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Toss troubles and availability angst – The season’s diary of a club cricket vice-captain

Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 7 minute read

Yas Rana has a new role: vice-captain of Old Pauline CC’s second XI in Division Four of the Surrey Championship. His chronicles through the season appeared in Wisden Cricket Monthly.

The headache of recruitment (April)

For a club which struggled to get 22 on the park at times in 2021, this summer we have rather audaciously opted to field a third Saturday team for the first time in nine years. My childlike enthusiasm for my new role as vice-captain of the twos has already waned somewhat as I’ve come to realise the scale of the logistical challenge ahead; it appears it’ll revolve more around spreadsheet-filling and availability-chasing than game-clinching tactical interventions.

A month out from our season opener, we’ve already exhausted the tried-and-tested avenues of last-minute recruitment. Colleagues? Done. Colleagues of spouses? Also done. Spouses of colleagues of spouses? You can check that one off too. I suspect that once we establish a core of regulars we’ll fine, but getting there by the first weekend of May will be a challenge.


A third team should theoretically widen our pool of potential players. Our top two sides play at a standard that’s decent enough to prohibit those who are relatively new to the game from becoming regulars. The hope is that a third XI can change that.

2020 – my eighth season at the club – was the first where I wasn’t the youngest regular. We have few sub-paying members in their late teens or early twenties, which isn’t hugely promising for the medium-term health of the club. Addressing that is one of the main areas for us to get right this season.

I’m still settling into my new job, but I can claim partial responsibility for the recruitment of an old uni mate who, unfortunately, is far too good to play alongside me in the twos. l’d harboured aspirations of hiding him in the seconds for at least a couple of weeks but his irritatingly regular presence at winter nets has put paid to that dream. One recruit I can claim total responsibility for is WCM’s Jim Wallace, a technically sound opener who’s hoping to bounce back from a lean 2021. He tells me he’s invested in a wall planner and a new cricket bag. Promising signs.

Availability issues notwithstanding, I’m really looking forward to the season ahead. I’ve never been on my club’s committee before and I’m keen to give back to a club that has formed a central part of my summers for the last 10 years. l’d also be lying if I said that the prospect of captaining the odd game wasn’t hugely exciting. My only prior captaincy experience – all the way back in 2011- was memorably chaotic and I’m desperate to right that wrong. However the season pans out, I’m sure the journey will be a fun one.

It’s a toss-up (May)

“What do you reckon? Bowl first?” my captain asked 45 minutes before our season opener. I’ve never really known why I bother performing my own pitch inspection before each game. Until now, my opinion on what to do at the toss has carried little weight and the state of the pitch has never had any bearing on what I’ll try to do with the ball. My pre-match wander to the middle had always been more of a ritual than a fact-finding mission.

“Aren’t you supposed to always bat first in a limited-overs game? Scoreboard pressure and all that?” I wondered, slightly taken aback by the realisation that my opinion now seemed to matter. I looked at the pitch and then at the clouds above me – I had no idea what we should do. The sensible move would have been to admit this and say that I had nothing to offer. But availability-chasing aside, this was an opportunity to make my first meaningful contribution as vice-captain. My chance to make an impact.

So, ignoring the overhead conditions, the considerable presence of grass on the pitch and our side’s recent preference for chasing, I meekly put forward the case for batting first. My views were politely – and sensibly – disregarded. We won the toss, put the opposition in and the decision to do so was soon vindicated as we bowled them out for 109, a target we successfully chased down in 17 overs.

I found toss-gate mildly embarrassing. I watch much more cricket than the average club player and I’m granted access to listen to professionals past and present share their wisdom on the game. And yet I found such a straightforward choice weirdly stressful and difficult. Not a good start, I’d failed my first test.

Thankfully, that was to be the only unsettling moment of the day. At this point in the season, my skipper is – outwardly at least – keen to work collaboratively, so he generally asked for my input before making a decision. It’s an arrangement I quite like, in that I get a rush of personal satisfaction any time a move pays off but none of the blame if things go wrong.

