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I could die out here. It’s that hot. We’re at Jericho Park. It’d be a hundred in the shade if there were shade. There’s a crowd of tanned beachies having a party over there, beer on ice, bikinis, burger smoke. They’re staring like we’re mad. And we’re not even wearing long white polyester pants and acrylic cable-knit sweaters.
Let ’em stare. I’m satisfying a longstanding curiosity here. I’ve admired the loping, easy grace of the cricket players at Brockton Oval. I’m drawn to arcane sports generally-jai alai, skeet shooting, trebuchet human catapult. So when Anosh Irani, the esteemed local novelist and crack batsman with the North Shore Cricket Club, offered to teach a bunch of us writers to play, I took the liberty of visualizing myself as something of a natural.
But, as it’s turning out, I’m quite bad. In fact, I’m falling into rarer and rarer statistical categories of badness as the game progresses. Indeed, I’m what they refer to in cricket as a “Duck.” Worse, a “Golden Duck”, although thankfully I have not yet descended as far as either “Double Duck” or “Diamond Duck” (which is also known as a “Glass Duck”). But then, we’re only in the first inning.
Let me back up and explain. While cricket shares with baseball a set of innings and hit-run, batting-fielding architecture, the differences are vastly more important. For instance, while batters in baseball do face the entire fielding team, focus is really on the pitcher-batter duel. In cricket, everybody on the fielding team pitches (bowls), each fielding player tossing a set of six balls known as an “over” in rotation as long as it takes to get the batsman out. It might take a single ball. It might take 10 “overs” involving 10 fielding players.
The effect here is to manifest a kind of ganging-up effect on the batsman unlike the mano-a-mano dynamic of baseball. Even Roger Clemens had only a single repertoire of pitches. But a cricket batsman faces the bowling expertise of up to 25 fielders: gullies and mid-wickets, silly mid-offs and leg-slips. And from each of these any number of wacky bowls might be expected: leggies and offies, in-dippers and off-cutters.
“I always test a batsman with a bouncer,” Anosh says to me casually before the game, as if in warning. “Like the perfume delivery, which goes right past his nose. Shakes the batsman up. Then you make the next one a yorker, right on the toes.”
At least we’re not playing with a regulation ball, which is approximately as hard as concrete. For recreational cricket you use something like a dense tennis ball. It could concuss, although skull fracture would be unlikely.
Still, Jericho Park is very uneven. Our talent pool consists primarily of geek writers who’ve never played before. And these factors combine to produce the most spectacular array of weird and wonky bowls, most of which are as hard to hit as the meanest googlie or doosra out there.
Which brings me to another important difference between cricket and baseball. In cricket the entire team must be thrown, tagged, or caught “out” before the batting and fielding teams change positions. And since a pick-up cricket game is generally a single inning (each team batting and fielding just once) the time you’re up there as a batsman is your sole opportunity to contribute to your team’s score.
One at bat? No pressure. We picked up the slow-pulse biorhythms of baseball in the schoolyard. The long ebbs and tidal flows. The always flickering hope of ninth inning redemption. Cricket apparently offers no such shelter.
And we’re starting to all look like this is dawning on us too. We’re all standing around while Anosh runs down the rules (mercifully truncated from their Biblical official dimensions for the purposes of our pickup game) and I notice that none of us in the semicircle listening even know how to stand. Throw any of these guys onto a baseball field and a certain set of poses would be automatically struck. A kind of hand-on-the-hip nonchalance. They may not all chew tobacco but guys on a baseball field generally adopt the attitude, the physical posture of someone who might just expel a long brown stream of nicotine-laced Skoal juice at any moment. It’s subconscious, derived from man-years of baseball watched on television, of course. But it’s in the blood. What do you do hanging out at a cricket pitch? I notice nobody is swearing. I keep thinking of the Commonwealth, myself.
Then Anosh takes a few practice bowls from Rajiv, a club teammate who has come along to play. I start to find my way back into the competitive zone. He shows us how to wait for that ball to bounce, to reveal its flight path. He shows us how to step in, bearing down on the pitch without over-hitting it. It looks doable. It even stays feeling doable in memory, as I heft the bat and take a few practice cuts through the air. Wait, step. Bear down on it. Easy does it. Yeah. Yeah, I can do this.
Bringing us back to the game. And to Ducks. I’m on Anosh’s team and we win the toss. And while Rajiv takes his team out into the field, Anosh gives me the nod, honouring me with the job of hitting first.
Up I go. And here comes the bowl, from Rajiv himself, who is trying almost embarrassingly hard not to get me out. As the ball bounces up towards me, I dispense with all previous instruction and do what every self-respecting kid who learned how to swing a baseball bat does. I try to kill it. Crack!
Strange. For a moment I can’t be sure where the ball is. Maybe I’ve hit clear of the boundary and made the beach. Or maybe…right. I’ve hit a 15-foot blooper straight back to Rajiv, who is grinning apologetically holding the ball in his right hand, which seems to have hardly had to move to catch me out.
Out without a run makes me a Duck. Out on the first pitch makes me something rare: a Golden Duck.
The game carries on, with drama. Chris (lawyer) falls with an audible knee pop and hobbles off to have a beer instead. Tom (journalist, film) turns out to be a ringer and bats in a bunch. Then Anosh steps up and knocks in 50 plus and the game seems locked despite my howler. I remain confident even when Chris (journalist, extreme sports) turns out to be another ringer. I throw him perfumers and yorkers, even a beamer once (close to the nose, without bouncing). He still cracks in about 20. The gap closes. Team A hunkers down. Kevin (playwright) fields a zinger. Chris (journalist, art) fouls his own wicket with the bat, knocking over the stumps.
“We could call that a Puffin,” I suggest.
But nobody’s listening, because Rajiv is now batting. And our lead is eroding like sand on Jericho Beach. Rajiv takes Team B over with a “six” deep, deep. Kevin (novelist) makes a run, then pulls up. The beachies’ heads collectively swivel, watching it go. So Team B wins. And sure, we play again. And yes, they win again. But that time, I squibbed one out and scored. So I may be Golden Duck but I’m not a Double Duck, which would just be humiliating.
Only later, looking at Wikipedia cricket terminology, do I realize that by going out without a run, on my team’s first ball, of the first game of the season (which it was, for me) I have achieved additional status. Ladies and gentlemen, I am a Platinum Duck. And if there are higher duck rankings than this-like for getting out on the first ball of the first inning of the first game of the season in what happens to be the first game your life-well then someone please notify the editors of this magazine, and I’ll add it to the list.