The dark art of being a Sunday cricket captain in Yorkshire

Joe Root may have the nation's cricketing hopes in his hands, but at least he doesn't have to make the tea says Sunday captain Charlie Campbell in his new book about the amateur game.

Monday, 13th March 2017, 12:16 pm
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 10:51 am
The life of a Sunday cricket captain in Yorkshire is not easy.

It’s a beautiful summer’s day. A man stands alone outside a thatched pavilion watching a game of cricket. He is wearing whites, telling you he is not a spectator. He’s looking at the batsmen out in the middle, who are making slow progress.

The scorer is marking each dot ball diligently in the book. But where is the rest of the side? You scan the outfield. One is umpiring at square leg. He stands there in a white coat, hoping not to be called upon to make a decision. Another two are walking slowly around the boundary, deep in conversation about their love lives. They are the opening batsmen, Sam and Will, dismissed cheaply early on. Cricket could not be further from their minds.

High above them sits another cricketer. Nick is the team’s vice-captain. No one quite knows what he is doing up there on his own - also thinking about his love life? Meditating? Learning Japanese? Being English, his team-mates never ask. They’re used to these absences.

Cricket captain and author Charlie Campbell in action.

In another corner of the field stands Tom, probably the most successful member of today’s side. He is on the phone to Radio 4, which want his opinion on the Islamic State’s latest atrocity. Again, cricket is not at the forefront of his mind.

Another player has gone for a walk with his family who have grown mutinous at the prospect of this whole day of cricket. It’s not clear if they are coming back. Their discarded newspapers and toys lie on a picnic rug in front of the pavilion.

The remaining two players are in the changing room, padding up. One will be prone, felled by a hangover. The other will be fussing over his kit, both almost entirely ignorant of the match situation. Only the captain is watching what is going on the field of play.

Soon the time will come when he has to think about his own performance, like any other player, as he walks out to bat. But now the amateur captain is plotting how his team can win that afternoon. I know because I am one.

The country’s hopes may not be riding on what happens on this field of play, but you have preparations to make. Unlike today’s professional skipper, you are burdened with endless administrative duties, from selecting the team, replacing those who dropped out during the week, providing detailed directions to the ground and then driving a number of them there yourself.

You may have had to shop for and make tea - these days you’ll probably have to provide vegetarian or gluten-free options - before loading the car with the paraphernalia of Sunday cricket and the items certain players left behind at the last game.

The compensation comes not in those games in which his side wins effortlessly. Instead it is the game in which every single member of his team contributes, ideally towards a narrow victory. I remember one game like this on a sunny day in June and being on the Nursery Ground at Lord’s it was the highlight of our season.

Selection had been tricky - all those players mysteriously unavailable all season had suddenly got in touch to say that, yes, they could play in this particular match. But you don’t drop your two top-order batsman who’ve played every single game, even if their combined age is 102 and they’re involved in 80 per cent of the team’s run outs.

Cricket captain and author Charlie Campbell in action.

Likewise your slip stays in the team, though he will need two knee replacements by the end of the season. And you keep the change bowler who recently took his first catch in 15 years. After all someone needs to bat at 11.

That day there was no single hero. No centuries, no five-wicket hauls, just good cricket as a team. Afterwards we stayed by the side of the pitch for hours, happily drinking and dissecting the game. If we’d had a team song, no doubt we would have sung it, like the Australians. One player was so exhilarated by the day that he left his entire kitbag in the changing room for me to lug home.

You see, for the rest of the team the game is a much needed break from the trials of modern life. Players leave their children at home, switch their phones off and can focus on an afternoon of daydreaming and the occasional chase to the boundary. But as a skipper you have much to ponder. Because in cricket things are usually about to go wrong.

Before a game the England skipper might have to deal with the world’s press, answering questions about selection and what he’ll do if he wins the toss. A Sunday captain’s concerns are more prosaic. You’ll be fretting more about the safe arrival of all 11 players - and the tea - rather than thinking of how you’ll deploy them on the field.

A couple of seasons ago, we were playing the Vatican’s cricket team. This was a first for us - our fixture list doesn’t usually include teams representing the world’s largest religions. St Peter’s CC had come over to play the Church of England and we were lucky enough to bag one of their warm up fixtures.

I arrived in good time, along with team-mate Tom, to find an ominously fit looking team smartly dressed in Wisden yellow jackets. A text message came that five team-mates were in the pub having lunch (four of them claimed the fifth had ordered a sizeable feast and they were waiting for his food to turn up). The remaining players were held up by what they described as the complete closure of the same motorway we’d just driven up a few minutes earlier.

Meanwhile the opposition started to warm up on the outfield, doing shuttle runs and other strenuous exercises. But you can’t intimidate an opposition if nine of them aren’t there. There is no better test of the health of an amateur cricket club than the time the players turn up. Brealey never had to deal with Botham leaving early to get to a party somewhere, nor the top order arriving late because traffic was bad and both Boycott and Tavare had driven too slowly and dallied in the service station.

However, just like the professionals, an amatuer side scrutinises the opposition for the faintest sign of weakness. We’ve all been misled by a player’s appearance. I’ve seen a 12-year-old throw down the stumps from midwicket, a morbidly obese number seven hit a quick-fire 80 and a 70-year-old seamer bowl a miserly 10-over spell. But usually appearances aren’t deceptive.

There are hundreds of ways in which you can spot a novice cricketer. As Shakespeare put it, “The apparel oft proclaims the man”. In cricket this means that there is always a single to the man in black trainers and at least two to the fielder in chinos. Sunglasses usually denote either a very good or very weak player. The latter if they’re in any way fashionable.

I have been captain for the last five years. In that time we have been dismantled by sides much better than us and dismissed and hit for six by countless former professional players. But just occasionally we’ve come out on top against them. We’ve lost seven straight games and narrowly avoided mutiny during that run. But we’ve won a great many matches, too. It’s been a steep learning curve for all, particularly for a novice captain.

Extracted from Herding Cats: The Art of Amateur Cricket Captaincy by Charlie Campbell (Wisden, £16.99/ £14.99 eBook).