Close of play in a match at Fenner's
© Pieter Nixon

Dear Cricket Monthly

Cuppers, Fenner's, winners, dinners

Letter from… Cambridge

John Drew  |  

Dear Cricket Monthly,

It was all a terrible mistake. Clare Hall is a very small Cambridge college, composed, apart from staff and a handful of Fellows, mostly of senior graduate students and professors from abroad who visit for a year.

This year someone at a central computer automatically entered ours in the list of teams to play cricket in "Cuppers", the intercollegiate competition that takes place during the spring term, one that is short, marred by exams and finally upended by May Balls. We were drawn against Fitzwilliam. Could we field a team?

We do have the nucleus for a team on site: among others, Andy, our imperturbable head porter; Dave, the gardener, a champion ploughman and ballroom dancer; Iain, the senior tutor, well placed to establish whether applicants to the college have cricketing as well as academic qualifications; and captain Sam, doubly an allrounder in that, while doing college accounts, he dreams of organising all-year-round cricket.

But we can't make up a full team without an annual intake of people coming from the cricket-playing Commonwealth, together with erstwhile baseball players and a tail of other newcomers from as far afield as Singapore and Syria, all ready to give the English game a go.

I was away and missed the Fitzwilliam match and called in to learn we had batted first and been all out for 19. "Never mind," I said, "at least double figures. What a pity that chap who plays for the MCC wasn't playing for us." "Oh, but he was," came the reply. "And?" "In the first over he was involved in a mix-up which resulted in the other opener being run out, and then he was clean bowled in the next over."

News of our ten-wicket defeat clearly never reached our next opponents, Magdalene College, who conceded the match in advance. We sported a proud 1-1 Cuppers record.

The writer of this article (unhelmeted) goes out to open the batting for the first time in his life

The writer of this article (unhelmeted) goes out to open the batting for the first time in his life © Pieter Nixon

Visitors from London
Our season this year included a fixture against a North London occasional XI founded by one of our own members, who, for his good offices, was dubbed a turncoat. We played what was intended to be a two-innings match of 16 overs an innings (that in effect became a one-innings match since not everybody on either side had a chance to bat). Peculiarly, Conrad the double agent, playing for the Interlopers, was the only player to bat and be out twice.

Another oddity, apparently, was my (first-innings) umpiring. I had been out of the game for more than 50 years and had not umpired since 1957, when wides and no-balls (full tosses or grounders in those days) were things for batsmen to chase and hit. My failure to call these fashionable extras probably cost us the match. Result: Clare Hall, 119 for 0 and 78 for 6. Interlopers, 97 for 3 and 99 for 3.

The Grand Challenge match
Our club had no problem putting together two teams for the Grand Midsummer Challenge match between the college President's XII and the Students (including, incongruously, three players whose combined ages amounted to 210 years).

As usual, about a dozen different countries were represented on the field but, sadly, no women (the sadder since last year the college bursar, a lady, took a decisive catch in the slips). Rain fortunately stopped shortly before play was due to start, and a low-scoring match was the more notable for the fact that nobody, but nobody, was out for a duck.

One duck would have been particularly tragic: Desmond had travelled all the way back from China just to play in this game after a terrible misfortune last year, when he had been bowled first ball of the match by a yorker that he supposed, since it didn't bounce in front of him, was a no-ball. What had intrigued him was that, crestfallen as he was, he had enjoyed the taste of a team victory, and even more, the company at dinner that evening of the man who had bowled him out.

This year Desmond was delighted not only to score but to hold on to a catch. He also figured in the result in another, curious, way. Put on to bowl for the first time in his life, this son of an Asian badminton champion served up a series of shuttlecock lobs. Eventually the umpire at his end, Darshil, the one (Thailand) international on the field, was forced to call a series of sky-high wides and these may have helped to determine the result of the match.

The senior tutor contemplates, commences and completes a run while his partner, regardless of his own safety, watches anxiously from half-way down the wicket

The senior tutor contemplates, commences and completes a run while his partner, regardless of his own safety, watches anxiously from half-way down the wicket © Pieter Nixon

At the traditional dinner that followed, it was the duty of the college president, in his capacity as match referee, to award the trophy to the captain of the winning team. According to the scorebook, the President's Men had scored 56 for 4 in reply to the Students' 67 for 6 in a foreshortened 16-over match. The president, a distinguished law-giver, could never be accused of special pleading, but a senior member of his team (a former captain and this year's highest scorer) appealed to the college rules that declared the team scoring the greater number of runs was the winner, and that, once eccentric extras were discounted, the president's team had outscored the Students by 46 runs to 42. While the president overruled this objection and found in favour of the students, the club had been reminded that the decisive player in their fortunes had again been extras.

Single-wicket cricket
Nets, both indoor during the winter at Fenner's (us at Fenner's) and outside in the spring, are the sociable heart of a small club like ours, uncertain whether six will turn up or 16. In the summer it becomes altogether too tempting to pass by a vacant pitch on the way to the nets, and so we try to get a quorum out for the odd pick-up game.

One enchanted evening following our big match this year, we booked a pitch but only seven turned up, including a sturdy Scot who had taken to the Sassenach game with such gusto he was suffering from a ricked back and a damaged left knee. What to do? We settled on a series of single-wicket contests (maximum three overs per batsman). Up first, I was closing in on the solid but attainable 9 scored by my 80-year-old opponent from Massachusetts (three years my senior) when I foolishly hit around a ball well outside the off stump and played on. Mid-Atlantic title to the USA.

Two Williams brothers, vying for the family title if not the championship of Wales, then went head to head in an exciting encounter that remained in the balance till the last ball after both ran for everything: 15-14. That left our big hitter and incorrigible sledger from old Oz to challenge a keen newcomer from Syria. Luke, sportingly offering to bat left-handed, required only one of his massive sixes to win, but after limiting Wesam to 5 and scoring two singles in reply, he popped a catch to our 80-year-old at point. World title (Clare Hall version) to Syria.

Short as our season had been, we had experienced a fair share of cricket's vagaries. An ad-hoc post-season decision to abolish the hierarchy of club officers that had itself been ad hoc prevents me from signing myself as honorary president or equally as Twelfth Man.

And so I remain, Sir,
Your Own Special Correspondent in the Fens

John Drew is a poet and tutor in Cambridge. Among his obscure works are two booklets on cricket's lost stories, Raid Stopped Play and When Cricket First Came to India