by Peter Roebuck
Towards the end of May Somerset cricketers sat around in their dressing room awaiting the team talk which was to be delivered by Mr Christopher Tavaré, a monkish fellow who had earlier in his career served as a model for the painter Mr Lowry. This Tavaré was regarded as a pretty sane sort of a fellow, though Tauntonians had plans to change that because pretty sane sort of fellows are not de rigeur in Somerset. This Tavaré observed that we had only four bowlers left on their feet. There had been a cock up. Marks wasn’t playing and Rose had gone in the fetlock. Only four! It didn’t sound many.
I peered around the room. There was old Jones, our huffing fast bowler, and there steady Mallender. Our spinner, Tim Scriven (we were going through a period of playing obscure spinners) was over yonder which left only one fellow to be found. Everyone peered around as if they were in the House of Lords. Suddenly they looked at me. A thought struck. Good God, he means me. I am a bowler. Tavaré regards me as the team’s salvation. May I tell you how this came to pass.
Until a month ago I didn’t bowl at all, an entirely satisfactory arrangement in my opinion. Some wily old pros recalled a dim and distant past in which I trotted down a few innocent off-breaks but this was a period of history which I was trying to live down as Mr Gorbachev is the Brezhnev era, as Brezhnev did the Kosygin era. I had, it is true, taken a wicket with medium pacers (that of Pringle) and with leg-spin (Sadiq) and so stood side by side with Sobers in at least one respect. But this was the sort of whimsical fact which obscures rather than informs. Having handed on the captaincy to Victor, I had pictured a pleasant interlude in which I became a grand old man who spent his time pottering down to third man, nattering with the crowd and munching the occasional daisy. Time at last to bat and to pontificate, both occupations dear to my heart.
And then I made a fatal mistake. It’s funny how some pay for mistakes whilst to others they are but flea bites on an elephant’s hide. It was cold, you see, and we were in Southampton. Two overs remained before we could take another new ball. (Scoring had been heavy but we were still on the reds.) I mumbled something to Victor about rolling my arm over and he considered it worth a go. I delivered a drifter. Actually it was more of a hobo for it drifted not because it had nothing better to do but out of definite belief. Certainly it had plenty of time to move wherever it chose. Though directed at off stump it took perverse pleasure in wandering down the pads of Mr Stephen Jefferies who, wearing several thick sweaters, contrived to mishit, a turn of events which caused widespread consternation and led some to appeal for a catch and others for a stumping. The latter was given. While it was too cold for anyone to appear disgruntled it cannot be said that Stephen appeared entirely gruntled by this twist of fate.
I, on the other hand, was pleased. No alarm bells rang. To my mind it was the sort of aberration reserved solely for the cruellest month. My bowling average would sink dramatically from 75 to 69 but I would not be proclaimed an all-rounder, a label I resisted as stoutly as Caesar resisted the crown (though later he probably reflected he might as well have been hung for a sheep as a goat).
Then Glamorgan arrived in Taunton to find a turning pitch, a matter entirely unconnected with the elevation to the captaincy of our only spinner. Morris and Cann (opinion was divided whether he should be called tin or opener) batted valiantly and after 120 overs or so Victor looked flummoxed. One of the first things learnt by a captain is to look in total command even when things are going defiantly wrong. Vic hasn’t got the hang of this yet. In some agitation, he pointed out the situation, said he was flummoxed and did I fancy a bowl?
The die was cast. Morris edged what might, to the undiscriminating eye, have looked like a half volley to slip. North fell to one which might, from a distance, be thought to have pitched a trifle short. I took two wickets.
Sussex were our next opponents and Vic put me on again, though I had not considered donning bowling boots to be necessary that day. It was a greenish pitch and only later did I realise that Victor had meant me to bowl my funny little seamers rather than my funny little cutters. Undeterred he called upon me to deliver the final seven overs of the Sunday League game and a hectic run chase ended in a tied match.
There was no end to it. And what, pray. do I bowl? In truth my style is still at the experimental stage, it is possible, I admit, that one or two refinements may be needed. They are called quick off-breaks, not because they are quick, not because they turn, but because that is what is sent down from my end. What happens all those yards away is none of my business. Tactics are, in fact, my only weapon, confusing the batsmen my only threat. To this end I do not mark out a run and whistle through the overs so quickly that the batsman has no time to consider the drivel being served up. If, per chance, he is an impressionable youngster I try to look sage, as if I have something up my sleeve. Actually this is not difficult. My life has been ruined by the fact that people think I’m plotting something even on those rare occasions when I’m not.
Anyhow I now take the field in my bowling boots and have a sore spinning finger, which might surprise some batsmen. DeFreitas and Mark Taylor were my next victims. DeFreitas fell in the leg trap which was located at deep mid-wicket. Taylor hit a short one to cover. Then came two more wickets against Essex at Chelmsford, John Stephenson and Paul Prichard, followed by the last over drama in the B&H quarter-final against the Universities at Taunton. Can it last? Why not? The youngsters think I’m up to something and the old ’uns dare not get out to me. It’ll last as long as any other bluff, I’d say.