By the time Mr Poulter and Hugh Fennimore had set up the stumps the rest of the team had arrived at the wicket and Jack was placing his field. Doug Billings was going to open the bowling from the By-Pass end and Sam Fletcher would bowl the second over from the Railway end. Neither team had non-playing umpires so the job was done by members of the batting side already out or yet to bat. Scoring was done by whoever was competent and had a pencil. The scoreboard was a warped sheet of plywood, which leaned against one of the beeches, with hooks which carried metal plates on which were numbers too small to be read from the middle. The Allied Breweries (Western Division) 3rd XI openers strode purposefully to the wicket, were greeted with polite applause from the Paragons, one of them prepared to face Doug, and the umpire, a tall dark haired man with grey sideboards who none of the Paragons had seen before, said ”Play”.
Dorothy looked up from the Tom Stoppard piece she had been reading (“Me and my Window Boxes”) and adjusted her position on the rug to be able to watch more comfortably. She genuinely loved cricket, she came from a cricket mad family and had the LBW laws by heart before she read her first Enid Blyton. She had a grandmother who kept a signed photo of Don Bradman on her mantelpiece, her father was a long time member at Surrey, and she had three cricket mad older brothers, two of whom still played club cricket. She had spent a substantial part of her girlhood retrieving ‘lost balls’ from under the rhododendrons. So these Sundays watching John and the Paragons were no chore though the Paragons’ fragile batting often made the afternoons shorter than planned.
She watched her man take his place in the slips, she loved this man. She had noticed him in the office lift on the same morning that he had noticed her and she had asked around as to who and what he was. She was told he was a departmental deputy who had been in the bank longer than anyone could remember and that he was dull, punctual, stuck in a rut, older than the rest of his department by a good 10 years. Did he have wandering hands? No he didn’t. Did he chase account clerks at the Christmas party? No he didn’t. Was he gay? No he wasn’t. Was he married? Yes he was. Dorothy had been married once, in her early twenties, to a man she had originally met at a business college in Kingston. It had not gone well and her husband took to ‘working late’ so often that she knew he was having an affair. What depressed her most was not that he was having an affair but the fact that she didn’t care. She moved out of their tiny rented flat into a tinier
bedsit. Two years later a decree arrived in the post telling her that she was single once more, something that she had known all along. She had been 32 by the time she joined USBB and that fateful eye contact in the lift occurred only a few weeks after she had started there. John Poulter was definitely good looking in a grey sort of way, Dorothy often thought that he could make a good living in TV commercials as an ‘honest’ man selling insurance or pension schemes. There was something reassuring about him and when he stuck his head round her door and proposed the trip to Arundel she hadn’t hesitated for a second. Their affair was now 12 years old, for 12 years she had been ‘the other woman’ and she really didn’t mind. She had watched TV documentaries about being a ‘mistress’ with interviews with bitter women who resented every moment that their lovers spent with their wives and families but she valued her independence and when their affair had started all three of John’s children had still been at school and leaving Nancy wasn’t an option. Dorothy had been made redundant by USBB two years after she first met Mr Poulter and after a string of short term jobs in the city she had finally set herself up selling vintage knitwear on ebay. This meant that she didn’t see Mr Poulter at work but her ‘sole trader’ existence meant that she could easily be free to accompany him to dreary European banking conferences to which he was despatched by the USBB as ‘a safe pair of hands’, He developed a technique of giving his business card to, and shaking hands with, every warm blooded creature in the conference centre before discreetly leaving by a fire exit and spending the rest of the time with Dorothy who found his hands very safe indeed. One weekend in Berlin, where there was no cricket to be had, they hadn’t left their swanky hotel room once and lived off room service with Dorothy never wearing more than a slinky1920’s black silk knit cardigan that she had bought in an antique market the week before. Once when Nancy went to stay with her brother in Canada for a couple of weeks they had managed to do ‘Cricket Week’ at Scarborough and occasionally they made it to Old Trafford or Headingley.
