Fantasy Bob plays cricket for Edinburgh club Carlton.
His regular Blog can be found by clicking HERE
This longer piece is a perfect introduction to the world of Fantasy Bob
The latest installment from our blogger, Fantasy Bob!
First Published 11 March 2013: Captaincy.
There are many aspects of cricket in which the experience of the Test player, the county player and even the SNCL player differs in important respects from that of cricketers who form the bedrock of cricket in the lower leagues. Perhaps none is more stark than the approach to captaincy. Fantasy Bob investigates.
It seems to be Mike Brearley’s fault that captaincy is deemed an art, a mystical combination of psychology and tactical acumen. Modern conditions also require skills at press conference and managing the fall out from Twitter. International captains may be born but they are also groomed – thus Alistair Cook was ready at the instant of Andrew Strauss’ retirement. Michael Clarke had been hier apparent to Ricky Ponting for many years. They are surrounded by support teams and advisers. Even so for most of the top players captaincy depresses their averages. The pressure they say, is relentless. The expectation. The limelight. They do not know the half of it.
For in the lower leagues, captaincy certainly remains an art. Exactly which art is open to question with the surreal or the absurd the most likely candidates. But at the end of a gruelling day of press conference and massage sessions a Michael Clarke might look down from his Mount Olympus and think that a lower league skipper such as Fantasy Bob has the best of all possible worlds. Why then does the man look tired and haggard. Why does he twitch? Why does he constantly mutter under his breath ‘The bastards’?
What Clarke does not see is the reality of lower league captaincy. For captains in the lower leagues are not born, few achieve it. They all have it thrust upon them at club meetings at which they are absent. They spend the season in the hope that they will lose the toss for it is too difficult to decide what to do when it is won.
So the poor wretch that Clarke watches has had to chase around until just after midnight to find his eleventh man; after an troubled sleep feverishly wondering if he will bat or bowl in the unlikely event that he wins the toss he wakes exhausted to find a succession of text messages. The first team’s wicketkeeper’s wife’s gone into labour three weeks early; the two’s opening bat has woken with a return of his sciatica; and the three’s fast bowler was last seen in a nightclub on Thursday. After another 2 hours phoning all morning he’s had to call in that 10 year old that was hanging around nets earlier in the week. The 10 year old’s great granddad has also volunteered to turn out.
He likes to get to the ground early but with all the texting he’s already behind schedule and when he gets there he finds he's left the pavilion keys at home. Half an hour later he is finally in the pavilion but beginning to sweat. So much to do. He marks the wicket but there is a calamity with the whitewash – he has seen green wickets, he has seen brown wickets and all shades in between. But he’s never seen a white wicket……….he hopes the opposing skipper will put it down to local soil characteristics. His thumb is already aching with RSI from the texting but as he sets up the scoreboard he makes sure it will throb all afternoon as he crushes it with the heel of his shoe he uses to hammer the hooks back into place. His yell of agony sets all dogs within half a mile barking. When he lifts the box with the numbers, the bottom gives way, out fall the numbers badly bruising his foot. Another yell of pain and dogs a mile off join in. He checks the dressing rooms and having removed three mouldy sandwiches and several dangerously volatile socks he finds the toilet's flooded. His long experience of bad language unexpectedly comes to the assistance of his plumbing skills; he's remembered to buy the milk for tea but has left it in the car in the sun where it’s curdled; he suddenly remembers that he has to send a text reminder to the team of the new junior seam bowler's allergy to nuts, fish, eggs ,cheese and chicken – he suggests they all bring cake for tea – his thumb now won’t bend at all; he's had to rummage in the kit store to find the 6th stump and even then he's not sure they are a matching set, in fact one seems distinctly shorter than the others, he’s survived 10 minutes of frantic panic searching for the scorebook, he finds it soggily wrapped in his still damp towel at the bottom of his bag. His heart rate has only just comes back to within normal range but goes nuclear again as the tea urn blows a fuse when he plugs it in. He sets out to give the wicket a last roll but the engine seizes at the far end. He manages through the sheer power of bad language to push it off the pitch and he collapses into a seat thinking he just about has everything under control when the opposing skipper phones wondering where he is. He takes the fixture card out of his pocket. He can’t find his specs but the microscopic text shimmers briefly into focus but long enough for him to detect that what he has taken week as H is in fact A. !!!!!! A mad dash to the opponent’s ground leaves traffic mayhem behind him and he finally joins his hand picked team as they casually practice dropping catches in a corner of the outfield. 'Where the hell have you been skipper?' they ask, solicitous as ever after his welfare. 'Did you remember the wicket keeping gloves? ****!
