by Arthur Smart
It was Shakespeare who once said that 'To climb steep hills requires a slow pace at first' and it's fair to say the great Bard himself would have found further reason to spout appropriately accurate one liners had he born witness to the incredible, nerve wrenching, to-the-wire cricket displayed by London Fields on Saturday.
This was one of those days, one of those rare moments where this game elevates itself beyond its sporting peers. Beyond the smash and grab showbusiness of ninety minutes of football, beyond the technically repetitive, dizzying spectacle of formula one - to a pinnacle of tension only achievable through the peaks and troughs of constantly keenly-contested cricket.
The day started brightly, Fielders collecting steadily around the pub table, eagerly awaiting the start of the NECL proper. The toss was won by Tower Ravens, the pitch cleared of picnickers and toddlers, a new ball produced, run ups marked and after a brief loosening of limbs and an injection of Captain Skinner's own brand of bearded enthusiasm, Simon Lee and Steve Donelan began the day.
Donelan, as ever, produced a lesson in bowling nous, building and maintain pressure through accuracy and changes of pace. At the other end, Simon Lee worked hard to reproduce his usual in-out, wobble-it-all-about swing, but in rightfully pitching the ball up found it largely disappearing over his head or that of square leg's, as the Ravens openers looked to punish both good and bad deliveries alike.
It took the introduction of Taz Miller, bowling flat leg spinners mixed with flatter off cutters to break a solid looking opening partnership, the right handed giant slicing hard to cover point cutting short a 'fence salesman' of an innings (he dealt only in boundaries…?). This wicket buoyed the Fields, Donelan picking up two more with an excellent slower ball and a round the legs straightener which accounted for another dangerously set Raven.
Fields were fielding tightly, battling to contain the often brutal Ravens batsmen, who ruthlessly took all chances offered, and some not, to score with heavy bats and good eyes. But the bowlers continued to chip away, and periods of sustained pressure brought wickets at regular intervals, largely through excellent ground fielding, solid catching and contributions from a flighty Dave Hickey, a seamy Captain Chris Skinner and a sleeves-rolled-down-pace-turned-up Will Issac.
Tower Ravens concluded their innings on a respectable 199 all out, and doubtless went into tea feeling that they had a competitive score to defend.
Fields, having gathered under the London Plane trees to tuck into both open and closed sandwiches, vegetarian mush and cigarettes, could feel satisfied that the strong Ravens batting had been at least partially contained. There was a game to be won.
The child-like figures of the Fielders' opening batsmen Saunders and Teasdale dropped pants and donned pads, and strode off to the middle to face an accurate opening burst from a bandana-ed quick and a tricky left armer. Teasdale, having had an excellent day behind the stumps, looked once more to be settling in for another pretty innings in front of them. However, having clipped behind square leg for four, he miscued his next ball high into the waiting buckets of short cover. This indiscretion brought former captain Dave Hickey to the crease, but in an all too similar manner to the previous wicket he smashed a biblical cover drive and then didn't smash a less than pious straight drive, which cruelly bowled him. Two down and only twenty on the board.
This brought to the wicket Jason Lord, a horse for the course. A man you would want stood next to you in the muddy trenches, if only because he would have brought chocolate digestives. Jason and Ben, although visually from the boundary looking like they were competing in a Dads and Lads match, began to settle. The nuggety pair began late cutting, nurdling and in Jason's case unloading the third best shot of the day, a flat cover driven six, on their way to a foundation partnership of 60 from a patient but squeaky-bum-inducing sixteen overs.
Lord, reacting to encouraging shouts from the boundary to "Get on with it", responded by being bowled for a well compiled 36, an innings that, although it left the Fields run rate worm trailing behind the now required nine runs an over, would go on to further strengthen the cricketing cliché that anything is possible with wickets in hand.
Now, Napoleon Bonaparte once said that 'a leader is a dealer in hope' and with the Fields innings requiring a burst of power Captain Skinner sent forth Alec McCrindle with orders to accelerate and express himself. Alec did just that, setting about the bowling with whippy wrists. Colonel Saunders fell on his sword for a solidly Lordish 30, allowing Will Issac to join Alec in an adrenalin-fuelled partnership, where both stood up to be counted and had the scorer sitting down to do the counting as they battered to all parts and ran between the wickets like thoroughbreds. The Score was up to 120 when Alec mistimed a shot to be caught for a thrilling 26. The game was still on.
