It may not comes as a surprise to regular readers – there are regular readers, right? – that I play cricket at Sefton Park Cricket Club. I have for several years and occasionally reflect on what it is to be part of a club, sporting or otherwise.
Most of my best friends also play cricket with me at Sefton. Some of them were friends before, but most of those friendships have been formed in the heat of battle. Well, the cold mizzle of a tedious draw in early April, anyway.
I like to play cricket competitively – and as a third-team player and erstwhile skipper we’ve been very close to winning titles and trophies on a few occasions. My batting has collapsed since I was a youngster, my fielding grown a bit stiffer and slower but my bowling has been decent for a few years.
If I didn’t feel competitive any more in the team I’d ask to be dropped or possibly retire. Bad knees and a creeping arthritis in my fingers are slowly convincing me of the wisdom of the pavilion, rather than the changing rooms.
I once bowled and captained Sefton 3s to an unlikely draw, rousing a team to what appeared to be an impossible effort to avoid a defeat to arch-rivals Liverpool. I felt like I could have walked through a brick wall afterwards – and I could have hugged everyone in the team with gratitude for the support and effort.
It’s this sense of comradeship, camaraderie that keeps me on the cricket pitch rather than the physical enjoyment of the sport, which has declined a little over the years. Friendships formed in sports clubs can be curious things. Frequently I won’t see someone for six months over winter – or for even longer for the youngsters who go off to university and come back three years later as young men. Yet a few minutes on the field and it’s as if you never left off.
To 100 or so men across Merseyside – at Sefton and beyond – I am not Robin or Rob, I am ‘Brownie’ and always will be – a not-particularly-cunning nickname that I originally despised (‘The Geordie Express’ never really took off) but now view as a token of affection. I suspect that some WAGs don’t actually know what my name is.
Cricket is rather odd, in that you may spend up to seven hours simply standing around. In such situations you can’t help chat with the team-mate next to you, the older players who still turn up to watch, the opposition. Little routines and rituals play out.
It’s fair to say that my horizons have been considerably broadened by days sat around waiting to bat, having a natter with someone: Saj, the Pakistani asylum-seeker who had been shot by his own family when he converted to Christianity; Vin, a brilliant player and lovely guy who got deported one day, never to return; Robin, former rock star and now fellow birdwatcher.
Cricket teams develop their own slang and vernacular, so often do they stand around in one another’s company. “How are the Eddies?” someone may ask (Eddie Shah’s = showers). “Bowl a good ball!” says another (ironic vocal support). “Fucking Hell – it’s Jonty Rhodes!” laughs a colleague, in sarcastic appreciation of another’s fielding talents.
Cricketers – like many sportspeople – show their appreciation and affection for one another by insulting their friends and team-mates. Often viciously. And cricket can get nasty between rival teams, in sharp contradiction to what I imagine is a popular image of cricket as a gentle – and gentleman’s – game. I’ve been prepared for fisticuffs on a cricket pitch before. And the Liverpool league has tales of mass fights, acts of petty sabotage and even murder.
These rivalries – almost always benign in nature, despite the odd flare-up – are also, for the most part, enjoyable. Old foes and ongoing battles provide little subplots to games. And any cricket team has 1,001 anecdotes about sterling performances, bust-ups and amusing incidents, generally at the expense of someone present.
These generally play out in the bar afterwards over a few pints – ‘drinking back the fixture’ with the opposition so everyone leaves on a friendly basis. And then drinking some more with mates. With my mates from the cricket club I have abseiled down waterfalls, sung terrible karaoke, smashed a canalboat into a bridge in front of its aghast owner and been questioned by police following a game of midnight rugger.
We rely on one another, sometimes heavily. That support is given without expectation of return or reward. When I was briefly homeless as a result of a delay into moving into my new house I was flooded with offers of a spare room or couch. Two different people lent their cars. Another three stored my stuff at their houses for months. The wife of another did my conveyancing for a good price. And five of them turned up to help me lug a piano into my new place. I hope I’ve returned those favours.
For Sefton – a club that has more than its fair share of non-natives (one team included just one scouser) due, I guess, to a fairly transient or bohemian catchment area – these support networks are particularly important. As a group of young adults without families nearby, the ready help and companionship can be a source of immense value and comfort.
This is what a Big Society looks like. And clubs – sporting or otherwise – replicate that sense of community across the land. With job markets more volatile than they used to be – no more jobs for life – the collapse of the church, the pub, the post office and the bingo hall there aren’t as many centres of social cohesion as there used to be.
It means the role of the cricket, rugby, tennis or footy club is more important than ever. People imagine sports clubs are cliquey. They can be – my own home team Hartlepool was not a pleasant place to play cricket – but Sefton welcomed me with open arms eight years ago. We teach kids how to play, we donate money to charity, we provide a meeting place, a rehearsal room and a base for several other sports clubs. Good things, to my mind.
And to me Sefton means friendship. A ready-made gang of 50-odd blokes (and their WAGs) ready to go out to bat for you. A great example of Liverpool’s willingness to welcome people from all over the world to the city, as it always did – Sefton fields players from from Hartlepool, Slough, Wakefield, Scotland, Hereford, Nantwich, Coventry, Stoke, the West Country, Ireland, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, South Africa, Barbados, Australia and other far-flung locations.
That warmth was encapsulated for me this morning when we gathered to play our annual Solstice Cup match; a game that starts at 4.43am on Midsummer’s Day as the sun comes up. As a game of cricket it’s a bit of a non-starter, but as an excuse for 20-odd grown men to dick about in each others’ company it’s hard to beat.
For me it’s a wonderful celebration of a friendship group, a cricket club and a city. The longest day is plenty of time to reflect on how throwing a leather ball about enriches me – and enriches Liverpool.