Captaining a team to second-last place in an indoor cricket tournament is an unlikely thing to take pride in, even when your sporting CV is as modest as mine. But then, the colleagues that answered my call to play in our company’s 8-a-side cup this autumn were the unlikeliest of cricketers.
I had a month to teach three Russians, a Ukrainian, a Bulgarian, a Slovenian and a Vietnamese – four lads and three ladies, none of whom had ever played before – how to bat, bowl and field. Finding time to practice together was difficult (I am surely the first captain to cancel a net because my best bowler was in Magnitogorsk), but three lunchtimes a week I took a Kwik Cricket set to London’s Regent’s Park, and made everyone try each of the skills. My teammates’ enthusiasm never wilted: anglophiles all, they threw themselves into the challenge of a complicated English game.
Explaining the rules in Russian kept me on my toes. To bowl, I assumed, is kidát. The ball is a myátchik, a bat – bita, and stumps are kalitki. Each colleague found games from their childhood in the new techniques: Alexey took strike like an ice-hockey forward anticipating a puck; Lubtcho and Kamil bowled with tennis serves (and batted with forehands); when the girls – Amelie, Luba and Angie – bowled, it was pure Pilates.
I began to bowl at them off a couple of paces. The Russians swatted leg-side balls to midwicket; their favourite off-side shot was the reverse-pull. Slovenian Aleš learned to drive the ball, sometimes very hard. With every practice they made contact more often, and bowled a bit straighter. By our last afternoon in the park they had all made real progress.
The tournament was contested in a converted warehouse in London’s Docklands, separated into four pitches – one for each group of four teams. We were playing indoor rules: eight overs per innings, one over per bowler, four pairs batting for two overs each. As we got changed I limited my team talk to repeating the rule on throwing, and confiscating Alexey’s hip-flask of cognac (at least until after he had kept wicket).
Our first match, against the Bangladeshis from the department upstairs, passed in a blur of misses and run outs. With batsmen losing five runs for getting out our total of -10 was easily trumped, despite Luba bowling an immaculate over. In the second game we were thrashed by 100 runs, the embarrassment tempered by Aleš hitting our first ever six. Our final match – batting order reversed, bowlers tired and tipsy – went down to the last two balls. My players called properly, ran confidently, and threw the myátchik at the kalitki with feeling. It ended 44 – 35, but hardly felt like defeat.
As we watched the semi-finals we talked of entering two teams next year. Three losses had left us bottom of our group this time, but our run rate earned us fifteenth place among the company’s sixteen teams. Not bad for a mostly Russian and Eastern European, mixed-sex cricket team – and enough, I hope, for a small footnote in cricketing history.