Back-street cricketers!

New novel: Married crime Bob and Carol with Consequences
New novel: Married crime Bob and Carol with Consequences
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It was a back-street affair – enjoyed by all young boys, without exception. Long before we had seen the game being played properly or had stepped on the green turf we had become experts at it. Cricket! Lovely cricket!

And I have to shake my head incredulously now when I hear people talking wistfully about kids in the 1950s having such varied and adventurous times, climbing trees and running through the woods.

What woods? There weren’t any where I lived in Pellon. And anyway, why weren’t they playing cricket? If they’d lived down Blackwood Grove, which sounds rustic but wasn’t, they would have been fielding, batting and bowling all day long. All year round. That’s what we did. All we knew. All we wanted to know.

We even had out very own floodlights in the slim, elegant form of Victorian gaslights which sometimes had to be kick-started so that play could continue on raw winter nights.

The game itself took place in something like a long, narrow corridor, bounded on either side by the walls of the back yards, and just wide enough for the horse-drawn milkcart to get through.

This shape imposed its own rules and style. It also had the priceless merit of encouraging young batsmen to play straight, because a cross-batted stroke would get you out – if caught one-handed off the wall.

In any case, pipe-smoking spectators, sitting on their steps, would constantly drum in the absolute need to play, wherever possible, the forward defensive stroke.

This was the way Leonard batted. Leonard (never abbreviated to Len), or Sir Leonard Hutton, to give the great Yorkshire and England opening batsman his grander title, was the watchword on everyone’s lips.

We’d never seen him and knew him only as that tanned, handsome-looking, square-jawed face of cigarette-card fame. But we sensed he was to be revered and that we must tug our caps down on the left side, as he did, to shield our eyes – even in darkest winter – against any glare that might cost us our wicket.

I remember once knotting a white hand-kerchief round my neck in imitation of another cigarette-card star and being roundly rebuked by my father for this affectation. I learned later that only “gentlemen” cricketers did that, as some kind of badge of their amateur status. Professionals didn’t!

I was seven years old when I finally got my first innings and I can still remember the heady pleasure of surviving five balls before being (harshly) given out LBW by the older, bigger bowler.

This was rather more successful than my second knock some weeks later. Elders had always told me that if the ball was going wide to leave it alone (like Leonard did).

Our stumps consisted of a wooden packing case and what it lacked in height it more than made up for in width. It was not a wise choice, then, to leave the first ball alone and I duly bagged my first golden duck – the first of many.

Actually, I’d been fielding, watching, waiting and hoping, for something like three years, always being overlooked or elbowed out whenever the scramble for next-man-in occurred.

It was eventually one of the girls who sat on the walls watching – a lovely, kindly Rita, as I recall – who drew attention to the fact I never got a look in and it was high time I did.

I remember, too, my first attempt at bowl-ing and the gales of laughter that greeted my stuttering run-up and round-arm delivery. This had me deserting my post at long on, sneaking away in shame to the other side of the terraced houses, where I could practise on my own, bowling a tennis ball against a wall in the playground of the local school, Battinson Road Junior.

This, incidentally, was the grand venue for the evening matches, noisy affairs, played between teenage boys, fathers and grandfathers, which sometimes attracted quite a crowd.

As the years passed I gradually grew in stature as well as size and became one of the boys grabbing the bat and hogging the bowling. Those older than me had moved on, switched from back street to front street, taking their swagger with them and quickly losing it in the big league.

Now, looking back more than half a century, certain things amaze me. I find it strange in these modern, pluralistic times that no boys back then ever thought of doing anything but laikin’ cricket. (We never played cricket, by the way, but always laiked, using the Old Norse word that survived in Yorkshire dialect.)

I marvel, also, that we never broke a window. Even the greatest of sloggers always seemed to have the happy knack of avoiding glass with their enormous hits.

It also now seems remarkable that our little world was so self-enclosed. It was our street and our pitch and no one else’s. Boys were playing similarly in all the streets of Halifax, I suppose, but were content to stay in their own midden. And would have been given short shrift had they ventured into ours.

I remember, too, that the bat was always the same. Who actually owned it and where it resided overnight remains a mystery. And we only ever lost one ball, when it spiralled on to the roof and lodged in the guttering.

I don’t see any street cricket going on these days. Mostly I see kids plinky-plonking on all manner of electric gadgets, preparing themselves to be the plinky-plonkers of the future, no doubt. My generation had a different kind of uniformity. We all lived and breathed – the great game.

And if it taught me one thing, it was that every innings comes to an end and life’s too short to waste in simulating “virtual reality”. I have a feeling Leonard would have agreed.

By Andrew Liddle, of Clayton Heights, near Queensbury.