Cricket? It's all Greek to us
posted: October 1, 2015
So to Corfu, legendary island of olives and cypress trees, ventured the Epicurean Strollers. In addition to its literary and mythological associations, Corfu is also an unlikely nexus of cricketing excellence. It would be stretching a point to claim that the Strollers contributed much in the way of glory, or even skill, to this fabled history of cricketing derring-do during our three days on its shores, but, to its equally legendary status as a nexus of hedonism, we contributed more than our fair share. We were, in fact, unstinting in our efforts.
The first day in Corfu was spent in uncharacteristically wholesome fashion. Andrew Bates, sometime Stroller and a very shy fellow loved by all, in the company of several Kiwis the names of which eluded this writer, was sailing two yachts through the Ionian Sea, interspersed with a bit of picking up of old ladies.
Generously, he offered to pick us up in the old harbour and sail us up to coast to nearby Kalami, one-time home of Lawrence Durrell whose white house made famous in Prospero’s Cell still stands on the shore, now a taverna. So armed with about four hundred beers, we turned up to face the happy prospect of being ordered about by Master Bates in a boat for an hour or two.
Kalami is a delightful place which we gained in about an hour and swam into the shore. Or rather most of us did. Ron is a non-swimmer and was towed ashore by a Kiwi, clutching a buoy. Apparently one of Ron’s relatives passed away in an unfortunate boating accident, and Ron’s father had forthwith decreed that no son of his should ever venture near the water again, still less learn what to do should he be forced unwillingly into an encounter with H2O. Of such men is the Strollers composed.
A very pleasant lunch was passed (surely consumed first? — Ed) by most of us, apart from Bates who was still dicking about with the anchor 50 yards away. Spencer had drawn the short straw and was helping until, apparently unable to take it any more, he flung himself off the side of the boat and swam for it. An even more dramatic swim followed after the meal as while we settled up the bill somebody noticed that our second yacht (the one not skippered by Bates as he smugly pointed out) slipped it's anchor and alarmingly began to drift off towards darkest Albania. Thankfully a kindly water taxi driver spotted our predicament and ferried crew #2 aboard just in time before yacht and associated deposit were forever lost.
Upon returning to Corfu town, there was only time for a quick shower, then beers, then an excellent restaurant, more beers. And then some more beers. Ideal preparation then, for our first game.
Corfu is the centre of the Hellenic cricket federation. Of the 15 cricket clubs in Greece, 13 are to be found in Corfu. In 2012, the European T20 finals were held on Corfu and Hellas was captained by Nic Bothas, former Hampshire wicket-keeper. So, you know, there are some useful players here. And Gymnastikos, the first team we encountered, appear to have cornered most of them. Their skipper is an ex Zimbabwe U19 international: their ‘keeper had played professional cricket in Pakistan.
Over the course of the previous day, amidst the cavorting on Bates’ boat and the general eating and boozing, word had reached us, by whisper and rumour, that our opponents on the morrow were pretty good. They had recently beaten, it appears, an MCC touring side and the Lord’s Taverners. Nikos, our Corfiot guide, imparted the worryingly precise intelligence that Gynmastikos wins 98% of all games played. Who constitutes the 2%, I wonder? South Africa? The West Indies 1984 team? Australia 1948?
Of course, presented with this information, it would have behoved us to put a stop to the boozing forthwith and get a collective early night, wake refreshed to put in some earlyish nets before the sun grew too fierce, then take an energy-rich luncheon, followed by some dynamic stretching and fielding drills, before tooling off to meet Gymnastikos with quiet confidence and a steely determination. Did we do so? Of course not.
In fact, we would have to have been fighting fit, to have had all our best players, to have performed at the limit of our abilities and have every bit of luck go our way to even make a game of it against these guys, and even then we would have still lost. Of course, we ticked none of the above boxes, and got royally trounced.
We didn’t make things any easier by our steadfast refusal to bowl anything like the right length on the artificial, concrete based wicket. It had tennis ball bounce, which perhaps encouraged us to bang it in short. This was a mistake of epic proportions, to which no-one was entirely immune. Simon went for 9 an over, Tom a comparatively miserly 7.5 an over, Ron 8.5 an over (though four wickets), Spencer 11 an over, George 12 an over, the skipper 16 an over, Abhi 21 an over and Batesy, in his one over, went for a painful 22. None of those figures make particularly happy viewing.
