Once a year I turn out for Peter Oborne’s cricket team, the White City All-Stars, for their annual cricket weekend at Horningsham, a ludicrously pretty village next to Longleat House in Wiltshire. I can’t bowl, I’m hopeless with a bat, I can’t catch or throw. I try to make myself useful, however, by offering around cigarettes, helping to look for the ball when it’s been smashed into the long grass, pouring the teas and clapping when required. But I always come away afterwards with an uncomfortable feeling that, even in the game of cricket, conscientiousness and conviviality will never quite atone for ignorance of the rules and uselessness on the field of play. So why Peter rings me up each year and asks me to play I can’t fathom. This year I had a false excuse prepared. But his call came in the middle of the night when I was lying intoxicated in a backpackers’ hostel in Sydney and I couldn’t remember what it was.
We played against the Groucho Club on Saturday and the Horningsham village side on Sunday. The cricket pitch sits in countryside as dreamy as an Alfred Bestall illustration in a Rupert book. Near and far, shimmering in the heat haze, are low, kindly hills. Framed by a gap in the trees is a stout medieval parish church. And you can’t see it, but right at the top of the highest hill is a Roman temple. The scenery reverberated with birdsong and the mellifluous notes of not one but three cuckoos.
The Groucho Club, as befitting a Soho-based cricket team, arrived late. They were so late that when the match finally started, the White City All-Stars had consumed too many pints of the local ale. We were soundly beaten. Team Groucho Club then returned home, happy to be going back up the M4 earlier than they would have dreamed possible.
Although I’m depressingly useless at cricket, it was lovely to stand all afternoon amid such wonderful country. And I was surprised and delighted to find that this year there was someone playing cricket for the White City All-Stars who knew even less about the game than I do. This was Demeter, husband of Peter’s Bulgarian cleaner. I think Demeter had possibly heard of cricket before, and knew it was a ball game, but that was about as far as it went. Football was his game. Through his twenties, he had played professionally for a team in Bulgaria, and now he was a passionate Chelsea supporter. When it was the White City All-Stars’ turn to field, he and I were assigned adjacent positions, and we kept up a sporadic conversation about football for most of the afternoon.
Every once in a while the ball was knocked in Demeter’s direction and he dutifully ran after it, trapped it with his instep, and threw it back towards the wicket with commendable accuracy. He acknowledged the applause of his team mates with a shrug of his shoulders and a look of bemusement. Every now and then he’d say to me, ‘I don’t understand this game. It is very strange.’
In spite of his mystification he performed what fielding duties were assigned to him competently; much more competently than me, for example. Demeter’s and my fielding positions meant that we formed part of the chain for returning the ball to our bowler. The wicket keeper would lob the ball ten yards to Demeter. Demeter carefully threw it ten yards to me. And I would then fumble and drop it as though it were a hot potato, retrieve it, drop it again, then chuck it miles over the bowler’s head, or well wide of him so that he would have to run for it. I was that bad.
Peter’s solution to the problem was to wave me forwards to a suicidal fielding position ‘on the one, please, Jeremy’. This meant I was to crouch as near to the batsman as was polite and act as a sort of human shield. This also meant that I resumed my prayer life after a break of several months. It also meant that from time to time I would be struck and severely injured by the ball before I’d even seen it leave the surface of the bat.
It was on Sunday afternoon, when we were fielding against Horningsham, that the full extent of Demeter’s utter mystification came to light. Bear in mind we had completed a game the previous day.
The Horningsham batsman had called a quick single and run for it. The ball was overthrown and he called another quick one. The batsman narrowly avoided being run out. I looked at Demeter and pulled a face. Demeter was deep in thought. He made a to-ing and fro-ing motion with his finger. ‘Tell me, Jeremy,’ he said. ‘What is this running backwards and forwards? Is it to do with the scoring?’