"Despite the poor weather predicted, the chances [of play] are pretty good, primarily because there are covers at Fitz these days. Hence we only tend to get cancellations if i) there's so much rain that the ground is water-logged or ii) there's rain at match-time." That was the message that went out to the captain of the catchily-titled (take a breath now) St John's College Long Vacation XI over the weekend, and so it can't have surprised him - or anyone else - that the first drops of rain today landed at precisely 6:00pm. The glum members of both teams looked on in resignation as the ground was steadily soaked by half an hour's solid rain. But it was never more than a shower, and the keener-eyed players kept optimstically spotting lighter patches in the blanket of clouds, one of which did eventually find its way over the ground. Happily, the covers were soon being pushed away to the far boundary; a bit less happily, we lost the toss and were, unsurprisingly, invited to field on the slippery surface; even less happily, we only had nine players as two of the named eleven had suffered "diary malfunctions" and failed to show. St John's (as they shall be known henceforth to save electrons) kindly lent us a substitute fielder, although within a few overs we were able to contsruct a full eleven of our very own when an emergency call to Chez Rex resulted in the prompt arrival of Maximus and then Dave Green allowed himself to be recruited on the grounds that he'd "had his tea" (not "supper", as was originally reported here).
It was great that we were at least going to get some play, but the dampened mood and the even damper outfield made it hard to imagine an intense or memorable contest. It was thus a pleasant surprise that, after a bit of a slow start, the game really came to life, helped by the fact that it was balanced on a knife-edge throughout. Ferdi Rex (0/17), Nick Johnson (2/21) and Andy Owen (0/11) all proved extremely difficult to hit early-on, but when the batsmen did connect they got full value for their shots as the tentative fielders seemed more concerned with keeping their balance than making sure the ball was stopped. That said, Johns Moore and Young, Richard Rex and Nick Johnson made some fantastic saves, while Andy was positively inspirational, getting various limbs in the way of hard-hit shots at short-cover, as well as taking two fantastic catches: a reaction effort to a full-blooded cut; and then a calm catch in the out-field where he had to deal not only with the ball, but also with an out-of-control Daniel Mortlock hurtling towards him shouting "Daniel's ball! Daniel's ball!" The reason Daniel was out of control can be traced back to last week's shoe debacle, and one of the knock-on effect of being in "slicks" today was that he was reduced to bowling off a one-step "walk up". One of the knock-on effects of that was being smashed for two enormously dismissive sixes on the way to dismal figures of 0/27, although he did at least have the consolation of felling St John's best batsman with what might be called a "three ball crush". Still, as painful as this seemed to be, nothing hurts that much when you've smashed 71* off 53 balls, and he almost single-handedly kept St John's in the game by scoring more than twice as fast as his team-mates. Other than Andy, the only bowlers who kept him even a little quiet were our two leg-spinners: both Dave Williams (1/27) and John Moore (1/11) induced plenty of false shots by being brave enough to really flight the ball, and they would have had even nicer figures (1/19 and 1/7, respectively) if they hadn't caught "last ball of the over"-itis, a surprisingly common and seemingly infectious condition in which seven immaculate deliveries are followed by a leg-side full-toss.
Nonetheless, we were on top at the change of innings, having earned ourselves a sub-par target for the first time since mid-May. Openers Dave Williams (41) and Richard Rex (10) began well, some rather unenterprising running notwithstanding, and had us trundling along at the run a ball we needed. While Dave dominated early the scoring with his favourite cut shot, the non-existant highlights reel would have mainly featured Richard, first because of a delightful late-cut for four off his second ball and then later for the drama of being bowled off a back-foot no ball. This resulted in members of the fielding team first claiming that the bowler is allowed to cut the return crease (definitely incorrect, as detailed by Law 24.5 (a)) and then, when he was called a second time (by a different umpire), opting for the fall-back position that "It's supposed to be a friendly game!"