Tired? Haggard? After all that, facing Dale Steyn would seem like a rest.
Published: 31 January 2013
THE IDEA OF CRICKET
Statistics suggest that there are 40,000 active cricketers in Scotland. Even though, to the casual observer a fair proportion of them will seem manifestly inactive even at the height of the game, they are all deemed active. The majority inhabit the lower leagues across the country or turn out midweek for a range of idiosyncratically named social or office teams. They are the bedrock of the game.
The lower league cricketer comes in all shapes and all sizes. Some have top of the range equipment. Some have equipment that looks like it has been handed down from WG Grace. Some have no equipment at all, not even white trousers. Why worry? They have seen the elite game catch up with their dress sense. If a blue track bottom is good enough on Edinburgh’s Meadows on a Wednesday evening then surely it is good enough for the World Cup final in one of the sport’s grandest stadiums. Some have the skills necessary to achieve mediocrity. Some seem unnaturally obsessed with tea. Many will leave the field runless or wicketless, but with a sense that it could so nearly have been different. But for the sun in their eyes; but for the bounce of the ball; but for the impulsiveness of an umpire who they previously took as a friend; but for the fact that life is not like it seems in the movies.
These pieces of flotsam on the human tide are bound together by love. Love of the idea of cricket. They do not need to define that idea. It is eternal. It is bound in nostalgia just as it is crushingly modern. It is full of possibility.
In the long watches of the middle overs, as he views the action from a distant fine leg boundary, Fantasy Bob has often wondered how the idea of cricket entered his soul. Why is it that at an age when he should know better, he still straps on his pads with a teenager’s bright optimism that a quick 50 is in prospect. What were the formative experiences that gave him the idea of cricket?
As a toddler, FB remembers being taken regularly through the summer to Aberdeenshire’s cricket ground at Mannofield. At that time this was not such a minority pursuit as it is now, and a fair number of spectators gathered for the action. Emergent West Indian star Rohan Kanhai was the professional at that time. Did this master batsman's technique enter FB’s soul subliminally? Surely his cover drive bears a passing resemblance to that of Kanhai? Er..................... Was it there that FB’s idea of cricket took root? For the spirit of Bradman was also in the air FB breathed, as it was at Mannofield that the Don played his last first class innings at the end of Australia’s all conquering tour of 1948.
The spirits of Kanhai and Bradman blew on embers of a sense of cricket that was there in FB’s household. He never saw his father play, but his discarded cricket gear was familiar.
In FB and his sisters’ dressing up box were a mildewing pair of real flannels, a huge cricket bat (its blade impressively whipped with cord rather than bound as it would be these days with pathetic sellotape), leather soled spiked cricket boots, rubber spiked batting gloves, and, the piece de resistance, what was carefully described to FB's young ears as an abdominal protector.
Not your modern plastic cod-piece but a strap-on piece of apparatus of impressive weight and size. FB has no idea of whether this is standard period issue or whether there is something more he needs to know about his father. But this abdominal protector was pressed regularly into service in childhood games. Its straps could be tied under the chin, when it took on all manner of roles as a helmet, a hat, or even passing off as a rhino horn when zoos were played. History does not record what unsuspecting Mums, coming to collect their darling infants from a vigorous play session at FB’s house, made of it when their little darling entered with this apparatus strapped to his or her head.
