Mad dogs, Englishmen and a journalist went out in the midday sun.
The Englishmen: David Shillingford and Gareth Jones. The journalist: Me. The mad dogs: Not seen but certainly frothing away somewhere near the fiery grill of a field next to the Island Boatyard.
Standing in blocky leg pads running from the ankles past the knees as thick and heavy as those worn by hockey goalies, my hands trapped in heavily padded gloves gripping a flat cricket bat, I was staring at David. The supremely fit former British army officer was bearing down on me at a dead run preparing to hurl a round red missile from 20 yards away with all his strength, aiming to bounce the cricket ball in front of me so it would dart up and in to my body. I now knew what all the comic padding was about and was wondering what had inspired me to think this would be fun.
Gareth, who had coached me in batting, was standing off to the side shouting incomprehensible instructions in his suddenly impenetrable London accent. A memory flash: Gareth, with a jokey aside before I suited up, saying, “And of course this is the most important piece of equipment,” holding up a triangular piece of molded plastic with a snug, hollowed out center. I’d laughed then, thinking: Yeah, a cup for cricket. Do Englishmen strap one on for Ping-Pong, too?
I’d been invited out by David and Gareth, two Island residents and members of the Shelter Island Cricket Club to get a lesson in the quintessential English sport. The two will be playing in Saturday’s second annual SICC’s match at the Boatyard, billed as “Shelter Island vs. The Rest of the World.” The “match” (a primer is coming on cricket terms) will be played “rain or shine” beginning promptly at 11 a.m. David promised, with all proceeds benefitting the Shelter Island Ambulance Corps. Last year the cricketers raised over $12,000.
The match last summer was played in the rain, Gareth said, which quite reminded him of home. Food will be provided by SALT restaurant. Will English food be served? “English food?” Gareth deadpanned. “What would that be?”
Word is there will be Pimms Cup cocktails available, but fans of spotted dick will be disappointed.
The two men talked about England’s game, which is played in almost every country Britain decided to conquer. That takes in some territory, since the Union Jack once flew over a quarter of the world’s land surface. That’s also a lot of folks, as in 450 or so million of them. David described the great Caribbean batsmen who learned the game on the beach while Gareth remembered flying into Sri Lanka once and seeing kids who had broken through the runway fence and set up their pitch on the concrete.
Pitch, as in field. Bowler, as in pitcher. The bowler takes a long running start and throws overhand, stiff-armed, reaching speeds an elite baseball closer can bring it, clocking in at a 100 mph. There are pace bowlers — power pitchers — and spinners — junk pitchers. Wicketkeeper equals catcher, roughly, and he’s the only one who wears a glove. The rest of the fielders are barehanded and their fielding skills are something to behold.
Have you ever tried to explain baseball to someone who has never seen the game? The same impossibility applies to cricket. The scoring is wonderfully weird. England was in an international match when I was having coffee at David’s house and the two Brits were following it on their phones. David held up the screen for me to read the score: 104-4. “Wow,” I said, which seemed to be the appropriate response, as it is these days for any situation or any subject.
My favorite positions in the field are “silly mid on” and “silly mid off.” Really. Gareth showed me some positioning from a website, pointing out the two mids were so close to the batsman they could easily take one on the forehead with a good swing. “You can see how silly it is to stand there,” he said.
Driving to the Boatyard, I told them about an English friend of mine who had once described cricket as the perfect metaphor to understand the English character. Seen from a distance there’s a sense of order, calm and beauty, with the 22 players dressed all in white spread out on a vast greensward on a gentle summer afternoon with clipper ship clouds sailing above. Gareth picked up on it, smiling, adding touches to the scene: “And the old pub in the distance. Maybe a church spire?” He spoke of the strict timing of the game, always beginning at 11 a.m. and breaking for 40 minutes for lunch at 1 p.m. The next break is for tea at 3:40 p.m. for 20 minutes. Precisely.
But when you get closer to the action, cricket is a game of intense competition, fierce play, high skills and a goal of taking no prisoners. Gareth mentioned another part of the game the uninitiated fan doesn’t see, bedeviled by the outward calm and order; “sledging,” or trash talking. This is done mostly by the wicket keepers who tell the opposing batsman extraordinary things about his mother or lack of manhood, anything to play with his head while a pace bowler is rushing at him with his best stuff and worst intentions. “The Aussies are experts at sledging,” Gareth said, with an understated tone of admiration.
No sledging for me as David offered some soft tosses my way, the cricket ball looking as big as a beach ball when it left his hand. I was driving them pretty well. Nothing to it. Cake. But then I asked him to give me his best. There was a frighteningly polite grin on his face as he said, “Sure.”
The ball came in at me the size of a red pebble, with a lot on it and bouncing crazily at my feet. I was swinging in self-defense a couple of times. But I didn’t hurt myself, and actually drove one or two. I began to appreciate the beauty of the sport. The cricket swing is more graceful and has more elements to it than the baseball cut, and putting pace and spin on the ball and locating it where you want it at the feet of the batsman is art.
I’ll be at the Boatyard Saturday to watch how the good players play the game.
My favorite cricket story is an anecdote about Samuel Beckett, the Nobel laureate who wrote novels and plays that were, because of his genius, simultaneously bleak and hilarious. It seems Beckett, who’d been a brilliant cricketer in his college days, was walking with a friend to Lord’s cricket grounds, the London venue that is the Yankee Stadium of the sport. They had tickets for good seats for an important match. His friend, commenting on the perfect midsummer’s day and their overall good fortune, said, “God, Sam, doesn’t it make you feel glad to be alive?”
And dour Sam, after a moment’s thought, said, “Well, I wouldn’t go that far.”
Beckett was wrong, I thought, helping Gareth and David gather up the gear after my lesson, thinking about the time spent with them as we walked out of the sun toward the shade trees at the side of the field.