This argument immediately raises a number of intriguing questions. What does "friendly" actually imply? Are other games by implication "unfriendly"? More explicitly, how would a friendly match be expected to differ from, say, a league game? An obvious answer is that the two teams would play a friendly game in a slightly different manner, tempering the desire for victory to the degree that a batsman might walk upon edging the ball or that the fielding team would recall a batsman given out LBW if they knew he'd hit the ball onto his pads. Other options might be the sharing around of batting and bowling duties, or the voluntary retirement of a rampant batsman upon reaching a milestone. Of course there's also the option of having compulsory retirements - a significant distinction as it involves a changing the rules by which the game is played rather than just the way the players choose to play it. While not to everyone's taste, if agreed up front then the game can at least proceed in an unambiguous manner. Today's mid-match suggestion that the rules be changed was different again, and raises yet more questions. Why was it that this particular rule was called into question? Maybe because this Law is not particular well known (although that might open a nasty can of worms with, say, LBWs being denied on the spurious grounds that the ball pitched outside off-stump). Maybe because this rule seems less important than, say, the front foot Law (which it definitely is - whatever advantage the bowler gains by delivering from wide of the stumps is clearly less than that obtained by sending down the ball from twenty yards - but it's not clear how the umpires could be expected to know where the line between "important" and "unimportant" lies in any particular game). It's also true that the margin of the call was quite small (but this doesn't really seem to be plausible rasoning, given that plenty of other decisions in the game, such as fine edges, are even tighter). Another issue might be the fact that something "big" happened on the first of these no balls - it wasn't just an extra run, but the denial of a wicket . . . although a wicket is even more important to a batsman than a bowler, due to the lack of a second chances (not to mention the fact that, in this case, the call was early enough and the delivery sufficiently slow that Richard had actually modified his shot - and given that the ball deflected onto the stumps from his bat, it probably would have been safely defended if no call had been made). And given the enthusiasm of the St John's fielders' LBW appeals (two of which were successful), they would presumably have been most unhappy if the umpire had followed a "not out" decision by explaining "Oh yes, it would have hit alright, but it's only a friendly!" Maybe more to the point, it's hard enough trying to umpire well and get one's decisions right without trying to second-guess which rules are in force and which are to be informally ignored.
Maybe even more to the point still, the players of both teams were now facing a difficulty far more serious than any minor disagreements about the rules: it was getting dark. This was, given the conservation of angular momentum and the high opacity of the Earth, inevitable, but the fact that it was happening mid-match was due to a combination of the late start and the St John's bowlers' long run-ups, along with a bit too much fielder-placement - their captain later admitted that they played very few evening games and hadn't realised the time pressure until it was too late. With our plethora of spinners and dart-merchants we'd managed to send down 120 deliveries in under 70 minutes, but an hour into the second innings there were still 5 eight-ball overs to be bowled.
With the Sun now sulking behind the towering trees on the west side of the ground, the game entered its final, critical phase. We had Dave and Andy Owen in and well-set; St John's put on their fastest bowlers. If our third-wicket pair could stay together then the pace on the ball would surely work in our favour (especially with the fielders now struggling to pick up any remotely well-struck shots); but if St John's could get even one wicket it would be hellishly difficult for any new batsman to adjust without wasting vital deliveries. Initially it was going our way, as Andy in particular made good use of any width to help the ball on its way, and with 2 (eight-ball) overs to go we were ahead of the game with 12 needed from 16 balls. But Dave only made it half-way through the penultimate over, after which Daniel Mortlock decided to attempt the cricketing equivalent of tilting at windmills himself.
Fortunately, a scampered leg bye meant Andy was on strike for the final over, and he quickly reduced the target to 3 needed off 5 balls with a couple of easy twos- except no, a misfield in the outer allowed an overthrow, which meant just 2 needed from 5 balls now (good) but that Daniel was facing (bad). Given the earlier blow to the, er, "upper inter-thigh region" involved the same batsman-bowler combination, the scene was now set for the perfect revenge . . . except the next ball, rather than being short into the body, was full and wide outside off-stump (not that Daniel realised this until after it had passed, after which it was too late to do anything other than write it off as a dot ball). Perhaps the situation had back-fired, and the bowler realised he couldn't sensibly bowl his previous line to a new batsman peering helplessly into the gloom? If so, that at least meant little likelihood of serious injury, but there was still the matter of how to get the 2 more runs we needed. The bowler rain up and Daniel tried to keep his eye on the ball - although the chance of his seeing it cleanly was about as the same as that of shooting a proton torpedo down a 2-metre wide exhaust port (just below the main port) on the Death Star. Maybe that was the answer, though, to follow the trend started by Richard Rex last week and to use The Force. Daniel thus switched off his targeting computer and instead opted to try and "sense" the ball as it came down the pitch. Sure enough, there was a disturbance in the fabric of space-time somewhere outside off-stump; the bat was duly waved in this direction, after which a pleasing "thock" indicated contact between bat and ball (not, thankfully, ball and protector). Nobody seemed to know where the ball had gone, which was a good sign for us; even better was the news (which we took on trust) that it had crossed the boundary somewhere behind point. Daniel (5* off 4 balls) thus survived with his, er, lower abdomnal region unsullied, although it was kind of a pity that Andy (43*) didn't get to hit the winning runs himself, given that he'd been our stand-out player all day.
Whatever, the most important syllable in the previous sentence was "win", since we really haven't done that very often of late, especially in pressure games like today's. It was also nice to reconnect with an old adversary - Remnants and St John's used to meet up once a season back in the late '80s and early '90s, but it was 20 years ago to the week that we last played each other. Let's hope it's not another two decades before we play again.