It’s 30th October (Halloween-eve?), I’m up before everyone in the house, and I find myself sat at the computer looking at batting gloves on the internet.  It’s a completely illogical act, I’ve got two pairs of perfectly good gloves in my bag in the attic, the bag that’s in the attic because it’s nearly two months since I last played cricket and another two months until I have to even think about practising again.

But, in a similarly illogical manner, I’ve just bought a new bat and my cricket OCD is kicking in and I’m thinking about whether the gloves I’ve got will “match’.  As a sh*t cricketer, all I have are my pathetic attempts to look the part so these little details are important.

Thankfully, this brief moment of self-awareness is enough to save me some money (where was it when I spotted that bat, eh?).  Instead my thoughts turn onto thinking about the generally accepted image of club cricket.  Of blokes poncing about in white clothes on sunny days on village greens, secluded playing fields or at the back of housing estates whist their friends, team mates, club officials and assorted others quaff cider on the side lines.

For some, mainly those spectators, that’s about it.  At some point in September they pack their stuff away, clear out the cool box and put the deck-chairs back in the garage.  For others, the season is just the high point of the cricketing year.  Winter isn’t a time for resting, it’s time to prepare for next season.   Let’s call these people ‘Sad Cricket Obsessives’ or ‘Cricket Wallys’ if you prefer, we, err, they’d prefer ‘cricket badgers’ but to be honest the first two are way more accurate.

So, what does the Sad Cricket Obsessive get up to in the winter?  What is it that marks them out from the rest of you, the ‘normal’ people who can just get on with normal winter stuff like getting caught up in big coats, afternoon drinking in front of the pub fire and football?

Watch cricket

Just like football, cricket never stops.  To some extent, with England embarking on their annual winter tour, it’s always been that way.  These days though, it’s literally non-stop with the early morning starts to watch the national team get embarrassed by various members of the commonwealth being supplemented by the crash, bang wallop of T20 from South Africa, Australia and the Caribbean as well as usually some international tournament or something.

This year England have seven tests in Bangladesh and India which with associated one-day and twenty20 games which, if you’re in the Barmy Army will be more than enough to break the bank.  If you’re an average cricket fan, then it’s more than enough to keep you ticking over until the nights start to get lighter.  If you’re a Cricket Wally, then you’ll still be after more…

Play Cricket

No, I’m not going mad.  If you’re lucky enough to be any good at the sport, then there’s every chance that you’ll get the chance to travel abroad and spend some time at a club down under.  Unless you’re pretty good, it’ll cost you an arm and leg but it’s an experience you won’t want to miss out.  Imagine the opportunities, not having to put up with winter weather, having the locals buy most of your beer for you and being surrounding by girls who think your Wigan accent is cute instead of making you sound as think as owt.

But your common or garden Cricket Wally isn’t usually pretty good, in fact chances are they aren’t any good so instead of travelling to Australia they’ll be trawling the internet for scorecards featuring lads they know and have played against or with.  Even then though, they don’t have to wait until Easter before they can wield a bat in anger again.

Let me introduce you to indoor cricket.  Ok, it’s as close relation to actual cricket as street fighting is to football, but just as kicking and heading are integral to both of those, batting and bowling are as key to the indoor version of cricket as they are the real thing.

Noisy and frenetic, with two runs for a run, a run for hitting the wall and no balls being called for almost anything, apart from actual no balls, the main thing I’ve noticed about indoor cricket is that no-one, not even the umpires know the rules.  Even better for the Cricket Wally is that no one is 100% certain what makes a good indoor cricketer and most people are doing it for a laugh anyway, so you’ve every chance of working your way into them team.

Socialising

The worst thing about indoor cricket is that it’s over and done with too quickly and usually on a midweek night so the opportunities for socialising are minimal.  Normal people will use the winter to catch up with the friends they barely see during the summer, trips to the pub, days at the football, meals out and that sort of thing.  Your sad cricket obsessive, apart from being too tired because they’ve been up since 4 watching the “action” from Bangladesh, has little time for that sort of shenanigans.

The major social occasion of their winter will be the club AGM.  For most this is a necessary inconvenience, a freezing cold evening sat in the clubhouse deciding the club should do exactly the same things that they did last year.  The Cricket Wally will have spent weeks planning for the meeting, strategising, doing some risk assessments and running what-if scenarios.

