Cricket Conversations: On Club Cricket with Gideon Haigh

I started a new initiative on this blog way back in May 2013 called “Cricket Conversations” which involves email back-and-forth on a variety of topics with bloggers, writers, fans and journalists. The first of the Cricket Conversations was with Siddartha Vaidyanathan on “Spirit of Cricket“.

What follows is the second installment of cricket conversations where I had email exchanges with cricket writer Gideon Haigh on club cricket, spread over a few months.

(The emails published here are slightly edited for content and syntax from the original messages).

June 16, 2013

Dear Gideon,

I just played in the first match of the 2013 season for my club. It is a club made up of mostly guys from India that came to the U.S. as graduate students and have since settled in the areas surrounding Washington D.C. and a guy originally from Pakistan. I, along with a couple more, however travel from middle of nowhere Pennsylvania to go the matches that are held near D.C. It’s a long story but Penn State used to have a cricket club that actively participated in summer long league competitions but that stopped few years ago due to lack of interest of students wanting to play competitive cricket, sacrificing almost all the summer weekends playing a stupid game, traveling 400+ miles in a day, and the largely dispiriting endeavor called nets. Since then, the small numbers of people that are interested from Penn State merged with a team headed by an alumni and try to play there. (If you’re interested, here is a bit about the history of cricket at Penn State). The club at Penn State is still active but only during school is in session in Fall and Spring semesters but its activities no longer includes summer league action.

Oh, before I forget, I didn’t get to bowl or bat, my team won pretty comfortably, I hurt my groin while going for a catch on an uneven outfield (Let’s blame the field, okay?) and stubbed my toe, all in all a great day out. There was a time my captain gave me the new ball, not because I’m fast or anything, but mainly for the fact that I had a reasonable control over the swing and wouldn’t give too much away in wides. But with my advancing age and much reduced physical activity during the winter (Ahem), understandably, my captain is giving the ball to young guns but still generously put me in the playing XI. It may have been simply because I put in the long trip the previous week even though I wasn’t in the XI to go there and do scoring, but who knows?

You are a veteran of club cricket down there in Melbourne, with your beloved Yarras. You have written couple of books on club cricket as well (The Vincibles and Many A Slip) and of course, the 2012 Bradman Oration centered around club cricket. What is it that keeps you going back to the club summer after summer, putting yourself through – if your cricketing “skill set” is anywhere close to mine – humiliation and disappointment in your own eyes? I used to be an opening bat in my high school days but switched to being a bowler in college. Since no discussion of cricket is complete without stats, my personal best is 5-32. Your personal best is 92, correct?

In cricket,

Subash

June 17, 2013

Dear Subash,

I played at the weekend too.  It’s the depths of winter here, but I have a hit for a couple of hours every Sunday during the off-season with the other hardcore members of my club, the Yarras.  We call our little group Yarras STU – the Special Training Unit.  They range from Happy, a 71yo Aussie, to Speedy, a 20yo Indian.  There’s Scuz, an artist and jazz guitarist in his 60s who bowls left-arm slows; there’s the Dhaka Express, an IT guy from Bangladesh in his 30s who bowls right-arm wides.  Others come and go.  It’s always freezing; there’s usually rain around and the decks are a bit dicey.  But every Friday I send out the Yarras STU email, and every weekend they come.  I reckon I’ve played more or less continuously for about 7-8 years.  In fact, I can’t remember a week going past without my having some sort of hit since…well, actually I can’t remember.  Partly it’s superstition – the fear that if I give it away, I’ll lose the meagre semblance of coordination I still have.  But in the main it’s just the pleasure of knowing people through the game, and the game through people.

