multi-storied #10: The Bit Player

In a multi-storied issue a few months ago, I ventured that perhaps one purpose of this newsletter might be to send you some of my older writing that isn’t easily available elsewhere. Here’s more of the kind.

It’s been a cricketing kind of winter while I’ve been here in India these past two months: rising early to watch India play in Australia, in games that were full of needle, and that gave us the kind of thick, delicious drama found in the best novels. As I write, India is now trying to avoid a follow-on against England in a stadium just a few miles north of me—a vacant stadium, because audiences aren’t permitted as yet. Watching such fantastic cricket over two months has filled my soul, contented it. And it put me in mind of my two seasons of league cricket in Dublin, which I wrote about for The Nightwatchman a couple of years ago. Here’s the piece, in full:

My first season with the Theatrical Cavaliers began, properly speaking, in a basement sandwich shop in Dublin when an American looked across the table at me and asked: “Do you like cricket?”

This isn’t a question you expect from Americans, so I must have goggled. I’d met him—Brendan—because we were both, more or less, in the same trade. When my wife and I moved from New Delhi to Dublin in September 2016, we didn’t know a soul in the city, so I wrote at random to writers and publishers, hoping at least to talk shop with someone. Brendan, bless him, replied. He edits books and a literary magazine, and we jawed on about this for a while. Then he popped the question.

Not long after moving to Ireland, it turned out, Brendan had found himself in a pub on 17 March 2007, when Ireland famously beat Pakistan in the World Cup. The uproar of cheer had been terrific, and Brendan found himself sucked in enough to start watching: an Ashes here, a few YouTube videos there, the usual stray hits that build the addiction. Then a friend told him about a club that played in an informal league in Dublin. He invited Brendan to join; now Brendan was inviting me.

The league is known as the Taverners, although to call it a “league” is misleading; it’s really an assortment of clubs who cobble together fixtures against each other every season, leasing time on grounds across the city and its suburbs. This is not as easy as it sounds. Club officials have to muster an XI (often on weekday evenings), search for a gap in the calendars of other teams, and coordinate all this with the availability of a convenient ground. What is required is not energy but zeal. Decades ago, when Michael Ford, one of the club’s two founders, was getting married, he and his wife had to attend a compulsory religious seminar. (Long story short: he was Protestant, she was Catholic, this was Ireland.) One of the speakers, from County Carlow, leavened his talk with references to cricket. When it ended, Ford rushed straight over to him to ask if they might set up a game.

Most Taverners matches are 20 overs a side, and they have generous rules. The wicket-keeper aside, everyone must bowl two overs. To accommodate the varying degrees of skill on display, an umpire can call only two wides per over; thereafter, even a full toss hurled straight into the hands of second slip is deemed a dead ball. Deliveries down the leg side are permitted unless they stray outside the return crease. Batsmen facing their first ball are eligible for a free hit but must retire when they reach 20 so that others get a go. Only in one aspect is the Taverners strict: players must wear white.

These were fine regulations, I thought; they coddled my inadequacies but ensured I was dressed sharply while being inadequate. I’d grown up in Chennai, and the only cricket I’d played there was either with a tennis ball in the narrow courtyard of our apartment or with a plastic ball on a friend’s terrace. There were no lush cricket greens, or even reasonable playgrounds. We bowled underarm. With the bat, we tried to smack the life out of every delivery. If we ran runs at all, they were sprints of six or seven yards. I’d read a paper on the physics of reverse swing but I’d never strapped on a pair of pads, never bowled with a real cricket ball, never fielded anything on a grassy surface. In my early 20s I worked at Cricinfo, which made me the kind of cricket journalist whom professional players regard with disfavour, the first half of CLR James’ line echoing in their minds: “What do they know of cricket?”

And now, at the age of 35, I was being offered the chance to get to know cricket intimately. The Theatrical Cavaliers – the Cavs – played away games, even travelling as far as Jersey. They held net sessions at noon every Wednesday in a ground that, by a stroke of cosmic fortune, happened to be three doors down from my house. They had a kitbag full of extra gear; all I needed was a pair of white flannel pants. How could I resist?

