Methuselah Would Have Enjoyed It

A `fielder' remembers his youthful glory days - standing for eons on an empty cricket green

`WHO would think that a little bit of leather, and two pieces of wood, had such a delightful and delighting power!'' - thus writes Mary Russell Mitford in ``A Country Cricket-Match.'' Well - I wouldn't. English I may be, but a cricketer I am not. Every few years I feel a sudden urge to tell anyone who happens to be listening why this is so. The way cricket is flourishing as a professional sport these days (all year round since they've discovered it's always summer somewhere, and television can bring instant commentary from there) it seems I'm not strong on listeners. But one must not be discouraged.

What set me off this time was an interview on British TV at the time of the World Cup Football (soccer) extravaganza here in Europe - more specifically, in Italy. Several citizens of the United States were asked their opinion of the game. ``Soccer?'' answered one, ``it'll never catch on over here. It's far too slow.'' He then enumerated, not without accuracy, how an entire soccer match can go by without score - plus ``extra time,'' with still no score.

I take the point, but let me tell him: If he thinks soccer is slow, he must think cricket is petrified. Not that lack of score is the problem in cricket. No, no. The numbers keep going up on the scoreboard. The scoreboard man is active. That's not what's slow.

What's slow is everything that isn't happening to me, out there in the long grass at the boundary, remote from the rest of the universe. A great deal of nothing-at-all is happening to me: I, you see, am a ``fielder.'' And I am not just any fielder, but the fielder placed in that part of the field least likely to be ever visited by the ball. The captain of my team has put me here advisedly. He feels that the less responsibility I am given, the fewer mistakes I am liable to make. He's probably right.

If - you may reasonably query - I don't like cricket, why do I play it?

The short answer is, I don't. But I did once. It was imposed upon me. Something to do with having been, for too many years, a schoolboy. Games, announced the prospectus of those boarding institutions within whose walls I merrily languished from age seven to 18, were ``compulsory.'' In essence, this odd contradiction in terms - compulsory games - meant that even those boys who were, by constitution or an innate preference for anarchy, disinclined to find adult-organized games inspirational, had to play them anyway.

Why this should be so I wasn't clear. It seems to me that there was one terribly obvious reason why non-cricketers should not play these games, and that reason was that we were so unbelievably bad at them. We were simply a liability to any team.

You might assume that the purpose of endlessly being made to play the game was based on a sanguine assumption by the school authorities that practice would improve our skill and thus make us acceptable members of society like all good cricketers are. Make us good team members. A credit to the side. But this paradoxically was not the intention at all. Nobody ever thought we would improve. But it was still right that we should play.

Let me explain cricket. Cricket is purportedly a ``team game.'' But although it is played by teams, 11 a side, this is really just an ingenious coverup for rampant and shamelessly public individualism. At any one time in this so-called game involving 22 people, only four, with the possibility of one more, are actually involved. There are two batsman (and even one them isn't doing much). These two are the only people from their team who are actually on the field.

The other nine are all in the wooden hut over there (known as the ``pavilion'') variously reading whodunits, having tea and crumpets, or sleeping, as befits a summer afternoon: They at least are profitably employed. There is one bowler. There is a wicket keeper. And the only other person who might possibly get something to do is the unfortunate fielder, at whom the ball (Miss Mitford's ``little bit of leather'') may be walloped suddenly by a batsman should he by chance manage to bring his ``piece of wood'' (known to the initiated as a ``bat'') into contact with the ball.

Any thinker could easily deduce from this peculiarly imbalanced distribution of activity, that redundancy, if not downright moribundity, is what is required of most of the ``players'' in a cricket game. And there is a simple equation involved: The worse you are at cricket, the further from active participation you will be.

So today, when my cricketing nightmare once again invades the small hours, reminding me with subliminal subversiveness that my schooldays were the happiest of my life, I see myself once more, attired in the requisite long, white flannels with turn ups, white socks, white Aertex shirt, and Blanco'd cricket shoes, standing on the outermost rim of an vast expanse of green.

From my mouth dangles a grass stem from which the milky juice has long ago been sucked. In my hands, indifferent to fate like all flowers plucked in the heat of the day, a daisy chain: A man has got to do something with his time. And way over there, almost beyond the horizon - a stylish, suavely handsome young fellow strolls with languorous self-assurance back from the crease toward the end of his run up.

He is the Hon. Marchbank Osborne-Smythe, bowler. He is planning a tactically devastating googlie which he is highly confident will cause St. John Waugh-Blair, batsman, to step back smartly onto his wicket and destroy his ambition to make yet another century (100 runs, for the uninitiated) ... he bowls. But the superb Waugh-Blair, cravatted, hair scrupulously combed, is ready.

Waugh-Blair steps forward with easy patience and simply stops the ball in its tracks. That's all. It goes nowhere. Nobody moves. The umpire stares ahead, impassive. In the sky, one bored, white cloud waits without hope for a puff of wind. The sedge is withered by the lake and no birds sing.

And so on it goes. Cricket games last, and having lasted, last some more. Methuselah would have been a contented cricketer. You can grow very old during a cricket game.

When it is finally the turn for my team to bat, we all meander dazedly to the pavilion and the other bunch wander out into the grass to spend three or four hours out there. Cows make better use of their time in fields.

And does the game become more interesting for me at this stage? No. It does not. Since I am just as bad at batting as I am at bowling (although, since I have never been allowed to bowl, I can't quite understand how they can be so sure) I am the ``last man in.'' This means that 10 other players will bat before I do. The better batter you are the sooner you bat. You can bat, if you're good, for centuries. Millennia.

This is why the ``last man in'' rarely bats. If he is called upon for this onerous duty, it is probably two in the morning, and then everyone looks at their watches and decides, sighing sadly, to call it all off. They imagine you, 11th man, will be relieved. You are. You are relieved it is all over at long last.

And this is why cricket isn't what cricketers crack it up to be. It is slow-motion self-indulgence-in-white, showing-off-on-grass.

I am delighted to say that the experts agree with me, I think. They are Iona and Peter Opie, authors of the classic ``Children's Games in Street and Playground.'' They observed: ``A true game is one that frees the spirit.... The true game ... is the one that arises from the players themselves.'' The point of their book is that real children's games are played blissfully without adult interference.

``It may even be argued,'' they continue, ``that the value of a game depends on its inconsequence to daily life. In the games adults organize for children ... the outside world is ever present. Individual performances tend to become a matter for congratulation or shame.... [Those] who speak loudest about the virtues of organized sport are the people who excel in it themselves, never the duffers.''

Exactly. So give me tennis any day: that - interspersed with painting - was what I joyfully opted for at school when, in my final year, it was decided that Sixth Formers could, if they so wished, ``profitably'' spend their summer afternoons doing something other than ``play cricket.'' It was an enlightened change of policy, I guess, but much too late to compensate for so much time already wasted.

But tennis! - that I played with willing enthusiasm even during vacations. There's a game in which each and every player has something to do every moment, where even duffers can play duffers and have fun as well as games.

Besides, tennis can be played with girls.

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