Never mind professional cricket and its players exquisite skills and athleticism. We amateurs can do that too!
If you were to look down on the United Kingdom from the International Space Station on any given summer’s evening you would see thousands of clusters of white clad beings dotted around green fields, statue still or moving in apparently random directions. Zoom in closer, and you would hear the distinct sounds of willow bats hitting hard leather balls, cries of ‘catch it!’ or ‘howzat?’ or “LB,” ringing out. Zoom in some more and you would see that these beings are groups of men, women, boys and girls, playing one of the oldest and still strangest of competitive sports – cricket.
And finally, if you were to zoom right into the heart of any one of these thousands of games you would see feats of great athleticism, skill, sportsmanship, joy, humour, and the occasional temper tantrum. All these things that are rarely recorded beyond the statistics of the triple entry scorecards and the memories of those present. All to be lost forever with the passage of time.
So my friends, let me tell you about one such glorious event that happened in one of these games, one balmy evening in July 2017.
The relevant passage of play began just as the nearby church clock struck seven. The sound of wood on leather resonated around the field as the batsman skipped down the wicket and drilled the ball back past the bowler and napping fielder towards the boundary. The ball bounced up as it hit the rope and disappeared into the field of wheat beyond with a member of the sparse crowd in hot pursuit. Having watched the ball disappear, the umpire swivelled on his heels to face the pavilion, arm outstretched and lavishly signalled four runs to the attentive scorer.
Hands on hips, the bowler threw her head back and pursed her lips. “How many left?” she asked as she stalked past the umpire back to her mark.
“Three to go.” The umpire said.
She covered the thirteen meters swiftly and before the ball had been found, eager to have another go at this batsman. His shot had annoyed her, so too had the fielder’s inactivity, but she was convinced that she had the measure of him and that she would be the one to get him out.
With the ball found and finally back in her hands, she checked it over, adjusted it in her hand and began her well practiced smooth run up to the crease. Not as fast as in her youth, but with age had come wisdom and economy and as she hit her delivery stride the ball left her hand with a perfect upright seam and sufficient pace to make it swing as commanded.
As hoped, the batsman misjudged the swinging ball, and as he stepped forward to smash it again to leg, its movement away to his right saw it skew off his bat and straight up into the air. Cries of “catch it!” rang out across the field. A close fielder started running forwards as fast as his old legs would carry him, head skyward judging the trajectory of the ball, “mine!” he yelled as he steadied himself under the ball’s downward path. All watched on in anticipation of the inevitable, the batsman chief among them with his bat under his arm, ready to leave the field. But then the unexpected happened – the ball went straight in and then out of the fielder’s hands, a gifted catch dropped. Crestfallen, he studied his usually safe hands and did not notice the batsman’s sly smirk or the bowler’s theatrical crumpling to her knees and pounding of the ground with her hand.
Back on her feet, the bowler turned to the fielder with a forced smile, “Never mind.” But she did actually mind… a bit. Bowling fast and accurately, consistently, is hard work you know, especially on a warm evening. All he had to do was catch the ball!
Back at her mark, the bowler paused for a moment. She stared at the batsman as he took his guard. She noticed that he had opened out a little. This was her key. He was hers.
She ran in as before, no change to the action. But the ball was angled differently so it swung in towards the batsman, who promptly hit around it as it cannoned into his pads with a loud thud. Both hers and the wicketkeeper’s arms shot up as she leapt and turned round to the umpire appealing, “‘howzat?” they cried in unison.
“Not Out!” said the calm umpire before turning to the bowler and saying, “Not by much…just swinging a bit too much down leg.”
She smiled at him and strode once more back to her mark for the last ball of the over. She knew she was close, a minor adjustment should do it. This time she did not stop, turn and pause. Instead she walked wide past the mark and arced round onto her run. She delivered the ball the same as before, but this time she snapped her wrist more at delivery. The ball flew slightly faster and with less swing. If he missed this one, he would be gone. But he didn’t.
A loud crack resonated once more around the field. Contact. The batsman had hit the ball hard, a straight on drive. But the extra pace had found him late onto his shot and the ball was lifted slightly and flew straight and hard a few inches above the ground.
The bowler was well into her follow through when the ball came back with interest. As it drew level with her on the opposite side of the wicket, she somehow stopped her forward momentum, changed direction and dived low across the full three meter width of the wicket, right arm outstretched, hand open. The impact of the ball as it hit her hand pushed her arm backwards behind the line of her body. Her fingers closed tightly around it. The ball was caught. The batsman was out.
For what seemed like an age she lay alone stretched across the wicket, staring in disbelief at the hand gripping the ball, not wanting to move or to let go of it.
And then a shadow moved over her and she looked up to see looming down the smiling faces of her teammates, the umpire and the batsman. She smiled bashfully and casually lobbed the ball up into the air for one of them to catch. “Wow!” said the sea captain wicketkeeper as he pulled her to her feet. “See, I dropped it deliberately,” chortled the butter fingered retired GP fielder. “Well done,” mumbled the builder batsman.
But it was the old umpire’s words that really captured the essence of cricket and what had just happened and what sticks in the bowler’s memory to this day. As she turned to him to confirm the end of the over and collect her hat he said, “Definitely catch of the season,” and then smiling distantly he added, “No, it was better than that.”
Yes, ‘it was better than that’. Even if I say so myself, and I shall because I was this bowler, it was a moment of pure genius and one which I remember fondly. And I share this memory with you today, not for vanity (much!), but instead for posterity. To record that on this particular balmy evening a group of amateur cricketers playing a match somewhere in the Quantock Hills of Somerset witnessed one of their number do something extraordinary. The match scorecard might just state that Batsman B was out caught & bowled Mann, but you now know that it was better than that.