Never in the long history of the V&A’s small band of slightly mad yet ultimately purist players (of what I still insist is the real Great Game) has there been such a triumph of organised fun as there was this recent May Bank Holiday weekend on our 4-day, 2-game tour around the sublime Cranbourne Chase near Salisbury, Wiltshire.
It was months in the planning, I believe. I do remember paying some money at some point, but ashamedly that was the extent of my involvement. The entire event was organised brilliantly by Ross and Megan Ashcroft, and our veteran slip-fielder and ever-louche poet-philosopher, Nicky Bird (away this week). It would be more than churlish of me not to thank these members here and now, from the bottom of our boots, for their time and devotion to this extremely well-oiled operation. It ran like clockwork – barking dogs, lost children, cantankerous Eastern Euros, evictions, lightning bolts, brutal hangovers, near drownings in the river, food poisoning, unearthly traffic jams, early morning calls to the legal department, running out of petrol on the motorway, hissy fits about not sharing rooms/manners of passing the ball back to the bowler/getting out for barely any runs/getting out again for less runs… aside.
But first, a little meta-stuff: a brief word on the ever-increasingly literary showcase that is the Match Report. It comes as no surprise that quite a bit of advice flies around on how to do it. One is hardly surprised. Our team is riddled with Napoleons, some more touched by the complex than others. Some of these weren’t even on the tour. God help us. God knows how we ever make it to Stonor each week and play a game of cricket. It strikes me that the old aphorism is true of the V&A, and I’m sure it’s been said before, that any club that would have us as a member is not a club that we would wish to join. As our esteemed organiser, father of two and opening batsmen, Ross Ashcroft, began on Sunday morning, one last time, to herd the cats into listening to him to the day’s plan (no such luck), I saw the mark of a beaten man. The V&A are a cripplingly disobedient rabble. We not only don’t listen, we abandon conversations capriciously, and rapidly negate any conventional idea of conversation with semi-autistic zeal. One can see how Radio Bird fits nicely into this. A consistent frequency is needed. Enter the subject of the Oxford comma, and things really do apparently get out of hand. Rarely do we break out into pure anarchy, but as Morris (slightly pissed) took a disliking to Jonkers on the first evening over their third portion of a superb Lamb Korai (made by Megan), and I saw Jonkers bristle and pluck his braces, I thought we were about to witness some competitive Indian wrestling. Fortunately, they were both too drunk and full to move, or even remember what they were arguing about.
So, the Match Report. Well, I’ll do it my way, as I say on Sundays.
The Friday evening saw the welcome return of now foreign-resident Stelios-wannabe Andy Taylor, gogglesock and all, and his lovely girlfriend Danni. It’s been far too long since we remembered he had gone, let alone seen him, and his brooding presence is always a good sign. He can run, catch, hit, bowl and throw. As new arrivals drifted onto the lawn of the excellent little farmhouse we’d hired and won’t name (for legal reasons), rooms were allocated, bedroom dramas narrowly avoided, and the evening took off. Michele Wathes is our lucky new discovery, and also Nicky’s inamorata. She seamlessly operated the kitchen, keeping us fed and watered with astonishing calmness and a precise aim, clearing up after the rougher types, and managing the flow of drinks. Without her, we would probably have starved or eaten each other, so we are very grateful she took the risk and braved joining us for the weekend.
After a Bird mini-tour of Salisbury Cathedral and a gawp at the Magna Carta on Saturday morning, there came the pressing issue of actually playing some cricket. Chilmark CC had kindly agreed to host us at their extremely beautiful, but slightly-sloping-everywhere ground, in the folds of the Chase near Fovant. They seemed pretty harmless at first, opening with their yoof, but after a classic first-ball-spunky-slog-drive straight to cover by Constantine, and a half-cocked-flappy-swipe clipping the ball onto the stumps by Nieboer, the V&A were 20-3. Ashcroft and Taylor A dug in, the former scalping a well-earned 43. Step forward Taylor R, whose Thor-like thuds in the nets still echoed far and wide across the valley as he mooched casually to crease and got a straight one. The words ‘cruel mistress’ were heard. A slow wag of the tail made a respectable-ish score of 140, with particular note to be made of Bowden’s return to the crease. It is a pleasure to have him back with us. T Bird was as consistent as ever. ‘This bloke only has one shot’, they insightfully remarked. I thought our security had been a bit lax.
