There are few things that delight the Deserter more than sport that goes on for days – unless we’re participating, of course, in which case we’ll be needing a lie down, some fluids and a nurse or two.
Cricket has a special place in my heart, despite rarely watching more than the Ashes and not fully understanding it. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it dearly. A Test match can go on for five days. That’s five days of sitting around drinking, eating and hoping; at home, in the pub, or at the venue. Five days that are punctuated by moments of genuine joy and excitement, as wickets fall, thunderous sixes are struck, or a pigeon lands on a helmet.
There are so many reasons to love this ponderous, gentle, eccentric game. There are ten ways to get out. They stop for tea. There are endless impenetrable figures and infographics. At Canterbury, home of Kent cricket, they have special laws to accommodate a tree on the field of play, so you can’t be out if the ball strikes it. When, after 200 years, the tree died, they planted another and when it was big enough to be a nuisance, moved it onto the pitch. How can anyone not love a sport that harbours such respect for botany?
Should you tire of sitting down boozing, you can walk around the ground with a doobie until it all makes sense. This might explain why, despite the baffling jargon – Silly Midshipman, The Duckworth-Lewis Position, 118 for 12, Dibbly Dobbly and the Corridor of Uncertainty – it is the second most popular sport in the world.
Although it has wide global appeal, I would advise against watching cricket in France, as the Dulwich Raider and I tried to do during the last Ashes debacle. The French, it seems, have little time for tea, trees and snickometers.
What cricket is
Cricket is basically institutionalised dissing, with stats. You throw a ball at someone and if they miss it, they are a twat. If they hit it, you are a twat. If the ball smashes their wicket or they hit it into someone’s hands, they’re a wanker. Then it’s time for lunch.
The batsman’s job is to repel the bowler, or humiliate him by losing his ball in the crowd. The bowler is equally determined to embarrass the batsman. I can only equate that feeling you get when you’ve followed the line of the ball, moved your feet and affected a firm defensive posture with the bat, only to hear the clattering of stumps behind you, to knowing you have enough time to get to the pub toilet and finding you don’t. That.
The upper hand can pass from team to team in sudden decisive moments, but mostly, it’s the gradual drip, drip, drip of clever, patient batting or bowling that wins the day. Meanwhile, you can have a sandwich, stick on your Out of Office and watch the internet.
Kent vs Surrey
I can’t call myself an expert but I do know that if Kent can hold on to sixth position in the league, they should make Europe. And so there was even more edge on this, the South London derby, played over four days in Beckenham last week. So much edge.
The kick-off in cricket is at 11am, so will often require an alarm, or lateness. I know which one I prefer. I was deeply encouraged to read on my ticket: ‘Spectators may not bring more than 4 cans/1 bottle of wine’. It felt like an order to BYOB. And when you run out of booze, there are two or three bars to keep you going. Deserter pal, Half-life, had four in his bag and several more strapped to his legs, giving his gait the suggestion of disablement. Unfriskable, he was waved through. Once he’d run out he tried to blag his way into the hospitality bar.
You can wander round the pitch with your drinks and sit down pretty much anywhere, though you need to pick your spot for a smoke-up. We found ourselves not wholly focussing on the game until we sparked a blunt. Suddenly the pace of the game fitted ours and we settled into seats, mesmerised by the unfolding drama. (Actually, drama is perhaps not the word. It’s a little like European cinema; slow and fascinating before taking you by surprise with the violent swing of a bat, or a curiously spinning orb.)
The match turned out to be a tight, low-scoring game. Despite Big Bad Bob Key’s knock of 89, Surrey took the honours on Day 1, bowling out Kent for 282. The home side fought back in Day 2, before bad light stopped play with Surrey on 270-7. High on cricket, we rushed, slowly, to The George Inn to catch the end of England’s Test victory against the Kiwis, like we were proper cricket cunts.
The next day saw Surrey gain a small lead, skittle Kent out, and set themselves a target of 194. The final day was only a fiver to get in – a bargain when there’s something to play for and difficult to resist when you’re supossed to be at work. Surrey were big favourites at this point but wickets started tumbling and at 162-6 it promised a grandstand finish. But promises are like legs, Half-life observed. ‘Easily broken.’
Indeed, Jason Roy saw Surrey comfortably home with 3 wickets to spare and we were finally free to go to the pub again.
The vibe bore no relation to the noisier sport I’m more used to. The crowd clapped good play from both sides and harboured no resentment toward the victorious Surrey side. Kids played on the playing surface at lunch. Lager was not the drink of choice and we were hardly alone in drinking all day, which made a pleasant change.
‘My people!’ exclaimed Half-life, when it erroneously dawned on him he could be in like-minded company, before they started to back away or look at their shoes.
It’s hard not to compare all sports to football, which, whilst being the greatest game in the world, is often an infinitely worse live experience, except at Champion Hill.
‘All of us cricketers are failed footballers – that’s what they say,’ said Kent’s elegant opener, Joe Denly. He would. He is one, having spent a year at Charlton Athletic when he was 16.
Cricket might not inflame passion so intensely, but then a league game is four days long. You can’t maintain the level of bile necessary to enjoy the beautiful game that long.
We gave the world football, cricket and rugby, which is remarkable in itself. But unlike the other two, cricket is all skill and cunning. And then there’s the sledging:
‘Why are you so fat, mate?’ Aussie bowler Glenn McGrath famously asked Zimbabwe’s rotund batsman, Eddo Brandes.
‘Because every time I fuck your wife, she gives me a biscuit,’ came the reply.
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