Thursday, 12 March 2015


The scoreboard said 22 for 5. I picked up my gloves and stick, then walked shakily out to bat, feeling sick to the stomach, light-headed, trying to draw breath. It’s the final game of the 2008 season, my first back at Moddershall after a two-year sabbatical playing in the Nottinghamshire Premier League for Wollaton. The nausea hadn’t just popped up that instant, out of nowhere. No, the knots and wooziness had quite a backstory, a three-year fermentation process. Maybe longer. 

See, on the way out to the middle, with the whole season on the line, I had a traumatic flashback to the conclusion of the 2005 season, when we travelled to Longton for the third-last game of the season with a 17-point lead. By the time we left – scraping 53 all out in response to their 191 for 8, having been 21 for 8 – we were 4 points in arrears, the margin by which we lost the league. They had a gun side and really did a number on us, preparing a rock-hard green deck that would nullify Immy and help Alfonso Thomas (not to mention Dave Edwards, who bagged 6-fer). A terrible day. 

So there I was, three years later, walking out to the middle, 22 for 5, feeling nauseous, with two of the characters from that grim afternoon – still my worst as a cricketer – standing in the huddle, not doing a great deal to keep the glee off their faces. I didn’t expect Gareth Morris and Richard Harvey, Little Stoke’s skipper and pro, to show me sympathy, but knowing that we’d started the day needing five points to wrap up the title ought to have been enough for them not to look quite so triumphant. Or perhaps I’m misremembering, projecting my own swirling emotions onto their indifference. Like I said, I was nauseous. 

Harv (batting) and the author, two years later

Anyway, 22 for 5, season going down the pan, feeling sick, now or never – a moment when (very occasionally) you find inside yourself a strength, a resolve that you didn’t really believe you had. Or you sink, and just put it down to the odds being massively against you. 

Not long earlier, I’d looked at the scoreboard with relative contentment – we were skipping along like newborn lambs at 21 for 1 – and so set off on a lap of the pitch. I made it just past the Scotch pines before the second wicket fell. Then another one tumbled before I could extricate myself from a conversation. We cannot be throwing this away, surely. I needed to strap my mums-and-dads on, pronto. 

I think part of the sheer unpleasantness of these minutes – once I’d faced a couple of balls, been out there a couple of overs, re-normalised my breathing, got my head round the situation, the nausea dissipated quickly – was borne of the fact that almost everyone (outside the team, anyway) thought we had the title sewn up. In the bag. Five points from one game? Easy! I mean: easy, right? That’s 175 runs. Or 10 wickets. Or 150 runs plus 2 wickets. Or 125 runs plus 4 wickets. Or 100 runs plus 6 wickets. Or 75 runs – and even this seemed a fair way off at 22 for 5 on a snake pit – and 8 wickets. As anyone who played in Moddershall 1st XI’s final game of last season at Blythe will tell you, five points from one game is a fairly straightforward affair. Walk in the park. 

5 points from one game? Piece of cake!
It wouldn’t be quite right to call me a pessimist (I thought we’d win it … at least on Friday night, I did) but it would be downright negligent of a captain not to be aware of a worst-case scenario, to figure out its likeliness, and to react accordingly. Thinking about such a scenario gave me a sense of certainty that we were being far too prematurely congratulated. Seductive words, destructive consequences. Indeed, when the previous round of matches was completely abandoned (us hanging around at a completely waterlogged Wood Lane until we were 100% sure every other game in the division had been called off), The Sentinel’s cricket correspondent, assuming a 21-point lead over Leek with one match to go was pretty much job done, offered to shake my hand in congratulation. I refused, of course. That would have been tempting fate. Hubris. 

Here is how that worst-case scenario had played out in my mind: it batters down with rain all week (which it had done the previous week); the rain gets under our covers and saturates the pitch (which was standard); we lose the toss, get shoved in on a sticky dog, get ourselves rolled for not many (relegated Barlaston had bowled us out for 76 in our previous home game, although we skittled them for 62 in reply); we end up losing comfortably as the wicket eases – a wicket that, in any event, would be terrible for a leg-spinning pro. Well, guess what happened (there may have been a few clues in the preceding text)? 

