Tuesday, 24 October 2017

A Truly Second Class Performance

Children's TV has pretty much gone stratospheric since the days of 'Watch with Mother,' with the likes of 'Bill and Ben, Flowerpot Men,' when TV viewing for the infant was very much a half-cocked afterthought. The neoliberal dream back then, of course, had far yet to go in the then-poorly-exploited field of pester-power. Now, having 'hastened on,' one might easily access several channels of 24-hour viewing, quite naturally interspersed with the requisite volume of targeted, in-the-child's-face advertising. 

In truth I don't so much recall ever, as an infant, watching Bill or his alliteratively-named, supposed brother, Ben, more so as an adolescent. I remember spending entirely too much time laughing and joking about the adopted linguistic traits of the characters, when I should instead have been properly focused upon the 'O' Level syllabus, either literature or language, this detail I do not recall; it was quite likely a bit of both.

A school that was orchestrated as much under the tutelage of would-otherwise-have-been hippies as it was career teachers, mine was fairly open to such juvenile distractions. I recall also that 'we' afforded much time to 'The Clangers,' 'Noggin the Nog,' and that a number of 'us' were very much in awe of the likes of Oliver Postgate, alongside a few of the more sporting and conventional musical performers of the day. The art studios- they were most definitely studios- often seemed to operate like some sort of virtual commune.

The goal of a raft of A*s was not at this time quite such a 'distraction' as it has more recently become. Jobs were pretty much a given, although not necessarily always the precise ones that everyone would have wished for. Times were generally more benign and considerably more inclusive. I played quite a lot of cricket, and this meshed pretty well with the heat of the long summer days and an almost driven lack of focus.

So, back to 'Bill and Ben,' or more precisely Ben, the undoubtedly younger and more easily provoked twin! I'm thinking here specifically of a Ben of uncertain thought process, perhaps frustrated through a given inability to effectively communicate outside of immediate associative boundaries. Curiously, the Ben in question is not unlike 'our own' Mr Stokes, although his lack of sometimes-appropriate communication skills seems these days to manifest itself in altogether more ill-advised ways.

I am getting around, albeit somewhat tortuously, to the same Ben Stokes who ironically appears to have shown himself to have finally and almost magisterially overcome his tendency towards rash stroke-play at the most inopportune of moments. Sadly, Ben's is entirely a different species of self-destruct to that often of late employed by the currently-colourful English Ashes Squad/Team. Ben's is upfrontedly and unreasonably more confrontational, eventually and demonstrably evolving from on field abuse, and now on to other darker recreational pursuits. The rest of the squad have thus far concentrated their own bouts of self-destruct entirely towards the cricket field of play.

It, that is the team's effort, has this summer-season and for several of the preceding ones, provided a wonderfully pyrotechnical spectacle for the fans, at least those who are prepared to pay the Sky-high ransom, or else watch the live spectacle. Will the team- our's or Sky's?- explode into life, or will they otherwise implode, we have frequently been given to speculate- it is surely a Ray Winston wet-dream, a veritable betting bonanza!

A most unexpected e-mail brought, for me, the whole sorry affair right out into the spotlight, perhaps prompted through recent events. Lord alone knows how one goes about tracking such a hermit as myself? But, tracked I was, and from a most unlikely quarter; I had almost completely put the related episode away and out of mind. But, it did help to clarify an until-then-unresolved issue for me... Ben Stokes, please desist or step sideways and into the unbeautiful game of football.

Along with a then very close friend, commencing quite unexpectedly during our lazy sixth form days, I had just started to practise, and even more rarely play, along with the then Middlesex Second Team- one of the school's physics teachers was then a team regular- it was to be hoped that this might lead on to 'better' things. My 'friend' was, I always considered, a far more gifted prospect than was I. Through the faded memories of several decades, I recall his batting as wonderfully flamboyant; he wasn't quite the full Barry Richards, but then neither was anybody else in world cricket. He modelled his game upon the great South African, and I think that this was what actually brought about our 'being noticed.' That is to write that he was noticed and that I just happened to be present at the time of the noticing.

I was rather less fluent- although I still much preferred batting- but could also bowl a bit. Mike Proctor was my cricketing idol. I could neither control the ball as masterfully nor intimidate a batsman so well, nor could I bat with such imperial might, but again neither could just-anybody else in the cricketing world. Still, we could dream, and 'everybody' had their cricketing idols, so we dreamt and we played on

We had barely started to get to know 'the group,' when stupidity and consequence brought about an unhappy closure to the brief flirtation. I had always considered it an embarrassment, had almost put it well away from my thoughts. Mr Stokes, with whom I have absolutely no sympathies- except with the current English Ashes hopes- and the untimely aforementioned e-mail brought the sorry memory and a rather nasty taste flooding back to the fore.

It seems like almost another lifetime- I almost had to check that it was actually mine- when we used to mix and to chat with the likes of the wonderful Vince van der Bijl and even rarely to watch the truly dangerous Wayne Daniel pounding 'depressions' into the middle of the wicket.

