Tales of Sporting Incongruity

by Harry on July 26, 2018

Tailenders is the best of the BBC’s proliferating podcasts about cricket. The star is a regular guest, Machin, who is in some obscure way related to Sachin Tendulkar (maybe) and professes (completely plausibly) to have no interest in cricket at all (you can listen to the best of Machin here). Among Machin’s roles is to invent features. These are usually games and quizzes, but the current, ongoing, feature is ‘tales of cricketing sadness’ in which listeners send in tales of their own failures, to amuse and to get catharsis. I don’t have any interesting tales of cricketing failure [1] and anyway I thought that for our audience cricket might be too restrictive. So, instead, it being silly season, can we have tales of oddness — incongruity — well, anything that might entertain us here at CT? Here’s mine, to set the tone.

In the middle of the 80s, despite not working there, or studying there, I played for the Oxford College of Further Education cricket team. Mainly it was lecturers, with the odd student, and the odd ringer (I suppose I was one — I think my sister also played for us once, though my more vivid memories are of her playing against us for the staff team of my old school and wounding the pride of a couple of quite capable batsman who were annoyed to be got out by a teenage girl). Anyway, the team must have been unique in one way: all 4 major strands of British Trotskyism were represented on the team. Our captain and opening bat was a former member of Militant; my fellow opening bowler grew up in the Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party (his dad was a leading member of the SLL, before, subsequently, having a road named after him in Cowley); an occasional middle order batsman had left the International Socialists when they became the Socialist Workers Party (UK). A first change bowler, despite being a Shachtmanite, was a member of the Mandelite Fourth International (something that was permitted in the US in the second part of the eighties).

To add to this surely unique mix, our most stylish middle order batsman, whom I think we all also thought was the nicest guy in the team, worked for the CIA.

We had no Stalinists, as you can imagine.

Your story?

[1] I have do many tales of cricket failure, its just that none of them are interesting. My one interesting tale of success was as a batsman. I came in at 37-7, when my team was chasing 88, and was out only after a 50 partnership with my fellow opening bowler, of which he scored….49 (in my defense, I took all the strike from Phil Newport, making many very satisfying leaves, and enjoying many interesting bruises). The bowler who had me caught behind bowled a wide next ball to give us a well-earned victory.



rootlesscosmo 07.26.18 at 6:47 pm

Around 1960, someone organized a softball game in Berkeley in which one team included people from the Old Left and the other included some well-known Left anti-Communists, among them Bogdan Denitch. At one point the opposing team began a chant: “Gimme a V!” “V!” “Gimme an O!” “O!” “Gimme a T!” “T!” “VOT! VOT! VOT about Hungary?”


peterv 07.26.18 at 8:37 pm

Eton and Harrow play a fixture at Lord’s each year, and each school permits (or perhaps compels) non-playing students to attend as spectators. At last year’s match, the rival spectators taunted each other by singing various school songs. With their team clearly losing the game and having run out of songs they knew, the Eton spectators, in an attempt to intimidate their opponents, eventually sang the national anthem, God Save the Queen. They still lost.


Leo Casey 07.26.18 at 9:55 pm

A small miracle in the annals of Trotskyist history, Harry, that you kept that team together.


LFC 07.27.18 at 12:14 am


The late Bogdan Denitch evidently had a good sense of humor. (Too bad he didn’t live to see the current growth of DSA, which org. btw appeared in a front-page WaPo story the other day — pretty amazing).


SamChevre 07.27.18 at 12:24 am

I am distinctly non-athletic. In university, one graduation requirement was to play a team sport for a half-semester. I put this off as long as possible–until spring semester of my senior year. At that point, I was recruited by some friends to play on their intermural basketball team.

At this point, it’s worth noting two things: I was a math and economics major who did a lot of programming, and I’m 6’4″. So the team that recruited me was all East Asian, and I was the tallest person by about a foot.

