Pass the egg sandwiches, bro…

Andrew Alderson on his longing to play English village cricket, first published in issue 12 of the Nightwatchman

The Spring 2021 edition of the Nightwatchman is out now.

“Playing at Clavering is like a game of cricket in heaven,” my university friend Richard Hadley assured me over a pint in a Cambridge pub one Saturday in August 2007. The next day was to mark my debut on English soil, sating a 30-year craving to play village cricket.


Those who regularly don the whites in such idyllic locations might struggle to appreciate how novel the concepts of afternoon tea, one-fixture grounds, centuries-old club histories and playing on Sundays are to Kiwis.


Cricket is called “the summer game” in New Zealand but that is a token concept used to paper over the reality that rugby union dominates the sporting landscape throughout the winter and beyond, from March to November. Rare exceptions exist where cricket tempts sports fans away from monogamous oval-ball fidelity.


In fact, they can be listed in a paragraph: the first Test series victory over Australia in late 1985; the drawn series against the same opposition in November 2001; the run to the World Cup semi-finals in March 1992; and New Zealand’s advance to their inaugural final this year.


Curating rectangles rather than ovals is the priority for New Zealand groundsmen. Wickets – often of the artificial variety because there’s not enough room for a decent block – are wedged between adjacent touchlines.


I’ve treasured cricketing experiences in England, having now played for a variety of social teams. They trump anything at home. I’m no Rain Man, yet I experience rare photographic recall when listing venues, results and performances since my Clavering adventure. I’ve played village matches in Beauchief, Berkhamsted, Chorleywood, Farnham, Marlow and Ripley. I’ve scored 69 runs (I could recount the scoring shots if pushed), taken four catches, dropped three catches, enacted two stumpings and remembered every afternoon tea and pavilion as if reviewing for the Michelin guide.


This is perhaps a by-product of playing at Grafton United, bang in the middle of Auckland’s central business district, where on Saturdays seven matches would operate on the postage stamp of Victoria Park. Fielding at slip in one match could constitute short third man and long off in others, as part of a cluttered cricketing Venn diagram. It was there that I joined an elite club after one of my gentle off-spinners – or “petals” as a teammate disparagingly referred to them – was hit over the four-lane motorway flyover at the park’s western end. The stroke over long on cleared the bridge without so much as a parp of horn or screech of brakes. The split-second audio vacuum in the aftermath was soon filled by an eruption of applause from both XIs.


Such nightmares aggravated my obsession with spatial awareness, a form of claustrophobia assuaged by England’s sole-purpose grounds. Proper cricket must cater for a batsman’s narcissism in fully appreciating the execution of a cover drive via the follow-through, or for a bowler to have suitable boundary cover so their figures are not falsely inflated via nicks and miscues.


Fortunately at Grafton, the shortcoming of the club’s limited field acreage was mitigated by the camaraderie. I joined late last century as part of “The Ewen Chatfields”, a social XI that, like the former New Zealand bowler, toiled manfully in the shadow of Sir Richard Hadlee’s greatness. The club consisted of a gregarious melting-pot of members from all socio-demographic strata. Once I dreamed of being a great cricketer, but it’s hard to imagine that career path generating as much joy as playing with workmanlike toilers, statistical boffins and social misfits. The jocularity, loyalty and joie de vivre of the sport’s rank and file made them poster children for inclusiveness. It is a fundamental reason why many of us love the game first, and its finest exponents a distant second.


However, as good as cricket can be in New Zealand, the experiences one enjoys playing in English villages are its ultimate embodiment, like scenes from AG Macdonell’s England, Their England leaping from the page. Straight-driving down the slope through the hedge at Beauchief; disturbing a local Hereford herd with late cuts at Berkhamsted; walking from the train station through a meadow to picnic-perfect Chorleywood; edging behind in Marlow while distracted by the aura of playing next to the Thames.


Farnham and Ripley deserve special mention through their link as annual fixtures of the London New Zealand club, the perfect venues for Kiwi cricket-lovers to quench their thirst for the quintessential elements of the game. Ripley afternoon-tea highlights included chutney-and-cheese sandwiches, lemon-drizzle cake and hot dogs with caramelised onion and mustard.


It is also where this writer lost his middle stump, looking to dispatch a medium pacer into the next county. Appropriately, but of little consolation, was the fable that the club is where the middle stump was invented in 1775. English village clubs always seem to brim with such yarns. Given that the first evidence of the sport in New Zealand dates to 1832, the depth of culture cannot be compared.


And so back to Clavering. My new teammates and Hadley piled into a three-vehicle convoy and made the half-hour journey south from Cambridge into Essex. Talk ranged from how to best combat their tall left-arm quick to whether the sponge cake could match last year’s, with its liberal dousing of jam and cream. Bonds between strangers soon formed. The selfishness and in-fighting that can fester in the game’s upper echelons via avarice, superstition and bloody-mindedness tend to be diluted among comrades of lesser talent.


Batting on a wicket afflicted by severe late-summer topiary, I tickled a single off my pads to fine leg from the first ball. I got to the non-striker’s end and paused to marvel at the scene before me; the thatched pavilion roof, the pub in the distance, the hedges and willows leading to farmland beyond. I was soon out caught-and-bowled when a drive lodged in the paunch of their 55-year-old off-spinner, but even my exit trudge was imbued with zest.


We completed a draw and convened at the Fox and Hounds around the corner to reminisce. The spirit of cricket was maintained, and the England of a colonial fan’s mind’s eye was preserved. It was indeed a game of cricket in heaven.

The Spring 2021 edition of the Nightwatchman is out now.