Every once in a while – well, about every once in a year to be exact – Reverse Sweep likes to climb into a small hole in his bedroom wall, wherein lies a repository of all things he doesn’t want to keep on show, or doesn’t have space for in other parts of Reverse Sweep Manor. Some people might refer to it as an attic.
There, under a dusty old Christmas tree, a discarded portable television that no longer works and an enormous antique cabinet bequeathed to an ex-girlfriend by her grandmother but which now fails to pass muster in her interior design grand plan, lies, squashed and seemingly unloved, his former pride and joy – a cavernous Easton cricket bag.
Grabbing hold of its shoulder strap, and without moving any of the aforementioned impediments that would afford him easier access to its contents, he stumbles about, huffing and puffing, banging various parts of his anatomy in the dark, confined space, finding his face occasionally cloaked in cobwebs.
Eventually, after 15 minutes of effort that has sent a Masuri cricket helmet – minus grille – crashing through two of the glass panels on the antique cabinet, rendering it worthless, he gives the bag one final exasperated tug and frees it, overbalancing back out into the bedroom, where a pair of Duncan Fearnley gloves, Gunn and Moore pads and one of those abdominal protectors with the padded perimeters (he has used the pink ones but painful experience has taught him that they don’t always do the job demanded of them) come to rest on his prone, yet surprisingly triumphant, form.
But his delight at this achievement is like nothing compared with the moment when he delves deep into the recesses of the bag and fishes out his magic wand – the handmade Millichamp & Hall bat that has served him so well in the past and which, like a rare and fragile Stradivarius, never fails to win admiring glances and gasps of awe when it is brought out in polite company.
Or even impolite company. Which is as good a way as any of describing a group of tubby Yorkshiremen, beards, bald heads and bulging diaphragms worn like badges of membership of a rather exclusive club, assembling on a damp field at the back of a psychiatric hospital, preparing for the next instalment of a historic cricket rivalry stretching back at least – um – three years.
Because this is the annual match between the JB All-Stars (or No-Stars as they are often more lovingly known) and the Wellington Invitational XI.
The Wellie – as they are more lovingly known – are formed from a bunch of chaps of dubious character and morals who used to frequent the Wellington Inn, a pub incongruously situated down a residential side street among a string of terraced houses little more than a rather pathetic relayed return from long leg from the University of York.
As Dan’s York Pub Guide (www.danieljackson.co.uk/pubs/pub/Wellington) points out, it has the added bonus of serving probably the north of England’s cheapest pint at around £1.30 a shout.
Frequented, that is, until a new landlady raised objections to them arriving at the end of a game and expecting to have their thirsts quenched en masse, and barred them. Now, the Wellie are a pub side without a pub.
And the Wellie is a pub without customers.
The JB All-Stars have no such illustrious history. Formed originally as the Fathers 4 Lager in an attempt at solidarity with Fathers 4 Justice, the civil rights movement whose members are usually discovered in a superhero’s clothing on the top ledge of a government building, they changed their name when it was realised that not all the players were fathers and one or two preferred a healthy orange juice and lemonade to downing copious amounts of alcohol at the end of a hard afternoon’s cricket.
Of course, any delight of Reverse Sweep – who, after hours of tense negotiations is officially named the fifth tubbiest man on display – at being back on the greensward is tempered by the realisation that he has to bat first on a pitch that couldn’t be more of a “sticky dog” if it was to roll around in a vat of toffee from the nearby former Rowntree factory and wave its paws in the air.
Furthermore, over the preceding years of sporting inactivity, he has developed an alarming lower back problem that reveals itself most obviously when he bends slightly to take guard and then finds he cannot straighten himself again.
His opening partner is none other than JB himself, officially the least tubby man on display; officially, in fact, the least tubby man on the planet, he makes Billy Bowden’s index finger look a bit porky.
The pair, pals now for 14 years since they trooped wearily to and fro a dilapidated Brisbane hostel to watch England get mullered at the Gabba over five demoralising days, have never batted together but JB is after glory by association: having doubted Reverse Sweep’s batting prowess for 11 years of their acquaintance, he later reveals he originally arranged the fixture purely to satisfy his curiosity as to whether the blogger could “walk the walk as well as talk the talk”, and now wants to claim bragging rights that he opened the batting with someone who once faced Devon Malcolm (for three balls).
Unfortunately for JB, though, it is he who seems unable to “walk the walk”: only an hour after claiming in his kitchen that he was going to “smack anything that isn’t right on the stumps” he finds himself becalmed by the slowness of the pitch and an outfield so lush that, shortly after the tea interval, two missing manic depressives are discovered frolicking in the undergrowth close to third man.
After four overs, the JBers are 0 for 0. This would not be such a problem if the game was not limited to 40 overs a side. Something has to give, and it does: JB’s knee, still recovering from keyhole surgery after supporting his stick-like frame around most of the half-marathons of Western Europe, clicks alarmingly and, deprived of foot movement (or maybe he always bats like this) he is forced to improvise.
A ball outside leg stump is dispatched straight to the boundary, a full length delivery scooped over square leg with the laissez-faire of a Kevin Pietersen switch-shot. And then it’s all over. JB departs for 16 – his share of an opening stand of 37.
Reverse Sweep, however, labours on, benefiting from being dropped on nought with one of his languid flicks to square leg, defying all medical logic to reach his fifty, at which point he has to retire. Or die.
With some lusty hitting of full tosses from the JBers’ Loughborough University Centre of Cricket Excellence ringer, they finish on 161 and over a tea which is mainly wolfed down by an enormous greyhound that seems to have been crossed with a Labrador in some ghastly university science lab experiment gone wrong, it is agreed that this could be their year.
Within two overs, the Wellie are struggling at nine for three, Taff, someone’s next-door neighbour’s visiting cousin called up at the last moment, claiming two of the victims. But JB’s next-door neighbour is the real danger and, in a cunning tactical manoeuvre, he is allowed to get to his annual fifty and has to retire.
As the overs run down and the run rate increases, JB is persuaded to bring himself on; it is at this point that the assembled audience bears witness to what will without doubt rank as the single worst umpiring decision to be recorded in cricket’s long and sordid archives. The unfortunate recipient is the Wellie wicketkeeper, who earlier in the day has lost his one remaining tooth, knocked out as he tries to gather a wayward off break.
The batsman starts his run down the wicket almost before JB has turned to begin his run-up and when the resulting delivery hits him on the pads on the full he is almost close enough to shake hands with the bowler. Nevertheless, there is an appeal, although later no one admits to being the culprit, and the Wellie’s own umpire raises his finger. Most think he’s having a joke, but no, the decision stands and the batsman accepts it with the grace of Mother Theresa.
And a toothless grin.
From then on in, the result is never in doubt and the JBers and remaining Wellies go to the pub for a drink. The Victoria Arms.
* For those eager to see him in action, Reverse Sweep will next be appearing in flannels at a manor house somewhere in Essex as part of Line and Length’s charity XI against the PG Wodehouse Society. If he’s got his breath back.