Tuesday, 31 July 2012


Last week I was pleased to have a second piece published in cricinfo – what finished up as a preview of the Twenty20 quarter-final between Somerset and Essex at Taunton having started out in my mind as a fairly abstract discussion of the value of experience, and older players, in the game’s shortest format. Ever the academic.

In order to explore this theme, I first interviewed Paul Nixon, thrice a T20 winner with Leicestershire (the Foxes being the only team, in fact, to have won more than one). I then spoke to an old adversary, Alfonso Thomas, who, during the course of an interesting 40-minute chat, actually gave me a wee exclusive: Cricket South Africa asking him to make himself available for the World T20 in Sri Lanka this September. Naturally, I didn’t have the first clue how to monetize the information (not that it was in the scoop-finding realms of, say, Sachin housing Nazis in his basement, or anything). Ever the academic, as I said.

The first time I happened across Alfonso was during a drawn North Staffs and South Cheshire Premier League game at Moddershall in May 2004. He was playing for Leek, the club of Ottis Gibson, Albie Morkel (who may well have recommended his fellow Titan), Vasbert Drakes, Shahid Afridi and, later, Tino Best. The wicket was quick – our best player, Iain Carr, scorer of a Premier League double hundred the previous season, had had his poles scattered by Alfonso’s new-ball colleague – and I went in at 4 for 2 to join Iain’s brother, Darren, a psychiatrist of saturnine temperament prone to on-field pessimism and self-doubt, and to off-field cantankerousness and self-assertion, and as such somebody whose company I enjoyed immensely, despite us forever prodding metaphorical fingers into each other’s chest.  

Doc in 2004

Together we took the score to around 120 – ‘Doc’ making 69, myself 51, both eventually nicking off to Thomas, whose final figures were 4 for 35 from 17 overs – before the innings collapsed feebly to 161 all out. During our partnership it was obvious that the slightly built shaven-headed ‘Cape Coloured’ was not wanting for fast bowler’s pugnacity: he had responded to me hooking him for six from an ill-directed legside bouncer that I was able to help high over fine leg by almost immediately going round the wicket and peppering me with short stuff. Darren had similar treatment and managed to get a couple of rambunctious duck-hooks away, one of which I recall bouncing back 20 metres on to the field from the pavilion wall .

When it came to Leek’s turn to bat, Alfonso arrived first-drop and looked handy and organized without being special – exactly the sort of steady number 8 or excellent number 9 that had allowed him to notch a couple of hundreds in South African domestic first-class cricket. We attacked him with three men round the bat for our pro, Imran Tahir, who would eventually skittle him with a googly as he shouldered arms. Before that, however, he dug in quite well, defending with soft hands, eschewing scoring on the legside unless the ball was short, looking strong through the extra-cover region when offered anything marginally overpitched, information that would stay with me for our next meeting…

* * *

By 2005, Thomas was at Longton CC: historically the league’s most successful club and now seeking a third title on the spin, one for which they were overwhelming favourites. Not only the strongest team, they were also our bitterest rivals, a team with which we’d had some fractious encounters, much of which was prompted by their star batsmen and captain, Richard Harvey (also the Staffordshire skipper), leaving us to go there after the 1995 season  ostensibly to play top-flight and increase his chances of being picked for Staffordshire  which caused some ill-feeling within our side (not I, who had played Staffs and Moddershall Juniors with him and came fairly quickly to understand his logic). Had he hung on and waited another year, however, such an opportunity would have arisen with us, his first club, as the 1996 campaign had seen us top Section B, as it was then called, before going up and winning Section A, becoming the first team to win both divisions in consecutive seasons. (The feat was repeated in 2002 by Norton-in-Hales, whose professional at the time was one Imran Tahir, and we would sign him despite claiming 95 points in the four league meetings: three batting-first wins, one chase.) 