I was still the worst player, and was sufficiently bad that the only game my team won was the one I was not able to participate in.


nnyhav 07.27.18 at 3:38 am

When I was a toddler, I had a “lazy eye” surgically strengthened but not fully corrected, such that if I focus with the bad eye, the good one is drawn inward. So it happened that in high school intramural basketball, a strong pass was thrown my way when I wasn’t looking, and turning when I heard my name called, the ball whacked me upside the head and I crashed to the floor. The phys-ed teacher supervising us saw it all and came racing over, bending over me, urgently asking “Are you alright?” and so I looked up at him, focussing on him with my bad eye and asking “Is my glass eye off?” The half-minute of sheer panic that resulted stays high on my personal highlight reel.


dr ngo 07.27.18 at 4:38 am

As an American, not particularly adept at sports, I had no cricket skills to speak of, although our son – raised in Australia and Hong Kong – was good enough to be captain and opening batsman of his team through middle school, so I knew the game pretty well as a spectator.

One time the Hong Kong University Sports Club (or whatever it was) managed to put together a match against some other local side, who wound up several men short. As the least competent potential/theoretical cricketer from HKU, I was loaned to the visitors for the duration. (I have a vague recollection this may have been mid-match, perhaps when some of the visitors left to catch the early ferry home?)

To keep talented individuals from over-dominating play, the rules for this game were that a batsman who scored a certain number of runs (30?) had to retire, and could only return to the wicket if there were no other batsman left. As it happened, the visitors had just such a Classic Batsman, and he ran up 30 with little effort, but when he retired, they were still losing and the rest of the side just fell apart.

And so it was that I came in, as 11th man, and with my opposite soon going out, I was paired with the Classic Batsman, who got to return at that point. My only task – which I understood and upheld – was to take no chances whatsoever. We (the visitors) won, and I was part of the winning partnership, with my score being forever emblazoned in memory – mine, at least: 0, n.o.

I retired from cricket after that match.


Trader Joe 07.27.18 at 11:41 am

As a yank I don’t have many cricket stories, but having done graduate work in the UK I do have a few and the best is from my first time playing an actual game.

As a reasonably accomplished baseball player (if I say so myself) I was intrigued to try cricket from the start and so took various opportunities to try batting when guys were just funning around on the green. Eventually I was invited to actually play in a club game and eagerly accepted even though I knew I’d be a tailender for sure (I batted 9th as it turned out).

When I finally got my turn in I knew my job was primarily to defend and let my more accomplished partner do the heavy lifting. After a bit of that my baseball instincts took over and I got the proverbial “fat pitch” I was waiting for and using my best stroke I ripped the ball as hard as could imagining my first boundary (which I did quite nearly reach).

Unfortunately my baseball training was well ingrained and as I took off running after my stroke I threw my bat behind me (as one would do in baseball) and neatly obliterated all three wickets and bails. Everyone laughed of course and it was the source of some good natured ribbing for the balance of my primarily inglorious career.


Adam Swift 07.27.18 at 3:21 pm

In my youth I was an opening batsman in the Boycott mould. I’d been properly coached and had a good defence, including good judgment about what to leave. Unlike Boycott, I could see the point of trying to get out if I thought that would improve my team’s chances, but the situation rarely arose, mainly because I (rightly) didn’t trust my teammates not to collapse as soon as I was no longer there to take the strike against the serious bowlers. And I was so well coached that I found it hard to get out even when I tried. I didn’t know how not to block the straight ones or keep the ball on the ground. (I’m now 57, have played consistently from the age of 10, and have never hit a 6. Not even close.)

When I went to Oxford, in 1980, I thought it’d be fun to try out for the Blues – the University cricket team. A minibus took us out to the indoor nets at what was then Oxford Polytechnic. (Why? Did my university not have its own?) On the bus was a huge fast bowler from the West Indies who talked about a mate of his called ‘Viv’. I gradually worked out that this was Viv Richards, whom he had recently clean bowled, beaten for pace, in some game or other. Perhaps this was psychological warfare. If so, it worked. I was terrified before I took guard and indeed hardly saw the ball. To have any chance of getting a bat on his short-pitched deliveries I ended up taking such big steps back that I trod on or hit my wicket several times. Completely humiliated, I settled for College cricket.

One summer in 1981 or 1982 I was playing as a ringer for Chelsea Nomads against British Rail (South West London Division). Chelsea Nomads were all journalists, actors, media and city types, and all white. As those of you familiar with the history of public transport in London will know, British Rail (SWLD) weren’t. What they were is a lot better than us. It was a boiling hot day. They won the toss, batted, and made over 200 (232 comes into my head) in a couple of hours. After facing an over from each from their two opening bowlers it was obvious to me that we had no chance of winning and should play for a draw. We succeeded. I can’t remember how many we’d got by the close but I know that I was 6 not out. I expected the opposition to be annoyed but was naively disappointed that my teammates took their side. They suggested I put a ‘W’ in front of my self-description as anchor man. That was the last time I played for Chelsea Nomads.


