Feature Article by Stuart Larner 08/10/03
Despite all the work he had done for the Scoving Village Cricket Club, Jeremy Downing was still regarded as nothing more than a menial slave by some of the long-serving players.
For instance, during the spring, he had spent all his spare evenings painting the sightscreen and had hardly received a thank-you in return. There had only been the captain, Jake, who had shown any recognition of his contribution, and that was by a perfunctory “Thank you Jeremy”. The other players, especially Sykes, Fowler and Jones, were all too preoccupied and insecure about their own positions to encourage other team members.
On another occasion last season Jake had said “Sykes’ brother-in-law can get me some cheap paint for the lounge and I want to keep him sweet by giving him a game. Can you step down this week please, Jeremy?”
Jeremy was furious. True that Jeremy wasn’t a good player, but how could the captain draft in someone else who had never played cricket before, who had no skills, and was not even a member of the club? And all just to save a few pounds on some cheap paint. Jeremy bit his lip to keep quiet for fear of losing his long-term position in the club.
Today, Scoving was at home to Haysham on an extremely hot summer’s day. Scoving fielded in the heat of the afternoon and Jeremy was run ragged for over two hours.
Just as the players were struggling in for a very welcome tea, Jake said to Jeremy “We’ve got to have an emergency committee meeting during the tea interval. So can you please do us a favour and sweep the pitch and remake the creases? Oh, and can you put the roller on it as well? Thanks.”
During his labours Jeremy saw Sykes and Jones relaxing in deckchairs, sipping tea and eating cake.
“So that’s what the committee meeting is all about,” thought Jeremy as the colour rose in his cheeks. “Ha, I’ll know next time.” He brushed angrily at the bowler’s delivery footmarks. Biting his lip, he made no comment for fear of being left out next week.
Sykes came over to Jeremy at the end of the tea interval when Jeremy was sweating single-handedly with the roller.
“We need you to open the innings because the rest of the team has to discuss tactics,” Sykes said. “You can get your tea when you come back after you’ve had a bat. They’ve got a fast bowler on and we need to send somebody in to weather the storm for the first few overs until he gets tired. So when you’ve finished here you can get your pads on.”
Jeremy had time for only a quick swig of water before he went out to bat. He was exhausted when he arrived at the crease.
The first ball came down and Jeremy didn’t see it at all. It whizzed past his nose.
The second ball bounced over his back, but the third ball was the problem. He saw it leave the bowler’s hand and his eyes followed it down onto the ground, but he lost it and then suddenly saw it grow in tremendous size as it reared up straight for his left temple. There was a dull thwack and Jeremy’s legs collapsed under him. As he fell to the ground a terrible gout of pain locked his head in a vice-like grip and he passed out.
When he came to he saw a white ceiling and a line of coat hooks on a blue boarding on the wall. He realised that he was lying on his back in the changing room where his teammates had dumped him.
A head appeared round the door. It was Jake. He appeared unusually supportive. “How are you Jeremy, are you a bit better?”
Jeremy could only mutter, barely able to focus.
“We’re doing badly,” Jake knelt down and confided. “All due to that one bowler who’s got most of us out whilst you were asleep. There’s only Sykes that can play him. It just needs somebody to stay at the other end for a while whilst Sykes knocks them off. I mean, you weren’t out you know. You can’t be caught off your head.”
Jake took a groan from Jeremy as a grunt of agreement and returned outside.
Jeremy sat up and looked around the room. He still had his pads on exactly as at the moment the ball had hit, but he couldn’t see his bat.
Staggering to his feet, he popped his head out of the doorway onto the veranda.
“I’m looking for my bat. Have you seen my bat?” Jeremy muttered, screwing up his eyes from the outside sunlight.
“No. Never mind, “ Jake said. “Just use one of the club spares. In the equipment cupboard - there might be one there amongst all that old netting and poles from last year.”
Jeremy looked around the room. A shaft of sunlight had now penetrated through the frosted side windows and standing up in a corner bathed in light was a glistening bat. It certainly did not look like any of the old spares. It shone so brilliantly that he couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it a few moments ago.
A shiver of excitement coursed through his body. Holding the bat revitalised his senses. His sight was now so acute that he could see every detail in the grain in the wooden bench round the musty changing room wall. He wafted the bat and went through a few preliminary strokes. Though the bat was very light it seemed to pull his arms and body into perfect textbook positions. It was as though the bat had a mind and power of its own.
At that moment there was a shout from the veranda.
“Oh no! That’s it! He’s out. Right then, Jeremy. Are you ready? You’re in.”
In contrast to his usual trepidation, Jeremy strode out calmly with the bat. His only concern was that someone would shout out “Hey! Where are you going with that? That’s my bat!” But no one did, for Jeremy was careful to hide the bat in front of him while he walked down the pavilion steps and out to the middle of the field.