I’ve played for a club since I was 9.  I’m now 47.  Next season I’ll mark my 20th anniversary with the Yarras, where I’m the games record holder.  We have 5 senior teams.  I’ve played some Firsts cricket, mostly Seconds, and am now on the gentle slide down in the Thirds, still opening the batting, as I’ve always done, and bowling offies, which I’ve taken up.  What changed when I went to the Yarras was that having always taken for granted the organisational side of clubs; I became involved in the committee.  Yes, I am a cricket administrator, more successful at the moment than most, given that the Yarras won two premierships last summer.

There actually was a short period in my life where I did not play, in my mid-20s when I was working nights and could not get to training as I wished so did not feel right about playing.  I’m quite a serious cricketer.  I want to prepare.  I want to feel ready when the game is afoot.  Coincidentally, this hiatus coincided with my beginning to write about the game.  The minute I got back to playing, though, it all clicked.  I thought: ‘That’s why this sport is worth writing about.  Because it is a wonderful game to play.’  Every game I play, I think, enhances my appreciation of cricket it takes – how hard it is to play well, how satisfying it is to succeed, how demoralising it is to fail, how sensually exquisite are its skills.  I bowled Happy a couple of times at the weekend – drew him down the track, through the gate, top of off, you beauty.  Happy might be a septuagenarian, but he’s tough, and competitive, and gives you nothing.  How childishly pleased I was to get him out.  I might be 47, but every time I get a wicket it feels like I’m 9 all over again.

Congratulations on that 5-32.  Yes, my best is 92.  I’m too modest to tell you about it.  Well, not until I hear about your 5-32 first.

Yours in cricket,

Gideon

September 16, 2013

Gideon,

My apologies for the long delay. Let’s blame the Ashes, ok? May be Tony Hill?

As you invariably do in your writing, you’ve hit the nail on the head on why, despite the obvious challenges posed by age and skill, a lot of us keep putting us out there, risking embarrassment – “Knowing the people through the game, and knowing the game through the people.” Bravo!

I used to have 12-pace run up before gently floating down my outswingers but this season, considering the fact I am out of shape and haven’t had proper training sessions in a while, cut my run up to 3 steps. To call it a run up itself is a travesty. Shane Warne walked in a lot more than what I’m doing in my wind up these days. But this has allowed me to send down 7-8 overs in a spell. I know my captain. If he sees me huffing and puffing in the 3rd over with my 12-pace run up, there is never a chance I’m gonna get a 4th over. It wasn’t that my run up was helping me send down 75 mph thunderbolts anyway! I have much better control of the line.

When I hear about clubs having firsts, seconds and thirds, I feel so jealous. The set up here in the U.S. is quite different. There are of course the first and foremost, and that’s pretty much it. We struggle to get 11 for the only ‘club’ we have. There was a time when I was a student when we had generated sufficient interest that there were 15-17 who showed up for the nets. The regulars have since moved on with their lives, careers, wives and kids. Idiots I say. What’s better than spending a whole day milling around the patchy outfields imagining ways of getting the batsmen out, yelling from deep midwicket fence “Howzat!”, taking the piss out of your team mates but mostly making an ass out of yourself but completely happy doing it?

I too played the administrator role for about 2 years. I was the treasurer and then the president of the Cricket Club at Penn State about 10 years ago. Our aim at the time was to play competitive cricket and we went to great lengths in trying to do that. We would do 3 training sessions a week then travel 400-450 miles in a 15-seater van packed with kits and 11 players over the weekend to play 40-overs a side games. The camaraderie was something totally worth all the pain we had to go through in getting the players together, raising the money to support ourselves, the training and of course the travel. On the eve of a match, most of us would have such a hard time going to sleep; it became a team ritual to go for a few pre-match beers!

We were all graduate students at that time and were expected to do research but some of us only had cricket on our minds. It was such a joyful addiction then, and still is. The captain of the team I currently play for is a teammate from the Uni days and we have continued on somehow even though the faces around us keep changing.

