View from the Bridge: 53

by John Morrison


53: One Man Went to Mow

The farmers around Milltown share one notable ability (alright, two, if you count their adoption of baling twine as an indispensible fashion accessory...). When spring comes they know exactly - to the hour - when the grass begins to green up. The only other person who looks at grass so intently is the captain of the Milltown XI. He's standing on the cricket square right now, gazing at this unremarkable patch of turf with a quaint and proprietorial pride.

Last September he'd been ready to throw in the towel, and pack up cricket altogether. It's hard work leading a team of losers. And he was fed up of being mercilessly lampooned by his work-shy team mates, who felt that if a puerile joke at his expense was worth telling once then it was worth repeating throughout an entire game.

He knows there are many other ways a man can spend his weekends. But as soon as he remembers what they are - joining the queues at the supermarket check-out, putting up shelves and visiting his in-laws - he needs little persuading to search in the back of the wardrobe for his mildewed flannels. So he'll be leading his team through yet another relegation battle in the lower leagues. Spring is, after all, a time of optimism, before unrealistic hopes have been sacrificed at the altar of bitter experience.

As he tries to bring a reluctant motor-mower to life, he thinks about the game that has occupied his summer Sundays since he was in short trousers. Cricket, unlike just about everything else that life can offer, has never let him down. It has never ended a potentially rewarding relationship with a mendacious platitude like "It's not you, it's me... I just need more space". Cricket has never borrowed money off him and then neglected to pay it back. Cricket has never made silver-tongued promises to him that subsequently turned to ashes.

Once you start to think about the game (and it's designed to be slow and boring, for this very purpose) cricket offers some distinctly uncomfortable home truths. In the word beyond the boundary rope ('real life', as it's generally known) there are many flags, many allegiances, many contradictory codes of conduct. Our captain finds it anarchic and bewildering: just when he's getting to know the rules of the game, they change the rules... or the game... or tell him he can't play any more.

But inside that boundary there is just one quixotic code, to which both teams happily conform: the game would be meaningless if they didn't. Cricket is a Utopian vision, re-created every summer weekend throughout the land on lush parkland, village greens and reclaimed swamps like Milltown's own little ground. The game offers a tantalising glimpse of what life could be like if human-kind were ever to get its act together.

It comes as quite a shock to our captain - a life-long Labour supporter - to realise that a team operates best when presided over by a benign dictator. Consensus politics don't work on the cricket field. You can't take a vote on who's going to field down at third man - at the boggy end, where the huge, malicious horseflies are. You have to be told.

The game remains full of odd little civilities. On winning the toss you invite the other team to bat. You clap an opposing batsmen out to the wicket, and you clap him back to the pavilion again - merely hoping the two occasions are not too far apart. When a bowler hits a batsman on the head, it's considered sporting to feign concern for his welfare, before striding back way beyond his bowling mark and trying to bowl the same ball again. Only faster. It's hardly any wonder that the bowlers' habitual complaint is "Umpire, the batsman's gone out of shape."

After the game the players go to the pub. After a few pints of cooking bitter, they tend to forget just how soundly they've been beaten. The team's performance will, in beery retrospect, be awarded a heroic perspective that was entirely lacking on the pitch. Yes, the unwarranted optimism of third-rate cricketers surely offers lessons to us all.

The captain's preparing the wicket on his own. His team-mates have conveniently forgotten to turn up, but they'll all be there for the game. He should be disgruntled... but he's not. When he's walking behind an elderly Acme mower, with the sun on his back and the sweet scent of new-mown grass in the air, the captain of the Milltown XI is convinced that he has the ropes of life firmly in his grasp. For a few intoxicating moments he is a truly happy man.

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