He faced the first ball. His usual instinctive reaction was to back away towards leg and to lift his bat up at a skew-whiff angle. But he strangely found it impossible to do. For in that split second his left foot was placed by some unseen power down the line of the ball to meet it at its pitch as his bat was lifted in an exact backswing. Then, at the moment when the ball was virtually on him the pressure on the bat was suddenly released and the bat swung through an authoritative stroke with tremendous acceleration. There was a soft splat as he saw the ball speed off the bat face. The bowler fell over backwards as he tried to dive for the ball, but pulled his hand away as he realised it was travelling ferociously. A split second later it crashed into the sightscreen on the boundary.
Behind him he heard Jake from the pavilion shout “Well done, Jeremy!”
The bowler’s expression changed to disgust as he took the retrieved ball from a fielder and stomped angrily back to his mark.
Jeremy was more surprised than anyone. He lifted the bat up to look at the blade. It was unblemished even though it had hit the ball like a rocket. The sunlight caught on the blade and bathed his face in light.
Jeremy was wrenched out of his enchantment by the wicket keeper behind him shouting in a gruff voice and clapping his gloved hands together “Come on, lads, now then, concentrate. He can’t do it twice. We’ll get him now.”
Jeremy resumed his stance and the bowler came running in again. As the ball was released he automatically attempted to move his bat at its customary skew-whiff angle, but once again the unseen force inside the bat resisted anything but the most classical textbook positioning. An irresistible force moved his right leg back and across and turned his body square-on so that he looked straight at the oncoming ball. Then, once again at the moment that the ball was almost on him, the bat suddenly released itself and came across in a rapid arc to hook it with perfect timing to the boundary.
The fielder on the mid-wicket boundary did not have time to move. The bowler was dumbstruck and the wicket keeper was silent for once.
Sykes, the other batsman, came down the pitch and muttered “Steady on, Jeremy, don’t let it go to your head.”
The rest of the over continued like this, each ball being despatched to the boundary as if by an unseen alien force in the bat that controlled the shot. Sykes took a single off the first ball of the next over which brought Jeremy to face the other bowler, and the brilliant strokeplay continued.
As he made his way triumphantly off the field at the end of the match, his team-mates applauded him.
“Well done Jeremy. I’m sure you’ll be certain of a place in the team every week. It’s up to others to stand down now,” Jake beamed and patted him on the back.
Sykes grunted. “I’d like to see it done regularly and not be a fluke before we reach that stage. Hah!”
“Now, now, Sykes. Give the lad his due,” Jake said presidentially. “I note you didn’t score many when Jeremy came to the wicket.”
Sykes scowled and grunted again, “Hah! We’ll see! How did he do it anyway?”
“I found this bat,” Jeremy said, holding it aloft and feeling that he had to do the right thing. By honestly owning up to the fact that it really wasn’t his, he secretly hoped that he would be allowed to keep it.
“Jeremy, you fool! That’s your own bat. You’ve had that all along,” Jake was mystified.
“No it isn’t. It’s new. I haven’t seen it before,” asserted Jeremy.
But no matter how much Jake protested and pointed out the features of the bat, Jeremy argued back for he was convinced that it was new.
The next week they had a return match at Haysham’s home ground. Again Jeremy batted brilliantly and so they were through to the finals at the County Ground.
By now he had been promoted to open the innings but in the minute before striding out to the crease at the County Ground he realised that he couldn’t find the bat. An intense fear came over him and he searched the changing room high and low and asked everyone if they had seen it. None had. Jake asked him if he could remember bringing it home with him from when they played Haysham last week. Jeremy had to admit he couldn’t remember precisely.
“Well then, they’ve had a midweek match since then and anyone could have it by now,” Jake said and offered to lend him his own bat. Jeremy grudgingly accepted it and after a cautious start the precision of the strokes was once again evident. Sometimes he made a beautifully crafted stroke like the touch of a feather, at other times a brutal cudgel that seemed it could break the ball apart. Then, at another time an effortless six hoisted high over midwicket.
The scoreboard clattered to victory and Jeremy was once again toasted in the changing room.
After the game, Sykes said loudly “Well Jeremy, I don’t know how you did it, but you’ve done it again – and with someone else’s bat, too. But I know where your bat is. One of the spectators has just given me this.”
He produced a newspaper cutting. Turning to the rest of the team he said, “ It’s in the blacksmith’s forge in Haysham.”
Jeremy took it over to the window to read, the sun illuminating the white page as he read.
“John Smith, the local Haysham blacksmith made history in an evening match on Wednesday this week when he hit the fastest double hundred ever, off seventy five balls. Every ball was hit with invariable precision to the boundary. The feat beats the previous record of Jeremy Downing who hit one hundred off fifty balls earlier this month. The record was even more remarkable because he had misplaced his own bat and was recovering from a cricketing injury at the time.”