I’m sure you can say a lot more about this, eloquently and authoritatively, but what I have felt to be a great byproduct of continuing to play, and trying to write about it, is how it keeps cynicism about the sport and the players at bay. When a player is struggling to score the runs or fighting a losing battle with controlling the ball, I can identify with that. There are visible cues that the player is trying his hardest but the results aren’t just there. More than just the skills, I understand it’s a mental struggle that cannot be tabulated in spreadsheets. I get that. No one wants to let themselves down and more importantly, their mates down but it happens. That’s just cricket.

Oh, my batting average this season so far (5 innings) is a spectacular 2.00 with two unbeaten 0’s and highest of 2*. Bowling wise, I’ve been doing okay, picking the odd 2-fers but generally keeping things quiet upfront. Playoff this weekend and I’m in the XI, mostly because of, as you said in the Bradman Oration, “triumph of availability”. Wish me luck.

Yours truly in Cricket,

Subash

September 23, 2013

It’s the end of football season here, Subash – the biggest week of all, with the AFL Grand Final on Saturday.  And that means…it’s the eve of cricket season.  Training is well advanced, and up to three times a week.  I can’t drive, as I may have told you, so it’s a long journey to our sessions out at an indoor cricket centre in Springvale.  I get on the tram, travel for an hour, and rendezvous with a teammate, with whom I proceed four forty-five minutes more.  So it’s almost two hours’ travel to train for one hour, with a five-minute bat at some stage, then it’s all the way home.  The first night I did this after returning from England, I humped my gear on board the tram and thought: ‘This is really not the behaviour of a rational 47yo man, leaving my wife and daughter at home on a wintry night to meet with a bunch of blokes at a glorified shed in the suburbs to play something I’m really pretty bad at, and at which I won’t get better.’

It was a brief rational interlude.  Within five minutes of arriving, I was as excited as ever.  All the old faces, all the familiar gags, all the predictable problems, all the improvised solutions.  Some new blokes too, which is exciting.  I got a few wickets, timed a few off the pads, but in the main it was about the guys, whom I’ve known for so long that there’s actually no necessity to say very much at all.  There were a few questions about the Ashes tour, but mainly the chat was about the Yarras in 2013-14.  When I think back, in fact, very few in my time at the club have the conversations been about big cricket.  What matters to us is how we’re going.  My summer will be a bit interrupted by my work with The Times and The Australian, for whom I’ll be reporting the Ashes.  But I can honestly say that the outcome of the Test matches is of no consequence to me compared to how the Yarras fare.  At the club you are what you bring, not who or what you are.  For my first four or five years at the club, in fact, barely anyone was aware I wrote about cricket, and it never really came up.  One night a guy was giving me a lift home and said: ‘Y’know, it’s funny you having the same name as that journalist.’  Indeed it was!  I still like that quality of club life, that nobody is bigger than anyone else.

Of course, that’s not where it ends.  I have to say, Subash that doing well on the field really matters to me – much more than I’d like it to.  I want to win.  I want to make runs and take wickets. It dismays me when I inevitably can’t; nothing, however, brings me more intense jubilation than on-field success.  It’s ridiculous and childish and even a bit sad, but if I’m honest it’s something I can’t live without.  Not constant success – that would never happen anyway.  But enough to keep me going.  A lot of people profess to enjoy ‘social cricket’, and I do too.  But I couldn’t survive on that alone.  There’s got to be a contest.  It’s got to matter.

Funnily enough, since we last wrote, I made my first hundred: 106* off about 90 balls for Simon Lister’s wandering team, Old Sawbuttkeane CC, against Freith CC.  And it didn’t matter.  It was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but the bowling was friendly, and nothing much hinged on the result.  Better to get runs than not whatever the circumstances, of course, but I’ve had more satisfaction from 30s made in tough conditions.  I’m sure you know the feeling, and I suspect most true cricketers do, whatever their level.

Anyway, hope your season’s going well.  I’m now off to a committee meeting, and I have to organise our practice match for the weekend.  Good luck with the on-going availability – you have to start in order to finish.