In our season opener, almost every bowling change worked. Twice we claimed a wicket with the first ball of a bowler’s spell and we did a decent job of keeping the runs dry on the rare occasions where the wickets weren’t coming. It was a thoroughly enjoyable first game in the new role, though l am aware that there will be more testing days ahead.

Squeaky bum-time (June)

I don’t think I’ve ever had a more enjoyable start to a season. We started the summer with three consecutive wins, the second of which was a stirring one-wicket victory achieved without several regulars. Coming in at No.11 – one position below a debutant who was not only new to the club but also new to the game itself – I hit the winning runs with a fearful prod into the off-side that pierced the ring field.

Two weeks later I was summoned to the first team after a club-wide seamer availability crisis and played in a remarkably similar game; 240 played 240 (one run off the 2019 World Cup final) in a fluctuating tie that saw both sides fight back from seemingly hopeless positions.

Again, I was in at No.11 at the business end of the run chase. Requiring nine off seven for the win, the No.10 and myself could only get eight, the last of which was achieved by a scrambled bye through to the keeper off the last ball that left me with a lot less skin on my left elbow than I had at the start of the day. You’re lucky to be involved in one game like this across a whole season – to get two in a three-week burst is special. Brilliant pitches for both matches played a big role in the end-of-day excitement.

My main observation so far this season is how often it feels like games are decided on availability spreadsheets in the week leading up to a match, and that post-game satisfaction is more closely linked with how the team fares relative to expectation, rather than the result itself. In our second game of the season, we fielded an obscenely strong second team, right up there with the best we’ve put out in my nine years at the club (we opened with a player who a week later would score 98 in the first XI). We actually didn’t play that well, some way off our potential, and still won convincingly. It was a weirdly unsatisfying win.

Two weeks later, we had to can our third-team fixture due to poor availability and in the seconds we fielded a side that was probably closer to a third XI. It was a game we were never really in but discovering a couple of handy new recruits and watching some genuine newcomers to the game acquit themselves well was a rewarding experience to be a part of.

Is there beauty in the block? (July)

I haven’t been involved in a victory since I wrote my last column, and I’ve only taken a single wicket in that time. The mid-season switch from limited overs to timed cricket has unfortunately not brought much on-field joy. Still though, it is possible to have a good time in defeat.

With that in mind, a word for our recent opponents, Egham CC. Firstly, for the playing quirks that include negotiating the enormous Wellingtonia tree that is stationed at shortish third/deepish mid-wicket. And secondly, for their genuinely splendid tea; it makes such a difference when a home side takes pride in hosting their opposition.

As we haven’t had any on-field glory to bask in, a significant proportion of our pitch-side conversation has inevitably been filled by debates around the merits of playing timed cricket. Personally, I don’t hate it. I like the fact there’s almost always still something to play for at the end of the day. As a tailender, it can be really fun blocking the crap out of it as the sun starts to set with your increasingly tipsy teammates cheering every forward defence from the sidelines; for a moment, you feel like you’re Jimmy or Monty at Cardiff. But as thrilling as that is for me, I’m not sure it’s the spectacle people are looking forward to when they give up 10 hours of their Saturday.

I conducted an extremely unscientific straw poll on timed cricket with some of my teammates. The vast majority were vehemently opposed to it. The arguments against generally focused on its negativity. Timed cricket – with fewer bowling and fielding restrictions – also lends itself to fewer players getting a good game. And if you pit decent club bowlers against decent club batters on a good deck, the bowlers generally aren’t good enough to dismiss them when their focus is all-out defence.

Winning draws are also just not that satisfying. I captained a timed game this month which realistically we had no chance of saving, so instead we had a dart at securing some valuable bonus points, partly because – in our league at least – you don’t get many points for a losing draw. We still got thumped but think everyone involved had more fun.

Ultimately, club cricket outside its highest levels is about the 22 players who’ve given up their Saturday having a good time. Compared to limited-overs cricket, I think the timed format hinders that pursuit of enjoyment.

