A white-collar criminal in the making

The spirit of the game is open for interpretation. Picture Shutterstock
The spirit of the game is open for interpretation. Picture Shutterstock

This bone-dry cricket oval of 1985 NSW is about as far from the lush, patrician grass of 1919 Hampshire as you can get, but time and culture are destined to collide when I'm handed the ball.

Once or twice a season, we travel to play the locals in their neighbouring village; something of a foodie destination in years to come, but, to my contemporaneous 11-year-old imagination, synonymous with heat, horses and annual crops of outstanding young swimmers who dominate our carnivals thanks to having little else to do other than build muscle and lung capacity motoring up and down the lanes of their Olympic pool, an outdoor facility which always seemed disproportionately generous for a community comprising about three families.

At least this paddock is more reflective of the baths' hard-scrabble settlement; its pitch cracked cement, its outfield a minefield of catheads and wolf spider lairs.

As the temperature rises, I'm even less enthusiastic for competition than usual and, this malaise duly noted, have been consigned to the boundary, where, on my haunches, I busy myself with those arachnids rather than pay attention to any action that may be unfolding out in the centre (obscured anyway by shimmering heat, as if a mirage promising me the rewards of hard work and endeavour should I just get off my backside).

It's because of the spiders, not the sport or the camaraderie of teammates, I actually look forward to travelling to this venue; officially my favourite ever since they stopped letting us play at the field attached to the boys home (which grew up to become a prison) on the outskirts of my own town.

Upon our first game there, I quickly discovered the shower block was populated by an unfeasible number of green tree frogs. They resided under the rims of toilet bowls, so, rather grossly for any ablutions hub, let alone one regularly set upon by wayward youths, I'd blindly run my fingers around the smooth, cool porcelain until I encountered one of the clammy patties, then engage in some all-consuming boy-meets-amphibian time. Outside our little Harry Butler cocoon, the rest of the team was left to wonder what it was about this particular place which always seemed to give their third-string medium-pacer a raging case of the trots (which, given his ill-advised latrine exploits, was sure to arrive for real within the next 24 hours).

And while cradling those soft, lumpy creatures was lovely, the exercise lacked a certain edge, which is why it's great to be out here again, in this harsh clearing, matching wits with some lean, agile ambush predators (the spiders, not the cricketers).

My neck beginning to burn, I spy one down in his parlour; six incorruptible eyes glinting back at me, masculine chelicerae resembling the walrus moustache of a starched-collared gentleman who rides a penny-farthing.

I snatch a stem of dead summer grass, poke it down the hole and tickle the spider so he locks on and I yank him up into the daylight. If I'm lucky, before he retreats, he'll bare his fangs, raise his front legs in warning, maybe even jump towards me, so crazy with justifiable, home-invaded outrage, he's willing to take on a mountain.

Looking for ever bigger and meaner spiders to harass, I shuffle, crab-like, from hole to hole; half an ear cocked for a cry of "catch it!" in the highly unlikely event someone should actually connect with a ball convincingly enough to send it my way.

This pretty much goes on for an entire innings until the inevitable breaks in and I'm called on to bowl.

I take the ball and as I barrel through my clipped, no-nonsense run-up, notice the non-striker, who should be next to me or thereabouts at this stage of the process, is halfway down the pitch before I even reach the crease.

He does it again the next delivery, and the next.

On my fourth delivery, instead of releasing the six-stitcher, I use it to casually knock a bail off the stumps, marooning the sprinter in no man's land.

"Howzat?" I ask the umpire.

"Out," he says, his face a nodding contortion of curiosity and resignation.

As outlined in Law 41.16 of the MCC cricketing code, this kind of dismissal, pertaining to "the non-striker leaving his/her ground early", is perfectly legal. Colloquially, it's called a "mankad", named for India's Mulvantrai Himmatlal "Vinoo" Mankad, who ran out Australia's Bill Brown in the 1947 Sydney Test.

And although what I've just done might well be within the rules (Don Bradman himself endorsed it back in the day), it's frowned upon. In fact, other than the odd underarm international incident, it's one of cricket's most demonstrative examples of going against the nebulous "spirit of the game".

And what's worse, I know it.

I've been gagging to mankad someone ever since winter, when I watched the blockbuster Bodyline TV series about the infamous, welt-inducing 1932-33 English tour of Australia.

In the very first episode, future English skipper Douglas Jardine (played with vaudeville villainy by Hugo Weaving) is captaining Manchester College against fierce rival Eton.

"He's moving too far down his wicket," Jardine tells his bowler.

"I'll warn him."

"Don't do that. Run him out."

"But it's customary to give a warning."

"We're not on the village green now, run him out."

An early 20th-century Wykehamist pushing the boundaries of sportsmanship against an early 20th century Etonian is one thing (raised eyebrows and murmurs from the deck chairs) but a late 20th century Aussie kid doing it to a counterpart whose mum happens to be watching is another.

All hell breaks loose.

Ball still in hand (how I wish it was one of those sweet, fat frogs), I stand red-cheeked at the stumps as a couple of parents invade the pitch. One of them points at me and berates the umpire. The run-out batter, who refused to leave, calls me a cheat. Our captain, a talented cricketer who'll go on to play for the state, positions his formidable frame between me and the rabid grown-ups. Our coach, a rangy, avuncular type, lopes over from scoring duties under a tree and suggests we all settle down and simply rebowl the offending delivery.

The adults leave and I complete my over. A maiden, not that it matters, now.

Someone boos as I walk back to the outfield.

I return to my spiders.

  • B. R. Doherty is a regular columnist.
This story A white-collar criminal in the making first appeared on The Canberra Times.