Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Zaltzman's Over

I have been playing in cricket matches since I was eleven years old. During that time I have seen most things, and seen them often enough to realise that the game's genius lies in its quotidian variations, its subtle, almost infinite changes to a grand and familiar theme.

And yet last week at Wormsley I was on the field for an over that will live in the memory, and that quite probably will never be repeated - at least not by another bowler. It was delivered by Andy Zaltzman, cricinfo's polymath statistician who runs a parallel career as a stand-up comedian and another as a writer. These duties mean that he doesn't play often, and when he does it's usually as a rather elegant left-handed batsman who - he is quick to remind us - has apparently plundered untold centuries in an obscure Sussex Sunday village league.

He was called on to bowl as a run chase heated up, and he immediately marked out a 40-yard approach to the wicket that began in the shadow of the sightscreen. Most club cricketers have seen this done, usually by a batsman, and usually during a practice match or as a game peters out into an unavoidable draw. The same thing happens every time: they begin their run at pace, dipping into a Bob Willis impersonation a third of the way in, before the realisation that they are still nowhere near the stumps dawns and they start to slow down and worry about what will happen when they actually arrive. The result is either that they stop and deliver a gentle off-spinner or chuck down one that bounces twice and is called a dead ball.

Zaltzman, who sports something of Bob Willis hairdo of his own, did not disappoint on the first part, almost immediately spearing his bowling arm behind him and bobbing his head as he ascribed Willis' semi-circular approach. Yet having gone early with the Bob, and faced with another 30-odd yards before the stumps, he began a remarkable series of leaps, like a cat jumping through tall grass. Each one ate at the distance between him and the crease. His momentum was now unstoppable, perhaps catastrophically so, but somehow he arranged his feet into a delivery stride and slightly off the wrong foot conjured a perfectly acceptable medium-paced outswinger that the batsman, less surprisingly, missed.

Alone this performance might have been enough, but after another couple of outswingers from a truncated run, he announced a change of bowling action from right arm over to left arm round, and proceeded to pitch and turn both of them.

He continued to bowl with both actions throughout his spell, taking a couple of wickets right-arm, and almost one with his left. He has, he said later, bowled an over featuring all four actions: right arm over, right arm round, left arm over and left arm round.

Perhaps more predictably for a comedian, he's given to sledging, but only his own team-mates and only by means of inverse flattery - "like a young Glenn McGrath," he may shout at a veteran medium-pacer who somehow lands a couple in the same spot.

Imagine my delight when I discovered, halfway through writing this, that his first ball was captured on film. You can see it here, now and forever...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Arlott at Words And Wickets

I think of John Arlott as cricket's quiet conscience, a man with soul. He was equally at home with Ian Botham and Dylan Thomas; a wonderful writer and an unforgettable talker: 'in through the eyes and out through the mouth,' as he used to say. One of the most resonant things he ever wrote was a single word, when he arrived in South Africa in 1948 and was told to fill out a landing card. In the box marked 'Race' he put simply, 'Human'.

It is his centenary this year. It's hard to picture him in the current media culture but I think he would have liked some parts of it at least, the great clamour of voices that now comes online. It's democratic in its way, and as the son of a cemetery keeper from Basingstoke who began his working life as a records clerk in a mental hospital, he would appreciate that.

His life, which had its burdens of personal tragedy along with its brilliant, sometimes boozy highs, and which was suffused with cricket and poetry and wine throughout, is being celebrated on Saturday at the Words And Wickets Festival at Wormsley, a ground with enough beauty to have many who see it attempting a stanza or two of their own. Arlott's biographer and friend David Rayvern Allen leads the way.

The idea of the festival is to unite cricket with its literature, and it's almost certainly the only place where you'll get John Arlott and Jarrod Kimber on the same day. Check it out.

"I had a lucky life," Arlott said once. "Well, lucky in some ways..."

Perfectly put, as ever.