Arthur was next to the crease, with more orders to 'just go and have a good time'. Now a series of turning ones into twos with the hyperactive Will Issac is not exactly Arthur's idea of a good time but needs must where knees can't, and along with some straight hitting and a few more agricultural blows to leg Will and Arthur pressed the score on to within 35 of the target with a little more than four overs to go before Smart attempted to drive a ball that should have been cut and was caught by the Bucket again at short cover for a rapid 26. This along with the dismissal of an in the zone Issac for an excellent 35, brought Steve Donelan and Dave 'Taz' Miller to the wicket.
Before I describe the last rites of this game, it is worth noting that Sir Clive Woodward changed the face of English Rugby by endeavouring to do one hundred things one percent better, and however many times we watch Wilkinson's drop goal with kebab in hand at 4am, the contribution of the organised and rigorous administrators to those glorious seconds can never be diminished.
Here was another momentous victory for the ring binder, our razor sharp captain carefully unsheathed the rules and ran onto the pitch to share with the umpire and startled captain the news that if the scores were tied then the side losing fewest wickets would be victor. Now there was a message, a statement of intent, a moment of leadership. As Steve and Taz stood contemplating how they would score the 23 needed from the last two overs with every Raven hovering on the boundary, Skinner was informing the opposition that they would lose if the scores were tied, the Ravens, already rocked by the audacious tenacity of Fields accelerated run chase had now to deal with the beamingly confident Skinner's bravado. It was a mind game of Fergusonesque proportion.
But mind games don't win games, games are won by acts of bravery, by character, by never admitting defeat because you know its not an option. What happened in the last two overs of this game is etched on the memory of every player involved, Steve Donelan and Dave Miller did not go quietly into the night, did not vanish without a fight, they buried half volleys for four through cover, scampered deflections for two, harried the fielders into over throws and gave everything they had till two balls remained. Twelve to win.
Bowling left arm around the wicket the Ravens had reserved their opener to bowl the last over, every fielder prowled the white line of the boundary, their captain made adjustments, their coach laughed heartily as he underestimated the diminutive man from across the Tasman Sea, 'nobody is going to hit dis bowler for two sixes man'.
The second best shot of the day hit its first leaf about three quarters of the way up the straightest of the Plane trees, the bowler watching as it cracked branches and disturbed oblivious crows. The bowler returned to his mark, the captain checked the scoreboard, the captain remembered the rule. The bowler turned at the top of his run. What do you bowl to a batsman with nothing to lose? What could he bowl that would prove too much to put over the fence, a slower ball? A yorker? Would these be too full, would they be cracked back over his head again, a length ball then at good pace? But would he advance down the pitch and cart the ball over midwicket? So many thoughts, too many options, the batsman stood clear headed. The game reduced to its simplest form, watch the ball, hit the ball, win the game.
Not a breath was taken from the moment the bowler began his run, even paced, careful steps, a high arm, a leap to the crease, the release of the ball, it pitches, it is short, Taz is in position. A flash of sunlight from his bat, he spins and falls, the fielder at deep square leg positions himself, but it's in vain. The ball sails beyond and it is done.
Too often sporting feats are over blown, too often the words 'world class', 'epic' and 'historic' are lavished upon feats that in a broader context can rationally only ever be 'quite good'. But on the beautiful sun streaked London Fields on the evening of the 9th of May a feat worthy of new superlatives was forever carved into the annals of cricketing folklore…. It was FanTAZtical.
Scorecard lost in Dolphin circa 4am.London Fields Batting
200 for 6 in 36.0
|Ben Sanders||—||LBW||Paul B||27|
|Stephen Donelan||—||Not Out||Unknown||13|
|Dave Miller||—||Not Out||Unknown||18|
|Simon Lee||—||Did Not Bat||Unknown||0|
|Chris Skinner||—||Did Not Bat||Unknown||0|
199 for 10 in 30.0London Fields Bowling