I remember that Brearley, perhaps the most astute English captain that I can recall, was not ever quite the charmer that his TV and radio persona would suggest, that he was frequently dismissive of even the other regular first team players. I recall that Gatting was ever the bumptious and opinionated one, entirely as his TV and radio persona would suggest, and that Edmonds, far more so than Embury, could perform almost magical feats with the ball. Other players are now but shadows of memories, except for Selvey who often seemed to flatter to deceive, except for when he was at his most cunningly deceptive.

Daniel was a wonderfully funny chap, but really scary in the nets; I cannot now believe that serious injury did not result from some of his early work with the Second XI. It swiftly transpired that he should not continue to bowl at the Seconds. But always my favourite was the monster of a man who was Invincible Bill, as we called him. He would spend forever talking through how best to draw a false shot with the perfect late-away-swinger. In truth, he seemed sometimes to bowl even faster than Daniel, but his quicker ball didn't seem to make quite such a threatening sound as it thudded into the back of the net, perhaps because it wasn't so often accompanied by that adrenalin-inducing whistle from somewhere around ear height? I remember Daniel once pitching the ball no further than around the middle of the wicket and watching it lift clear out of the rear of the nets and towards the players cars. It missed the lot, instead crashing through a changing room window and (perhaps) denting one of the lockers; a seriously faded memory has me recalling it as Captain Brearley's, but this could be just fanciful?

Upon further reflection I wonder if the denting of the locker actually happened at all, or in fact whether the ball in question was actually a beamer, but do remember padding carefully into the showers, just in case a shard of stray glass had evaded the attentions of the broom.

Invincible Bill was curious about this ability that a couple of the Seconds had, to get the ball to swing counter to the conventional; at first we all found this baffling, Christ alone knew that it was hard enough anyway to properly exploit the swinging ball. I could occasionally manage this 'aberration,' but only do it with a quite worn, even tatty, cricket ball, and unreliably so; the ball would appear to be set upon a perfect trajectory, only to suddenly veer off line at the last instant. If 'we' adjusted the line accordingly then almost inevitably no such swing would occur. We played around with the delivery, which both baffled and evaded Invincible Bill; it was the only time that I can ever recall Brearley actually talking to me, rather than at me or otherwise down to me. Selvey was very quick to pick up on this strange trait; it was the one thing that he learned to do really well, although it never seemed to happen for him during his brief flirtation with the international game. I think that this ability- few other cricketers at the time had toyed with the variation- may even have brought about my solitary chance for first class cricket, against Cambridge University... a chance which never quite materialised. 

I had honestly almost forgotten quite how wonderful the time with my Middlesex Second Team 'colleagues' was; even after all these years I could feel the emotion welling up. I think that I have barely talked about the instance for over thirty-five years, instead defaulting to 'less traumatic' but more prosperous minor club times. Recalling the now-seemingly-insignificant event curiously still seems so very and surprisingly raw!

Even as I write the words I can feel an inner-shakiness- is it anger, or just upset, or perhaps a bit of both?- as I remember my then friend secreting some tiny black grains into Brearley's shaving foam, at least this is what he later claimed to have done. And I can recall a face like thunder, when the partially blacked-up captain- more grey-chinned, as I seem to recall- emerged from the washroom and demanded to know who, "the bloody prankster" was. 'Friend' and self were immediately told to get dressed; 'friend' left in a tantrum but I sulked, came on briefly as a sub to take a single catch on the square-leg boundary. I never stayed on to partake of the post-match ''analysis.'

I carried on with the Seconds for a couple more games, but never with quite the same sense of belonging. Bumptious Gatting- with his elephantine memory and arse- and an absence of my guilty ex-friend were always 'present,' even when they weren't. My cricket had taken a serious dint! The timing of my second half-opportunity was spectacularly poor! Even Invincible Bill suggested that I should more-seriously consider the Uni-option, which I duly did and that was that.

I believe that my then friend went on to perform rather spectacularly- his e-mail suggested as much- but know that he never again chanced his arm at the First Class game. We quickly lost touch.

So, Mr Stokes, it leaves me quite beyond words to contemplate the humongous scale of your misdemeanour, when coupled with the number of on field chances that you have been afforded. Mine was neither my own misdemeanour, nor was I afforded much of a second chance. I did not repeatedly hurl abuse at the opponent, neither did I end up trading punches with either opponent or spectator. I have admired your game- the silent part thereof- but decidedly not the wider spectacle.

I read more recently, that even the amateur game has taken something of a nosedive. I learned that umpires- the sort of job for which I would once have happily sacrificed a lazy Sunday- are now having to 'tear' apart brawling, heavily-tattooed opponents- your game, Mr Stokes?- so much so that the signals of the game are now being extended to include a four-part warning, the ultimate of which is to be a sending off!

A sending off in a game of cricket? What the blazes has happened to our most wonderful of games? One wonders quite what the odds are upon who will be trading the first on-field Ashes blows? Any thoughts, Ray? My money's on Warner. 

Bon voyage! 

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