Nothing can be more Irish than the fact that the Cavs’ first scheduled game, in 1986, was rained off—thanks to a hurricane, which left the ground under several feet of floodwater. The club’s debut was postponed until, one year later, Michael Ford and Al McKenna selected their squad from the cast and crew of Borstal Boy, the stage play both were acting in at the time. “We had three fixtures that first year, and the next year we had about eight, and it steadily grew,” Ford said. “It was a kind of evening social cricket, and there was great enthusiasm for it.” Some of those who play today had never picked up a bat before Ford and McKenna dragooned them into the Cavs. “I felt like an evangelical minister, bringing people in,” Ford recalled.

Cricket occupied a nebulous position in Ireland. The sport was well-known, of course, but through the 20th century it was regarded as the most English of pursuits and so, out of political necessity, spurned. A story recounts how Éamon de Valera, the champion of Irish independence, was once knocking around with a cricket bat but dropped it like he’d been burned as soon as he spotted a photographer. It wouldn’t do to be seen indulging in the enemy’s pastime. The Gaelic Athletic Association, which governs Irish sports such as hurling, even instituted a ban on cricket between 1902 and 1971. If you played cricket, the GAA wouldn’t permit you to participate in any of the games it supervised. In recruiting members into the Cavs, Ford did not exaggerate when he compared it to a religious conversion.

McKenna doesn’t play with the Cavs any more but Ford is still a lynchpin of the side, a suave, velvet-voiced commander of his troops. During my first season, he played his 400th game for them. An Englishman, he moved to Dublin in 1980 to study literature, drawn by the prospect of living in the city. He played in the lower divisions of league cricket through the 1980s, but this was wearying. “People just took it too seriously,” he told me. “Bank managers barking at you in the evening—you don’t need this.”

The Theatrical Cavaliers includes all sorts of literary interlopers now—writers, teachers, publishers—but it was set up, Ford said, to spread the love within Dublin’s theatrical community. The club’s emblem is still a pair of crossed bats with the masks of comedy and tragedy embossed upon their splices.

On paper the Cavs number a few dozen, but these include people who have played in the past and have since got busier, although they yearn still to drop everything and turn out for a game. In truth, when the weekly summons goes out to call up candidates for the fixtures ahead, it’s usually answered by some or all of a core flock of roughly 15. Between May and September, the Cavs figured in two and sometimes three matches a week. There was plenty of cricket for everyone. Over those five months, beginning on a cloudless May evening and ending on a quick-darkening day in late August, I played ten games.

In the casual cricket of my boyhood, I’d fancied myself to be a bowler and, insofar as turning a tennis ball bowled underarm counts as such, I could do that. At the first few pre-season sessions in the nets, I resolved to be sensible about this business of bowling. Judicious flight and mild turn were sufficient to start with. I could experiment later.

But the confusions of learning to bowl properly so late in life hit me immediately. At first, trying to do too much, I dug my deliveries into the pitch about five yards from my foot, or floated them high above the batsman’s head, or found the reticulated sides of the nets. The ball seemed too big for my hand. Merely to get it in a reasonably straight line, hitting the pitch just once along the way, became a matter of sore aspiration. Bowling overarm, with a hard red ball, is like nothing else on earth. The action feels patently absurd—until it begins to flow, and then it feels like the most natural thing for a human body to do.

In my debut game, against a team calling themselves The Diggers, I had a wicket in my first over. I’d love to say I lured him into the stroke, but it was entirely due to the batsman’s determination to mishit a short ball straight to cover. I sent down packs of rubbish in my two overs: wides, dead balls, full tosses, short balls. The Cavs valiantly supported every putrid delivery and clapped me on the back at the end of the spell.

Somewhat embarrassed, I thought I’d practise more. Two or three mornings a week, I slipped into the ground near my house to bowl at unmanned stumps. No one else was around save the groundskeeper, who left me to my awkward devices as he trimmed the grass and cossetted the pitch. I tried breaking the process down, starting with bowling straight and honest; when I’d mastered that convoluted art, I began re-introducing spin. I held the seam all sorts of ways. I bowled front-on and side-on. I brought my arm up over my head and I brought it down rounded. And I attempted to deal with the paradox of focus in sport. You must focus, of course, because if even one element of your action is off, the whole edifice crumbles. But focus too much and it crumbles just the same, the movements lacking fluidity, the body reacting self-consciously. An excess of thinking is bad for your game.

