Merry takes a very patronising view of village sports which is understandable after playing netball for the Bahamas where the penalty for losing is probably being strung up upside down and having the bare soles of your feet whipped with electric cable. Losing for your village isn't quite that bad but you certainly can't show your face in the local pub for a couple of days.
Village sport is to Professional Sport what the Working Men's Club is to International Cabaret. It's where you learn your trade. The matches are hard, no quarter is given or expected and you get the rough edges knocked off you - both metaphorically and literally. But they are humorous and incredible at times. I have a few tales to tell and although they are not HTHS tales I will relate a couple of them for you if you are interested. (I know Mike will tut tut at this digression but I may JUST about squeeze these into the O & E section). I'll start with cricket. This is a true story.
Imagine the scene.
Sunday afternoon, Hauxton, Cambridge, mid July, 1972, sun beating down on the freshly prepared cricket square, wicket shaved shorter than a skinhead's haircut. Swallows chirping overhead as they gorge, on the wing, the swarm of hapless mosquitos which have swirled slowly in our direction like a lazy whirlwind. A light breeze feels warm to the face. A church clock in the distance chimes out the second hour of the afternoon, not the one at Grantchester just across the meadow, frozen in time, but from nearby Harston.
Eleven men stand in apparently random positions, all dressed in various shades of cricket whites. I am one of those eleven. I'm in my third year of self imposed exile from Oldham and am still somewhat of a novelty around here which is always evident when I am greeted with "Eee, hey up, trouble at t'mill". Village life takes some getting used to, time seems to have passed this place by.
Two men, waving well worn willow, stroll out of the pavilion to polite applause - twirling each arm alternately and blocking imaginary balls away to the on side. The opened pavilion doors let out the sound of clinking tea cups and saucers as they are being laid out onto the tables by the army of village wives - in preparation for that most genteel of gentlemanly pastimes - The Tea Interval. The unmistakable aroma of boiled eggs as they are being mashed and spread on sandwiches, topped off with cress, also drifts out. The urn is simmering gently.
The two silent men suddenly seperate, each taking their respective ends. The opening batsman takes his guard, asking the umpire for "two leg" whilst simultaneously shoving two fingers up at him - the ONLY occasion anywhere in the world where this can be done without giving offence. Do this when you've been adjudged LBW however and you're in BIG trouble.
The captain tosses the ball to me with a nod and a smile. Good, I'm opening!
A privilege never to be assumed but always hoped for. The opening bowler is the attacking side's statement. "Quake in your boots pal. This is just the beginning."
I measure out my approach using exaggerated strides (thirteen in all) and show an empty hand to the batsman to indicate that I am not bowling in anger and then mime a practice delivery. Nodding to myself that this is OK and, after staring with my most intimidating look into the opener's face who in turn stares back at me with a sneer and a grin, I walk back to the start of my run. On turning around I show the batsman that now I have the ball in my hand and this time it's for real - and he nods in acknowledgement. The umpire calls "Play" and I start in.
The batsman is in his mid 60's, fit, fairly well built, leathery face with drooping jowls and grey stubble. Squinting eyes peer out from underneath the peak of his maroon cricket cap. He taps the bat on his mark slowly at first and then more rapidly as I near the bowling crease. My leading left foot hammers down hard, exactly on the spot, as the ball explodes out of my right hand.
It's funny how you see these things in slow motion. My eye line is on the ball's trajectory and I see it meeting the ground on a good length and ricocheting upwards, turning slightly to the off side. The batsman's eyes widen and his bat goes forward in a defensive movement as he makes to glance the ball, helping it on its way to third man. However the turn is more than he anticipates and the ball narrowly misses the open face of his bat and continues on it's course, smashes into the off stump about three quarters way up, takes it clean out of the ground whereafter it spins end over end and lands about four feet back.
Opening batsman out first ball !! .
My awareness returns to real time as I jump high in the air, punching it at the same time and shouting "YES" at the top my voice. The batsman nods in appreciation of a good ball and begins the lonely walk back to the pavilion.
I look around, waiting to be smothered in a huddle of congratulations from my team mates.
Nothing. Absolute bloody silence.
The captain eventually breaks this by calling out "No, come on lads, I'd do it again...it's not his fault....this is cricket."
I play the rest of the innings in total bemusement.
Over tea and egg cress sandwiches I ask the captain what's it all about.
"You don't know him?", he asks, "Ah, you're not a local are you?"
He tells me the guy's name.
"He's a local character, well liked, very popular in the village, great batsman, would have batted all day if he'd got his eye in".
"And?" I ask.
"Well, about 10 years ago his wife was messing about with other blokes. All the village knew about it. Eventually pushed him over the edge it did. He murdered her, turned himself in and got a life sentence. Towards the end he would write home from prison and talk about the things he was most looking forward to when he got out. One of them was playing on this beautiful batting wicket at Hauxton.
He got out only last week."
With those two little pals of mine.......