The fateful day came. Having not managed a great deal of sleep – the result of insomnia plus diaphanous curtains plus early sunrise plus massive gut-churning dread that five months’ effort (the last seven or eight weeks of which was us keeping our noses in front while Immy, who’d been signed by Hampshire, did his best to make himself available) was going to come to a big fat zero – I found myself awake before 7am, and at Barnfields by around 7.30am (it was a 12.30 start). There was a lake in front of the scorebox. The rest of the outfield – before the new drainage had been put in – was like a swamp. To say it wasn’t fit would be like saying Carl Froch punching you in the face “might hurt a bit”. There were three of us there, then four, then two more. We mopped for a couple of hours, but it was like painting the Forth Bridge: no sooner had you “dried” an area than it needed doing again. Futile. Sisyphean. 
a short hit straight at Wood Lane

Around 9.30 I hit upon an idea (perhaps partly prompted by my inherent laziness), probably the most important cricketing idea of my entire life: I consulted the NSSCL handbook to find out what was the minimum boundary size. Apparently, it was 40 yards – not from the wicket ends, but from the middle of the wicket, a modification to allow Wood Lane, with their 35-yard boundary at one end and nowhere to expand, to meet Premier League criteria a few years earlier. We dried for another three hours, at which point, with the ground still nowhere near fit, yet with a 40-yard boundary marked out anyway, it was decided that a game would go ahead: 47 overs plays 39. 

Part 1 of the worst-case scenario had transpired. How about Part 2?

Well, the coin went up – I gulped, mouth like sandpaper now – and, sure enough, it came down on the wrong side. “We’ll have a bowl”, chirped Gaz Morris. My heart sank. Half an hour before the start I’d offered Little Stoke both tosses the following season if they could (pretty please) just let us bowl first today – 47 overs was plenty of time to get perhaps 4 of the 5 points we needed, maybe all of them. Bat first, and we could easily find ourselves in the proverbial. Morris – the former Longton player, the club we loved to hate – wasn’t interested, perhaps out of spite, perhaps out of a sense of fair play toward Leek. So, we were batting. On a sticky dog. 

Yep, 22 for 5: Roger Shaw (5), Andy Hawkins (9), Sam Kelsall (0), Simon Hemmings (0), Imran Tahir (0) all back in the shed; me walking out, head swimming – my nausea with a backstory…

blob and blobber: Sam and Immy
Just as Longton had been overwhelming favourites in 2005 (they had eight current or former Minor Counties players, plus Alfonso, plus two guys with Championship medals from other clubs), Leek were odds-on favourites for 2008. Well, they were until Tino Best had a total meltdown, until our best period of form – 138 points out of a possible 147 across 7 games – coincided with the six weeks they weren’t allowed a pro (aside from the ‘shamateurs’ they were paying, that is: Rob King, Dave Wheeldon, maybe Tim Tweats and Rich Cooper).

Furthermore, after two years away – two years during which I’d never completely shaken off the memory of that horrible afternoon at Longton – I’d poured my heart and soul into that campaign, a campaign that all came down to this day. Sure, I’d won two NSSCL titles, but not as skipper – not really, although I had seen the ship home in 1997 after Addo jacked it with six matches remaining.

And to add even more significance to it all, a Moddershall title would have been among the biggest shocks in the history of the NSSCL – as big as our win in 1997, or Norton-in-Hales’ in 2002, when we both won as newly promoted sides – given that the previous two seasons had been tense relegation struggles, and that the best two players, Iain Carr and Richard Holloway, had left, along with useful performers in Darren Carr and Joe Woodward. Between them, that was 59.1% of the overs bowled by amateurs the previous year. In addition to this, Shaun Brian shattered his femur with eight matches left and Martin Weston left mid-season having moved out of the area. That was another 35.5% of 2007’s amateur 1st XI overs. If you do the maths, that doesn't leave many.

Moose, post-femur
And in addition to all that, as mentioned, Hampshire had signed Imran Tahir with eight weeks remaining – a massive distraction at the time, with one or two semi-threatening letters sent to the county in search of compensation. As it turned out, Immy was available for six of our last eight games, schlepping up the motorway from Southampton, just as caught up in the drama of it all – this highly unlikely bid for the title – as we all were. Perhaps a little too caught up, actually, going by his attempt to whip a length ball (off a respectable seamer, on a sticky dog) over mid-wicket, first ball. It sure was a long old drive for a golden duck. 

