Saturday, May 23, 2009

Forget the Ashes. This is how to play cricket

It's been a traumatic time for our summer sport. But a convivial reunion reminded me what the game is really about

Giles Coren

I know it will be hard for those of you hooked on modern sport - brutal, hysterical, venal modern sport - to understand what I am about to tell you, but I would nonetheless like to try and explain, on this sunny Spring Bank Holiday, why it doesn't matter in the least whether England win the Ashes or not.

For while England were sitting around in glorious sunshine at Headingley on Thursday, playing no cricket at all because, scandal of scandals, the new drainage system wasn't working properly and it was a bit soft underfoot, I was in London, playing in another, quieter cricket match, and having a bit of an epiphany.

The match was at the Westminster School cricket ground in Vincent Square, SW1, probably the prettiest sports field in London. At stake was the Jim Cogan Cup, which was being contested for the first time in honour of my former cricket master, deputy headmaster and English teacher, who died in 2007. Contesting it were the school 1st XI and an old boys' team, rather older than is right and decent for the playing of sport, being made up mostly of the legendary 1st XI that went unbeaten for three seasons between 1985 and 1987.

Very few of us had played more than half a dozen games in the twenty-odd years since then, and so, stiff and bruised at my laptop the morning after, I would like first of all to ask if you have any idea - as you lament simultaneously the abject non-competitiveness of the West Indies and the likelihood of our imminent annihilation by Australia - how difficult cricket is? Have you any idea how small the wicket is? Or how far away it looks when you are trotting in to bowl a ball at it? How tricky it is to work out, as your arm comes over in an arc from arse to earhole, exactly when to let go of the ball?

* Hayden cooking up a promising future

I am no mug at cricket. I once, at 11, had trials with Middlesex - a boast I have used to strike fear into opposition hearts on many occasions. Although the great county did not, on that occasion, choose to avail itself of my services. And, when you think about it, there is no reason why the “I once had trials” boast - which one hears from all sorts of men about all sorts of sports - should be any more impressive than a grown man with no driving licence saying: “I once had a driving test.”

On top of that, I played twice with a young Saurav Ganguly, later captain of India, but only because my local club was a man short and I lived round the corner. Ganguly fielded at silly mid-off to my nervous left-arm loopers, and after he had twice been struck on the shins by cover drives, and once brained by a misdirected full toss straight from my hand, I was removed from the attack for fear that one more loose one from me might kill the young superstar and bring upon the small North London club the wrath of the world's largest democracy.

Another time, I played against a team that contained Sachin Tendulkar, the greatest Test batsman still playing the game. But we batted first, it rained, I never even got padded up, and we all went home about three o'clock.

I began on Thursday by bowling two decent straight balls. Everyone was saying, “Nice one, Giley, the old magic's still there!” and I got so excited that I hurled the next one straight into my own knee.

The one after that bounced three times, the fifth went back behind me in the direction of Pimlico, and then the sixth was, for some reason, bang on target again, and so surprised the excellent young batsman that he played down the wrong line and it flew off his knee and went straight to slip, where it was held by a chap of ours who once had trials with almost everybody.

Not absolutely certain that the poor fellow had nicked it, I appealed anyway, very loudly and rudely, and up went the finger, at which surprising and excellent news I set off on a lap of honour, screaming and shouting and tearing at my shirt like Monty Panesar fleeing a swarm of hornets. So, as well as being rubbish, I had now cheated and then celebrated ill-won success in a vulgar and over-demonstrative manner. Everything I abhor about the modern game. So I calmed down after that.

But we did not win. While the schoolboys, grasping the essence of the limited-overs game, put most of their men on the boundary, we played throughout with four slips and two gullies, not because the ball was moving, or even pitching, or because there was any chance of its being caught, but because most of us had not seen each other in years, and wanted to catch up. And so, while we chatted about who had got married, divorced, had kids, moved away, died or become bankers, the boys rattled up a total that we proved unable to surpass.

Partly, it was the fault of injury. Our star batsman twisted his ankle standing on the ball while chasing it to the boundary (a gentleman does not slide) and was unable to bat (though he tried), and another split the webbing between two fingers while dropping a catch and was severely hampered.

Partly, also, it was a failure to grasp the rules of the modern game. In my third over, making a correction based on the previous ball having rolled to the batsman along the ground, I sent one so high that on its way down it had time to mate with a passing duck before landing smack on the batsman's stumps. Only after my celebrations at a third wicket had died down (there was also a long hop pulled to the mid-wicket boundary and caught by a snoozing barrister in a moth-eaten club cap) did I notice that the square-leg umpire had called a no ball, on account of the ball having passed higher than the batsman's waist.

Quite how my little dobbers could be deemed life-threatening to a chap wearing more armour than a Roman centurion, I don't know. But rules is rules.

And games is games. It was as perfect a game of cricket as any of us could remember. We all played to the very middle of our abilities. We hit the odd six back over the bowler's head. We pulled the odd muscle and ate the odd scone. We caught a bit of sun. And Jim Cogan's widow, Jenny, gave the cup to the boys and everyone clapped. They won't take it round London, drunk, in an open-topped bus, but I'm sure they'll appreciate it.

For world cricket, it's been a depressing year. The Stanford debacle, IPL money luring teams away from Test matches, the sad attitude of the West Indies' captain, Chris Gayle, and now the tragic finale to poor old Chris Lewis's career, jailed for smuggling drugs.

Sure, we are excited about the Ashes (Times Sport's own countdown stands today at 46 days), but I hope the players can relax and look forward to it without too much stress. It's the game we look forward to, not the result. The game is everything.

The Jim Cogan Cup was contested to help to promote the Jim Cogan Memorial Fund, which supports Alive and Kicking, using football to educate children in Africa about HIV/Aids, malaria and TB ( and the Good Earth Trust (

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