Archive for July, 2011

One of the iconic images of the great British seaside holiday of the fifties and sixties is of happy families playing beach cricket.  Everyone joined in, playing with child-size bats, balls and stumps that reduced fathers who fancied themselves as Dexter or Sobers to the same level of competence as their seven year old sons, non-sporting wives and even the family dog (when they were still allowed on the beach between May and September).

Sadly, the advent of the foreign package holiday, breakdown in traditional family structures and expansion of leisure pursuits, all contrived to render such a scene virtually obsolete.  Over the past weekend, therefore, I embarked upon a one man (at least for now) campaign to revive this venerable but floundering tradition, pitching up on Ramsgate Main Sands with my wife at 2pm on Sunday for an impromptu game. 

I say impromptu because my planning had left something to be desired – a brief glance at the tide times beforehand would have revealed that this was the worst time of the day to start.  Nevertheless, after 20 minutes inspecting the fast diminishing slither of sand along the bay, I found a strip that was marginally more playable than the Rose Bowl.  It quickly became clear, however, that if the game was to be remotely watchable, or attract other participants, it was pointless bowling anything other than full tosses because once the ball had pitched, it was firmly plugged into the sand.

Pudding-like wicket aside, it proved a batsman’s paradise as the leg side boundary shortened sharply with the onrushing scum brown tide, ensuring that the merest of flicks resulted in a four or six.  That said, the smacking of  my extra cover drives against the sea wall was more satisfying.  Frank Keating once wrote that Ian Botham played a net “as if he is on Weston-super-Mare beach and the tide is coming in fast”.  I’d like to think that if you substituted Broadstairs for Weston, that might accurately describe my batting on this day. 

Public interest was negligible, evidenced by a succession of families, oblivious of the sacred nature of my work, plodding across the wicket at regular intervals.  It reminded me of my primary school football pitch which had a public footpath running diagonally across it, constantly trodden by young mothers with prams during vital matches against our bitter rivals from the adjoining parishes of Luton, Delce and Arden.  Understandably, dribbling was a skill particularly valued at Glencoe Road.  

But back to the summer game.  

Human indifference was not mirrored in the behaviour of the indigenous bird population. An improbable infield of seagulls occupying short square leg, silly mid on, mid wicket and mid on loitered, more, I suspect, in anticipation of the next tasty titbit thrown up by the thrashing waves than hovering in hope of a bat pad.  Eventually, with the wicket completely submerged, the players were forced to dash from the square to the nearest ice cream van.

Undaunted, I resumed my missionary work on Monday with a game on the much larger and more suitable Viking Bay beach in Broadstairs.  Low tide was scheduled for 2.04pm but, conscious that the tide came in a lot quicker than it went out, I decided that play should get underway an hour earlier.

An early inspection of prospective wickets revealed not only a soft, dune-like sand texture inconducive to a meaningful contest, but also an unmanageable abundance of people, deckchairs, windbreaks and bouncy castles, along with the ubiquitous volleyball court, populated by hordes of young latin youths, led me to cancel plans to play there.  However, we rounded the bend at the end of the beach to enter Louisa Bay which, a full hour before the scheduled start of play,  sported a vast expanse of dark, compacted sand and only sporadic handfuls of spectators scattered around what would serve as the boundary. 

My anticipation was heightened by the sight of  TWO sets of wickets already pitched further along the beach.  This was promising.  Our game got  underway and soon acted as a magnet for every bored child on the beach.  Questions such as “can I play?” and “can my brother / sister join in?” (only the absence of the suffix “mister” reminded me I had not been transported back to 1960) were music to my ears as I suddenly found I was setting fields for TEN kids and having to remember in what order they all batted and bowled to avoid arguments. The majority exuded more willing than competence, all wanting to field at mid wicket for some unaccountable reason, but uncomplainingly hared after every ball, regardless of how far and in what direction it had been despatched.  Falling into a rock pool or getting entangled in the profusion of seaweed were no barriers to their enthusiasm.

On a more serious note, it was heartening to learn that you could still play an innocent game in public with a group of children that you had never met before, without being accused of wanting to take salacious photographs of, or interfere with, them.  In fact, the parents seemed content to allow them to play, even the mother who was called upon to console her ten year old when he retired hurt after being hit on the left thigh by one of my rising 80mph inswingers.

The only poignant moment arose when one small boy advised me, with evident pride, and in hushed tones, that the reason his brother was scoring so freely with quasi-classical strokeplay and bowling off a run up that started just to the left of the Goodwin Sands, was because “he PLAYS cricket”.