It was Immy’s guilty, dejected face that I passed as I walked nauseously out to the middle at 22 for 5. When I got there, it was Amer Siddique’s boat race I saw. Never normally shy of confidence, he offered some sort of unconvincingly positive word for me – I’d recently done a massive PR job for him, drafting an email of apology after he’d cried off from one of our games at the last minute to “get back to Leeds after a row with my Dad” when in fact he’d gone to Arsenal’s meaningless pre-season tournament and been tagged in Facebook photos – but he wasn’t exuding permanence, or control of the situation. In fact, he was getting mercilessly sledged for the bottom-handedness of his technique (among other things). I told him not to crack, to keep it together, to not whip. He cracked, he whipped, he was caught off the leading edge at mid off. They shrieked and cackled. We were 44 for 6. That became 45 for 7 when Morris trapped Dom Wright lbw. No, not again...

Amer, just about to whip (probably)
Then we heard some bad news. Contrary to sketchy rumours that Leek’s already-relegated opponents, Barlaston, were going to bat first if they won the toss – a spiteful move to deny them the chance of gaining 25 points, handing us the title before a ball was bowled – it emerged that the Moorlanders were batting first and doing rather better than 45 for 7. As I looked at Gareth Morris’s face and thought “No, not again”, wicket-keeper Ali Whiston strode out. I wasn’t confident. It was a case of digging in, grinding out what we could: 75, maybe 100… 

The innings is largely a blur – ‘the zone’, I think they call it – of blocking and leaving and smothering and kicking, with the occasional full-blooded attacking shot. Consecutive inside-out fours off Gaz Morris, bowling left-arm spin at leg stump, stick in the mind, mainly because the ball finished up in Lake Scorebox. Never have I been so grateful for 40-yard boundaries.

A lot of balls were spitting off the pitch – indeed, my first stroke of luck had been the ECB bowling restrictions that forced 17-year-old Dan Colclough out of the attack after he’d bagged the first five wickets for zip. Another major slice of luck came with my surviving a close lbw shout off the bowling of Nick Bratt (14-8-25-1 on the day). It was adjacent, and he looked mighty aggrieved, even more so when I popped his very next delivery over long-on for six, the ball being caught by Andy Hawkins out worrying in front of the old garage. It would have gone for six whatever, but here came the salvation of those 40-yard boundaries: out of my 71 runs, I hit 5 sixes (almost certainly the highest ever percentage of a score I’ve managed in maximums), although a couple were only check-drives, another couple badly mistimed sweep shots. C’est la vie. 

Whisso: googly picker
When Ali Whiston fell at 117 (we’d added 72 runs), and Baggers followed 5 runs later, leaving us 122 for 9, things were still looking dicey. Thankfully, Matt Stupples and I eked out the final 3 runs, earning us the absolutely crucial third batting bonus point – a scrambled scruffy run that meant we’d only need 4 rather than 6 wickets. I’m not sure I’ve ever punched the air in celebration at reaching the 125, nor am I likely to again (100, maybe, but not 125…). But then, it was understandable: I’d managed to hold at bay the negative thoughts, the overwhelming dread that our season’s underdog efforts were going to fall down a hole, to score 71 out of 103 runs and enable us to post – not a winning total, but surely enough for us to snaffle the four wickets. 

Heading out to field, there’s no doubt we were nervous, particularly when Little Stoke reached 65 for 2, with danger man Richard Harvey just having smeared a couple of large sixes off Immy over the shortened long on boundary. Another couple of big overs for them and the tension would have just been too much. 

Thankfully, I had the foresight, or the hunch (call it what you will), to station our most agile catcher, Simon Hemmings, at mid-off for Sam Kelsall’s underrated little low-trajectory medium-pacers – not to mention the fussiness and dictatorial streak to make sure it happened, rather than Any Old Joe fielding there – and sure enough Shemm held on to one of the all-time great catches, a fully horizontal ‘superman’ to dismiss a violently slapped drive from Harv. One more required.
Immy then clean bowled Dan Hancock with a googly the following over to give us the fifth point, before peeling off for his now trademark deliriously celebratory run to deep cover, pursued by nine of his teammates. Not me, though. Not immediately, anyway. I was too spent (and, again thinking worst-case scenario, I was worried we might get docked points for a slow over rate!). 

It was, by some considerable margin, my best day on a cricket field. Certainly my best innings. We had an emotional, hour-long de-brief in the dressing room after the game during which I thanked everyone, in turn, for their specific contribution. The night finished with me, Amer and Shemm still buzzing away at 4am at Thornbury Hall (no loss of consciousness, no broken bones).

And I will never forget Maurice Knight – a tear in his eye, carpe diem in his heart – coming up to shake my hand as we left the field as champions. “That’s the best knock I’ve ever seen in club cricket, Scott”. Again, emotional. I suspect he will have said the exact same thing to Dave Housley last September, mind… 


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