Tea was taken, beers were drunk (NPG already in his second hangover of the day), and I coached a 13 year-old girl in the nets how not to do a Mike Proctor. Though much was made of not writing about oneself in the advice-Blitz before writing this, on a purely practical basis of actually writing the match report, I have to say that I bowled well at their openers and scalped one (M Allen) with a yorker. Jonkers, who rather uncharacteristically drummed up a minor fuss over which end he felt like bowling from (factors: slope, windsock and local knowhow), had wound me up. His fussiness was rewarded though, and his figures of 3-20 are (mostly) indisputable.
Remarkably, as the day drew out, having looked on top at 7-3, the scoreboard then read 100-6. Constantino (sic) had managed to nab the main offender, Bowden got a sensational caught & bowled, yet things were looking precarious. Some excellent bowling by Constantino (where should the emphasis be in this pronunciation, anyone? I think on ‘–stan’) probably encouraged their premier pinch-hitter (who apparently was head groundsman of a ‘Golf’ course) to slap me about in regal fashion (massive six no back-lift), and we eventually lost by 1 wicket with 4 overs to go. Chilmark CC were a lovely bunch, and I’m sure they are welcome to Stonor some time for some reciprocity.
The evening was upon us. Michele had prepped the meat a day early, due as it was on Sunday evening, and we were due to welcome Ayling any time soon, who had earlier sprung himself loose from his blasted book fair. Nicky had prepped the quiz. Once again, we sat and feasted to our gut’s content. Ayling was knocking back the paint-stripper. Nicky began the quiz. I wish I could remember some of it, but it was genuinely mostly unprintable anyway. And then, that storm. Some were in the garden, others in the house. A lightning bolt struck the house. Bowden didn’t blink. He calmly moved the twins Oscar and Isis under shelter. By now, word had spread that there was a minor disturbance on the forecourt. Ashcroft was involved. As it turned out, our host from whom we were renting the property had been misinformed that we were breeding dogs or something. Verboten, he said. No dogs, he said. Out, he said. Ashcroft contained his fury. He had only got 43 that day. And sleep is minimal when you are an Ashcroft nowadays. I saw the crimson mist descending. Police were mentioned, and the V&A legal department was formed. As with most things V&A, though, there was a lot of fuss, and not too much action. The clock stuck 12, everyone had forgotten the issue, and Ayling was by now paralytic. The party went on long into the night.
One genuine downer was that – thanks to the oik – some (like Emley, Bird, and Bowden) brought forward their departure time by a few hours. Nicky Bird stepped into the fray. Once a lawyer had been rung and Nicky had his instructions, he and Christiaan ‘The Heavy’ Jonkers went to sweet talk this chap to within an inch of his life. I am told the oik had never experienced such arse-licking, and silently stared, dumbfounded. It is not common in Belarus, or wherever he was from, to witness such distinction in the art of grovel. Nicky should have been a diplomat. Actually, on second thoughts, no he shouldn’t. Anyhow, if there were any canines there over the previous days, and my memory is not the best so I, of course, couldn’t say with any reliable accuracy, there certainly weren’t on Sunday by the time coffee, pastries and Sunday papers were brought out.
It is worth mentioning someone here. Megan. Without Megan, I should point out, most of this weekend wouldn’t have worked. She is the box to Ross’s jockstrap. Without her, he is f***ed. But her hard work behind the scenes (and often under our very noses) makes many little things work with our club. Her support and sock-knocking culinary talents are stellar, and we are very grateful for all her graft.