Harry 07.27.18 at 8:50 pm

I didn’t know either of those stories Adam. Lots of good ones here!

My year-based school team always won the county cup, always without any trouble. (I am almost sure we never lost a cup game). We were the best state school team in the area, better even that Slough Grammar or RGS Wycombe. I’m not sure we ever lost any game at all, in fact, apart from…. We never got past the first round of the subsequent knock out between county champions. In the three years we moved on to play against the teams from Berkshire, then Oxfordshire, and then Berkshire again. That meant Eton, Radley, and Eton. The third of those years we fancied ourselves, as we had two players who could clearly go onto the first class game if they continued on their current trajectory. But we were demolished: they had an opening batsman who got to his fifty in the first 6 overs, and slowed down (a lot) only when I came on, basically because I was too slow a bowler for him to use my pace against me. They made a couple of hundred in the 20 overs, losing 3 wickets because batsman, un-Swiftlike — chose to give them away. We lasted, I think, 10 overs against them.

That’s not the bad part of it. Oddly, a few years later the opening batsman and I were on the same college course — he was a nice, and smart, guy. We reminisced about the game, which he remembered in great detail because…. it was the only game he ever played for Eton. They had played their second choice players to give us a chance.


graham wood 07.28.18 at 12:05 am

Well, Harry, it’s thanks to Adam that I found this. You may remember that I was a teammate at OCFE in the mid 80-s. Unlike you, I did actually belong as I taught there for a couple of years before escaping to Sudan. Indeed, the only reason I taught there at all was due to a couple of games for Balliol Erratics against OCFE. I have only 2 memories of those games. One was our opening bowler, Jeff Williams, scored 150 against them and secondly that someone said ‘give me a call when you graduate’ and that was how I found my job. The class system lived on, especially on the far left.

A few times at OCFE we had the Oxfordshire captain, the late Phil Garner, turn out for us. As with Adam’s reminisces above, he always showed us the wide gap in cricketing class. I remember once he scored 70 odd, spending the last 40 or so hitting the ball in the air, desperate to get out, but everyone kept dropping the ball to his disappointment.

I suppose I was merely Labour left in those days and no doubt was considered overly bourgeois by the real left. I don’t however recall the CIA spy.


Harry 07.28.18 at 1:33 pm

Hi Graham! I hope all is well. My mum send you her best wishes! I haven’t seen Pete Fryer for a long time but my dad and stepmum are good friends with him, so I maintain a connection (he’s a UNISON official now).

I only played with Phil Garner once: in fact I think it was against Balliol, and Adam may have been playing (it was 1992 or 3, my last game for OCFE), and Phil managed to get himself out early enough that the game was very close — in fact, it was one of the few games in which my bowling was decisive (I bored the batsmen so much they forgot that they were supposed to score runs). He was a very good player!

I think I was the only one not on the Labour left really — all the others had left their groups more or less recently.

He wasn’t a spy, exactly — he was English, and had an MPhil in Arabic, and worked for the CIA at some monitoring station gathering, translating, and analyzing evidence. I’m mortified that I can’t remember his name — I’m sure it will come to me!


graham wood 07.29.18 at 9:37 am

Thanks Harry. All the best to your mother too!

I only ever failed, of course, when it was someone else at fault. On one such occasion, perhaps Adam was playing, I was on the very brink of a major score for Balliol at Downside school. I think I had scored one very finely placed run when I advanced purposely down the wicket. Just as I was about to strike it perfectly through the covers, my eye was distracted by a helicopter landing in the school grounds. Needless to say, I was bowled.

The school had decided to get at me by flying in the alleged remains of Saint Oliver Plunkett, a 17th Century Irish priest who, according to Wikipedia, ‘ tackled drunkenness among the clergy.’ Not only was he rewarded for this pointless task with beatification but my own wicket, 300 years after his death.

There are countless other occasions when I would have scored 100 but for divine intervention, blatant cheating by the opposition, the force of nature, dreadful umpiring or some cause other than my lack of ability.

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