Former Gloucestershire Media sports writer of the year Rob Harris has been playing village cricket for nearly 40 years. In the first of three extracts from his book Won’t You Dance for Virat Kohli? an honest and funny account of sporting obsession, he recalls a time when, as a boy, an innocent but terrifying trip to an Indian restaurant with his team earned him his spurs.
Being an “extra” in the cricket team, almost a non-playing player, never really fazed me when I was 12. I knew before I turned up that I would bat 11 and not bowl. I also knew I would probably field at third man or fine leg all afternoon, where I could dream of the day when we needed one for victory and I would march out to the wicket to hit the winning run. It never happened. However, there would be occasional good days when I’d make two not out or even fluke a catch. My reasons for playing cricket at that age were not for success on the field or even a love of cricket itself. Instead, I felt I was lifting the curtain on an illicit, adult, grown-up world where colourful adventures were taking place and I could be part of it, albeit from the fringes. More than that though, I had nothing better to do and nowhere else to go. Different to today’s world, where there are so many things vying for a kid’s attention that few youngsters want to commit to giving up an entire afternoon/evening unless they’re guaranteed a berth in the top six and a decent bowl.
Fielding for two or three hours at a stretch could be boring. On the boundary’s edge I withdrew into my own little world, taking little notice of what was happening in the game itself. I once spent an entire innings walking around in my own little semi-circle like I was Hank Marvin, whilst singing ‘Moonlight Shadow’ by Mike Oldfield over and over again. Most captains didn’t seem to mind if I drifted off to another place. They wisely figured that if I saved one boundary in an afternoon that was better than playing with ten men. I was a deterrent, filling a space. A human scarecrow dressed in white.
Les, an intimidating sort of skipper at the best of times, had other ideas. He decided that to keep me ‘switched on’ he’d put me at short mid-on, slightly advanced of the bowler. His logic was that I would pick up the dab backs, to save the bowler (him) from having to bend down. And he would talk to me incessantly to make sure I was concentrating on the game in hand, not the one in my head. The idea had some merit, but the reality was that the batsman leathered a ferocious drive straight at me, which demolished my face before I could even move a muscle. Luckily, I didn’t lose any teeth, but I spent the rest of the afternoon lying on the sofa in the pavilion, sucking water through a straw into a purple and black face. Mum was none too pleased with Les when he sheepishly returned me home that evening with a head like Frank Sidebottom.
One Saturday night, I went with the team after a match to an Indian restaurant for a sit-down curry. One by one, the other players announced that they didn’t actually have any money so a plan was hatched to ‘do a runner’. I didn’t know what this meant but was shocked to discover that it entailed people sneaking out of the restaurant without paying. I could not enjoy my first experience of a curry house. All through the meal I kept looking at the waiters, looking at me. The other guys didn’t seem concerned at all until we got to the end of the meal. Then, one got up and went to the toilets to make his escape through the window. The next did the same. Another crept out of the door when new customers came in. A fourth made off through the fire exit. Which left me and Leapy Lea.
‘Right,’ said the droopy-moustached Leapy. ‘Here’s what we are gonna do. I’m going out through the toilet window which will make you the last man standing. The waiters are going to suss what’s going down so they will try and make you pay for everything. Don’t. And don’t offer to wash up either. They’ll try and stop you leaving because they will want to call the police. That can’t happen. And you can’t give them any of our names, OK? What you have to do is sprint for your life through the front door. We’ll have the car waiting then we’ll get the hell out of here, fast as we can. Got it?’
I gulped and nodded, but beneath the table I thought I was going to mess myself. How did I end up here, in this situation? I’d never committed a crime in my life. I didn’t want to go to borstal. I’d seen the film Scum and knew I wouldn’t cut it in a dorm with Ray Winstone. What would Mum and Dad say? Maybe I could just pay for my own curry? I’d only had a bowl of ridiculously fat chips and a mouthful of lukewarm korma. Leapy headed for the loos … and then there was one. I could see the waiters talking anxiously to each other, flicking glances in my direction. I was sweating like I’d eaten the vindaloo. One waiter started to move towards the door. I knew I had to act quickly. I leapt to my feet and charged for the exit like I was Sebastian Coe. I shot out of the curry house and headed on to the pavement where the back door of a car lay open, with engine revving. I dived into the back seat like a villain out of The Sweeney, landing on assorted bodies and jackets, my heart pounding and my skin burning.
“Go, go, go,” I shouted. “Let’s get the crap out of here.”
Bruce, our getaway driver, shot off up the road. My head was spinning madly when suddenly everyone in the car burst out into fits of spontaneous laughter.
“Bloody brilliant,” exclaimed Leapy. It was a set-up. Everyone in the restaurant – including the waiters – had been in on the wheeze, bar me. There was no ‘runner’. Leapy had paid the bill in advance. When I got home even Mum and Dad were laughing at me. I was relieved that I would not be going to jail but confused by the whole sting. Was it really all for my benefit? Why was I the butt of such a big joke? Did the other guys not like me? It did seem like a lot of people had gone to an awful lot of trouble to try and make me look an idiot. They really didn’t need to try so hard in order to achieve that.
It was a few days later when the penny dropped and I realised the exact opposite was true. I’d served my apprenticeship and now I was one of them. I’d become one of the boys.
Tomorrow: He politely asked if his tail was in my way: stuck with the fancy dressers at Blast finals day
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