At a high pitch of excitement

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
I need the rest this summer holiday, after watching the most intense, sweat-drenching and viciously competitive game I have ever known. The European Soccer Cup? The Olympics?

No. YBC: Young Boys' Cricket.

To the uninitiated, it might seem as if YBC was simply a junior version of England's national game. Nothing could be further from the truth. I grant you there are 11 players on each side, most of them wear white and there are stumps, bats and wickets, but that's where it ends.

YBC is played with a fervour and intensity that makes the adult game seem positively tame. When a wicket goes in a Test match or a crucial four is scored, the players grin, clap their hands together and may even cheer.

I can't recollect seeing 11 Test or county players either cartwheel when the wicket falls, or run around in circles for minutes on end with one hand raised in the air, shrieking "YEEESSS" at the top of their voices. However, this spectacle is only where the difference between the two games starts.

The bat is crucial in YBC. It must be three times as thick as the legs (closed together) of the batsman, and preferably require three hands to lift it.

The weight of the bat has important side-effects. In YBC, it is not unusual for the batsman to lose his grip as he reaches the end of his mighty swing, sending the bat sailing through the air.

It is not uncommon for the flying bat to hit the bowler, but it usually knocks the head off the wicketkeeper or hits the other batsman in the stomach.

No insurance claim has yet been lodged by an umpire, but the wisest invest in a metal breastplate and line their white hat with an adapted baking tray.

Losing the bat is considered fair risk, and rarely arouses comment. However, just as in tenpin bowling alleys when a player occasionally gets his or her fingers stuck in the ball, and so accompanies it down the alley, the batsmen in YBC are often reluctant to let go of the bat although its weight has swung it out of control.

The batsmen turn full circle, six or seven times, while all those in range duck out of the way.

The technique is welcomed by the bowling side, as the swinging batsmen normally either hits his wicket or himself. Even if this does not happen, the wicket is usually lost as scheming bowlers hurry up the next ball while the batsman is still dizzy.

Another basic rule is that the stroke played by the batsman must bear no relation to the delivery of the ball. It is quite in order to play one's stroke as a batsman before the ball has left the bowler's hand, and not unusual to play it three seconds after it has passed by the wicket.

In any event, what matters most is that the stroke must look stylish; the whereabouts of the ball is, after all, a secondary consideration.

The bowler in YBC frequently delivers the ball only to find that it fell out of his hand on the run-up. Unusual, but not exceptional, is the scenario where the ball lobs lazily up in the air, drops at about mid wicket and stops there, lying dumbly in the middle.

Explaining what the rules dictate to be the proper course of action in this eventuality is what keeps the Test Match Special team talking for half an hour when rain stops play.

Adult cricket rarely involves the players' parents, and it is unusual in a Test match for a father to remove his son half an hour after play has started because his son is batting too low in the order.

It is possible that two fathers might have a fight at Lord's about whether one of them is having an affair with the other's wife. However, such altercations tend to get lost in the size of Lord's in a way that cannot be expected by the side of the average YBC pitch.

The complexities of YBC defy description here, but two features beg to be mentioned. The first is the pitch. Not for YBC the smooth carpet of the professional game, with every blade of grass measured and mowed to perfection.

YBC cricketers who know their stuff are as good on clay as they are on grass. All good YBC pitches must have huge, Grand Canyon-like holes just where the ball pitches, meaning that the direction the ball takes before it bounces bears no relation to its flight path afterwards.

This does not explain why "no ball" is often the highest scorer in YBC, or why one bowler managed to hit the square leg umpire with his first delivery. For the unconverted, square leg stands about 20 yards to the right or left of the batsman.

The second is the scorer. One never hears of them in the professional game, but the scorer in YBC is crucial. In the rare event of a tie, he is expected to add an extra pencil stroke in the score book, adding a run to his school which allows it to claim a victory.

However, the scorer is a considerable personality in YBC. He is usually bespectacled, hugely earnest and eats copies of Wisden for breakfast. He has probably never batted or bowled in his life, but has a vast fund of wisdom to bestow on those who do.

He is a shrewd judge of people, and not afraid of making that judgment known. Interestingly, that judgment crosses the class divide. When my favourite YBC side played a top boarding school, the opening bat was out after eight deliveries for a duck. The scorer peered over his spectacles as the weary batsman trudged forlornly back to the side of the pitch.

"Really, Nathan," he pronounced, "that was an awfully bad show."

A week later, my favourite team was playing a local school. Same scenario, different scorer and different words: "Tha' were reet crap out there, Craig. "

But it was exactly the same message.

Actually, I can't wait for next season.

Dr Martin Stephen is High Master of the Manchester Grammar School.

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