big match preview
Anyway, after a torrid start to the 2004 league campaign (Imran’s debut season with us) that saw our captain, James Cornford, resign and leave the club a matter of hours before a mutiny deposed him, I was chosen by the players to step in as captain and we managed to stabilize our results without really clicking in the league (we lost only 1 of the 18 remaining games, having been beaten in three of the first four under Cornford). Despite these traumas, we made the final of the Talbot Cup (for all North Staffs & South Cheshire clubs) that summer, losing away to a decent Audley side, and joyously won our first – and as yet only – Staffordshire Cup, seeing off Hem Heath in the final after they’d helpfully disposed of our Birmingham League bogey side, Himley, who had beaten us in both the 2003 final and 2002 semi-final. By 2005, however, we had shaken off our problems, gained an enormous amount of confidence, established a pattern of play, and emerged as the major obstacle for Longton’s ‘three-peat’, the existing rivalry only serving to spice up still further the tête-à-têtes.* Toe to toe we would stand, but there was no doubt that we were the underdogs, since they had eight Minor Counties players (Harvey, Longmore, King, Wilshaw, Womble, Edwards, Morris, Davies), five of whom were current, as well as the snarling, snapping Alfonso Thomas to set the tone. We had several battle-hardened players with plenty of medals, an incredibly strong desire to beat Longton, and Mr Imran Tahir bringing the magic.

The game was the ninth round of league matches, two more until halfway, and, surreally, was watched by none other than Bob Woolmer, then coach of Pakistan, who presumably had kept a house in the Birmingham area after his stint at Warwickshire and decided to skip up the M6 to Barnfields in order to run the rule over his A team’s emerging leg-spinner and judge whether or not he was worthy of inclusion in upcoming national team training camps. While most were shocked by the presence of that jowly, genial face on the boundary, my reaction was more one of irritation; I was irked that Woolmer being there would prove a distraction and was likely to put extra pressure on Imran for the biggest game of our season thus far (I lied earlier: I wasn’t ever the academic – on the cricket field, I was ruthless and impatient, especially as captain, and always keen to explore any potential competitive advantage to be found in the hinterland of the game’s spirit).

The crowd was on the large side for a club game (Woolmer would later commend both this and the quality of the game), which, despite being early in the campaign, was incredibly tense – like a pre-Christmas clásico between Real and Barça. It was during this season that I started to produce small dossiers on the opposition – more the result of circumstances than anything else, with me living in Nottingham and not attending selection or nets and thus unable to discuss the upcoming games face to face – and this week’s started: “Well, here we go folks, the one we’ve all been waiting for: Moddershall vs Staffordshire. Don’t really need to say too much at this point other than stay cool – as Hawk said in last week’s Sentinel Sport, the pressure is all on them – and go into the game thinking ‘it’s gonna be me that makes the difference’. And no backwards steps!” 

Bob at Barnfields

We bowled first and, in dank, mizzly conditions, made early inroads with a new ball that initially zipped off the surface. Imran came into the attack after 10 overs and was soon bowling at Alfonso, in at number 5 with the score 46 for 3. I had the impression that Alfie was someone who ‘ticked’ and could maybe be susceptible to a chirp or ruffling of his feathers, so I took my time setting a deliberately precise field involving a straight silly mid-off and two drive men at short extra-cover, all designed to have him think I had sussed him out. I had no real idea – the evidence was meagre, just one game, and it may surprise you to learn that we couldn’t afford to employ a technical assistant to film our opponents’ games and edit together packages for video analysis – but he didn’t need to know that.

As it transpired, he played quite well for a gritty 37 before being run out in slightly controversial circumstances, there being some doubt over whether or not the bails had been removed cleanly. Again, you will not be surprised to learn that there was no TV umpire in place. With him out of the way, Immy – who did appear a touch nervous – got to work and helped reduce them to 145-8 at tea (which, due to the curios of local rules, was not always taken between innings, but at a cut-off point three-and-a-quarter hours after the start of the innings had not yet been completed).

