For many years I was in charge of various junior cricket teams. The standard of play was seldom very high, but there was often great entertainment to be had.
The first task was to form a squad of players. We asked new boys to fill in a form telling us how much cricket they'd played; whether they batted, bowled or whatever. One solemnly wrote, "I have never played cricket, but if I did, I would be an all-rounder". What the boys lacked in skill, they often made up for in seriousness of approach. I remember umpiring one match where a diminutive bright blond youth was blocking stoutly. He couldn't have been more than twelve years old. He asked me how I thought he was doing. I told him that he clearly had a good defence, but since this was a limited-overs match, he ought to be trying to score more runs. "Yes, I know, that's the trouble, sir", he replied, "I'm essentially a five-day cricketer!"
Sometimes tactics were taken very seriously. Once I was umpiring at the bowler's end, watching one of my team sending down quite good off-breaks. In the middle of an over he measured out a longer run. charged in and hurled the ball down wide of the off stump. "Whatever are you doing, Sean?" I hissed at him. "Captain told me to try a quicker one", he replied. "Yes, but I think what he wanted", I said, "was for you to try a quicker one off the same run-up. If the batsman sees you take a much longer run, he'll be expecting a quicker one, won't he?" A look of gradual dawning comprehension crept over the youth's features. "Got it!" he said. His little friend Simon the contibuted, "What you could do is take a long run-up and then bowl a slower one!" "That's good thinking, Simon!" I said.
We didn't win that match, nor did we win when, after we were dismissed for a low score, I said to my fast bowler, "It's up to you now, Mark! Which end do you want?" "Downhill, sir!" he replied. He went to measure out his run-up, then came back looking puzzled, "Which end is downhill?" he asked. I replied that it all looked pretty flat to me. He decided to take other advice. "Dad!" he cried, "Which end's downhill?" Not surprisingly, he failed to skittle the opposing batsmen.
But the prize for bad observation would have to go to the occasion when one of our opponents broke his bat. It didn't just split down the grain ofthe wood, which is the usual thing; the bottom of his bat actually broke off, something I've never seen elsewhere. The boy, not surprisingly, went off cursing, saying that he'd only got the bat that summer; and eventually returned having borrowed someone else's bat which, as it happened, was of exactly the same make as the broken one. My captain showed his general alertness by exclaiming, with understandable surprise, "Oh! How did you manage to fix that up?" We didn't win this match either.
I think the most inept bit of cricket I ever witnessed was when a boy, highly intelligent but notably unathletic, attempted to take an extremely easy catch. He brought both hands together, but not only did they both miss the ball, they both missed each other, and the ball fell unimpeded to the turf. I don't think that technically he could be said to have dropped the catch, since at no stage did the ball make contact with any part of his person. The strangest incident was when, just as the batsman was playing the ball, a boy fielding on the boundary was bitten by a crow. The batsman went to inspect his injuries, and there was an appeal for a run out, which I refused to give. The fielder later explained, "It was a nice little crow which must have fallen out of its nest. I went to pick it up, and it bit me!"
Later on, I was in charge of a girls' team. They had a cunning plan under which, when a girl bowled a bad ball, she would squeak "Oh!" in frustration, presumably in an attempt to get the batter to collapse with giggles. I am afraid it seldom worked. But the girls did provide me with one highly surrealist experience. Once when I was having to keep the score as well as umpire, as is not uncommon at this level, our opponents brought on a new bowler. I called out, "Bowler's name, please!" "Von Wittgenstein!" came the reply. She was, sadly, no relation to the great man. I would have liked to say that the way she was bowling suggested that she wasn't convinced of the reality of the wicket, but that would be unfair.
I never managed to discover a first-class cricketer, but a few of my boys did reach international standard in other sports: David Gilford, who became a Ryder Cup golfer; Alun Carter, who played back-row for Wales, and James Haskell, a current member of the England rugby team; and from the girls, Rachel Parish, who won medals for shooting at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.