpiring, fighting down my emotion, when he struck his 100th run. He was one of a group of five friends who became the life force of the team for three years, and their easy-going enthusiasm gave me a new lease of life. It even kept me in touch with the latest lingo. One week I texted one of them, Vince, with the travel arrangements, and back came the reply: “Cool beans.”
The 3rd XI was their team, and they wanted to stay on it together. By 2011 the club was getting frustrated by that – and starting to blame me. I was running “a club within a club” – and maybe I was. The trouble with clubs, though, is that they can get so caught up with aspirations and mission statements, so preoccupied by their league status, that they forget that most weekend cricketers just want an enjoyable afternoon, playing with people they like in a happy, settled side.
One week I persuaded Vince to go up to the seconds. Our 3rd XI were at Buscot Park, a tree-lined ground with a thatched pavilion on a National Trust estate, and we had a lovely game. On the way home we were purring with pleasure in the car. But I had to drop off the subs at the club where the seconds had been playing. “I’m dreading going up there and finding they’ve lost, that Vince has scored a fifty, and that he’s told them he doesn’t want to play for them.” I should have bought a lottery ticket – all three predictions were right. They were sitting on the patio, looking miserable as hell. No one likes losing, but I wonder. Do more and more league cricketers only enjoy their afternoons when they win?
Last year the lads did go up to the seconds, but somehow nobody came down in exchange. So I struggled through the summer, fearing that we’d finish up where we started – relegated back to the bottom division. And bottom divisions can get a bit ragged, with an uneven number of sides and the standard so very variable.
My counterpart at Marlborough, Rob, was also in the relegation mix, and I could sense he was getting wound up. He’s a good man who cares, but like me his Brearley fantasy was not working out as planned. They played a rearranged game against the bottom club, Trowbridge 4th XI, on a Sunday, and Trowbridge turned up with two first-teamers. One Sunday morning in August I was walking in the woods with Sue, and my mobile buzzed. It was a text message from Rob, sitting on a beach in Spain, wanting to know yesterday’s results. That’s when I knew how much it had got to him. Marlborough weren’t the sort of club who would be happy to have their 3rd XI in Division 8.
In mid-August we travelled to Highworth in the north of the county. None of the sides in West Wiltshire like going up Swindon way; it’s another world, beyond our community of gentler village and small town sides. We were desperate for a victory, but in the fifth over our best bowler tore a tendon in his bowling arm and went home. Then, off the last ball of their innings, we somehow allowed their 24-stone No.11 to waddle an improbable single. “You never know,” he said as he walked off. “That just might prove vital.” It did. We lost by one run.
I’d had enough. I told the club I was packing up – not just the captaincy but, at the age of 64, the playing as well. And in the end they were good to me. For the last game Ben, bless him, didn’t pinch all my players. There were five clubs in the mix for relegation and, as it transpired later, only one of us would stay up. We went to Melksham, to the old Cooper Avon Tyres ground in the centre of town, and in 12 overs I took six wickets for four runs, my best figures for years. We won by nine wickets, and we stayed up. It seemed like the perfect ending.
Meanwhile poor Rob’s Marlborough thirds were losing to Wanborough 2nd XI, another side from Swindon way. We umpire ourselves at this level. I did once overhear a captain sending out a 14-year-old with the instruction “Don’t give anything out”, but mostly it works out fine. There’s a sort of unspoken understanding that you only give the obvious lbws, and some teams do start calling wides when they’re struggling, but a general culture of fair play does still prevail.
The law about high full tosses can cause disputes, and it did that day at Marlborough. Rob, bowling leg breaks, was repeatedly no-balled by their umpire for balls that were barely waist high. Why he should be bowling waist-high full tosses, I don’t know, but he clearly lost the plot – as well as his temper – and it all ended in a bad defeat and his resignation.
Rob and I had arranged an end-of-season friendly for the following Saturday. We played on the main square at Winsley, and I recruited my original five lads, all now 21 and coming to the end of their university days. There were no league points at stake, we played a declaration format, and the sun shone. Rob bowled a long spell without incident, and Marlborough finished up with nine wickets down, four runs short of our score. In the bar the two teams mingled happily, all agreeing that it had been as nice a game as any of us had played all summer.
I thought of making a little speech, saying that I had played my last ever game, but in the end I didn’t want the fuss. Instead, I sat for a while with the lads, telling them at one point that the best pop song of all time was A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke. Within a minute we were all listening to it on Luke’s iPhone.
‘I was born by the river, just by a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ever since’
Deep down I didn’t feel ready to retire, but you have to stop some time – and perhaps it’s best to choose your own moment. I can still remember the words of the ambulance driver who some years ago took me off to hospital after I’d had chest pains while bowling. “Cricket’s a great game, but there does come a time when you have to pack up, you know.”
Just before Christmas I had a change of heart. I sent an email saying I’d carry on playing, and now they’ve appointed me vice-captain. Apparently there are only four weeks when the new captain’s away. I think I can cope with that.