Bats were part of the cricket mystique. They were purchased in the same shopping trip as the Clarks sandals – a harbinger of summer. FB remembers the thrill of acquiring bats of increasing sizes, 3, 4, 6. Like the sandal size, it was a measure of growing up. SIX! now that was almost grown up because the next size was full size. These bats might only have been purchased in the toy shop – a fantastical Aladdin’s cave known as the Toy Bazaar (which for some reason Aberdeen’s mothers felt more comfortable entering than the older toy shop which proudly called itself The Rubber Shop) – but they were real willow cricket bats made in Pakistan. They required oiling and all the rest - even though they rarely hit anything other than a tennis ball - or, in FB's case, rarely hit anything at all. But this early exposure to linseed oil and its addictive smell was the crack cocaine of FB’s childhood. The smell still renders him weak at the knees. A modern bat with a protective skin does not give the same sensual experience.
These bats were wielded in the street and the garden and playgrounds. At FB’s primary school there were stumps painted on the playground wall. Any morning in the summer term there would be several games of something approximating cricket going on with various centurions showing the effectiveness of the flat bat smack back over the bowler's head as a means both of scoring runs and disturbing the girls' skipping games at the other end of the playground. Similarly many hundreds were scored against lampposts as wickets. For play in the street was possible - there was little danger of fielders being run over by today’s omnipresent SUV with cattle catchers.
There was no coaching at primary school but most of Aberdeen’s playing fields had properly maintained grass wickets and there was a cricket team in P6&7. The team was basically the same boys as in the football team because most of them could catch and run without falling over. (Now of course footballers are encouraged to fall over any time they are near another player, but things were different then). Catching was certainly FB's reason for selection and he recalls fielding at suicidally silly point - not a great position when the probability of the ball being dropped short, wide of the off stump was pretty high. Batsmen were allowed one leather-buckled pad on the front leg, and the gloves had rubber spines as finger protectors, which were as effective as pieces of toast. Bats in the school bag were Gunn and Moore Cannons (size 6 of course) of an uncertain antiquity – still a brand that evokes a wistful memory.
No one was expected to bring their own equipment. Gym shoes and shorts and aertex shirts were worn. FB was regarded as one of the more serious players because his Mum had knitted a white sweater with cables and a V-neck. Other, obviously lesser, players just wore their grey school pullovers. Balls were cork objects with some kind of impregnation to masquerade as a seam. Kwik Cricket had not been devised, so games were on conventional lines, but long innings were rare - only made possible by the collective inability of the bowlers to bowl anything like straight. FB recalls he generally batted 6 in this team, but he cannot recall scoring very much. (So some things don't change). He just remembers wearing the single pad with leather buckles and thinking that things would be so much better and easier when he got to wear pads on both legs.
For a short time, when he was 10 or 11, FB lived close to Mannofield home of Aberdeenshire CC. By coincidence so did his parents. That summer he and chums used to hang out in the nets - a beautiful suite of grass facilities, now built over.
But despite all this background, coaching eluded FB for some reason. It did not happen at primary school and was equally absent at secondary school. There was no structured junior game. Or was it that someone had looked at the raw material and thought that coaching was not going to do any good. (A tough but probably accurate assessment). But things in those days weren't set up that way. Coaching at Mannofield was for older boys, and by the time FB was old enough he had moved house and his immediate sporting priorities had passed elsewhere.
A present for FB's 12th birthday was a new full size bat - he chose a Slazenger Rohan Kanhai (a local after all) with a dark red grip. Part of that present was also a pair of what the shop said were the latest high tech batting gloves. 'As worn by all the top players.' Now there's a phrase of which FB has been suspicious ever since. These articles were brown and had 'state of the art' sausage padding on the fingers, but they weren't really gloves. You placed your fingers individually inside a mitt kind of thing and the thumb piece dangled on a bit of elastic which was wrapped round the wrist before the thumb was inserted. If they had anything going for them, it was that the hands did not get as hot as they would be enclosed in a glove. Not that the risk of a long innings where that might be an issue was one that FB faced. But fingers would pop out on the slightest pretext. So perhaps it is not surprising that the design has not proved a lasting success. There were occasional school matches but the sad truth is that as adolescence came FB’s attention turned elsewhere and the bat was sadly underused.
