Erratic Memories

Yesterday we had a day out in the bit of Oxfordshire that was, until, 1974, part of the Royal County of Berkshire. Our main destination was Wallingford and a trip on the heritage railway to Cholsey. Looking for a venue for a pub lunch I saw the name North Moreton in the Good Beer Guide and was taken back to the summer of 1982.

One of the delights of being at Balliol College Oxford in the summer  was and is playing cricket for the College Second Eleven, the Erratics. The Erratics are a more of a social eleven than a true second eleven and the emphasis is very much on the Social. We used to play a number of away fixtures against village teams in the Oxford area and North Moreton was one of the regular fixtures. .

Memory sometimes plays tricks so it was reassuring to find that the cricket ground and the adjacent pub were pretty much as I remembered them. The score board, though, looked new and incongruously electronic. Back in 1982 its predecessor stood inside the boundary and the local rule was that you could be caught off the roof. We were told the tale of how, a few years earlier, Chris Tavare, playing for St John’s College, was caught off the roof but refused to walk evidently thinking that getting out to a village green trundler was too great an indignity for an Oxford Blue. As this was the time when Tavare was at the peak such as it was, of his Test career, boring the nation rigid in the process  we enjoyed the story, that is we enjoyed it once we had got over our shock at the idea of him playing an attacking stroke. My memory has erased most traces of the game itself but I have an idea I scored a battling 2 which would have been my top score for the Erratics  I doubt that I was asked to bowl. The evening in the pub was most enjoyable.

The great thing about social cricket is that the result is really unimportant. You do your best, you try to win, respect for your opponents demands it, but the setting and the occasion are more important, and the camaraderie more important still. Above all Erratics cricket was and is about us and not about me. That surely applied to the North Moreton team that day who had a whip round and put money behind the bar so that their student guests could enjoy the hospitality.

They were playing cricket at North Moreton yesterday, a mixed children’s game. It is days like this that stick in the memory as you get older and I am sure that long after the fine detail of the day has slipped away they will remember sun and mown grass, and , forgive the cliché, the thwack of bat on ball.  They will remember too what a wonderful thing it is to play cricket, however good you are.

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The Demon

It’s Ashes summer again and another opportunity for the Barmy Army to wind up Mitchell Johnson who is the latest in a long line of Australian fast bowlers who have become pantomime villains. In years past the likes of Merv Hughes and Dennis Lillee have fulfilled this role. The original villain was Frederick Robert (F.R.) Spofforth (1853-1926) who played in the very early Tests. In fact it was Spofforth who bowled Australia to victory at The Oval in 1882 a result that prompted the mock obituary in The Times and burning of a bail that gave rise to the Ashes. This was actually a publicity stunt for the campaign to legalise cremation  (evidently a successful one as cremation was finally permitted from 1883) but ever since England and Australia have competed for the Ashes. Chasing 85 to win, admittedly on one of the dodgy pitches that were common at the time, England had reached 53 for 2 when Spofforth was handed the ball. He allegedly said to his captain ‘We can do this thing’ and promptly did. England were bowled out for 77 and lost by 7 runs, prompting the national wailing and breast beating that has been part of most English summers since.

Spofforth bowled fast off cutters, which was a popular way of bowling at the time but was particularly adept at mind games, fixing each incoming batsman with an intimidating glare.  He was a fiery character generally. In that 1882 Test there was bad blood between the teams, largely the result of the gamesmanship of W G Grace. At one point Spofforth burst into the England dressing room and squared up to WG.

Spofforth later settled in Surrey and became a wealthy and successful businessman, importing tea. He is buried in Thames Ditton.

SPOFFORTH

The demon.
Neither magician
nor Mephisto, though you fancy
he could have played
both with his parted hair,
waxed moustache, malevolent glare.

With that fierce gaze he
withered the batsman’s will
and when the cutting, quick ball
had done its work, wrote the epitaph
“bowled Spofforth”

You can see it still, a sepia plate
in a musty book, that chilling stare
which, even from beyond the grave,
always makes children behave.

Copyright Peter Bateman 2006