Doug Billings was a class act, he was quick, accurate and consistent, he took wickets year in year out and this afternoon was no exception and with his fifth ball he clipped the off stump of one of the AB openers. Their No 3 was their captain who in the past had played some dogged innings against the Paragons and he straight batted Doug while the other opener accumulated runs off Sam Fletcher. All went well for the AB’s until the tenth over when Jack took Sam Fletcher off and replaced him with Maltese Joe who tempted the opener into a wild drive which he mishit tamely to mid-off. The following over Doug had the AB skipper caught at slip and in the over after that Maltese Joe took a second wicket when the AB No 4 unluckily kicked the ball onto his stumps. At 40-4 things were looking up for the Paragons when the tall stranger with grey sideburns headed for the wicket.
“Oh look! Oh I hate that” said Jack.
“What?” said Mr Poulter
“He’s wearing some poncey school tie as a belt. Don’t you hate that?”
“Oh! Yes I do” said Mr Poulter grimacing “tell Doug to hurt him”.
“I will” said Jack and walked off to give his fast bowler the necessary instruction.
The stranger arrived at the crease and took guard with casual ease. Mr Poulter at mid-on noted the expensive cream flannels, the immaculate shirt, the man only needed a silk scarf round his neck to be a 1930s House-Party toff. He played the last ball of Maltese Joe’s over past Mr Poulter’s left hand for a single and prepared to face the first ball of Doug’s next over. Doug, following his captain’s instructions to the letter, bowled a lively bouncer, which the Toff planted effortlessly over the mid-wicket boundary. He then proceeded to score off every ball of the rest of the over. It was apparent to the Paragons that this man was in a different class to normal run of Sunday afternoon cricketers, Jack mouthed the word ‘ringer’ to Mr Poulter who nodded grimly. The Paragons only strategy was to get the rest of the ABs out before the Toff scored too many, but this was easier said than done as the Toff farmed the strike mercilessly and scored 80 odd in what seemed like no time at all. Jack rotated his bowlers desperately, even offering Mr Poulter, who had never claimed to be even an occasional bowler, a chance, but the flow of runs from the Toff continued while only two wickets fell at the other end. With the score at 170-6 Mr Poulter saw Jack in discussion with Jacek and after a few moments Jack tossed Jacek the ball. The young Pole then started walking towards the boundary at the bowler’s end and for a moment Mr Poulter thought that Jack had not asked him to bowl but had sent him on some errand to the pavilion but eventually the Pole stopped, scratched a mark in the turf and started to run in off what was the longest run-up that Mr Poulter had seen since the golden age of West Indian fast bowling. His first ball, which was as quick as any that Mr Poulter had seen that season, pitched on a good length but lifted enough to hit the Toff in the chest. He staggered back, surprised, and eyed the new bowler with suspicion. Jacek’s second ball was even faster and yorked the Toff, who played far too late, his batting partner at the other end mouthed the word ‘ringer’ and the Toff nodded grimly as he marched off.
The Krakow Dynamo, as Jacek was immediately christened, mopped up the last wickets in his next two overs and the ABs were all out for 176.
At tea the Paragons put a brave face on things despite the fact that the tea itself had been provided by Hugh Fennimore, who was an evangelical vegetarian, so not only did both teams have to suffer dull sandwiches but also endure a string of homilies on the perils of animal fats and bad Kharma. Several of the team smuggled in pork pies and Scotch eggs along with other decadences like ‘char-grilled steak’ flavoured crisps and Coca-Cola, some of the ABs vanished to return with Kentucky Fried Chicken from the retail park along the by-pass.
Catering aside the Paragons knew that on their crumbling end of season wicket and with a lunar surface of an outfield 176 was an enormous total particularly when they had no one with the talent of the Toff in their team. Jack interrogated Jacek, hoping that he might have batting skills equal to his bowling prowess but the Tatra Tornado shook his head and earnestly told his captain “No. I yem crep betsman, I go eleven pliss”.