Gymnastikos pretty much batted all the way down. Only at the very end of the innings did batsmen begin to appear with a sufficient degree of incompetence to encourage the demoralised Strollers bowlers. And by this time the total was somewhere in the stratosphere. Of course, we didn’t make things any easier by putting down a hatful of chances with Simon the principal, long-suffering victim (plus ca change – Ed).
From the second over of the innings, the ball began disappearing over square leg and midwicket for huge sixes as Simon consistently failed to find the right length. And even when he did the ball was smashed past him for straight drives. Consolation arrived in the form of a wicket when the ball got a bit big on Ani and the skipper rushed around to take a good catch in front of the wicket, Simon wisely leaving the chase to younger (if shorter) legs.
In came Usman, and was missed down the leg side third ball when on nought. And then went on to make 135. In truth, it made little difference as the runs would have come from somewhere else. Ron came on to the top end, replacing Tom, and proved to be the pick of the bowlers. He secured the one coup of the innings when he held on to a smart return catch to dismiss Tasos, the skipper and ex-Zimbabwe international, but runs continued to mount remorselessly.
Gavin and Simon sat out a few overs while we let our visiting Kiwis do a bit of ball-chasing, of which they did a good deal, and observed a head on Sturm-Couldrey-esque clash between ‘Mad Dog’ George and one of the aforementioned New Zealanders that saw a thoroughly takeable skied catch put down (had it not been such a tragic reflection of the gulf in competence between the two sides it would have been tremendously funny).
Usman retired on 135, but everyone else seemed pretty competent too and the score, which had been climbing steadily throughout, really began to pick up. The skipper looked a bit doleful, and, in a move that indicated that the Strollers had begun to lose interest in the game from a competitive point of view, posted an umbrella field a la Lillee and Thomson for Simon’s second spell. Even in his fiery youth, that would have been a bit much; as such days are now deep in the distant past and belong to a different century when Margaret Thatcher was in Number 10, it was all a bit risible.
Wickets began to fall a bit more freely towards the end of the innings, but each new incumbent was pretty handy and only right at the end did we encounter one or two who weren’t very good. After a little rush of dropped catches at the end, just to round off the innings nicely, the Strollers trooped off having conceded a whopping 335 off 30 overs.
This was always going to be rather a tall order and, as Gav and George set off at a somewhat sedate pace, the asking rate grew more and more impressive. George got a good, quickish ball that was taken behind the wicket by the ex-Pakistani professional Aslam while Gav ran himself out for a rather sad 7. This was the first of three run outs as the oppo demonstrated that they could also field as well as they batted. All seemed to have an arm like a laser.
This brought Deavs and Tom to the wicket and the Strollers enjoyed their best period. Deavs, who seems to never pick up a bat from one year to the next, looked utterly untroubled and played some beautiful shots. He’s like Dennis Compton: strolls into the dressing room, debonair in black tie and only slightly shop-soiled after a long night at one of London’s premier cabaret clubs, picks up the nearest bat, flicks an invisible speck of dust from his elegant flannels and saunters out to make an effortless century. Or, in this case, 43 before edging Tasos behind.
Meanwhile, at the other end, Tom was bashing it about like the proper all-rounder he is, and the Strollers looked like a proper cricket team, Ben Stokes at one end and Dennis Compton at the other. But when he was out for 33, bowled by the ominously named Malinga, the innings folded. There were three ducks for Ron, Dickie and the skipper, Tim got 14 and the usually so reliable Spencer 4 before we were bowled out for 142, to lose by the best part of 200 runs (although thankfully avoiding the follow-on — Ed) – which is really some achievement in a 30-over game. To add to the indignity, Gymnastikos used no fewer than 10 bowlers, so it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they prolonged the game as long as was humanly possible, short of deliberately bowling wides and no balls.
Still, they were a good outfit, and all these things are in a day’s work. We consoled ourselves with a lengthy repast at a nearby taverna in Gouvia, which served a mixed grill for 12 euros, as Bates reminded us once or twice. Batesy tentatively suggested the place, and knowing how diffident he is about seeking the leadership, we thought it must indeed be good and happily went there, and didn’t even mind when he ordered for the whole table before the menus were offered around.
And so the evening began. It followed a traditional pattern, and the details are a little hazy to this writer. He does recall, however, an extended period at the hotel roof bar overlooking the town and old Byzantine temple (made famous as the location for one of the Roger Moore mid-era 007 movies), at which were lucky enough to pay host to Old George Brown, cricketer of yore. In Tales from the Boundary, he entertained us with many a tall tale about cricketers of his youth, Tom Bowler (“corr, he didn’t half spray it around a bit”) and Ron Boundary (“Injun feller, left-armer, lovely bloke”).
