Wednesday, 23 December 2015

A Christmas Carol for Cricketers

Marley was out: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

Old Marley was out - dead as a door-nail. Scrooge knew he was out. Of course he did.  Call him for a quick single? Bah! Scrooge had stayed firmly in his ground. 'Quick singles are humbug!' he said to himself. 'Marley just wanted to keep strike. Humbug!'

Marley stomped angrily to the pavilion.  He was on 49 and looking good.  He had pushed the ball wide of cover's left hand.  He had called clearly and was at the bowler's end before he realised that his partner, his skipper, Ebenezer Scrooge had not moved.  The throw came in - even the wicket-keeper's fumble could not avert the inevitable.

Marley glared at his skipper as he passed.  'Some skipper you are,' he muttered, 'that's the third time this season you've run me out. That's the last time I play for this club.'

Scrooge had once been a talented batter, a fine timer of the ball.  But  that was many, many summers ago.  As his career lengthened his obsession with his average grew year by year.  He lay awake at night dreaming no longer of the ball speeding to the boundary, but of the red ink against his name in the scorebook.  It was the greatest phrase in the English language.  E Scrooge* not out................ It was worth any sacrifice.  And if his teammates couldn't see that, well, 'Bah, humbug to them.'

Bob Cratchit spoke to his skipper as they packed their kit.  'Skip, I thought you might give me a bat next week.'  Scrooge looked at him sternly. 'And why would I do that Cratchit?'  'Well skip, I come to every practice, I feel in good nick but I've only faced 2 balls all season.'  'And what happened then?'   Scrooge turned his piercing gaze on his gentle seamer. 'Well, you ran me out.'  Even though the whole team had seen Scrooge ignore his call, Cratchit immediately regretted his words. 'Ran you out? Humbug.  You didn't wait for my call. You'll bat 11 as usual and field fine leg - both ends.'
Cratchit sighed.  It was always the same - each year it got worse.  But he steeled himself - he had something important to ask, 'Skip, you know my boy Tim?' Scrooge's gaze turned even icier.  'Well, he took 6 wickets in the juniors last week - do you think you could give him a turn in the firsts?' Scrooge paused, 'A junior?  In the first team?  Humbug. A junior?  Of all things. Hell will freeze over first before I play with a ....JUNIOR.'

As Scrooge made his way home from the match his mood was dark.  The team may have won, but he had been LBW'd in the final over. 'Bah. Only 2 more balls and I would have had another red inker.' He slammed the pavilion door.  'Everyone saw it pitched outside leg. Why did I let that idiot Marley umpire?  Humbug.'

As he passed the nets, he saw some of the junior members energetically  practising in the fading evening light.  He spotted young Cratchit flicking the ball dextrously from hand to hand before whipping it down the track and with the perfect googly giving his opponent no chance.  He scowled.  'You juniors,' he bellowed, 'get out of there.   Seniors only in the nets.'  'But coach said..' 'I don't care what coach said - I'm skipper - BE OFF WITH YOU.'

Scrooge tossed and turned in his bed that night; his dismissal, the impertinence of the juniors, there was too much on his mind.  Suddenly he heard a sound.  He sat up.  He was not alone.  Standing by his bed was a white figure in full batting gear.  Scrooge was terrified. 'Fear not , Ebeneezer, I am the ghost of cricket past - come with me.'  Still fearful, Scrooge rose and followed the stranger.  They came to the cricket ground - familiar in the sunshine. 'See the young Ebeneezer .....' 

Scrooge followed the stranger's crooked finger as it pointed to a youngster excitedly strapping on his pads.  A kindly voice was heard, 'Ebeneezer you're next in - you're first innings for the firsts but just play straight and you'll be fine.'  Together Scrooge and the stranger watched as the youngster made his way to the middle and after a careful start begin to stroke the ball with more confidence. 'Do you remember?' said the stranger. 'Yes, yes,' said Scrooge, 'my first match - I was just14 and I got 48 batting with the skipper before I got a shooter.  What a day!'  They watched on as the team cheered the youngster and to a man heartily shook his hand.

The sun dappled image faded and Scrooge was alone tossing and turning in his bed.  The clock ticked on and suddenly he felt again a prescence - another white clad figure at the foot of the bed tossing a ball from hand to hand.  Before he could scream in terror, the figure spoke, 'Ebeneezer Scrooge, I am the ghost of cricket present - come with me.'  The figure moved and Scrooge followed.  Past the cricket ground this time and on to some houses beyond.  The ghost pointed at a lighted window. 'Watch,' he said.  Scrooge looked in and there he saw Cratchit and his family including Tim.  'Listen, said the ghost.   the youngster was animatedly talking '.................but Dad it's not fair..........why can't we practice in the evening.  No one else was in the nets.  It's just Scrooge he hates us junior members.  He never comes to junior matches.  He never gives us hints.  He wishes we weren't there.  I'm fed up of cricket - and so are my pals.  We're not going to play any more................'  The scene faded as the boy threw his bat into the fireside basket of logs.

Scrooge lay restlessly asleep again.  A third time he woke with a start to find a white clad figure beside his bed.  This time the figure was old and bent, his eye rheumy, his hair and beard dishevelled, his white clothes stained and tattered.   He spoke in a cracked whisper, 'I am the ghost of cricket yet to come.  Follow me, Ebeneezer, follow me.'  Scrooge obeyed and followed the stranger's lead.  They came to a place that was familiar but it had changed.  An old derelict building lay in one corner of an overgrown wasteland.  A rusty tractor stood in another.  The cold wind blew litter in an untidy swirl.

'Surely this is the cricket ground?' Scrooge asked his guide.  'It was the cricket ground, but no cricket has been played for many a year.'  'What happened, the cricket club was such a happy place.'  'Once it was but little by little it died - one by one the players had enough of the skipper and moved to other clubs.  The junior section dwindled, neglected and rejected.  Relegation followed relegation.  Matches were scratched.  No one tended the wicket that was once the best in the area and it became a minefield.  The club played its last match a year ago.  Next year this will be a brand new car park.'

'No,' said Scrooge,  'No, it cannot be!'  The ghost replied, 'This is what will happen, unless........' The  voice began to fade.  'Unless what, cried Scrooge desperately.  but the figure had vanished and only a whisper came through the air,  '........................unless........................'

Scrooge woke with a start.  The morning was bright and clear.  The wicket would be firm.  A fine day for batting.  As Scrooge thought of the red ink against his name, he stopped himself.

He reached for his phone and quickly pressed the numbers in.  'Cratchit,' a voice answered. 'Bob,' said Scrooge, 'can you open the batting today?'  'No problem, skip,' came the reply.  'And your boy, Tim, we could give him a chance - wicket looks like it'll take some spin.' 'Yes - he'll be ready.'  'Tell him to come down early - he can bowl a few at me in the nets.........a fiver if he gets me out!'

And as Tim left the field after taking 3 wickets for 25 in his first bowl for the firsts, Scrooge smiled kindly, shook the boy's hand warmly and looked around the ground, the ground he loved and would go on loving. 

Tim looked at his skipper, turned to his pals and shouted out, 'God bless us everyone....................'

'Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for was always said of him that he knew how to keep cricket well if any man alive possessed the knowledge.'

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