So, we still had 6 overs to bowl after the interval and it was in this mini-session that the game suddenly got away from us. I made a tactical error and opted to take the new ball at 55 overs** – well, it was more an error of seeking to placate the dogmatic views of the group’s dominant personalities and, as a consequence, not listening to my gut instinct. In the end, their two least heralded players – keeper Steve Aston (57) and medium-pacer Andy Kenvyn (19) – put Imran to the sword and we ended up conceding 60 runs as the new ball flew off the bat in all directions. The sharp momentum-swing continued into our innings with a pumped-up Alfonso taking two early wickets as we subsided to 21 for 3, at which point Iain Carr and I, in our markedly different ways, tried to rebuild the innings under the onslaught from the South African and Dave Edwards, also bowling with good pace.

Moddershall: quick pitch

Perhaps surprised to find himself on a pitch in English club cricket with half-decent carry, Alfonso subjected the both of us to a barrage of short-pitched bowling, sometimes as many as four per over to me. Where I ducked, ducked, and ducked again, Iain – a sort of right-handed Matty Hayden – took the fight to him, all the while batting some two or three feet out of his crease. I knew this because their backward point fieldsman, Gaz Morris, shouted over to mid off, hands in the classic fibbing fisherman’s position: “Longers, he’s this far…!”

Iain muscled a bouncer 
off the splice of the bat that went about 40 yards away and through wide mid-on for two, prompting a verbal salvo from a man he could perhaps have swallowed whole and stored in his thigh. Billy, not one generally given to chat on the field, snapped back with “You’re not fucking quick enough, mate” and proceeded to move another pace down the pitch in readiness for the next ball (which I knew from the agog expression on Morris’s face and the slightly bigger fish: “Longers!”). This delivery, an effort ball, was promptly pulled for a mighty one-bounce four, the crack off the bat echoing like a rifle shot around a canyon. It was incredible, electric, hard-as-nails league cricket and the no-longer-doubting Thomas walked back past me with the hint of a smile on his face. 

Anyway, it was during this partnership that Alfonso gave me one of the better sledges I’ve received down the years. Following the umpteenth bumper I’d been obliged to evade – by this stage followed by my best ‘You’re wasting your energy, pal’ smirk – Alfie, recalling my pseudo-precise field perhaps, pronounced: “Hey, Scotty, you’re a better fucking captain than you are a fucking batsman, mate”. I laughed (internally); after all, it was probably true.

Iain and I took the score to 99 for 3 as the cloud that hadn’t really disappeared all day started to close in. A couple of Longton players started to kick up a fuss about conditions and the umpires promptly offered us the light. Often the response to such an offer is cut-and-dried – you either desperately want to come off (for tactical and/or safety reasons) or equally desperately want to stay on (for a win) – but this wasn’t clear-cut at all. Iain and I discussed it awhile and concluded that, although there weren’t really enough overs left for us to win, neither were there enough overs for them to do likewise. So, with both of us seeing it pretty well, albeit with my scoring options limited not only by Alfie’s length, but his high-class lively and hostile seam bowling on a juicy pitch (he finished with figures of 19-10-32-5), we opted to stay on – if only to pick up the batting point that was one run away – before then seeing if we could get another offer of the light with the points standing at six apiece.


No sooner had we indicated our willingness to stay on than they brought back Alfonso, who’d only been off for three or four overs. I was on strike. Second ball was banged in and, my concentration disturbed, I took it on, attempting an upper-cut over gully but succeeding only in lifting it straight to third man who barely moved a muscle in taking the catch in front of the pavilion [note: the fall of wickets has been incorrectly entered on the scorecard]. Immy then chipped one in the air before Thomas bounced out John Myatt and Rob Bagnall, both popping catches to short leg. Amidst all this, Iain Carr ran past one from Morris, which left us 116 for 8 with about six overs left and now desperately trying to get the game called off, grumbling and barracking the umpires, turning lights on in the clubhouse… I had a nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach, for it seemed certain at this stage that my second ill-judged decision of the day (thus seemingly contradicting Alfie’s sledge) would cost us the game. In the end, two 18-year-olds, Simon Hemmings and Richard Holloway, stood up to Thomas’s bombardment and saw us through to the draw in light that Scyld Berry would have felt compelled to describe as “Stygian”, to much relief all round – the draw, not the adjective choice!

