Their squares are their babies to be nurtured as only a mother can: the strange character of the club cricket groundsman

Former Gloucestershire Media sports writer of the year Rob Harris has been playing village cricket for nearly 40 years. In the last of three extracts from his book Won’t You Dance for Virat Kohli? an honest and funny account of sporting obsession, he recalls the many enjoyable hours spent with a unique species

“When I was your age, I quite liked the girls, but I’ve been married for over 40 years. Nowadays, I prefer a good dump.”

Such pearls of wisdom came from Eric, player and groundsman of a nearby rival club, who befriended me when I was at secondary school. Eric’s club played cricket seemingly every day of the week: league on Saturdays, Sunday friendlies, various midweek evening knockout competitions and more 40-over midweek matches against touring sides – where the unwashed, unemployed and downright lazy from across the district were roped in to making up the numbers for the hosts.

That’s where I came in, especially during long summer holidays, where I could continue my education in all manner of things from stump runs to drinking relays. I seldom made it home before 11 o’clock from a touring game, but Eric was always happy for me to blame him for keeping me out late. ‘Sorry for the late hour Mrs Rob’s mum, I was explaining to your son how to play leg spin off the back foot and completely lost track of time.’

Dad would smile at me behind their backs because he knew the score. He’d usher me off to bed before Mum could smell my breath and notice I couldn’t walk in a straight line – let alone step back adroitly to smother a sharply turning wrong ‘un. Reality was, I’d been sculling GL cider whilst watching a man from Old McDonalds Farm Boys CC take on Mad Dave in a race to see who could sink a pint of John Smiths before a lit stream of toilet paper dangling from their backsides singed the hairs – or worse – the dappled pink flesh of their bare bottoms.

Mad Dave always won, because Eric would light his opponent’s paper halfway up, giving him no time to even take the froth off his beer before his bum cheeks were on fire. A couple of blokes with buckets of water were on standby to further humiliate the sorry loser. Sometimes, if I was lucky, this was my job.

Eric effectively lived at his cricket ground for six months of the year. He played every match that was going and during one purple campaign, when the weather was as dry as his sense of humour, he succeeded in his personal quest of taking 100 wickets in a season. Everyone got behind him as he drew nearer, allowing him to whirl away with his ‘fast-paced slow stuff’ in ever longer spells.

His first love though wasn’t playing, it was tending to the ground. If you drove by at 10pm on a summer’s evening you’d be sure to see him, in scruffy old clothes, a dusky figure going up and down a 22-yard stretch in the middle of the ground, just rolling, rolling and rolling along. His wickets were superb, firm and straw-coloured, quick enough to score runs freely on but with enough pace and bounce to keep the best bowlers interested.

Club groundsmen are unique characters, usually hard-working, a bit temperamental and touchy – but with a hidden soft side. Think Bob Willis on a ride-on lawnmower. They’re ruddy-complexioned beer lovers who’d rather spend their time outdoors, in self-isolation, than at home with the wife and family. Most enjoy a good moan, telling all and sundry that no one bothers to help them. When you do pitch up to lend some support, however, they won’t let you do anything – except fetch them a drink or sweep the pavilion or scoop up the grass they’ve left all over the field in neatly-arranged piles, like OCD moles. Their squares are their babies, for them to love, nurture and protect as only a mother can.

Eric was a gem but following one critical quip too many, he walked out on his wickets for good. All that knowledge lost to the game. What a waste. I missed driving by the ground and seeing him out there working and I missed his laughter and bawdy stories at tour matches, which no longer happened because he wasn’t around to arrange them. His club’s strips were never as good again. Craving the love and TLC they used to get, they became green and less predictable

More information:

Yesterday: He politely asked if his tail was in my way: stuck with the fancy dressers at Blast finals day

Extract 1: I’d seen Scum and knew I wouldn’t cut it in a dorm with Ray Winstone: how a post-match curry left me in a sweat