Dorothy tended to avoid the rituals of the tea interval and brought along her own picnic which Mr Poulter came to share after tasting one of Hugh’s bean curd tartlets. Jack joined them to ask “Where do you want to bat today? Last time and all that, you can open if you like”. Mr Poulter refused this offer and Jack put him down at No 6 as normal and wandered off, filling in the batting line-up in the score book as he went. He found his two openers Harry Shah and Fat Barry padding up and gave them a pep talk not found in Mike Brearley’s ‘The Art of Captaincy’.
“Look realistically we’ve got no bloody chance of winning this but remember it’s not limited overs, it’s 20 overs from 6.30 and we could just hang on for the draw so dig in and waste as much time as you can. OK”. His openers nodded obligingly but neither had any intention of ‘digging in’, they were going out to play their natural game come what may. Fat Barry had a good eye and could hit the ball extremely hard and had every intention of doing so. Harry Shah, who ran a sporting goods shop in South Norwood and had once played for the Rawalpindi Colts, was the Paragons’ best batsman and he felt that his natural game was not unlike that of Shivnarine Chanderpaul’s, and he had every intention of living his dream.
The Paragons’ innings got off to a good if hectic start with both openers blazing away as if they were in a 20/20 game that had been cut by rain to 10/10. They took 22 off the first three overs before disaster struck, Harry Shah skied a short ball off a top edge to give an easy catch to the wicket keeper, almost immediately Fat Barry holed out in the deep and the Paragons were 24-2 with Jack Lascelles and Ron Haslam newly arrived at the crease.
“Come on Ron let’s give them a run for their money. Dig in” said Jack
“OK skip” said Ron who promptly hit his first ball for a straight six but was clean bowled by the next. 30-3
Jack was joined by Mark Philpotts, who had been to a decent public school, and could be relied on to follow instructions and bat sensibly but Jack at the non-strikers end called for a suicidal single to a ball that the wicket keeper fumbled and both batsmen ended up at the striker’s end with the ball back in the bowler’s hand. Mark did the decent thing and stepped out of the crease leaving Jack, who hadn’t been to a decent public school, cursing but still in. So at 30-4 Mr Poulter came in to play his final innings. Jack stopped swearing for long enough to give him more or less the same spiel that he had given to the openers but then relented and said “Oh just enjoy it John”.
Mr Poulter did just that, he felt both relaxed and confident, he started slowly but soon began to score freely and Jack was content to play second fiddle and once the first two AB quickies were rested the bowling held no terrors. Eventually the Toff was given a bowl and Mr Poulter’s heart sank, if he was only half as good a bowler as he was a batsman they were doomed but he turned out to be a ‘nothing special’ medium pacer and the Paragons revival continued until the score reached 83-4 at around the time that 20 overs were called at 6.30. Twenty overs to get 94 thought Mr Poulter, twenty overs to survive thought Jack. They met in the middle. “We could do this” said Mr Poulter.
“Bollocks!” said Jack “How often have we got more than 150?”
“True” said Mr Poulter.
Jack saw that his friend was looking across at Dorothy and said “You don’t think that Nancy will turn up do you? It being your last game”
“No” said Mr Poulter “I didn’t mention it to her”.
“Ah. Well I might have mentioned it in passing if you know what I mean” said Jack
“What! What do you mean ‘mentioned it in passing’”? said Mr Poulter incredulous.
“Oh. I think I may have said something when she answered the phone last week”
The umpire cleared his throat extravagantly and the two returned to their respective ends, Mr Poulter to face the ABs spinner. He was so distracted by Jack’s revelation that he failed to play a shot at the first ball and was lucky to escape an LBW decision.
Dorothy, enjoying the sun in halter top and shorts, was unaware of Mr Poulter’s emotional turmoil though she did notice the LBW incident and wondered what on earth he was thinking of, but otherwise there wasn’t a cloud on the horizon. But, and in life there are always ‘buts’, even in the clear blue sky of Dorothy’s existence, there were times when she wished that he was there in the morning when she woke up, that he was there on her birthday, that they were together at Christmas. When she wished these things, she remembered the bitter ‘mistresses’ in the TV documentaries and retracted her wishes hastily. In the meantime John was looking good for a fifty and she kept her fingers crossed on his behalf.