Yours in cricket,

Gideon

September 23, 2013

Dear Gideon,

It is good to hear from you and I certainly know and understand the excitement you’re feeling with the beginning of your cricket season. Another summer of immense possibilities wait. When we had a good number of players where I live, we used to have training 3 times a week for about 4 hours. I’d rush out of my lab exactly at 4.55 PM to catch the bus to across my university campus to get to the fields and sessions used to last till 8.45 PM. Now, most of those mates are gone, and there isn’t much scope for training, which is a shame.

Even though I don’t get to train as much, I still take the weekend matches quite seriously and try my best to do all that I can to help my team win. It’s a terrific rush and buzz, and I am quite like you in that regard that on-field success matters to me a lot as well. I want to do all that I can to help my team, so that when I leave the field I can step out knowing that I tried my best even though my skills are quite limited.

Talking about on field success, isn’t it remarkable that you always remember some tough games that your team pulled out of the fire? You can recollect so much about those matches in such vivid detail – the scores, the wickets, the situations, bowling changes, etc. I remember one such match from 2004 when my uni team facing a certain defeat, out of nowhere, turned the tables. We were defending a low score (147) and the opposition needed 20 runs with 6 wickets in hand, and we won by 5 runs. Few tight overs, a run out, a brain fade and all our players were abuzz, and there was a point I distinctly remember thinking, “We’ve definitely got this”, even as there were 3 wickets to go and only 10 runs to get. One of those “zones” we were collectively in. Such a cherished memory. The experience from that match has come in handy in other close matches, but it also has helped me get through mentally while standing in the summer heat as the opposition is piling on.

I do social cricket very poorly. Since most of the cricket I’ve ever played, especially the last decade, has been in competitive setting, I can’t just switch off even when we are just knocking around in the parking lot with a tennis ball. I feel terrible about it afterwards since I feel like I ruined other people’s idea of a good time with my need to compete. Oh well!

There was a playoff game yesterday and sadly, our season has come to an end as we just couldn’t match up to our opponents and got our asses handed to us. We lost by about 100 runs, but two of our lower order batsmen top scored for our team, in the process registering their personal bests, sharing an unbeaten 70+ run stand when thunderstorms cut the game short. It was also sad because there is a feeling that we may have all played our last match as members of Warriors Cricket Club, as we are struggling to get enough players. Unless we get some new blood next season, we may have to stop playing competitive cricket or, merge with some other club. We have had something special, in how we played our cricket and the camaraderie, which most likely cannot be replicated if we merge with another club, but if that’s what it takes to play cricket, then, that’s what we will have to do. Fingers crossed at this point.

Congratulations on your century in England. That’s a feeling I’ll probably never experience in my lifetime!

Also, besides being hopelessly addicted to cricket, and serving/served as office-bearers in our respective clubs, the ‘not driving’ is another thing we share. Huzzah!

Yours in cricket,

Subash

October 1, 2013

Gideon,

I read your post on Brijesh Patel. He was long gone before cricket entered my consciousness and my family didn’t get a TV for a long time (I think early 90’s) that I almost never saw much live cricket back then, and most of my memories are from the black & white images in The Hindu and Indian Express.

Talking about body protection of batsman, in all my years of playing cricket, I’ve never worn a helmet. I have been knocked on the head by a bouncer in high school, and I saw stars briefly, but I thought taking away the fear of physical harm unbalances the contest between bat and ball.

In club cricket no one really believes much in bowling bouncers but I do. Especially when I was the captain of my team and I saw batsmen walking down the pitch, hitting through the line, I always believed it was a perversion of the contest. So I’d ask the fastest bowler of my team – who reluctantly would agree – to bounce the batsmen. It was my way of justice, if that makes sense.