Reader, this is not a tale of dramatic redemption. I didn’t Get Good by the end of the season; I felt I’d done well if I managed an over conceding only a reasonable number of runs and bowling no wides. Two balls out of six, perhaps, I’d get a leg-break to land roughly where it was intended, and one of them might even turn smartly. Occasionally, I could slide in an off-break without pushing it clumsily down the leg side. But above all, I came to enjoy the mornings of solitude in the nets, the air crisp and silent, the world smelling of grass, the day still unformed. All I had to do was aim a ball at a set of stumps; in those moments, life was utterly, blissfully free of complication.

Given how Taverners clubs assemble their teams, the Cavs are a remarkably well-balanced side. They have at least three players who can bowl quick and straight—among them Brendan, who claims he stank worse than me in his first season but who then sought the advice of a pro. (His run-up is a thing of manufactured beauty: first a crouch, as if to stabilise his energies, and then a run-up of such long strides that he seems to be moving in slow motion even though he’s dashing to the crease.) A number of others bowl crafty and slow. The average batting line-up includes big-hitters, stroke-makers, nurdlers, patient and impatient batsmen—just the mix you want in a Twenty20 match. I think we lost only two of the ten games I played. On one occasion the Cavs batted first and put on 181, their best score ever.

Joining the Cavs turned out to be an excellent way to explore Dublin, a city that felt both new and already beloved. We played all over the place. At our home ground, Merrion CC, the one near my house and where the Joyces first played cricket; at St Catherine’s Park, amid miserable, hiccupping bouts of rain that turned the ball slippery and our socks squelchy; at Terenure College, with an outfield so overgrown it resembled wall-to-wall shag carpeting; at a ground on Bird Avenue, where Eoin Morgan learned the game; out in the suburb of Bray, where the opposing team fielded one of the four Joyce siblings—out of nine—not to have played for Ireland; at a Malahide club that was founded in 1861 and contains two grounds—a large one that may soon host a Test match and a smaller, irregular one where the dressing-room is essentially the shade of an on-site California redwood.

I fell in with the club’s traditions. When an opposing batsman walked in to take guard, someone would shout “Batsman in, Cavs!” and there’d be a welcoming round of applause. We chirruped a lot to buck each other up—far more, I observed, than most of the teams we played against. We took turns umpiring or keeping score in our ledger. After the game, both sides repaired to the nearest pub, where the “home” team laid out sandwiches, the captains made short speeches, and the men of the match—one from each team—received their bottles of wine. Players were solicited to write up match reports for the entertaining house blog Wicketleaksa task that demands a droll tone and a stock of gentle jibes about teammates.

I wasn’t often required to bat, which was perhaps for the best; apart from one innings in which I made 15, and another, in which I hit the ceiling of 20, I managed only a couple of single-digit scores. But I had one satisfying moment with the ball halfway through the season, after many mornings of bowling by myself in the nets. On a beautiful ground in Phoenix Park—the largest enclosed park in any European capital city—I got one delivery to stay straight and pitch just right to defeat the batsman’s flail and hit the stumps. Next ball, I did it again—a free hit, alas, but it’s the rattle that counts. It all went ragged again after that. But for one sustained over, the ball had done just as I’d instructed. I felt like a parent who had, at long last, won the obedience of a recalcitrant child.

The wags are fond of saying that cricket is an Indian game accidentally invented in England. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Cricket belongs, deeply and spiritually, to this part of the world, the British Isles.

You only have to glance at a generic vignette of cricket to know this. There are 13 players on the field at any moment. The bowler, wicket-keeper and batsmen are always in the thick of it, but the game also has to reward the cricketer stationed at third man or long on, at a considerable remove from the action. This is best served by playing on an English or Irish evening in June. Fielding in the deep, the player can be outdoors at 9pm, standing under a sky full of light. The bleakness of winter is, he recognises with satisfaction, still many months away. His limbs feel loose. The air is warm but never hot. A breeze ambles around the ground. The grass is soft and alive. Very often, at third man for the Cavs, I found myself grinning with foolish joy, waiting for something as silly and wonderful as a ball hit in my direction.