If game time was limited for Fantasy Bob, then non-game time wasn’t and the cultural side of cricket stimulated his interest. The cricket books may not have shown the latest stars but pictures of Bradman and Hobbs and Hammond were regularly examined. All through his childhood FB and his Dad played long games of rainy day cricket (not that it rained in Aberdeen so this name is an inappropriate mystery - presumably a joke). Captive days on caravan holidays were perfect occasions for extended game. This was played with nothing more than paper and pencil. Not for parsimonious Aberdonians the unnecessary purchase of dice on which a version of this game is also based. A page would be totally covered with figures 1,2,3,4,5,6 or relevant letters, b, lbw, c, etc. Players would draw up their XIs and, after the toss had been won and lost, play would commence by closing the eyes and plumping a pin on the page for each ball. (This may well be where FB gets the habit of closing his eyes while batting). The outcome of each ball would be recorded on improvised score sheets. The great attraction was that it allowed you to pick your own team - a hugely critical task. FB can remember great partnerships he played with Sobers, Dexter, Popeye the Sailorman and Julie Andrews. Another virtue of this game is that it taught the mechanics of scoring – a vital skill to learn and nurture. Of course it played to FB’s obsessive compulsive disorder and is the foundation for his continuing fascination with score books. Why cricket scoring is not on the school syllabus is one of life's mysteries.
The accessibility of cricket on TV was also a significant factor. Every ball of every Test match was televised at a time when there was only one channel. At lunch time during the Test summer, FB home from school and father home from work would be excused the dining table and would hold their plates balanced perilously on their knees in front of the flickering black and white cathode ray tube of the TV to absorb the last 30 minutes play before lunch - which in those days was taken at 1.30 – or close of play at 6.30. Male bonding to the accompaniment of Peter West’s strained vowel sounds or Jim Swanton’s elegant summing up of the day’s play. The names of that period still trip through FB's mind with Swanton’s (and later John Arlott’s) inflection - Simpson, Cowdrey, Barrington, Titmus, Trueman, Lawry, McKenzie, Sobers, Nurse on and on and on and on..........With no slow-mo or replays. No Hawk-eye or hot spot. No snicko. So you had to pay attention or you missed the most important piece of play. Just like the batsman in a long innings, you had to focus on every ball.
But bit by bit, there was more to TV coverage than the Test matches. Limited overs games became common and cricket came to dominate Sunday afternoons. At first there were Cavaliers games – in which mixed teams of cricketers and what would now be called celebs played in charity matches – often for senior players’ benefits but also for external charities. These were great fun – FB remembers Leslie Crowther in particular being a stalwart. But among the teams on any day were recently retired Test players.
These gave way to more serious contests with the Gillette Cup. The 1971 semi final at Old Trafford when Lancashire’s David Hughes came in at 8.45pm to blast 24 off an over to take them to the Final is still one of televised sports finest moments. Lancs were unassailable in the limited overs game at that time and FB can still recite the majority of their team from Farouk Engineeer to micro-batter Harry Pilling, from skipper Jackie Bond to David Lloyd, Ken Higgs and Peter Lever.
The John Player League then gave us limited over cricket every Sunday afternoon and showed us all the county grounds and their idiosyncracies. The tree at Canterbury. The football stand at Northampton. The sea view at Hove. And grinnin' Jim Laker. When it comes down to it, the role of the BBC in nurturing the idea of cricket in FB was huge. Unless he paid the Murdoch tax, he would be lost now. What a sad indictment of broadcasting policy.
As FB grew up, Test Match Special on Radio 3 was discovered and revered. Long mornings in the summer holidays would be spent lounging in the garden - yes I'll mow the lawn today Dad - with John Arlott and Brian Johnston. Bliss it was to be alive. Fantasy Bob didn't come to play cricket regularly until several years later – which is another story for another day - and he would not have done so had he not had the idea of cricket firmly in his head.
It is the idea of cricket nurtured through this amalgam of experiences and memories that pulls FB back to the crease year after year. His idea is his own – just as his conception of the cover drive, which seems so perfect in his mind’s eye, is, to any observer, individual and peculiar to him. But this idea is what gives the lower league cricketer the sense of belonging to something greater and grander. His achievement is to be part of that and to understand it by sharing it. But how fragile is the plant? How can it flourish? How can it regenerate? Without the dressing up box and the pictures of Bradman? Without the rainy day centuries? Without the size 6 bat? Without the linseed oil? Without Test matches and the Sunday League on the TV? Somehow it will.