Our final match was against Chalke Valley CC. Smarting from our defeat and ready for vengeance, we made our way to ground surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery I have seen around a humble wicket. I’m not talking about Cath PG (cue Orangutan). Broade Chalke can hang itself, we were in Bower Chalke. Who knew. There are stunning grounds, and our own is one, but this was definitely up there. The scale of the chalky hillsides lent a quite startling theatricality the afternoon’s play. The situation improved when their star player arrived late and was not picked to play. That would never happen at the V&A, I assure you. Mind you, we have no star players.
Once again, Ashcroft took charge, with the intrepid Constantino in ebullient form. Constantino Sr. soon arrived with his expert picnic equipment in tow. Constantino Jr. doesn’t wear a helmet, but well he might have, as he danced merrily around his crease dodging the latest one rising past his ear. He is a fine strokesman of the fuller delivery, and lacerates it handsomely. Not so the shorter one. His dismissal was an exemplary one, nicking one to the keeper, after which he earned the honour of walking not once, but twice. The Taylors then joined each other at the crease, but not for long. And I got a crappy pea-shooter. Once again, Emley held fort (move back up the order?). The score crept up to a near-identical 139. Oh no, we thought.
After some flurry and pomp from our opening bowlers pressing their openers back, word then got out that there was something wrong with Ayling in the field. Apparently his El Nino-sized hangover had only just kicked in, and we only realised how bad it was after he unleashed a sensational throw to the middle of nowhere at around 4pm, and, like a dingo caught in the headlights of a crowd of violent villagers on a night-time killing spree, ran headlong into nowhere attempting to retrieve a catch before exquisitely dropping it and shuffling disconsolately back to cover point for the next farce. There were various attempts to rid himself of this beast (swimming in the river, bowling a few overs, talking nonsense), but the lack of any blood to the face made it clear this was a slow burn. He has now recovered. Blame Nicky’s cheap wine, Tom, and well done.
I do have to say something slightly controversial. Children. Fast bowling. Not a good mix. The oppo know this, we think, and cunningly deploy their runts throughout the order. They burn up the raw pace with their under-13 tiddlers, and bring their honking sloggers in for the dross later in the innings. Some would call this peasant cunning. But that would be rude, and no doubt we are more peasant than the well-heeled Wiltshire crowd we played this weekend. Who knows. But both sides we played did it, and it sort of worked. If we had any children in our team, we would no doubt do the same.
In the end, we beat Chalke Valley, thank Christ, but it was very close. After a ridiculous attempt at a team photo, the sun stretched across the field with Octavia and Alexia running around on the square. That scene is what life is all about.
In no particular order, here are a few other things that happened:
Phil ‘Hannibal’ Goodliffe kept wicket superbly throughout the weekend, always edging up to the batsmen and whispering Northern abuse in their ear (not really, Phil). And we still don’t know his secret to match fitness, though it can’t surely only be the embroidered hot water bottle (it reads: Hot Stuff). Phil is reliable and useful, two foreign characteristics in our outfit, and he is a delight to be around.
The new Chairman of the National Liberal Club (as he actually likes to refer to himself, often in the third person) and his wife sadly left us early; Jane’s sister Fenella made a surprise appearance; Sandra is apparently a bona fide genius at riddles; Constantino fell in the river – yes, he did, he actually fell into the river, and there is photographic evidence; Emley flapped about at a sitter with the sun in his eyes, before rudely declaiming to the side that ‘literally no-one could have caught that’; I did a charade; Tom PG, good lad though he is, bowled dross on Saturday, but was probably preoccupied with his detailed plans for the birthday celebrations on Sunday for his lovely girlfriend Lish; Bowden is back; Robbie Taylor bowled an absolute beauty to beat their best batsman on Sunday; Jane Emley held court with the ‘wags’; Eve wowed us all with her use of a language called ‘French’ (too highbrow for us); Michele was a gem; Danni is clearly a good influence on Andy and Jonkers was generally quite reliably cantankerous, but it’s just his way of making friends.
Finally, and with no undue thanks, we are once again indebted to Nicky Bird for this imperfect perfection that is the V&A CC.