The setting sun flickers and dances through the branches and foliage as both acquiesce to the influences of an early evening zephyr. The heat of the day begins to recede but it is replaced by the smell of freshly cut grass. Sit with one’s back to the sun and the angle of the star provokes the most vivid colours from the landscape in one’s line of vision; the glorious azure sky, juxtaposed with the verdant sward and luxuriant foliage.
Stumble upon a cricket match and one is all but impelled to take a hiatus from one’s journey and watch the play for an undecided period of time. One is not immediately cognisant of the two teams involved but such details are not important. Badges on players’ shirts may reveal allegiances but any conclusions may prove erroneous due to the most recreational nature of this contest and the utilisation of kit from other teams.
The voices of encouragement are clear and crisp through the early summer ether amid the solitude of early evening; bonhomie and badinage to the fore. In amongst its myriad of leagues, competitions and divisions cricket still holds a place for those who simply want to play the game for the sheer love of the experience rather than chasing any silverware or promotion to a higher rung on the ladder. Teams and fixtures develop summer after summer, engendering a sense of familiarity between those involved. Some may well have even appeared for the opposite team at various junctures down through the years.
An hour earlier familiar conversations would have taken place between the two captains: “Are you well? How’s your season going? Got eleven for tonight?” Such has been the way since the first contest many moons ago. Post settling the financial affairs regarding pitch fees the evening’s tete-a-tete’s will also conclude along similar lines: “thanks for the game, see you later in the season / next season.” Without the need for a written word of formal agreement both captains (or their respective fixtures secretaries) will expect an email or text in the new year ready to organise fixtures on almost identical dates. In his book Not Dark Yet, author Mike Harfield discusses the rhythm of a cricket match. For some teams it is more a case of the rhythm of a summer. First game of the season? That’ll be Paul Laithwaite’s XI. Last Monday of June? Away to Tilchester Park. And the last day of the summer is always a 15 over dash against the architects from the county council before the night draws in.
Tonight’s contest takes place during that early summer period when the evenings remain warm but not scorched as they are during the dog days of late July and August. The match itself encompasses a broad spectrum of cricketing society; wizened, silver haired veterans mix adeptly with youthful exuberance. This is cricket of scions: fathers and sons and, in some cases, fathers and sons and sons of sons. The generational divides are comfortably spanned as playing for the team is passed down akin to a birthright. Fathers gaze admiringly at their progeny’s exploits whilst the sons secretly attempt to out-perform their old man. Games within the game, even at this level.
The evening itself encompasses a broad range of playing styles and executions, from the picture perfect cover drive of the hosts’ number three batsman that gambols across the closely cut sward to the agricultural heave from the number eight that loops over a retreating fielder and clumsily lollops toward the boundary rope. Both shots are rewarded with four runs despite their polar opposite aesthetic appeal. Cricket is a beautiful game but at times clinical and arbitrary.
Amongst the textbook beauty and the scything savagery there are other subtle rhythms that take place, almost unnoticed. Two figures in white (or green) coats may stand sentry for professional contests but in the lower levels of the game the contest is administered by members of the batting side. Thus, each match is pockmarked by a seemingly perpetual changing of personnel as the various sets of umpires, akin to pleasure boats on a parkland lake, are called in in readiness for a stint defending the timbers, their time up for another day. All throughout the innings a careful balance will be struck: two batsmen, another padded up, two umpires, one person to keep score. Few players are afforded the opportunity to put their feet up. The constant change of personnel continues as one innings concludes and another quickly begins. Cricket may be perceived as a sedate sport but proceedings rarely reach standstill.
Subtle differences pockmark the second innings of such contests. Shadows slowly creep across the outfield toward the wicket, its progress unnoticed until one fielder experiences a chill as an early evening breeze develops. Those on the boundary’s edge begin to don a varying assortment of jumpers and tops, cricketing and non-cricketing, as the natural elements provide a reminder that it is they who are really in charge. Any coolness in the ether soon becomes peripheral though as the tension of a close contest concentrates the minds and internal temperatures of all involved.
Cricket is as temperamental and capricious as the British elements though and a close finish soon drifts away as wickets tumble and the team bowling second complete a comfortable victory. Handshakes are conducted and the various items of flotsam and jetsam that make a cricket pitch are tidied away for the evening. One team wanders away warmed by the glow of victory, another collectively licks its wounds before turning their focus to the next match.
In truth, rarely do the stars align so that cricketing perfection (glorious weather, beautiful location and a close conclusion) is achieved but the game often provides one or two of that triumvirate to remind all why it can be intoxicating and beguiling, whatever the standard of play and the level of the contest. Such visions and intricacies will provide some succour during the long winter months.