I’m in a heightened state of nerves throughout my first summer term of 1978. Hasn’t Spicy appointed me to Fitzrovia to try and drag cricket up by its bootstraps? ‘We’ve fallen behind our competitors,’ he’d said at interview.
My side has taken shape over the season with Young Giles at the centre of things as captain. I take him to one side after an early match. ‘Well done. You handled the fielders really well. Good judgment.’
‘Thank you, sir.’ He tries to smile, and I can see his cheeks are reddening. ‘Just wish I could score some runs.’
‘Can I ask you a question?’
He nods. Surprised?
‘Your dad watching. How do you feel about that?’
He’s gone even brighter in the cheeks. Lowers his eyes. ‘He attaches so much importance to it. Maybe I’m not as good as he thinks I should be. To be honest I wish he’d just leave me to it for a while.’
‘I see. Of course, he just wants the best for you. When I was your age, having dad watching me was sometimes a strain. Expectations; not wanting to let him down. Would you like me to have a word?’
Young Giles turns his eyes fully on me. ‘He won’t listen, sir.’
‘He might. Look, you’re a good young player; I wish I’d been as good as you when I was your age. Really. But if you want to improve, you’ll have to block out your dad. Concentrate on the game.’
Miss Dazzle has also passed a comment. ‘Every time I see you, you’re in the nets with the boys.’ Even smiled at me.
For all the hard work and nets, too often our batting and bowling have been hit or miss. We’ve scraped some draws, come close to winning in others, narrowly beaten lowly St Benedict’s in a low scoring game, and been soundly beaten a couple of times – away at least from our home ground, out of sight of any prying, critical eyes. And of course Spicy hadn’t been there to witness the disasters. ‘Quite a difficult wicket to bat on,’ I’d fibbed after one debacle, and ‘we dropped too many catches’ I’d lied after another.
I bite the bullet and speak to Bill Giles in an effort to help his son. ‘Perhaps you could sit in your car and watch? Or just be a bit more discrete? It might be having an effect on his batting.’
He frowned, and his face darkened. ‘I find that hard to believe. I’ll think about it.’
Since then, Young Giles’ performances have continued to be patchy. ‘Dad’s talking about getting a place for me at St George’s. But he’s only coming to home matches from now on.’
‘I think we’ve made good strides,’ says Spicy. ‘We look like a team, even if the results don’t show it. All that practising. One day it’ll prove worthwhile. If not this year then next in Uppers.’
Our last game of the season is at home against our biggest, richest opponents, St George’s. The Big One. The boys talk about little else in the week leading up to it.
‘We were thrashed last year, sir,’ confides Young Giles. ‘I was out first ball. Dad had a fit.’
‘Couldn’t sleep last night, sir,’ Balls confides in me. ‘We never beat them at anything and they’re so annoying.’
Rugger Bugger’s still in shock after the rugby season when St George’s put sixty points past his team, and Adonis returned crestfallen from his Lent term soccer trip. ‘Five nil. Didn’t get a shot on their target.’
Dressing that morning, I’ve deliberately put on a piece of music that I’ve saved for my own important cricket days as a youth. I’d scored my first ever hundred with the tune going round in my head.
“…Riders on the storm, riders on the storm, into this world we’re born…”
Now I hope it’ll keep things on an even keel for the rest of the day.
The sky’s a perfect blue, and the wicket’s been baked to a straw colour after a solid week of hot weather. Worryingly, a stream of spectators arrive carrying picnic rugs and hampers. We’ve barely had any at our previous games. What are they all doing here? ‘Let’s hope Fitzrovia can give us a better game than last year,’ I hear one gent proclaim. Bugger. There are a lot of St George’s supporters.
‘I think we may be in for a struggle,’ says Spicy. ‘They hammered us last year and it’s pretty much the same side. They’re going through a purple patch at St George’s. We might have to consider playing their second eleven in future.’
‘A draw would be quite a result.’ He glances at his watch. ‘I’ll be in my office. Got reports to do.’
St George’s Master in Charge is a giant of a man with a beard, wearing a very impressive cricket sweater. I do a double take.
‘Did you play for Gloucestershire?’ I ask. The badge on Giant Beard’s sweater looms intimidatingly large.
‘I did until my back went. Can hardly bowl a ball nowadays.’ He gives me a sideways glance. ‘Who do you play for then?’ When I tell him, he nods. ‘Decent standard up there.’
He towers over me before fixing me in his sights. ‘Look, I was hoping we could play an overs game; you know, no draw. I like results cricket, don’t you?’
Umm. ‘My boys have never played one of those sort of games.’