* * *

We kept our noses in front of Longton for the next 11 weeks – they lost three out of four games following our match (to Burslem, Knypersley and Leek) – and at one stage led them by 40-odd points. However, the removal of the ‘malfunctions’ in their dressing room – one player was having an affair with the wife of another, the woman in question also related to a third member of the side – would see them click instantly into an awesome run of form, coming into the return fixture on the back of five consecutive comprehensive victories that gave them huge momentum going into what was effectively the title decider – a game for which, unsurprisingly, they’d prepared a hard, green ‘Immy-proof’ pitch.

We still led by 17 points at that stage and there was a clear tactical case for batting first on the seamer’s paradise, if only because such a move would have meant they could pick up only 20 points for a win chasing, as opposed to 25 for a bat-first win, leaving us requiring four points from the game to keep our destiny in our own hands. In the end, after mulling it over all week, and fairly sure of the type of surface we’d likely encounter, I succumbed to a sort of wishy-washy sports psychology-style line of thinking: that you must think positive and entertain no thoughts of defeat, since that will only hasten the latter. The inescapable fact of the matter, though, was that there was losing and losing. Moreover, we also had a decent seam attack to exploit the conditions – Iain Carr had taken 9 for 51 there the previous season – if not quite as potent as theirs. 


As it turned out, I won the toss and shoved them in. They scored 191 for 8 declared, Alfonso top-scoring with 53, before Thomas and Edwards blitzed us for a miserable 55 all out – that actually a bit of a recovery from 22 for 8! (I had a less witty chirp from Dave Edwards, who’d called me a bottler – despite, it later turned out, trying at tea to dodge new-ball duties and push the case of Dave Womble  which was odd given that Id promoted myself in the order.) It was my worst day on a cricket field – worse than any cup final defeat – since in the final reckoning it amounted to the disappearance of countless hours’ effort, both on the field and off, in around eighty minutes of coruscating quick bowling. I gloved a short ball that skidded at me from Thomas to second slip, and was one of a number undone by banged-in deliveries. 

Fast-forward seven years, near as damn it, and there I was chatting to Alfonso about whether or not he feels Twenty20 is a game for more experienced cricketers, about the mindset of death bowling, about whether his approach differs in his homeland or in India, where he was picked up for Pune Warriors in last year’s IPL. He told me that he varied his length according to conditions, to which I replied: “shame you didn’t do the same to me!” I then reminded him of his searingly caustic and accurate sledge – “better fucking captain…” – which elicited a hearty guffaw before he said, not very convincingly, “that can’t be me though, surely. That doesn’t sound like me…”

The following day, the article was posted on Cricinfo. Later that afternoon, I had a text message from Alfonso that read: “Good article mate. I take back all the chirps”. I replied in the only way possible, the reply he might have given were we 22 yards away from each other: “Nah, mate – just update them to ‘you’re a better fucking writer than you were a fucking cricketer!’” Also true. Well, I sincerely hope so…


* The previous summer, we had beaten them three times out of four, having drawn the first NSSCL encounter at our place, a game they had bossed and in which our last hope vanished when I ran past one from Gaz Morris the ball after drinks. We played out a bore-draw. 

Next up was a Stone Charity Cup semi-final at Oulton: 16 eight-ball overs, both sides to provide a used cricket ball. Now, whereas we handed the umpires a fairly hard, polished Reader, the sort regularly used in 2nd XI cricket, Longton – either to take the piss or because they’d forgotten a ball – used something with the firmness, shape and colour of an overripe peach. My Basil Fawlty-style protestations while batting tickled them no end, it seemed, and upon being dismissed I promptly organized a search of everyone’s kit bag for the worst ball we could find. I then asked Ben Myatt (watching) to go behind the dressing rooms and repeatedly throw it down into the concrete slabs. After that, I had ‘Floppy’ Heard take a bat mallet to it. By the time our innings finished I wandered over to the umpire, John Grimley, and informed him that the club had given me the originally submitted ball by mistake and actually needed it for the league on Saturday. I duly handed him the (carefully ‘prepared’) replacement… When Iain Carr’s first ball was punched off the back foot by Mike Longmore and barely made it to cover, it was as much as we could do to suppress our laughter. Anyway, long story short, we went on to win the game and, as tended to happen, enjoyed the fuck out of it, all the more so because it was Longton. 