I know Jimmy Amarnath is a hero of yours and I’ve heard stories about his playing the quick bowlers from my elder brothers. My family worshipped Gavaskar and I was taught lessons very early to play a tight defense. Our family (7 brothers) and a neighbor’s family (5 brothers) would go out to the local cricket ground every Sunday from 8 AM till noon. I still remember very vividly the knocks I had to take on my body as a 10 year old to make 11 runs in 7 overs. You can’t complain; you just had to cop it if you wanted to play, so I did. Good times.

October 1, 2013

Subash,

Coincidence: I’ve never worn a helmet either, despite having always opened the batting.  I don’t hook, so I’ve never felt physically under threat.  Funnily enough, when I had a net in Canberra last week, I faced Simon Cusden, who played for Derbyshire and Kent, and was rated at one time among the quickest bowlers in England.  He’s 28, still fit and distinctly sharp.  I loved it.  Quick bowling is exhilarating to face.  You feel… alive… perhaps because you actually have to let yourself go and rely on instinct to get you in the right positions.  I have always been the kind of cricketer who has thought about it too much, and never quite trusted myself.  It feels glorious when that self-consciousness falls away.

I have memories similar to yours of the kind of cricketing initiation rite, of learning to take.  I played a Geelong Country Week when I was in my teens, facing a young guy from the bush who just seemed to bowl at the speed of light.  He knocked my partner’s front teeth out, and he was carted off – when I took guard at that end the next over, I realised that one of the teeth was sitting in my block hole.  I felt weirdly thrilled.  If I could get through this, I thought, it would be really something.  He rolled us, but I batted about an hour and a half, which felt like six, and was eventually run out – a bit of a weakness of mine, I’m afraid, as my teammates will tell you!  As you say, Subash, very good times, and they keep coming.

Gideon

October 1 2013

Gideon,

Another coincidence. I started as an opening batsman in school but bowled an over of seam up when I was 16 and took 2 wickets in my very first over. Watching that ball swing in and beat the inside edge to take the stumps out was such a thrilling feeling that I have since stuck with bowling and now bat at 10 and 11.

There is something beautiful about initiating the action with the ball; you can control. It is pro-active.

Yes, from Cuts & Glances I realized Simon Cusden was there when you took your first transsexual wicket. As much as my batting reflexes have gone (use it or lose it), it is still exhilarating when you can stoutly defy a pacer for as long as you can. Funnily enough, since in my formative years, I played opening batsman and mostly played seamers, I never really learned to play spin. So to this today, someone that can turn the ball gives me jitters. My feet become blocks of concrete. I guess I know how Phil Hughes feels.

How is the season?

October 8, 2013

Subash,

Well, we started.  And it was rubbish.  We’ve lost quite a few blokes from higher grades, and we felt the toll in the 3rds.  One of their blokes smashed us all over the park, made 70-odd out of 180 or so.  We fell about 100 short.  But they put on beers afterwards, they have a pretty home ground, and it wasn’t the worst day, despite it being pretty rainy and cold.  I once wrote somewhere that a core skill of grass roots cricket is an aptitude for rationalising failure, and it looks like this season it will come in handy.

I was reminded, though, what I love about batting.  Had about ten solid minutes of throwdowns and I was smashing them.  Every one hit the middle – bang, mid-off; bang, mid-on; bang, mid-wicket.  Little voice: stop hitting it so well, you fool, don’t waste this timing.  I could turn being awarded the Nobel Prize into a cause for mourning – that’s just my temperament.

First ball of the season was from a tall opening bowler, quite quick, although I’d already summed up that the deck was slow.  It pitched in the channel, just short of a length, having just started to shape away on a surface sloping left to right.  Nine inches tighter – a ripper.  As it was – a good leave.   Lovely feeling when you get one of those fine judgments right, especially early.  I got 20-odd in about an hour and pulled a couple of boundaries, but nothing was as cool as letting that first go. That ‘glimpse of the possible’.  Providing that cricket continues tossing me the odd one of those, I can put up with the torture and frustration.  Hope you can too.

Photo Courtesty: Saurabh Kulkarni, Warriors CC

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