‘It’s the way the game’s going,’ says Giant Beard. ‘Too many sides we come across seem to be playing for the draw from the word go.’
What to say? ‘Umm.’
‘Good,’ says Giant Beard. ‘Forty overs each, yes?’
I talk to Young Giles and Balls. ‘You OK with it?’
Balls’ face lights-up. ‘Great. I’m going to be Ian Botham today, sir.’
Young Giles smiles. ‘Fine. My dad’s away at a conference, sir.’
I retreat to the boundary. Pacing. There’s a further stream of adults carrying chairs and rugs coming through the gate.
“…like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan, riders on the storm…”
How nervous am I? ‘We could field first if you win the toss,’ I say to Young Giles as he prepares to go out to the square with the opposing captain.
‘You always say bat first under blue skies, sir.’
Can I say, maybe this time…just to ensure the game lasts for a while?
No. Just hope we lose the toss.
No sooner has the coin landed than the St George’s captain calls over. ‘Sorry, chaps. In the field.’
‘Oh well, we might get home sooner,’ I overhear from one of the St George’s boys.
I approach the St George’s scorer who’s sharpening coloured pencils at his table. ‘What sort of side have you got this year?’
‘Unbeaten.’ He mentions some big London school before pausing from sharpening. ‘Gave them a hiding. Some of our lower order bats have barely had a knock. There’s talk we’ll reverse the order today.’
Hmm. There’s a disturbing grumble in my stomach as more spectators stream through the gate. Rugs being unfurled. ‘It’s a lot smaller than SG’s isn’t it?’ I overhear from one group of picnickers as they open a wicker basket. ‘Jolly little ground though.’
My boys are in pads ready to open the innings. My heart’s annoyingly banging.
‘Play yourselves in. Get a feel for it. Forty overs is a long time.’
I stand by the scorer’s table. The game starts. ‘Play!’ I’ve heard the St George’s captain talking. Sounds very la de da. ‘All right, chaps. Let’s give them a tonking.’
Please don’t let us be humiliated!
“…his brain is squirming like a toad…”
The scorers’ have barely worn their pencils when someone’s out. ‘Owzat!’
‘Caught wickie, blob,’ says the St George’s scorer. ‘He’s got stacks of wickets this term.’ He gets up and wanders over to the scoreboard and changes the tin numbers.
I move away from the table. There’s polite applause from the growing crowd as Young Giles walks out to bat.
Glancing round the boundary, I suddenly spot a familiar figure, scuttling out from behind the pavilion, carrying a collapsible seat. He sets it on the periphery of a picnicking group, rapidly opens it, and thrusts himself down. Pulls a hat over his forehead. One of a crowd.
‘Owzthat?’ There’s a huge appeal. Young Giles is looking up, aghast, at the umpire. No!!
‘Not out,’ says the umpire. ‘It hit his pad, not the bat.’
I’ve paced the boundary several times, living every ball, dying each time a wicket falls, and am back with the boys when our fourth one goes. ‘Owzat!’ My heart plummets as the umpire raises his finger. We’re in trouble now; could fall like a pack of cards. At least Young Giles is still there, but there’s only Balls left who’s got any real chance of keeping St George’s at bay or mounting any sort of total.
‘Thirty eight for four; last man six. Twelve overs gone.’ The St George’s scorer scurries to the scoreboard. ‘We’ll be home before tea at this rate.’
‘Over to you,’ I say to Balls who’s pulling on batting gloves. ‘You could try and play straight.’
He gives me that toothy smile. ‘Botham today, sir.’
I pace the boundary once more and spy a group approaching from the main school. Biggles, De Cock and God Like Status coming to watch. Glancing at Spicy’s study I can just about make out his face close to the window. Please oh please don’t let us be humiliated!
“…riders on the storm, riders on the storm…”
The sun continues to beat down from the bluest of blue skies.
‘Hundred up!’ The scorers are having to work harder on the scoreboard, and I’m breathing a bit easier as Young Giles and Balls bat together. Spicy’s popped out from his study, stands with me, a cup of tea in his hand. ‘Well, we’ve got a score on the board.’
Biggles joins us and smiles. ‘Good effort by these two. SG’s come with a bit of a reputation this year. There’s talk that in Uppers we may have to drop fixtures against them ‘cos they’re too strong for us.’
Young Giles is playing steadily. ‘Two there.’ Balls has mixed some savage blows with resolute defence.
‘If we don’t get carried away,’ Spicy says as Balls takes another mighty swipe. ‘That’s a big hit!’
‘Six!’ Balls is waving his bat. Fifty? Already?
There’s another ripple of applause. ‘Good shot!’ I hear from a familiar voice close by. ‘Fifty!’
