Playing In The Twilight

Calling stumps What to do when the reflexes slow and the quality of afternoon tea is more important than that of the pitch? Pad up for the vets, writes Michael Angwin

Once, when playing in a grand final for Melbourne’s Canterbury Cricket Club veterans, I sat behind Tex and noticed the state of his hat which, I realised, is a metaphor for veterans cricketers everywhere.

Old, frayed, experienced, loved, not as effective as it once was, but serviceable enough to keep going without having to be replaced by a new version that might not see out even one summer.

The first rule of veterans’ cricket, of course, is that every team must have a player named Tex – for that tall, talented, grumpy bloke who glares at you if you dare to suggest that, maybe, perhaps, please, he should take a spell from bowling.

Dean is always Deano. All fast bowlers – an indicative term only – have names like Billy, Goldy or Charlie. The youngest player is The Pup. Maurice becomes “Minor”, or “Major” if his form is good enough.

But, of course, you only settle the nicknames after you settle the team. Best to start that early in the week.

Email your mates on a Tuesday afternoon, remind them where the game is and ask, as politely as possible, if they would like to play.

By Wednesday evening, six or seven might have replied. Then, you email the team again, deploying a slightly more desperate tone if necessary.

By Friday morning, you have 12 or 13 players. If not, then you plead with Laurie to give up his Sunday golfing plans.

You ask for volunteers to bring the snags, bread and beer for the post-match barbecue and assure them that Harry, the club treasurer, will reimburse them.

You remind the team that, after the match, they’ll have to pack the covers away, if you are lucky enough to be playing on turf.

Usually, however, you play at Hislop Park, a set of three synthetic pitches whose outfields have benefited enormously from the absence of soccer on them during the COVID winter.

To be fair to Royal Hislop, the growth of the trees has made it a more pleasant arena; though the synthetic pitches will need renewal soon.

If you’re not playing at home, you travel to Brighton or Benalla, to Warrandyte or to Iona in West Gippsland.

Benalla’s Gardens Oval is a beautiful ground, situated behind the rose gardens and the art gallery. Its TJ Trewin Stand was opened by Henry Bolte and named after the local member who must have twisted Henry’s arm to extract the money to build the place. It’s a country classic.

By contrast, against Iona, you play on a ground with a single shade tree on the western boundary and an easterly buster on a scorchingly hot day. The Ionians have built a tin shed for clubrooms and store their memorabilia inside.

I like it there. It’s a ’60s kind of place that leads us into reminiscence, wistfulness and quiet contemplation – or, more accurately, to Roger telling us those long stories about famous country games from his youth. Sometimes, his story will occupy the entire trip to and from Iona.

Iona’s vets seem a bit older than us but we’ve learnt not to underestimate them.

In the vets, you should never draw conclusions about talent based

   on age. It will always lead you into hubris and then into defeat.

You toss the coin to start the game or sometimes negotiate the first use of the pitch. Occasionally, you will have discussed this with your rival captain on a Friday night when he asks if they can bat first because their wicketkeeper can’t get there until the lunch break. You agree, of course.   

Talent, form and practise have little to do with team strategy and tactics. You abridge your team’s competitive instincts with the more pressing moral imperative of ensuring everybody gets a fair share of the cricket action over the course of a game or a season.

Vets’ rules help: you can bat 12 players provided you only lose 10 wickets; you have to bowl a minimum of seven bowlers who can each bowl a maximum of eight overs.

Most teams go further than this. Some apply the rules for the annual Over 60s club championships at Echuca: a player may bat for a maximum of 30 balls before retiring. At Canterbury, we loosely apply this rule, supplementing it with our own unwritten formula that aims to ensure everybody gets sufficient opportunities during the season.

The clash between participation and competitiveness can assert itself at very inconvenient moments in a game.

You have to bowl a teammate whom you know, and he knows, is likely to give up plenty of runs from a single over. You’ve been putting it off because their batters are pummelling your best bowlers and the match is at a crucial point. But you bowl him anyway and he gives up a lot of runs and the match is now in jeopardy. That’s vets.

Sometimes, however, from somewhere, he pulls out an over that would have pleased him as a 20-year-old and you give him a second over and he picks up two wickets, including a diving caught and bowled in which instinct overcomes pain. The other team is now really worried. That’s vets too.

Batting is a combination of slow singles and fours hit with the skills that remain to us. Most of us still have at least one shot we can rely upon for a four if the bowler puts the ball in the right place. A two is applauded, a three is unusual. Gary and I once ran a four, which is so rare that other teams believe it’s a myth.                                           

Occasionally, we encounter batsmen and bowlers who have that unique combination of talent and youthful DNA that allows them to dominate any game. They play for Australia’s Over 60s team. We value the experience of playing against them and the cricketing thread that links us.

A fielding move requiring little more than a bend of knee attracts rapturous applause. 

We are very polite in Over 60s cricket.

We applaud our opponents and we are nice to umpires.

Dissatisfaction with umpiring decisions is muffled words and hand gestures withheld. A fielding move requiring little more than a bend of knee attracts rapturous applause and exaggerated compliments – “Was that Mark Waugh I just saw?”

Your opponents take time to mention the fact that your drive off their bowling through cover was a delightful shot played off their best ball. Every retirement is clapped. Every batting failure is greeted with a reflection on the unplayability of the ball.

After-match speeches are full of praise for the team you have just flogged or vice versa. Sometimes a captain will struggle to find a man of the match from the carnage of a team’s performance. But he always finds a way to praise somebody.

In veterans’ cricket, the quality of the afternoon tea is more important than the state of the pitch.

Hand-eye co-ordination is less compelling than the warm self-deprecating conversation with teammates and rivals. Whimsy, stoicism, regret and acceptance rate more highly than three for 10 off six or a quick 40.

Vets’ comradeship and sense of community are more valued than winning – though we all still strive desperately to win.

That’s how you play veterans’ cricket.