“She won’t come. She never comes. She doesn’t know where the ground is.” But the latter sentence wasn’t true, Nancy occasionally dropped him off here. Mr Poulter mentally calculated the odds for and against his wife turning up at the game. After a minute or two’s thought he came to the reassuring conclusion that not only would Nancy almost certainly not come but even if she did she wouldn’t recognise Dorothy, it was several years since they had last met. He had these thoughts while watching Jack ‘digging in’ at the other end and as he came to his final reassuring conclusion Jack dollied up a simple catch to short leg and the Paragons were 97-5 and Mr Poulter had scored 42. Hugh Fennimore came in and Mr Poulter went to meet him.
“Mark’s a bit upset about that run-out” said Hugh “he’s sulking in his car”.
“He’ll get over it” said Mr Poulter” it’s not the first time that Jack’s run him out. Now listen we need to dig in”.
“Absolutely” agreed Hugh and the words ‘dig in’ were music to his ears because while his batting was as dull as his bean curd tartlets, ‘digging in’ was what Hugh did best. Mr Poulter thought “I’m going to get 50” and that was a very pleasant thought. He had scored fifties for the Paragons in the past but not often and not recently and he got to 50 with two ‘4’s in the next over. He and Hugh attempted a high-five but failed to make contact.
At this point the ABs realised that the Paragons were not going to roll over and die so brought their opening bowlers back on, but Mr Poulter was both seeing and striking the ball well. Hugh Fennimore was not as alert to a quick single as he might have been and Mr Poulter found it hard to farm the strike but with 6 overs to play they had progressed to 147-5. “We should win this” thought Mr Poulter. Hugh Fennimore came over and said “Look we could win this. I’m going to stop ‘digging in’.”
“Oh right. If you think so” said Mr Poulter dubiously. And then the wheels came off. Hugh attempted an uncharacteristic sweep and was caught at square leg. Sam Fletcher came in and was given out LBW off his first ball by Fat Barry, who was umpiring, though as Sam said later “I was so far down the pitch I could smell the umpire’s halitosis”. Maltese Joe managed a few defensive prods before being caught behind and Doug Billings took a wild swing at a ball that both pitched on and removed his middle stump. From a match winning 147-5 the Paragons were at a terminal 151-9 with Mr Poulter on 79. Four overs left to get 26 runs with just the ‘Polish Pietersen’ to come. Mr Poulter intercepted Jacek on his way to the wicket and was about to give him some pointers but was momentarily distracted by the virulence of the young man’s acne. In that hiatus Jacek said determinedly “I stay, you hit. We win game. OK”
“OK” said Mr Poulter and went back to face the first ball of the next over. As he prepared to take guard the AB wicket keeper said “Is that blonde woman over there waving at you?”
Mr Poulter looked round and there was Nancy in beige slacks and turquoise top waving gaily. He waved back half-heartedly and was relieved to see Jack moving swiftly to intercept her. Fortunately Dorothy was further along the boundary than the rest of the team so there was a good chance that Jack could keep them apart. Dorothy didn’t seem to have noticed the presence of Nancy.
He managed 6 off that over but failed to get a single to get Jacek to the non-strikers end for the next. Nancy appeared to be in relaxed conversation with Jack and Mr Poulter stood back to see what the young Pole could do with the bat. An elaborate forward defensive was what he could do, and he did it again with his second ball. The AB bowler pitched the next one shorter to discourage him but the ball clipped the very top corner of the bat and flew over the keeper’s head for 4. Jacek kept out the next three balls and with the score at 161-9 Mr Poulter took guard with 16 required to win off two overs and it was at this moment that he realised that mathematically it was possible that he could get a century. He had never hit a century. Like anyone who has ever picked up a cricket bat he had fantasies, not just fantasies that involve women in interesting underwear, but fantasies that involve the crowd rising as you hold your bat aloft at Lords having scored a chanceless hundred against the Australians. Nancy in the meantime was progressing slowly along the boundary talking to other members of the team despite Jack’s efforts to distract her with the score book.