Bill Giles is up on his feet. Beams at me, clapping. ‘Best day of my life, Mister Hopebourne. That’s his first for the prep school.’ Then throws himself hurriedly back down in the chair. Hunched. ‘Don’t want him to get out now.’
No sooner has Balls reached his milestone than he’s out and any confidence I’ve gained is teetering once more. ‘Have you got much more decent batting?’ enquires Biggles.
No. We could still be bowled out in a jiffy. There’s a lot resting on Young Giles.
I pace the boundary.
“…like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan, riders on the storm…”
‘Good shot!’ The ball’s way over the ropes at long on. Young Giles prods at the pitch again. Seems very determined. I mouth to him. ‘Keep going.’ And continue my pacing.
‘One over left. One hundred and eighty six for eight.’
Oh well; thanks to Young Giles it’s not a disaster by any means. I’m by the scorers’ table. Last over. Runs are scrambled until the final ball is reached. The St George’s captain to bowl. It’s dropped short and disappears over mid wicket, a powerful pull shot from Young Giles. Six!
‘That’s his hundred,’ calls our scorer. There’s loud applause and some cheering from the boundary. A figure running dementedly by an overturned chair.
‘That’s it. Forty overs. Final score one hundred and ninety eight for eight.’
At tea Spicy leans in. ‘Is it enough runs?’
‘Our boundaries are so short. If someone gets in… And we’ll need to take our chances.’
Giant Beard passes me. ‘Got any decent bowling?’
‘On their day.’
There are a gaggle of prep school girls who’ve also now come to watch after their tennis has finished. Fizz is at the centre of them. ‘Hello, sir, are you winning? I like your sweater, sir.’ They congregate on the boundary, giggling and chatting. At thirteen they’re a mixed bunch. Some, like Fizz, are precocious, while others are still thoughtfully pre-pubescent. All have their eyes on the boys, or on Adonis, and I hear them giving someone “marks out of ten.”
Fizz has cadged some cake from me; stands munching happily. ‘Sir, I don’t get cricket. It’s really boring isn’t it?’
‘It’s a bit like a kettle boiling. For the most part it’s just bubbling, building up heat, until it erupts. I suspect you don’t understand the rules. If you did, you might enjoy it more.’
She nods, chewing. ‘What’s the general idea?’
I laugh. ‘One side scores runs in a set number of balls; then the other side bats and tries to score more runs in the same or fewer number of balls.’
She pulls a bemused face. ‘Oh well. I quite like what the players wear. And if it’s sunny it’s all right.’
I also spot a familiar figure scoot behind the pavilion. Mooching over, flicking Victoria sponge away, I see him in conversation with Bearded Giant. After shaking hands, the figure returns, furtively, to a collapsible chair.
As the game restarts, Spicy confides in me. ‘No matter what happens now we’ve at least made a game of it. Hopefully.’ I pull a face as he stirs another cup of tea. There’s a loud cheer as the St George’s opening bat creams the ball away to the boundary. ‘Four!’ I hang my head.
A number of the St George’s boys are in shorts and T shirts, ambling round the ground, chatting to picnickers, cheering another boundary. ‘They seem pretty confident,’ Spicy says. ‘Oh well. I suppose I’d better get back to reports.’
The shadows begin to lengthen as the game develops. My heart thumps as I recognize Miss Dazzle joining the girls on the boundary.
“…riders on the storm…”
Soundtrack - The Back Story!
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The Doors – Riders on the Storm
Just the one track this week. A great one. One of my favourite all-time songs. Atmospheric to the core.
Truth is whenever I played a game of cricket as a teenager – batting - I liked to have a song going through my head like some kind of mantra. An aid to concentration, particularly in between balls, waiting for the bowler to reach the end of his run before turning and haring in. No–one who’s faced a fast bowler could ever call cricket boring! More frightening!
“Riders on the Storm” is one of those songs that when I first heard it, I had to find a copy, and at seven minutes long…well, that’s value! Love the sound of the storm, the piano riff…the whole thing. Impressive and melodic, it’s the essence of growing up for me.
About the Curator: Richard Parsons
I’ve been fascinated with writing since I was a youngster; creative writing in English lessons was my favourite part of school life along with swapping music with mates or playing sport.
When I decided to quit teaching after many happy years, I applied for and won a scholarship to do a Masters at Plymouth Uni in Creative Writing. Drama was really the main string to my bow, but I soon became hooked on the idea of crafting short stories, and, eventually, the longer form of narrative. After graduating with a distinction, I cut my teeth writing for women’s magazines, but this was never in my own “voice” and was always formulaic. “Given Circumstances” is the real me.
Hope you enjoy it!