The first in an ongoing series known as ‘The Village Cricket Experience’
David Braithwaite peruses a spreadsheet on his laptop with narrowing eyes. Dominated by a list of summer dates there is a similar catalogue of caveats at the bottom of the list: Bank Holiday, England football in the evening, pitch unavailable, opposition can only play on Tuesdays, day after Glastonbury. Various shades and hues dominate the spreadsheet, roughly matching the list of excuses that create mayhem to what initially was an orderly, structured calendar. David sighs ruefully.
“Come on love, put that away and come back to it tomorrow,” his wife apologetically encourages, silently passing a mug of tea which David accepts without taking his eyes away from the screen. Reluctantly, he begins to close down the spreadsheet, his emails and then the laptop itself, conceding defeat for one evening but readying himself for the challenge twenty-four hours later.
It is early February but David’s cricket year has already begun. The weather outside may be at the most polar antipode from the sultry afternoons and balmy evenings that tease their way into one’s mind during the long, dark winter nights, but the vital task of organising the summer so that those balmy evenings are not wasted begins in earnest when England are touring somewhere exotic and Test Match Special begins at four o’clock in the morning rather than its usual half past ten. David acquiesces to his wife’s gentle imploring, conceding defeat until the conundrum is approached the following evening.
Organising the season’s fixtures is a fine art. Once Christmas and New Year has been negotiated for another twelve months, there proceeds a session of virtual eye-balling (virtual in the sense that none of the dramatis personae involved physically ‘see’ each other) as the various fixtures tsars wait to see who will break cover first. It is as if there is an unwritten rule that fixtures are not arranged too far in advance for fear of mocking, derision and scorn from other teams. Once one of the tsars can wait no longer, and the first email is received, then cricket’s equivalent of the stock exchange opens, with phone calls, emails and other ad hoc electronic missives forwarded to all relevant parties. Quite whether any of the tsars indulge in the dextrous hieroglyphics that take place in Wall Street or the Square Mile is anyone’s guess.
Nevertheless, there is a narrow window of opportunity that every fixtures secretary attempts to squeeze through: that moment just after the first exploratory email has been sent when all fixture lists are clear, pure and virgin-like. To be the first team to send an email, always one after the initial email, and have first pick of all the fixtures offerings is the ideal scenario. It is akin to the announcement at a wedding reception that the buffet is now open: be the first at the tables of food and one will be assumed a gluttonous pig; leave one’s pursuit too late and the best of the food will have been ravished. Timing is essential. As it is with the dance of the fixtures secretaries.
And yet, Braithwaite’s travails begin even before the dancers arrive. Team priorities are essentially generated by player priorities and these engender their own problems. Certain players can only play on particular days due to family commitments. Others play for other teams and hope to hedge their bets between the two teams. One Old Ashfordians captain even had the temerity to get married during the cricket season and then shuffled off for two weeks on honeymoon. He did send a text to find out the results though. Fixtures in May and June enjoy stellar participation, even the odd requirement for a selection, but levels recede as the summer meanders through July and holidays, both those of the vacation variety and those of a scholastic nature, play merry havoc for both the fixtures secretary and the team captain. Add in unseasonal weather during the latter third of the summer and a fixture secretary may unconsciously begin to frontload the list under the auspices of maximising participation levels. Despite cricket being a summer sport, Football tends to muscle in at least once a summer. At the Antipodes of the cricket season, it will be the termination of one Football season and the genesis of the next. Midweek cricket rarely clashes with actual fixtures but training, a concept alien to village and social cricket, impinges as Football seasons become ever more serious and players’ priorities are tested to the limit. Weekly five-a-side contests pose a parallel problem.
Every other summer, the aforementioned England games add an additional influence from the Footballing world. Assuming England has qualified for the finals of the respective major championship, Braithwaite is forced to take into account any clashes of England matches, and potential knock-out contests later in the tournament, with any cricket fixtures, lest he and the opposition are keen to instigate five-a-side cricket; a concept even more foreboding for the average bowler than a stint in the IPL. England matches are not the only hindrance though. The advent of a major Football tournament seems to engender an anomalous trait in the average Football fan. Contests between two obscure nations become interesting; Paraguay versus Ghana or Croatia versus Romania are of critical importance that cricket line-ups are decimated by such fixtures. Old Ashfordians once had a match cancelled by the opposition just a few hours prior to the start due to the skipper confirming that five players had dropped out on the morning of the game; the Italy versus France World Cup contest supposedly responsible for the wholesale lack of support.
Even cricket manages to get in the way of cricket. County cricket’s own version of Twenty20 posed a new threat when it arrived on the horizon early in 2003. Unlike normal county fixtures, Twenty20 Cup contests are fixed for early evening starts; their presence luring players away from teams under the auspices of ‘watching how it’s done properly.’ Sitting in the stand with a beer or two is obviously more of an appeal than standing sentry on the square leg boundary waiting for an exocet of a shot to sting the palms or bend the odd digit. Fifth days of a tense Ashes test similarly provide late personnel problems. Gone are the days when England rolled over to the might of McGrath, Warne and Waugh late on the third afternoon, freeing up not just Monday for village cricket but also the occasional Sunday. Back to back tests now threaten Tuesday fixtures as the likes of Cook, Root and Anderson threaten to put another one over their Antipodean counterparts.
Of similar ilk for causing team issues are music festivals, Wimbledon (an event that still provokes mild irritation in David Braithwaite after a previous pre Centre Court roof incident involving three of Old Ashfordians’ bowling attack, tennis tickets and the Men’s Final drifting over into the Monday due to rain) and the Open Championship. David Braithwaite is thus akin to the member of the audience at an auction, balancing his bids with his resources. Or a purple rinse at a midweek bingo night, surrounded by cards and bits of paper, frantically attempting to keep up with the game.
In contrast, organising nets as a precursor to the season itself is almost a mere bagatelle for Braithwaite. Choosing an appropriate evening is a doddle as most players, bored from the gloom of long winter nights and evening after evening of watching mind numbing television, appreciate the opportunity to get out of the house / bungalow / flat / hovel and stretch their legs, physically and metaphorically, whilst indulging in a modicum of midweek social activity without having to consult any weather charts. The cricket is laughable during the first session or two but it is an opportunity to see old faces and catch up after six months of perennially wondering what so and so gets up to during the winter.
Braithwaite’s biggest problem is not that of personnel; only half a dozen players are required for each net so most are fully subscribed. Rather, location of said practice is the stumbling block. Cricket nets are available but most are at club grounds and are out in the elements. Local schools, previously keen to engender the extra revenue from the out of season cricketers, routinely decide to abandon the cricket nets in favour of extra five-a-side Football or Badminton whilst the excellent facilities at the county ground are fully booked with the serious league teams flexing their collective muscles prior to their season beginning. Braithwaite eventually sources a new venue, a task that seemingly needs to be done every year, but the location is a little further afield than normal and required a modicum of figurative arm twisting.
Who knew that January and February could be such hard work for cricket personnel? It’ll all be easier once the season starts. Apparently.