We then knocked them out of the Talbot Cup, also at the semi-final stage. I made a scruffy 30-odd not out so bad it started to make me laugh that they couldn’t get me out, but which nevertheless gave me the best seat in the house as ‘Billy’ Carr had one of those days with the bat when the only thing you can bowl at him is 45 mph spin.

Finally, there was perhaps the most satisfying result of the lot: a league victory on their turf, always a delight given their healthy (in number, at least), vocal, and occasionally boorish support. On a sweltering day and with a typically green-tinged pitch, I was unsure of what to do at the toss and so took the unusual step, for me, of canvassing opinion: seven said bat; three, bowl. I poked my head through their door and said “we’ll have a bowl” (it was a case of who said it, not how many) and, leaving behind a low hum and murmur of happiness, came back to our room to inform the three emotional barometers of the team, small ‘c’ conservatives all, that they had “better fucking get it right with the ball”. 

Iain Carr duly bowled out of his skin, hooping it round corners – initially at lively pace – to a 7-2 field, four grabbers and no fine leg (a bouncer threat was redundant), and as usual getting steep bounce. After an hour-and-a-quarter or so, with 6 for nowt, he started to flag in the heat and suggested he needed a break. I was at mid off and told him, faux-sympathetically: “I’m sorry, mate, but you’re beating the bat three times an over. What do you want me to do?!” Iain finished with 9 for 51, as a last-wicket flourish raised them from 90 for 9 to 115 all out – surely too few…

Since we had bowled them out so quickly, NSSCL regulations stipulated that we had a ten-minute turnaround and had to bat a sharp little 40-minute session before tea, an utterly nonsensical rule that penalised us for our good play, allowing their new-ball bowlers to run in hard for 5 or 6 overs, put their feet up for half-an-hour, before bombing at us again. I had little time to think about the batting order, but demoted Iain to number 7 to give him a break, while asking the 16-year-old Simon Hemmings to sink or swim at number 3 and, to open up, Mike Astley, a technically limited player who scored heavily in the 2s but was easy to keep quiet at 1st team level, yet had enough guts for three players – both wickets I felt we could sort of afford to lose (I was wrong). 

We were immediately in trouble: Doc nicked South African pro Andrew Tweedie to the ’keeper, then Hemmings steered one to slip. Enter the captain, who was bowled a sharp yorker second ball up (always a good idea to me, especially when I was tense, which I invariably was against Longton) and trapped plumb in front. Then Immy, having pestered me to slip him into the upper order, was brilliantly stumped down the legside by the veteran, Sas, as he crossed his feet, and Longton were swarming all over us, giving ‘Rick’ Astley some fearful abuse for his perceived shortcomings. We were 20 for 4 at tea. Rick came into the rooms with a faraway look in his eye and announced that there was “no way these c**ts are winning this. No fucking way”. After the break, Longton nipped out Andy Hawkins, bringing Carry to the crease and he scored an authoritative 33 not out to see us over the line. Mick finished on 46 not out, one of the most courageous knocks I’ve seen in club cricket, and we were utterly jubilant – for the simple fact of having beaten Longton and not because we might have hampered their charge for the title, with Stone breathing down their necks. Anyway, the win gave us the opportunity for a bit of humour at their expense and so, pretending to be Stone professional Mo Hussain, I telephoned the Longton bar from our dressing room and asked them for the result. “You getting beat by the Moddershalls?!? Bloody hell, how that happen? They bloody crap team, they is…” I have rarely been in a happier dressing room than that day.

** Although the 110-over games could be split 60/50, the side bowling first was ‘compensated’ by being able to take the new ball at 55 overs, thus affording themselves a 5-over window to do as much damage as they could get away with to the ball they’d shortly be facing. Go figure. 

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