The first ball of the penultimate over was wide of his off stump and he failed to make contact, the second he played to deep mid-on and they were able to run 2 to a misfield, the third was dead straight and he could only defend, the fourth he smashed through midwicket for 4, the fifth came off an edge and they scrambled a single to third man. Jacek’s forward defensive proved equal to the last ball of the over. 9 required off six balls to win the match, 8 required for his century and his marriage quite possibly in ruins because Nancy, arms folded, was now talking to Dorothy. Jack was hopping anxiously from foot to foot trying to get Nancy to watch the game.
Mr Poulter couldn’t score off the first ball but managed 2 off a mishit slog to square leg. At this point raised voices could be heard from the boundary. As the bowler went back to his mark the AB wicket keeper came round from behind the stumps.
“Let me see if I’ve got this straight” he said “The blonde lady over there is your wife?”
“Yes” said Mr Poulter
“..and the dark haired lady is not your wife?”
“Yes that’s right”
“Hmm. I reckon you might have a problem there” said the wicket keeper.
The next ball was a yorker which Mr Poulter managed to dig out but failed to score off. 7 required off 3 balls. Mr Poulter tried to ignore the increasingly animated scene on the boundary, he must concentrate, he needed a boundary but the next ball was short, wide and should have been hammered for 4 but he missed it completely. 7 required off 2 balls.
The AB skipper despatched his fielders, including the wicket keeper to the boundary. Mr Poulter looked around and decided that his best chance of a 4 was back past the bowler. His plan would have worked perfectly if he had not hit the ball straight into the bowler’s hands who luckily was so surprised that he dropped the catch. 7 required off one ball, it was impossible.
“Bollocks! Bollocks! Bollocks!” he said
“Hard luck mate” said the wicket keeper
“Bollocks! Bollocks! Bollocks!” said Mr Poulter. All he could do was block the last ball to get the draw. The AB skipper brought the field up into a tight ring around the bat and went over to talk to his bowler. On the boundary Nancy was pointing an accusing finger at Dorothy, Jack tried step between the two women but Nancy slapped him hard across the face.
“Come on chaps let’s focus” shouted the AB captain. The bowler ran in and bowled a wide down the leg side, there was nothing marginal about this wide, it was very wide and in the circumstances it was unforgivable but in the bowler’s defence it must be said that he may have been distracted by the word ‘Slut!’ which carried clearly from the fracas on the boundary just as he reached his delivery stride. Another ball in which to hit a 6 to win the match and get his century. Mr Poulter took a deep breath and paused to survey the state of his marriage. Nancy was storming off towards the car park, Dorothy made to follow but was prevented by Jack. She slapped him hard across the face.
The AB captain caught the wild look in Mr Poulter’s eye and thought “This man is not going to play for a draw” and the fielders retreated to the boundary once more. Mr Poulter took guard and watched the bowler run in. If he was bowling he would be going for a Yorker and in that case he, Mr Poulter, should be going down the pitch, and yes, he guessed right, he middled the ball which flew high in the direction of long leg. The Toff loped elegantly round the boundary to take the catch above his head but as he did so he overbalanced carrying the ball with him over the line for 6.
“Lucky bugger!” said the wicket keeper.
The Paragons had won, he had scored his first century and he was seriously considering making a run for it over the Portsmouth-Waterloo mainline but Jacek in a fit of Slavonic emotion gave him a hug and led him in triumph towards his celebrating team mates.
“She said I could bloody well have you” shouted Dorothy at him as he and Jacek came in to the faltering applause of the other Paragons. She looked flushed and very angry.
“Well?” she demanded
“Can I bloody well have you?”
“Yes you can”
“Will you marry me?” she demanded
“Yes I will”
“Well that’s alright then.” She paused. “Come on we should go to the pub. You have to buy lots of drinks for everybody.”
“Why did you hit Jack?” he asked
“He was being a pratt”
“Fair enough” he said and they went to the pub.