Friday, 14 February 2014

"...BUT I DID NOT SHOOT THE DEPUTY": ON THE DANGERS OF SHOPPING FOR SUB-PROS




A while back, I told the tale of Moddershall CC turning up to Burslem’s new ground and facing West Indian paceman Franklyn Rose on a square being held together by ultra-strong orange plastic mesh that was still visible down cracks between the turf. It was intended to be the first of a few pieces looking at the good, the bad and the ugly of end-of-season sub-pro engagements. Ah, so many forgettable names, so many forgettable faces – most of which, as you’d expect, I’ve forgotten. 

In recent years, as my love of cricket fell quicker than Felix Baumgartner (there are signs, however, that it might be flickering back to life), Moddershall engaged many, many sub-pros. I did a lot of the tedious legwork – researching the possibilities in different leagues and at different counties, ringing round agents (akin, perhaps, to sitting in an aquarium full of sharks all day), all the while I really ought to have been concentrating on writing up my PhD thesis – all of which left me on the verge of cracking up, a quivering wreck who would spend afternoons in Shelton Park talking to the geese (“Oi, Goosey, couple of flaps squarer; and tighter, saving one…”). 

The parade of sub-pros started at the end of 2008. In a story I’ve told a few times now, most recently for Wisden India, Immy was half-inched by Hampshire, yet in the end managed to play all but two of the final nine games for us, for which we thus hired the services of Asad Ali (who became a permanent sub-pro in 2010, when Mohammad Irfan turned out not to be flying quite as far under the radar as Id thought) and, for a game that was abandoned, the Zimbabwean seamer Gary Brent

Asad Ali And Mohammad Irfan 


It was the following year, 2009, when things got interesting. After three weeks hiring distinctly average clubbies with exotic names and ropey CVs from the Home Counties Premier League, I was delighted with the belated arrival of our designated pro: cuddly wee Sri Lankan twirler, Rangana Herath – recently, the fourth-ranked Test bowler in the world, yet unable entirely to convince the Moddershall hardcore of his merits with the 14 wickets he bagged in seven league outings before popping back to Sri Lanka to win Man of the Match in a nailbiter against Pakistan. Evidently, Mohammad Yousuf and Misbah-ul-Haq are less obdurate adversaries than Dean Bedson and Taz Hussain. 

By the time Ranga was spirited away, at exactly the half-way point of the season, we were struggling in the league but had made it through to the T20 semi-finals and Talbot Cup quarters. The rest of our season would be a parade of subs of varying credentials and character. You really were in the lap of the gods with this, particularly since the events of 2003 when Shahid Afridi had played both for and against Little Stoke in consecutive matches, which prompted the league to stop pros from turning out for more than one club per season. Of course, with several clubs in a similar boat, this meant an ever diminishing pool of potential targets and, with demand outstripping supply, led to a seller’s market. 

Our 11-game run for the line in 2009 began with victory over Wood Lane – at the time an emerging power in the league – for which we had dipped into that diminishing pool and engaged Imran Arif, then of Worcestershire and since of Burslem, Whitmore and others. Aforesaid market conditions – of which Mr Arif had a sound grasp, as he would later prove in fairly despicable fashion – meant that we undoubtedly paid over the odds for him from the get-go, but it was a Friday night when we cut the deal and so our situation dictated it. Arif went wicketless from 11 overs, but made his first contribution when batting. That contribution happened to be berating a 20-year old batsman who had just arrived at the crease and blocked out a testing maiden from the wily Steve Norcup: “Are you playing for yourself or the club?” he was asked by the sub-pro. The young man told him he’d played for Moddershall from the age of nine, then pointed out that he, on the other hand, was “a money-grabbing [cee] with no care for the game or who he was playing with, only who’d pay the biggest bucks”. The two batsmen had no further interactions. In a stand of 59. 

"Mohammad" Arif
Still, the sub-pro carved and heaved his way to an inelegant yet matchwinning – and, more importantly for him, win bonus-winning – innings of 55 not out, so we were all, at this stage, pretty chuffed. All except the young batsman, that is, who informed me three weeks later – after we’d engaged Sri Lankan Jeeva Kulatunga, then pro at Burnley CC, for a losing draw at Stone and a defeat to Fazl-e-Akbar’s Porthill – that he wasn’t prepared to play with “that p***k, Imran Arif”. 