The game lasted nearly three hours, interrupted only by obligatory lunch and tea intervals, dictated more by my need for regular rest than by the tyranny of the clock.  Each succeeding resumption of play appeared to draw even more players until the insistent tide washed the wicket away. 

So beach cricket is alive and flourishing in the cradle of the game, not quite the High Weald, but still in God’s own county.  Next stop on the campaign trail is likely to be the East Cliff Sands in Folkestone, a firm wicket similar to the one played on today, though that  may have to wait until later in the summer.

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In the past two years, I have re-established contact with a series of people from my past whom I had not seen for a total of more than 130 years – a schoolfriend from 38 years ago, a good friend from university (36 years), a group of work colleagues (nearly 30 years), a couple with whom my wife and I had previously enjoyed a great relationship  (18 years) and an ex-boss (12 years).  And I suspect that many other people have similar tales to tell about rediscovering, if not recapturing (which I doubt is ever possible), some of the more enjoyable periods in our lives.

So, what are the motives for doing this?  Is it because I need to recapture a past that was much better than the present? (it was certainly simpler, but today’s comforts – including the ability to communicate my thoughts in the way I’m doing now – make it difficult to counter that argument).  Or is it just safer to “live in the past” in order to escape from a present that is complicated, stressful, even frightening?  Short of becoming a hermit I just don’t see how such an escape could be effected. Or is it because in most instances I was considerably younger, healthier and fitter then?    Well, that is undeniable, but life on a personal level is “all good” as my Californian friends would say.

Or, maybe, for me at least, it is purely because I have more time (far too much, some might say) on my hands now that I am no longer a wage slave.  There may be something in that, but these matters had concerned me before that, but I did not, or chose not, to articulate them in this public fashion.  And, finally, and on a shallower level, is it mere vanity, a means whereby I can induce more people to say how well I have aged and how young I look?  I would hope not, though I can’t deny, nor could you I suspect, that it is nice to told that from time to time!

It may, at least in part, be an intimation of mortality, an understandable symptom of the ageing process, even possibly a need to “make my peace” with those people; to confirm that, when we do part again, as we will surely do, we do so on unequivocally good terms.  But that presupposes that the people I am back in touch with, I had fallen out with in the first place – which is palpably untrue.   It is a fact that the pace and demands of modern living can, sometimes unaccountably, disconnect us  from people we have long regarded as good friends, leaving the embers of Christmas cards and the occasional e mail – and, perhaps, your displacement by other people from their past!

Whilst there is some truth in all of the above, I suppose the simple answer to the question is “because I can” – four  of the five reunions have been triggered or facilitated by social networking, with the other the result of the reporting of a major life event.  In none of these cases have I pursued or sought out those people because I needed to – in fact, in the majority of instances, it has been the other party that has contacted me, though the experience of resuming contact, once the approach had been made, has been a wholly positive one.

Indeed, regardless of either the route taken to the reunion or the current state of play between the parties, the relationship has enriched my life now, as it had done in the past when we took it more for granted.  And not just because it’s “nice” to see “so and so” again.  I believe that  revisiting some of the good times in our past with people we still value, though we had been long separated, prompts us to think about how we behaved and reacted to experiences then, and how we might learn lessons from that that would enable us to lead more caring, inclusive and uncomplicated lives now in what is unquestionably a more sophisticated and dangerous world.

Psychobabble?  Old hippie drivel?  Perhaps, but if you find that you too are investing an increasing amount of your time in re-engaging with the scenes and characters in your past, consider how that has affected how you live your life now, and whether it has reacquainted you with values that you may have, on occasion, lost sight of.     

