Another wicket, another journey

An Irishman’s Diary: Batting for the best of cricket clubs

‘Before play there’s the low hum of the wicket cutter in the distance, at start of play there’s a procession – umpires in white coats, like morticians on a busman’s holiday, the fielding team, all spikes and limb-stretching, followed by two nervous and deferential opening batsmen. And later there are the post mortems. A circle of life – another match, another wicket, another journey.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Before play there’s the low hum of the wicket cutter in the distance, at start of play there’s a procession – umpires in white coats, like morticians on a busman’s holiday, the fielding team, all spikes and limb-stretching, followed by two nervous and deferential opening batsmen. And later there are the post mortems. A circle of life – another match, another wicket, another journey.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Wed, Jul 10, 2013, 01:00

I love cricket pavilions at every time of the day. Before play there’s the low hum of the wicket cutter in the distance, at start of play there’s a procession – umpires in white coats, like morticians on a busman’s holiday, the fielding team, all spikes and limb-stretching, followed by two nervous and deferential opening batsmen. And later there are the postmortems. A circle of life – another match, another wicket, another journey.

They’re nice places in silence. They have their ghosts, for the most part friendly ones. I came across such a ghost in the Pembroke Cricket Club pavilion situated in Sydney Parade. Its walls are lined with old team pictures and I was drawn to one of a Pembroke first XI from 1920. Team portraits from this time are in sepia and cricket teams were made up of grim-faced older players and youngsters clearly relieved to have missed the first World War.

In this particular picture you’re drawn to the steady gaze of Paddy Murphy. Working on the history of my own club, the Civil Service Cricket Club, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, I discovered he played for us in the Edwardian era, worked in the GPO, even turned out for Ireland. After leaving us he joined Pembroke. He stood out like a sore thumb in the picture. Ninety years on, he looks just like a Civil Service cricketer – mischievous, wilful, a tough competitor on the field, and great company off it. The type of man who would argue over the head of a pin. And win.

The contradictory nature of cricket itself – the potential kudos for individuals, particularly batsmen, versus the team ethic, attracts a certain type of person and requires a particular mind set. It’s a long game too and patience is required. Truth is that the Civil Service Cricket Club has always attracted a certain type of player membership.

We have never had a schools affiliation, with the result that our players are for the most part self-taught. We’re attracted to cricket because of what it is rather than as a result of social convention. Since I stopped playing for Civil Service, the thing I miss most is the conversation, before, after and during the game. No left or right, no taboos, nothing that could not be talked about. We’re cricketing libertarians and we’re proud to be seen as such.

We started in 1863, our first big game against the Lord Lieutenant’s XI on the lawn in the Vice Regal Lodge. Oddly enough a picture of a Civil Service XI taken in the Vice-Regal lodge in 1863 recently came to light – there’s a good chance it was taken at our first match. The Service XI look like a parcel of rogues. No change there.

Our results were patchy, as all matches were played on Saturdays and public servants were then obliged to work Saturday mornings. We rarely had a full XI at the start of play. Our reputation for hospitality, and the club opening its doors to non-civil servants, helped us to prosper. Our old wooden pavilion even had a cellar bar called the Black Hole of Calcutta that helped retain membership and opposition, often till early morning.

For 150 years there have been peaks and troughs, like there are in sport and life. At the time I joined in the early 1980s there was a major dip in fortunes. It seemed our days were numbered. The arrival of the Walkinstown Mafia – Kellys, Collinses, Morrisseys – revived the club. As well as this band of brothers there was also Walkinstown’s finest, Noel Marks, our best player, one of the best players ever to play for Civil Service. We called him the King and he called his bat Betsy. Our best bowler, our best batsman, our best fielder, he played and we looked on.

Nowadays the Black Hole of Calcutta is a fabled memory. At club barbecues there’s a strong and welcoming smell of Indian barbecue chicken. We dip slightly in performance terms during Ramadan. But we still have a pavilion in one of the most scenic spots in Dublin and we continue to be a friendly club.

Cricket is the most technically challenging and infuriating of games, but it provides an endless source of anecdote and speculation. We still attract a membership that revels in these and who love the game for its rites and ritual.

For these and too many other reasons, Civil Service is the club that I love.

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