(Or should that be “Mohammad Arif”, the pseudonym he explicitly asked that we enter on the play-cricket website, giving the reason that Worcestershire wouldn’t be best pleased him playing when he had a niggle. I was happy to oblige, since I had little concern with Worcestershire. As it turned out, the reason he wanted to be entered under an alias was that he’d pulled a sicky with Kidderminster Victoria, the Birmingham League club to which, in standard practice, he had been assigned. I later found out from KVCC skipper, John Wright, that his fee there was around 40% of what we paid him, excluding the win bonus, which he reckoned enough of an incentive to lie to his teammates and his county and head north to play for us. Of course, making a match-winning 50 when playing under a pseudonym presents something of an anguished dilemma for the rampant egoist…) 

I say “all except the young batsman” were chuffed by the Wood Lane game. Actually, a couple of his colleagues were of the same mind leading into our visit to Longton (for which Kalutunga was unavailable), so some persuasion and cajoling were called for and a reluctant acceptance of our beggars-not-choosers predicament among the disgruntled members of the team. For the record, I didn’t dislike Arif at this stage; he was a working-class Bradford boy, very excitable on the field, and I felt we needed a little bit of presence out there, provided it was channelled. Anyway, Arif threw himself into the warm-up, shouting at people for fumbling the ball and generally behaving like a cranky diva with a Red Bull addiction. He took 2 for 52 on a sticky dog on which he ought to have taken 6-40, chipped off weakly for 8 when batting, before then having his entourage wander blithely in and out of our dressing room like it was a summer house at a garden party. They were ejected as politely as I could muster, and my pragmatic toleration of his presence in the group, borne of the compensatory cricketing cutting edge he was supposed to bring, was now at the limit. 

Leek CC
Two weeks later we played Leek in a bottom of the table clash. We were one place outside the relegation zone and only Leycett were keeping them off the bottom. Imran Arif was available for this game – that is, he had either pulled another sicky at Kidderminster or had been released by them – yet despite our perilous situation we chose to go in without him. For a relegation crunch match. No pro. Draw your own conclusions. It wasn’t exactly ideal, then, that our main seamer went down injured after 3.2 overs, but still we blocked out for a losing draw. 

Gary Brent deputised the following week, a losing draw against Hem Heath in which he played with a first-rate attitude and bowled with zero luck to pick up 19-7-24-1. He wasn’t a world-beater, but was a solid citizen and exactly what you need from a pro in terms of setting an example. And since we are drawing contrasts here, it shouldn’t be forgotten that when the penultimate game the previous season (at Wood Lane) was abandoned without a ball being bowled, Gary only took £50 petrol money and declined the other £200 that was rightfully his. I believe the hashtag is #justsayin… 

The following week, the fourth last game, we travelled to Little Stoke, who were at the time vying for the title with Longton. Another rummage in the sub-pro lucky dip barrel unearthed Naseer Khan, a 36-going-on-46-year-old off-spinner with 61 first-class wickets at 43 and a handy eight half-centuries. He was, I discovered immediately, a warm, genial figure. A big personality. Nevertheless, I was a little concerned when he came out for the warm-up wearing full whites, silver Nike trainers – silver Nike trainers that he proceeded to play the actual game in – and a Georgetown University baseball cap. A Georgetown University baseball cap that he proceeded to play the actual game in. The only thing missing were Chinos. 

Naseer Khan
Lord only knows what Richard Harvey and Gareth Morris, Little Stoke’s pro and captain, must have been thinking as they stood on the square deliberating over which strip to pitch the wickets in: the fresh one or the Bunsen. Surely they cannot have contemplated the portly Asian fellow with greying curly mullet – a guy who looked like he enjoyed a samosa, a guy one of our team thought looked like Dev from Coronatian Street – and thought: “Reckon he's a seamer”. Nevertheless, they opted for the Bunsen. While Nas bowled with good control and threat, it was Matt Stupples who picked up a maiden 5-wicket haul before Chris Beech played sublimely in contributing an unbeaten 104 of the 165 we knocked off. 

Naturally, ‘Dev’ was retained for the following match, at home to Burslem. However, after batting well for an unbeaten 73, he was unable with the ball to press home a good position on a tacky surface. Burslem recovered from 103 for 5 and 174 for 8 to knock off 186, Michael Brown adding a crucial 46 to the excellent 80 he had taken off Ranga in the earlier fixture. (We were familiar foes, us and Burslem, playing them five times that season, employing a different pro each time. We managed to beat them in a round-robin-deciding T20 game, yours truly steering the team into Finals Day with 37 not out, sweeping Khalid Malik for four to win the game after former Pakistan U-19 star Anwar Ali had biffed 50. In the Talbot Cup, however, with leg-spinner Imranullah as our Pakistani sub-pro, we lost at the second attempt, the first having been abandoned ten overs in due to a dangerous rain-affected pitch, a decision sub-pro Samit Patel disagreed with volubly.) 

