Let’s hear it for cricket’s Big Society! Phil Walker on the plumbest, toughest and downright weirdest gigs in the game.
Not to be confused with the player, generally old school, who joins the boys in the box when he’s not required out in the middle (see Dougie Brown/Dominic Cork etc) only to be told – within minutes – they’d “best get the pads on” following an inevitable flurry of wickets. We’re talking about the young lad (with aspirations) at deep square leg ‘on the mic’, the one who’s about to be screamed at by his captain because instead of coming up to save the single he’s chatting to Paul Allott about Adele and pizza. Still, it’s a foot in the door, eh?
As a character-doyen of the scoring fraternity, Sir William of Frindall – much-loved Bearded Wonder and TMS immortal – was something of a lone cuckoo. But these days, in Sky TV world, the scorer as ‘a bit of a character’ is an absolute pre-requisite of the gig. And so we have the peculiar spectacle of ‘Benedict’, Sky’s main scorer and a gentle, decent fellow who’s good with numbers, being ribbed and poked by Sir Ian and the rest (okay, mainly Sir Ian) as if he’s some kind of dots-joining medieval bear summoned from market to dance for the barons.
Just as the farmhand joins the dole queue next to the nobbled old grocer, so the fourth umpire shivers at the back behind the miller on Jobseekers, sadly thumbing his P45. Why? Because progress waits for no man. For years the reserve-reserve ump had been a ghostly yet permanent fixture at international matches; waiting for a sign, lurking in his blacked-out hovel and emerging only to watch the groundsman rolling the pitch at lunch or when summoned by his bronzed on-field superiors for ‘a change of ball’. But following the news that a different ball was to be used at each end of an ODI innings, the fourth umpire found himself robbed of that critical moment when he gets to bring the box of balls out at 34 overs. Not all jobs in cricket’s marketplace are assured; in these straitened times his days are surely numbered.
All teams naturally contain a good mix of characters, and everyone’s got their own gag-meister who can balance a mug of wee on the top of a door. But while letting a rat loose in the team bath or smothering the captain’s genitals in peat displays a psychological nuance in its protagonist that should be valued, it’s a bad sign when a gentleman’s dressing room capabilities are cited as a key reason for his presence in the team at all. Then you’ve got problems, as Australia found out in 2010 when the ongoing mystery of how Steve Smith’s flailing swipes and iffy leggies kept showing up in the Test team was explained on the grounds that “he’s good in the dressing room”. Runs, wickets, catches? Nah, but he’s a genius with a ferret.
You’re tired. You’re not playing that great. Your keeping’s okay – not that anyone notices – but you can’t buy a run. The baby’s been up all night – tonsillitis. The wife’s not been sleeping. You’re 230 behind on first innings and you’ve got to bat last. Sun’s out: batting day. The skipper leads out, stern, collar up, pensive; and right behind him is you, the designated buzz creator, the craftsman of chirp. Your stature (5ft 7in; 5ft 8in at a push) and breeding (lower-middle-class; wicketkeeper) ensures that you must remain optimistic at all times. You are smiley, excitable and ready with your soaring phrases and punchy buzzwords. “Our day today, fellas!” You’re a natural extrovert. “One brings two, lads!” It’s the end of another wicket-less over. You’ll clap your mittened hands together – a sad, dull thud – and start your jaunty jog up to the other end. And you’ll rifle through your repertoire one more time. And you’ll think about the wife. And you’ll pray she got some kip.
Balls have been shined for centuries. Once upon a time it was considered a job for all. Madness. These days, every self-respecting team in the land from Under 9s upwards must contain one out-and-out specialist in the art of rubbing a cherry down the left flank of one’s crotch. Alastair Cook is the man these days. Drier than a Jack Dee gag in the Atacama, Cook has an enviously underdeveloped sweat gland, meaning that he and he alone is the team’s ball shiner and reverse-swing conjurer, keeping the thing bone-dry on one side; moist, heavy and shiny on the other. This trait inveigles him with an almost unbearable mystery: how, if the human body is made up of 75 per cent water, does England’s cack-hander manage to shed not a drop?
Nothing is left to chance with Team England today. That’s why Chantal Bell, ex-Npower Girl and now wife of Ian Ronald, became the officially appointed WAG Social Secretary, as confirmed by no less a personage than Mr Jonathan Agnew on Test Match Special during the 2011 Oval Test. You don’t get to No.1 by accident, you know.
If you’re any good, this is the plumbest and most lucrative job of all. Either your team’s won and you’re at the front of the queue, cheekily catching the mood and allowed to get away with the odd line which the bosses might not approve of; or your team’s lost and you’re up there as the maverick free-thinker with a mandate to puncture the gloom by telling it like it is, cutting through the spin to say what all fans want to hear at that point, which is basically “Yep, we were crap, sorry folks.” England’s frontman, of course, is Graeme Swann, who has somehow pulled off the trick of being the centre of attention in the act of declaring his love for the centre of attention, without alienating either his teammates (who just take the piss instead) or the nation he represents. Smart move.
Team Song Leader
It’s a scientific fact that men who enjoy being binded to other men desire to sing team songs. But it’s dangerous. Any abuse of ‘the song’ can lead not just to violent outpourings of man-grief but to the very real collapse of the whole brothers-in-arms, back-to-back air-guitar model of existential blokeness – which buggers everything up. Recent studies revealing a correlation between Male Bicep Width (MBW) and Team Song Enthusiasm (TSE) suggests that some men value the singing of songs more than others. But thankfully this post-feminist watershed has yet to afflict the soldiers of Australia, whose in-house victory sacrament Under The Southern Cross I Stand is the dreary New Year’s Eve party of team songs, made all the more mawkish and grave by its strained demands on togetherness. It makes for a tetchy affair: a few years ago after a Test win against India, Michael Clarke, whose turn it was to lead the chorus, tried to duck out because he had a date to keep with his girl. To a collapsing backdrop of horrified gasps and the swift fanning of flushed cheeks, Simon Katich choked back the tears to line the spirits of his forefathers across Clarke’s path, pinning the human tattoo up against the wall until he honoured his duties. Now that’s the smell of team spirit.
Job creation is not just confined to the pro game. Amateur teams are overflowing with titles, roles, responsibilities and tasks, with a strict feudal system in place to guard against anarchy. The end of a home game goes roughly like this: the kid collects the subs, because (a) it’s the worst job and (b) it trains him/her for a future reliant on handouts; the teenagers move the sightscreens and pick up the boundary markers because they can smoke, drink and take their time in the doing of it; the fathers and club committee members lock up/dismantle the temporary nets and ‘rope off the square’ because these are subtle sciences beyond the scope of today’s youth; and finally, the fabled guardsman of the ‘Valees Bag’ – that velvet-plastic Pandora’s Box of watches, wallets, heirlooms, war medals etc – is the sole job of the irreproachable senior pro. Without all this, club cricket would have died centuries ago.