Where’s everyone gone? (August)

After week six, we were top of the league. With five weeks of the season to go, we’re under serious threat of relegation. Availabilities have fallen off a cliff; none of the second XI that played in Week 12 played for the twos in Week 13 and in our last match we were thumped.

I don’t want to sound too downbeat but it’s pretty much a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. For the remaining second-team regulars, they’re not really getting the level of competitive cricket they signed up for at the start of the season. Much worse, though, is the experience of the players promoted into the twos. The gap in standard between our second and third teams is considerable. The latter was set up over the winter to cater for those who haven’t played in some time or, in some cases, haven’t played organised cricket at all.

Collectively, it just isn’t a particularly fun experience knowing that the result of the game is set in stone within the first 30 minutes of what should be a seven-hour contest. For the opposition, I’m not sure that they can derive that much satisfaction from thrashing a team so comprehensively. After last Saturday I felt obliged to apologise to the opposition skipper for having given them such a poor game.

It’s a vicious cycle. Bad availability begets further bad availability. If people have sub-optimal experiences of giving up their entire Saturdays, they’re less likely to make themselves free in the future. Somehow, the club managed to find 32 players for Week 13, a quarter of whom were making their debuts. But nearly all those debutants made their first appearances in far from ideal circumstances which might put them off coming back.

Our rapid descent down the table does not really bother me, I promise. All I’m really after is having reliably competitive cricket most weeks where both sides have a decent chance of winning. Recently, this has been a rarity. It is not anyone’s fault that availabilities have been poor either. People are allowed to be busy. I think it’s unhealthy to create an environment where people feel obliged to play each week to the detriment of their social lives. People should want to play.

I actually think most of the people who played in our last match had a good time, despite the result. Everyone who was in the side as a bowler got a decent bowl and spirits – aside from the aftermath of a couple of farcical run-outs – were laudably high throughout the day. Hopefully those eight debutants stick around for better and more enjoyable weeks.

Introspection Edition (September)

A frustrating second half of the season ended on a positive note, with our first and second teams narrowly avoiding relegation. The twos secured survival with consecutive home victories in what proved to be must-win encounters against fellow relegation contenders.

The satisfaction after those wins made all the hardships of mid-season feel worthwhile – there are few feelings quite like enjoying the first sips of a cold drink under the setting sun after a hard-fought victory. A whopping 65 players represented the second team alone over the course of the season – to perform respectably with such levels of fluctuation in personnel was an achievement worthy of celebration.

This has been the most league cricket I’ve played across a single summer. I played 12 of the 18 Saturdays, and while I’m aware that figure is probably below what you might expect from a vice-captain, that increase in commitment has been the focus of some end of season introspection. Is spending two-thirds of my summer Saturdays playing cricket really what I want to do? For every blissful moment like our survival-assuring victory, there are several fruitless days in the dirt where you question the purpose of that dedication. And that’s not even taking into account the administrative duties that come with being vice-captain – the weekly battle to put together three competitive sides can easily suck the enjoyment out of it.

We are all in some way shaped by how we choose to spend our time: do l really want to do this all again next April? There were definitely points towards the end of the season where the answer was no.

But I had a moment of clarity when the ones secured survival the week after the twos – a win that was achieved without several first-team regulars. After the game, we raced into town to celebrate. At my table, I was surrounded by guys for whom this was their first season at the club. In the grand scheme of things, promotion and relegation from Division Four of the Surrey Championship doesn’t matter a whole lot. In theory, we were celebrating survival, but in reality, we were acknowledging the joy we had shared across the summer, a joy that is felt because of our shared love of this stupid, cruel game.

Celebrating our summer with a bunch of guys I’d only played cricket with for the first time in April was a special moment, and one that, on balance, makes those long train journeys, early starts, late finishes and the occasional miserable day in the field all worthwhile. Do I really want to do this all again next April? Hell yeah.

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