Tales from the Middle. No 1 in an occasional series
Dave has recently stopped playing cricket. This is a tragic to-do and one I feel sympathetic towards. I gave up playing at the end of the 1996 season when I was a comely and athletic 35 years old. I didn't give up voluntarily, cricket deserted me; I took a job that only gave me one weekend a month entirely free and I didn't want to run the risk that that would be the weekend I would be dropped and only being available for 4 or 5 games a season, one of which I would miss through holidays anyway, meant it just wasn't a worker. Bummer. All things must pass, as they say (well, George Harrison did, I don't know about anyone else).
The gear's still upstairs in my bag, ready. Ready for what, I don't know. I live 200 miles away from my last team's ground and I don't even know if they're extant. They were called Stanstead, named after Stanstead Rd in Catford, part of the South Circular, and had been around for 60 years or so. In fact they underwent some turmoil in that last season and I ended up having to use the London A to Z to find our ground every week. It used to be at Shooter's Hill on the Old Askean's RFC ground but it moved to Chislehurst and it felt all wrong. Dave will probably identify with that scenario. I put all the kit on a while back, the stuff that still fitted me, at least. If I wore it now I would look like a prehistoric animal as I no longer own anything visible that is modern (or indeed fits me). The boots are 20 years old, the flannels are white cotton, not the cream polyester tracksuit bottoms they use now and I used to wear laundered and ironed white cotton shirts. The pads are canvas and cane (with velcro, not buckles - I got that far) and the bat's 30 years old now so I don't think it will survive another season. It's a collector's piece; an original Gray Nicolls GN 100 with the single scoop bought from Wrights in Ashford. Barely used.
I started playing village cricket in 1975 when I was 14. The club was called Warehorne and we played in a sheep field belonging to Charles, the local squire who lived in the Georgian pile opposite. The ground was of good size but the square was offset so that if the wicket was pitched to one side it made a very short leg-side boundary on one side of around 40 yards. Otherwise, the setting couldn't have been more idyllic and you'd half expect Alan Bates and Julie Christie to cavort across it at any moment. There were two pubs in Warehorne: The Woolpack in the village and The World's Wonder towards Kenardington. We used neither, as nobody actually lived in the village itself except Nigel, who lived next door to the ground. Well, he lived in the farm next door but actually the house was half a mile away. No, we drank here, The Duke's Head in Hamstreet. I was an average looking 14 year old in 1975 which meant I looked 12. I had no trouble getting served.
Preparation of the ground for the weekend's home game involved everyone. I used to get the frame out of the old pill box that was our equipment store and lavatory (ladies AND gents - just), mix up the white lime and mark the creases out after someone else had mown the square. It was a labour of love and were it not for the fact that a drainage pipe ran diagonally across the square, we would have had some good strips. In practice, they could be lethal and balls could rise nastily off a length or shoot along at ankle height.
The outfield was just a mown field. As I've already mentioned, it was a sheepfield for the rest of the year and the place was overrun with rabbits in the summer and they caused much damage. Quite often, Nigel would arrive for practice carrying a 12 bore and a couple of brace of bunnies culled from the adjoining field, strung over his shoulder. You can invariably tell a cricketer who has been blooded in real rural cricket because his reactions are different. They don't attack a ball in the field with the same blind faith as those brought up on nancy-boy rolled and crew-cut league grounds. Instead, holding back slightly in order to see which way the bugger would bounce, then holding your arms up in resignation as the thing careened off at right angles was more the order of the day. You were rarely chastised for those fielding errors because we all suffered them sooner or later but you were expected to make up with it by having a sharp pair of hands for anything in the air. Even now, rarely do I drop anything thrown to me.
Responsiblity for mowing the outfield was Robin's. Robin was an uncomplicated, ruddy-cheeked horny-handed son of toil. Hobnails, chewing on a straw and trousers with string round the knees would have suited him down to the ground. All in strict contrast to his brother, who was known to be a bit of a character, both by the locals and the local constabulary. Robin (or Dobbin, everyone had a nickname) was country through and through (he was also our party line on the phone, which meant we had to push a button every time we wanted to make a call to bag the line. This I would often do before checking the line to see if anyone was on it. Sorry.) and ran his own smallholding. Every Thursday he would fetch Charles' tractor, hitch it up to the gang mowers and hack around the outfield, unhitch and take the tractor back.
This one particular week Dobbin was in a panic. He couldn't get the tractor and the outfield needed a haircut as it had been raining and was quite long. What to do? He looked around and saw no solution to the dilemma. Then he looked at his car. It had a tow bar, it'll do; it had to. Now the fundamental difference between a tractor and a car, even in those less refined 70s, is that while on paper the car, in this case an Escort Mexico (or a standard made to look like a Mexico), may well have more available horsepower than the tractor but what a tractor sacrifices in speed it gains in torque. Pulling a set of ploughs through clay is hard work for a car engine, clutch and gearbox but not for a tractor's drive train. The same can be said for pulling over half a ton of whirring gang mowers through inch high damp grass. Dobbin hitched up the gang to his pride and joy and set off. Or rather his wheels spun. No chance of a push old fruit, you're on your own. It started moving and gained speed. No problem yet and Dob spun round at a fair old lick. After a couple of minutes the inevitable happened and the smoke started. The Escort's clutch was beginning to pass out under the strain. Undeterred, Dobbin kept on in ever decreasing circles and we kept on watching. The whole ground was soon swathed in an acrid white spiral shaped fog. From the air it must have seemed like a satellite picture of a developing hurricane, Hurricane Dobbin. The noise was unbearable too, screaming and whining interspersed with the odd grinding noise as friction plates were worn down to the backing.I distinctly remember someone saying that the gearbox was glowing red hot but I think that may have been an exaggeration. I would imagine the less combustible parts of the clutch must have been close to melting point though when he finally stopped after about ten minutes. He was completely non-plussed by it all when he got out of the car, saying it didn't matter he'd just put another one on. We had an outfield.
Dobbin would soon give me the scariest car ride of my life. But that's another day.