Anyway, our penultimate game was another relegation decider, this time against Leycett, and again at home on a sticky dog. Thanks to a Dan Redfern hundred, Leycett, who really needed to win to close the gap with us, scored 220-odd for 3 declared. Nas was again disappointing on a pitch that ought to have helped him (if he’d bowled the correct pace) and we ended up blocking out for a draw. 

Knypersley CC
This left me with a quandary going into the last game. Statistically, Nas had done so-so in his three outings, averaging over 50 with the bat yet failing to bag the wickets he should have done (8 for 183). He was a likeable fellow, with the breezily charismatic air of an ageing Bollywood heartthrob, and, silver trainers notwithstanding, was a positive influence on the team. But we were playing at Knypersley, where it was generally slow and low, a wicket on which Immy had had scant success. I felt we needed a seam-bowling horse for the course. So, having broken the bad news to Nas, we again plunged into that ever-diminishing pool. 

A friend put me in touch with Joe Sayers, then at Yorkshire, and for a while it seemed as though Ajmal Shahzad would play. However, despite our offer rising to around £700 at one stage, Ajmal decided to spend his free weekend shopping in London. We thus turned back to Mr Arif, who was again paid a lower base fee than for his first game for us, but we agreed to double his wage if we won an incentive designed to give him that wee bit of extra motivation that his obvious, aching love for the club couldn’t quite provide. 

The day started terribly. Our position was that we needed to gather more points than both teams below us, a draw being enough if they each failed to win. Predictably, I lost the toss on a green top. Nay, a rug. However, before the crestfallen feeling had chance to play across my face, Kim Barnett told me matter-of-factly that they’d have a bat. “Er, come again?” Not long afterward, his off pole would be in a different postcode and Arif – ironically, borrowing kit from the young batsman he’d insulted a couple of games earlier! – would be on his way to figures of 9 for 37 from 13.2 pacey overs. Now, someone taking 9-fer to keep you in the Premier Division really ought to be the cause of unadulterated delight, but it was, frankly, a bittersweet experience. Having to feign post-game mateyness wasn’t exactly a season’s highlight, either. 

Yeah, but would he have got 9-39?
The pattern of dubious behaviour he’d demonstrated up to that point would be confirmed the following season, his last at Worcestershire. Indeed, one week he told me at 7.30 on Friday evening that he would need “an extra £75” on top the verbal agreement we had made that Tuesday, otherwise he wouldn’t be making the journey up. (Perhaps this openly venal desire was crystallised when he literally ran out of our pavilion to watch Anwar Ali count out his money on the outfield, shortly after a rain-affected game against Elworth that was drawn. At considerable expense…)Anyway, once again, with no other pro around – Asad Ali was yet to arrive; Anwar Ali was playing for Nelson, his club in Lancashire – we were over a barrel and Arif knew it. So, having bought myself a few minutes to get my heart-rate down from ‘psychopathically angry’ to just ‘irked’ by telling him I’d need to talk it over with the club (which was true), some monetary compromise was eventually struck and he turned up. 

You can imagine my pep-talks to the team were starting to lose a little pizzazz by this stage, what with thinking our pro was an unscrupulous, deluded, vain bandit – so vain, in fact, that according to a housemate at the time, he commandeered a full-length mirror from a shared room in his Worcester digs and kept it hidden under his bed for personal usage, flatly denying he had it when asked!This 11th hour ‘up-selling’ was even more galling for me given that I’d told a white lie to the umpires to get him off what would have been a certain ban for his part in an altercation with Samiullah Khan a few weeks’ earlier, the latter walking after Arif while brandishing a bat after he’d been sconed by a sharp bouncer that was followed by a preposterous roar and insult in Urdu. I think we explained it away as crossed wires. 

I’m not sure there’s a moral to this story – there’s certainly few morals in this story – although it might be that it’s a good thing to have a pro who’s around for the full season. That, or we should have stuck with Nas after all. Oh, how I miss the good times on the sub-pro carousel.



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