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“You must be mad”.
“The game could be over in a couple of minutes”.
“They’re sure to lose”.
“And you’re going to pay a £16 rail fare and possible £10 admission price for that?”
The sort of comments to be expected from the sensible and soulless.
After three days in which they have been also rans in the game, Kent need 52 runs to win with just two wickets left.  But one of the undefeated batsmen is captain Rob Key who has already made 144, over half the team’s score of 270 for 8, chasing 322 for a victory that seemed remote when they had been 87 for 6 in their first innings in response to the home side Surrey’s 387 all out.
So why am I going? The match could be lost in just two deliveries, and it will seem pointless and anticlimatic.  Key and his tail end partners, Robbie Joseph and Ashley Shaw, will be facing a formidable attack comprising England’s premier fast bowler and two other promising right arm seamers with a new ball in helpful conditions.
Would anyone in their right mind make a nearly two hour journey by public transport to catch the last five minutes of a football (soccer) match in which their team are already losing 2-0?  Or the final innings of a baseball game when their favourites are 4-0 behind in the bottom of the ninth with no runners on base and two out?
Probably not………but.  There is a chance, an admittedly slim one, that Key, with doughty support from his numbers 10 and 11. might just pull off an unlikely and famous victory.  And I would be able to say “I was there!”.  Very few people who follow sports with any fervour would deny the exhilarating feeling that that engenders –  such events live in the memory long after dozens of dreary defeats have been forgotten.
And perhaps that feeling is no more acute than in cricket when, however uninspiring the preceding 18 hours of play might have been (this has, however, been an absorbing game throughout), everything comes down to a matter of minutes, perhaps as much as an hour, where every ball leaving the bowler’s hand has the potential to destroy and every run scrambled stokes up the tension.
Or as J.M. Kilburn memorably put it: “cricket never was and never can be a game of continuous excitement or of great achievement every day.  The quiet hours, the simple strivings, are as much a part of the attraction as the unforgettable moments of high drama”.  The quiet hours and simple strivings are now done with in this match – it is high drama from now on.
Despite Key’s five and a half hour heroics, Surrey remain strong favourites to complete the win.  And were I at home listening to the inevitable denouement I would shrug my shoulders, accept that the result had been on the cards and be thankful that I hadn’t wasted considerable time and money trekking to South London to witness it.  The emotional impact would be minimal.
But if Kent won and I hadn’t been there!  Any sports fan will know that, thrilling though that might be, their response would be tempered with a certain frustration and disappointment that they had not shown sufficient faith to have witnessed it.  A part of them will have rather craved a glorious failure in order to vindicate your judgement.
As I approach Bromley South on my inbound train journey from Gillingham to London Victoria, an elderly, greying, gap toothed woman lovingly folds sprigs of purple heather in aluminium foil.  I’m almost inclined to ask her for one there and then in the hope that it might bring Kent luck!  But I resist as she is clearly intent on wrapping as many as she can in the remaining twenty minutes of the journey before foisting her wares on unsuspecting tourists.
It is standing room only after Bromley South and a three year old girl chuckles to her “granny” that this must be the “wobbliest train I ever saw……….I keep bumping into everyone”.  Even the commuters hypnotised by their laptops and Blackberries cannot avoid a smirk.
After a short underground journey I reach the Oval tube station forty minutes before play, pleased to see that admission is free, though membership cards are still required to enter the pavilion (the “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” streak in me is glad to see standards are being maintained even with such a sparse crowd).  It is more February than July – the glowering skies and brisk wind make the choice between cold beer and hot tea an easy one.
The players vigorously going through their paces in the net area on the Harleyford Road side of the ground almost outnumber the spectators.  As if conscious that the game will be over soon the dozen pigeons that would usually set up their encampment on the edge of the square at around tea time are already circling the playing area.  The talk amongst the members, Surrey and Kent alike, in the middle tier of the pavilion, is of Key’s “magnificent” innings and the prospect of the Surrey pace attack of Tremlett, Linley and Meaker rolling over the last two visitors’ wickets quickly.
And the outcome? Predictable valiant failure on the behalf of the Kent batsmen. For forty minutes  Key and Joseph looked comfortable – the former thumping 4/5 balls an over at the dispersed field before taking a single on the 5th or last ball, and his partner  judiciously leaving or solidly playing the remaining deliveries.  As the score mounted towards 300 the sense of unease in the Surrey camp became palpable, provoking lengthy discussions between Rory Hamilton-Brown, the  captain, and his senior players. Shredded nerves induced a wayward shy at the stumps that went for four overthrows and a wild delivery from Linley that flew for four byes. But to his credit, with only 29 needed, the Surrey captain turned to his spinners, Batty and Ansari, both of whom promptly took a wicket, including Key’s for 162, to complete a 21 run win for the home side.
Scars of sweet paradise indeed or as Sir Neville Cardus said: “Dear, lovely game of cricket that can stir so profoundly, that can lift up our hearts and break them, and in the end fill them with pride and joy”.  Being there, the overwhelming feeling as I returned to the tube station was one of pride.
But I could not help also feeling regret that I had not purchased that sprig of lucky purple heather when I had had the chance.

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