At the later stages of the evening, after several gallons of long island iced tea, we learnt from a passer-by that there was a colony of Abyssinian economic migrants in nearby Gouvia, and, ever the philanthropists, decided to pay them a visit and donate some hard-earned euros. Despite their many hardships, they were a friendly crowd and seemed mainly female. We were happy to furnish some largesse, and they showed their gratitude in a way few of us will forget.
Upon returning to the town, Dickie, Simon and Ron decided to pay a return visit to the pitch in the middle of the elegant Venetian town square (the famed Platea), scene of a fine team rendition of Spandau Ballet’s immortal ‘Gold’ some hours earlier and the field of the battle on the morrow. In time honoured manner, this moonlit pitch inspection, involving a hearty sprint from one end to the other, was executed naked. Tom and the skipper watched on admiringly, and decided to emulate, but failed to accomplish the necessary step of fully removing trousers and left them round the ankles, so they waddled about a bit displaying their wares to any unfortunate Corfiot night owls, like extras from a 1970s Confessions movie. Confessions of a Useless Cricketer, perhaps?
It is fair to say that we were at not at our best the next day. Indeed, we looked as if we’d have been happier on a tuberculosis ward than playing cricket. As it was, we were faced with the prospect of performing in front of possibly the largest number of onlookers ever to have witnessed a Strollers match in progress — the beautiful Platea surrounded on three of it's four sides by numerous terraced cafés packed with hundreds of locals enjoying their luncheon. It was also fiercely warm, without the seaside breeze that had favoured our heroic efforts on the previous day. But, once more into the breach, dear friends.
The oppo, Zes, were a local side and composed mostly of local Greek lads and one rather shapely Greek maiden who turned up wearing tight, short denim shorts and then, distressingly, changed into whites. Now, here, surely, was a team we could turn over and allow us to leave Greek shores with a win under a belt? Err, no. how we managed to lose with forever be a mystery, but lose we did.
David won the toss and decided to bat, a popular decision which meant nine of us could lounge around under the trees for a bit and drink vast quantities of water. And watch the carnage on the field. Gav again ran himself out for even less (5 this time), David bowled for 3, Spencer caught in the deep for 6, Abhi bowled for a duck and Dickie bowled for 1.
A revival of sorts followed under Tom, hitting 27 (taking his two day total to 60) and Ron, who hit 24. But once those two were out, the collapse continued, the final act of an abject performance being a mix-up between Simon and Tim which left the former run out (again). The Strollers amassed only 103 runs, and criminally, batted out only 15 overs. We were playing with a hard rubber, indoor ball, which may have accounted for a few wickets; most notably Spencer’s lofted drive which would normally have cleared the boundary if a proper cricket ball had been used. But even so, this was pretty pathetic. The sense that we weren't taking the match perhaps as seriously as we might was best personified by Ron who, inexplicably, decided to umpire from square leg in our last overs wearing not much except for a boob tube apparently nicked from one of the Abyssinian ladies some hours earlier.
But now it was time to get serious; and, for the first half of the Zes innings, we competed. Simon found the length that had eluded him the previous day, trapping the opener Spiros in front for only eight and then bowling Giannis next ball. Ron picked up where he had left off the previous day and snaffled another three wickets, two of which fell to Sturm slip catches 11 and 12 of the season. At drinks, Zes were only 45 for four wickets and the game was very much on.
But after drinks, it slipped away from us. The skipper Alex proved difficult to dislodge, more catches were spilled and the meagre total of the Strollers got closer and closer. Every boundary was a little nail in our coffin. Simon was brought back on, and responding by bowling, uncharacteristically, four wides in an over which deserves the appellation “nightmarish” and has, indeed, haunted the bowler ever since.
This was a hard loss to take. We would have won this game 99 times out of a hundred, but this was the hundredth time. Nikos had words of consolation, recalling that on several occasions in the recent past, visiting teams have interrupted the game to vomit copiously on the pitch – one of the legendary cricket venues of the world. It would have been a more memorable game for us if we had managed that.
Nonetheless, it was an epic tour, fully in keeping with Homeric tales of yore. There remained time for only one more hiccup. Simon made it all the way to the departure gate before discovering his flight had been booked for the following day. Marvellous.
As Homer said, “There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”
tour photos >>
scorecard match one >>
scorecard match two >>