I am in the changing room of a cricket ground somewhere in Sussex. All around me men are pulling on tops bearing the names of university teams or some charity XI. Mine still has a Sports Direct tag that says “50% off”. I’m not sure how this came to pass. I remember a lunch party where I was asked if my sons played cricket, and I volunteered two of them for this annual fixture. Through some error, my name is also on the roster.
When people ask me if I can play cricket I always say, “I don’t know.” I grew up in America, so I only know I can’t play baseball. It’s possible the game of cricket requires untapped skills that baseball does not. Like manners, or something.
I once played in a cricket match about 30 years ago, back when I had not the faintest idea about it. Early on I made an easy catch – assuming it was appropriate in the circumstances – and was unprepared for the approbation that came my way. People I’d never met were clapping me on the back. Maybe I can play cricket, I thought.
Three overs later, my nearest teammate got hit in the face by the ball and went off in an ambulance. Once he’d gone, the match resumed. That’s when I realised there was a Squid Game element to the whole business.
Back in Sussex, I am at the boundary in my new whites with the oldest one and the middle one, in the shade of a stubby tree. I notice the middle one’s friend – the son of our team captain – is wearing shorts and a dark shirt.
“I really can’t play cricket,” he says.
“I’m about to show you what can’t play cricket means,” I say.
Out in the field I repeat my mantra for all team competition: don’t do anything today that becomes the only thing these people will remember about you. Don’t make a mistake of unprecedented stupidity. Don’t leave in an ambulance.
Early on I stop a quick ball destined for the boundary by letting it bounce off my forearm, a credit against which I can weigh future errors. The oldest one bowls well. I figure that I should get credit for this too, because I drove him here.
For the first hour, my middle son has to shout to remind me to change position between overs, but after a while I settle into a rhythm. I start to relax, but I also get competitive. I want to stop everything that comes my way, however inelegantly, with whatever part of my body can get there first. By the time the 10th wicket falls, my knees are skinned and I have bruises on both ankles. My work here, I think, is done.
At the tea break, the oldest one and I fight over the lowest place in the batting order.
“I really can’t bat,” he says.
“I’ll show you what really can’t bat means,” I say. The oldest one took two wickets, so the captain rewards him with last place.
At this point I’m still pretty certain the humiliation of batting will not arrive: the score we’re chasing is manageable, and the afternoon is wearing on. The captain comes over to me. I think: he probably wants to thank me again for that ball I stopped.
“The thing is,” he says, “because we’ve got 12 men and they’ve got 11, I said we’d give them a fielder. Five overs each. You’re third.”
Nothing in my understanding of the rules of cricket has prepared me for this news. First: our team has an extra, unnecessary player, and I am certainly him. Second: I have to go back out there in 10 overs’ time.
Fielding for the opposition is, if anything, even more nerve-racking. Everything I do wrong looks like treachery rather than incompetence. But this would also be a bad time for me to suddenly get the hang of things. I think: this is where the manners come in.
Amid a flurry of wickets, the system for replacing the extra fielder breaks down. I do six overs, then seven. When another wicket falls, I make my escape.
I find the middle one putting on a helmet.
“What are you doing?” I say.
“I’m in next,” he says.
“But I’m after you!” I say.
“Yeah, you should get padded up,” he says. I put on some borrowed shin pads, and locate the oldest one.
“Teach me how to bat,” I say. “Quick.”
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He takes me over to the nets, shows me how to position myself, and bowls me a gentle ball, which goes straight over my bat. So does the next one, and the next. And the next.
“That’s fine,” I say. “I don’t want to get stale.”