When the night comes, he’ll have whipped himself up into a frenzy thinking about how he’s going to boss proceedings, get his moment in the sun, all for the benefit of the club of course and then it happens.  He gets to say his piece, with the assembled throngs (there’ll be at least 15 in attendance) nodding sagely only for them to spend the next twelve months ignoring everything he said…

Winter nets

Top of that list will have been the need to take winter nets seriously.  Winter nets are the annual ceremony where the entire playing squad gathers for a couple of weeks in order to pretend that they’re preparing for the season to come, before quickly deteriorating into a small group of hardy souls who really have nothing better to do on a Thursday night.  The schedule will run something like this:

Week 1 – First team captain takes control as thirty-odd eager cricketers gather in the local sports hall.  He gets everyone doing some warm-up exercises, he saw at the test match last summer, before running a couple of fielding drills and moving on to some structured netting aimed at getting everyone back into the swing of things.  A few senior committee members turn up to cast a weather eye over proceedings and the new lad you’ve just poached from the club down the road.

Week 2 – First team captain is still here, but everyone found the warm-ups boring so it’s straight into fielding before having a longer net.  Everyone has forgot their here to practice and just tries to hit every ball as hard as they can.  Older lads who gave up bowling a few years ago stand around at the back discussing the prospects of getting an overseas pro in with the committee members who’ve turned up again.

Week 3 – The captain has prior appointment (you’ll be lucky if you see him again), his vice-captain struggles to get the young lads to stop playing five-a-side whilst the groundsman (the only committee member who’s bothered to turn up) tuts at the back of the hall, the sound of groundsmen tutting at young lads playing football is as much a part of the cricket season as the sound of leather on willow and cider.

By the time the vice-captain has things in control, there’s only enough time for the first team to have a net (i.e. see how hard they can hit ball back the new third teamers’ heads).

Weeks 4 to 10 – a.k.a. – the can’t be arsed period. From the thirty-odd people who turned up in the first two weeks, you’ll be lucky to get into double figures during this difficult period.  The plus side is that everyone gets a good practice, the downside that your Cricket Wally is going to have to bowl and bat against more experienced players who actually know what they’re doing.

For a normal person, this would either be totally demoralising or provide valuable lessons, your Sad Cricket Obsessive is probably too deluded about his own abilities to worry about it.  Blaming the unnatural surface rather than his line and length for his inability to trouble the first team opener and the artificial light rather than his technique for getting bowled every other ball.

Weeks 11 & 12 – Things will have probably moved back outside now, and attendees will have shot through the roof primarily because there’s no extra cost, but also because people have realised that the season is only a couple of weeks off and they can’t even remember where their bat it, let alone how to use it.   The field will be too wet for anything other than a spell in the nets and these weeks will be dominated by those first teamers who couldn’t be arse had things on that stopped them making the indoor sessions.

The Cricket Wally will spend most of these two weeks standing at the back, tutting with the groundsman and opining that, if that’s their attitude then surely he and the hardy souls who turned up every week over winter should get preference when it comes to selection.  But not loud enough so that anyone else can hear.

Shopping

Just like buying your winter coat in summer, the best time to buy cricket gear is in the depths of winter.  The Sad Cricket Obsessive will have hit the internet back in October and will have been, nigh on, constantly searching for bargains since.  As well as shops trying to run their stock down, he’ll be keeping a close eye on eBay listings from other Cricket Wally’s selling things because of “retirement” (read: my wife has just realised how much cricket stuff I’ve got and is making me sell it so we can all fit in the dining room for Christmas dinner).

The smart Cricket Wally will be fully stocked up by November.  New gloves and pads bagged in the post season sales and a barely used top of the range bat snaffled for less than half what the previous Sad Cricket Obsessive owner paid for it were just what he needed to top up what was left of last season’s kit.  But then the emails start…

Because there’s a reason those shops were running down their stocks and the other obsessives clearing out their kit bags (other than the rollocking they got off their other halves).  Cricket companies are smart and November is the time that next season’s brand new kit hits the shelves.

Mostly, it’s just the same old crap with new stickers on it.  But something in the marketing blurb, the shininess or just a geeky obsession with new kit draws them in.  Before they know it they’re listing all their stuff on eBay, claiming they’re only selling it because of retirement (i.e. there’s nowt wrong with it), to clear that massive hole in their credit card balance that was supposed to pay for Christmas.

Still, it’ll soon be summer and whilst they might be walking around with a whiff of “all the gear and no idea” about them no other Cricket Wally will look quite as good as they do.

See you at stumps…

The Vaccant Third Man

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