Have bat will travel with Chris Berry How important is cricket in today's village life? The stereotypical image of summertime in rural areas still encompasses the sound of leather on willow for many, but in an era of ever-increasing house prices making living in the countryside ever more difficult, how is the game surviving?
While the England team was preparing to tear into the Aussies at Old Trafford, the opposite end of the cricketing spectrum was enjoying its sport on a farmer's field in the Dales known affectionately as Halfway to Heaven.
Village cricket has its share of quaint settings, with picture postcard grounds and squares that have been tended just as lovingly as those at Test match venues, but the Moor Road ground I visited last week must surely rank above them all, at least in terms of its height above sea level. Situated just half a mile north of tourist hotspot Grassington, in Wharfedale, is the home ground of the Hebden Hedgehogs – so called, on my invitation to play for them, because they used to get flattened every week. They play here, rather than in their own village (east of Grassington by a couple of miles) because, as club secretary David Ogilvie points out: "As a village wanting to play cricket we have always had one fundamental disadvantage. We have no level fields, or at least none that are big enough."
They did play in Hebden a few years ago when their ground name of the Half Oval summed up David's reasoning perfectly as he explained why they are no longer there. "We had a beck that ran only 10 yards away from the batting strip. If the ball landed in the beck after bouncing you were awarded two runs. If it went in without bouncing it was four, and if you cleared the beck it was deemed a six.
"Unfortunately, the beck flooded, ruining the cricket ground, and after what became a temporary move elsewhere in the village we had exhausted anything approaching a level playing field."
Nonetheless, plenty of the villagers of this once bustling lead mining community make the trek from their own picturesque, tightly-packed, slate-roofed cottages that straddle the Pateley Bridge-Grassington B6265, every Wednesday, for a slice of village life that shall remain forever England. Their team is very much a community affair with their only "in-comers" being a lad from Grassington and, on this occasion, me. Other than that everyone who plays for Hebden lives in Hebden, and that's quite a tribute for a village that runs to little more than 300.
"The lads that want to play will always get a game," says John Younger, joint captain and wicket-keeper for the Hedgehogs and also tenant of The Clarendon Hotel, the village's only pub, who I met prior to the game and who told me what to expect.
"The whole village gets involved and if we have more than 11 players we always find a way of making sure everyone gets a game. Last week we played Appletreewick and they turned up with 14. We share players out so that the sides are even and play in the Underdales League where our rules are a little bit different to others. You can't be out first ball, there are no LBWs and everybody bowls two overs. Our oldest player is 61 and our youngest is 10. We play in all weather and the trickiest game we had this season was when we played in low cloud with a white ball.
"The bounce is a bit variable at the best of times, but when you're a wicket-keeper and you can't see the bowler, let alone seeing the ball leaving the bowler's hand, it can be a little tricky."
John's description of the wicket was proved wholly accurate as, by the end of the third over, he was nursing bruises to his cheek, ankle and a vicinity that brought tears well and truly to his eyes. In typically Yorkshire fashion his plight was enjoyed by all and met by a variety of conjecture as to how best he might continue.
While the field is best described as agricultural, with sheep obviously doing their level best to assist in both mowing and refertilisation, the views are fantastic looking out towards Pendle Hill to the south- west. Apart from the vista, the Hedgehogs don't have much in the way of amenities. There is a portable loo, but that was only there because of a grasstrack event taking place a couple of days after our match and in the next field. They do, however, look after their ladies well, who sit in the rarefied atmosphere of a luxury caravan, although luxury may be stretching it a bit, and are the official scorers as well as providing much needed glam. "We're here every week without fail and wouldn't miss it for the world.
"The cricket and our annual Hebden Sports on August Bank Holiday Monday are both well supported by all of us in the village," says Pam Hargreaves, who obviously knows how to advertise, and is one half of the double act that includes Margaret Holmes, who is definitely important in the village because I saw her name on the village noticeboard before venturing to the dizzy heights of nearly 1,000 feet as we are now.
Our team included a big hitter, if his knocking up was anything to go by, called Jim Freebury, suitably showing his allegiance to our test team by wearing an Inzamam-ul Haq shirt (India); farmer's sons Jack and Frank Kitching; ex-captain, spinner and retired schoolteacher Martin Fretwell; father and son Paul and Daniel Batty; Lewis Whittam; and joint-captain Andy Gould, who tells me how popular cricket is to the villagers. "I've lived in Hebden for three years and cricket is very important to us. Normally we've locked the gates here by 6.15pm there's that many coming to watch."
Although it may not have been at capacity there were certainly quite a few watching. The evening's visitors were Airton Bellringers from just south of Malham. Batting first they lost a couple of early wickets but Messrs Spence and Russell dug in, both retiring when reaching 25.
The Bellringers finished on 80 for 3 – and a healthy but not insurmountable four an over was needed. When we lost opener Andy Gould and local councillor Richard "Fozzie" Foster early on, it looked as though we might struggle but a combination of big-hitter Freebury matching his earlier promise, an import by the name of Berry, and Hebden born and bred Nigel Fairbanks all retiring at 25 saw us home.
In the friendliest of fashions I must mention that the Bellringers also gave a game to my 14-year old son Stewart, who proceeded to pepper me with a series of deliveries that ranged from beamer to bouncer to ankle-blitzer. "I don't think he likes you very much," said one wag among the amused assembled throng around the caravan.
The target having been met, the game carried on, enabling all players to bowl and all except wicket-keeper John to bat. After his earlier battering it seemed only sensible, as his cheek now looked redder than a new cricket ball.
John had mentioned that not everyone wore whites, but what he hadn't said was that I might be the only member of our team wearing them.
When we returned to The Clarendon Hotel following the game, to partake in John's wife Rachel's legendary cooking, David Ogilvie thrust a copy of the Underdales League's original rules into my hand which clearly states under Section 14a General Behaviour and Turn-Out: "Whites must not be worn unless all other clothes are in the wash."
It says much for the people of the Dales and for the sport of cricket that a game, despite all of today's pressures and intensity can still remain such an enjoyable part of society and one that is very much alive, well and part of Hebden's village life.
IS THIS (VILLAGE)
The Underdales League was initiated by Appletreewick Cricket Club (ACC) and they also devised the rules of the league.
Some appear to favour them, particularly Section 6: Boundary, that states: "For all home matches of ACC this will be determined by the Captain's mowing machine and is taken as the outer side of the mown strip. The Captain retains the right to re-mow the boundary during the interval."
Section 7: Lost Balls, states: "If the opposition lose an ACC ball, this must be replaced by them. If ACC lose a ball, this must also be replaced by the opposition, as the loss would be due to sub-standard bowling by them."
Section 9: Weather, states: "It is normal to play in
any weather or light conditions, but in the event of a hurricane or total blackout the decision to stop play will be made by the senior umpire in consultation with the ACC Captain. If life is threatened, they may consult the visiting captain."
Section 12d: Rules of Batting: "If a batsman is hit by the ball he must not show pain or sissy tendencies and must continue with his innings. Failure to comply with this rule could result in being branded a 'wimp'."
Section 14f: "Fielders are encouraged not to be too flamboyant when taking or dropping a catch.
The use of face, leg or chest is encouraged for stopping the ball as this gives a truly 'manly' impression to the opposition."