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No Game For Girls
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Ken Orford

Sport

U






A week is never long enough! The first day back after a holiday – even a half term holiday, is always a bit of a strain. But having said that, the next few weeks, the last of the school year, were on the whole pretty easy ones. For Jim Skidmore, head of PE, it was even easier than the average head of department. Jim had been teaching for over thirty years, and could do it on autopilot. His number two, Steff Edwards, headed up most of the AS and A2 work, while Jim tended to do the easier GCSE side. That and running the school’s football, cricket and hockey teams. Netball though was definitely a “girl’s” sport – so Steff did that.

The final bell had rung and Jim had a few minutes before first eleven cricket nets. Just enough time to make a couple of calls to try and make sure his club team on Saturday was as strong as possible. He’d just dialled and was waiting for the ring to start when the door to what he called his office (a large cupboard at the back of the gym) opened.

“Hey, sorry to disturb you.” Steffi could be annoyingly cheerful sometimes. “Just wanted to let you know, some new kid wanted to try out for the first eleven. I said to go along to practice – hope that was okay!”

Without waiting for an answer the door closed. As Steffi walked away, she shook her head. Bloody dinosaur – should have given up teaching years ago. Or moved with the times. Jim too shook his head, just what he needed some kid who thought he was the next KP. His thoughts quickly moved on when he became aware his phone had stopped ringing and he heard “Hey Jim, wassup?”

“Just wanted to make sure you’re okay for Saturday. Top of the table clash, big local rivals – I definitely need my best all rounder.”

“Wouldn’t dream of missing it.”

“Excellent. Look we’ve got a strong side out, but I’ll probably be on the last minute – got a school T20 cup game in the morning. I’ll bring along young Alex to keep. He’s been scoring runs for fun at school matches.”

“Ah no prob. If I win the toss, we’ll bat!”

Team for the big game sorted, Jim left for the nets. The lads were already there, warmed up and the skipper was organising them. As he approached a small tracksuited figure seemed to appeared at his side. The slight, blonde pony tailed girl was dragging a Grey-Nichols bag that she could easily have fit into.

“Mr Skidmore!” She was almost running to keep pace with him. “Mr Skidmore, I’m Clare Stitcher, Miss Edwards said for me to come along.”

That brought Jim to a hasty stop.

“What?” Then he saw the bag and put one and one together.

“You want to try and get in the team?”

The girl opened her mouth but Jim cut her off:

“Look, I know that there are some girls that play cricket, but at this school it’s netball, hockey or tennis for you . These guys…” Jim waved his arms indicating the six formers at the nets, many of whom were taller than him “… are seriously good. They’re the best team I’ve ever had. A couple of them play for the county. They’re quick, far too quick for you.”

“But Mr Skidmore, I have played with …”

“Yes, I’m sure you’ve played lots with your brother and dad in the garden. No, listen. I’ll tell you what. You come along on Monday after school and we’ll try you out with the third eleven. They’re more your level.” Jim was pretty sure they’d be way too much for her as well. But the last thing he needed was for someone to crack her on the head.

She started to protest, but Jim held up his hand:

“Monday. That’s final, now off you go and leave this session to the lads.”

Jim turned away, put the young girl out of his mind and set about the routine of the net session. It was a good practice, and the lads worked hard. At the end of the session he called over his star bat:

“Steve, what’s all this about you not playing on Saturday?”

The skipper had told Jim during the session they’d be short of their top scorer. The lad looked down and said he was sorry, but there was a family wedding he had to go to. Jim paused for a minute:

“Does that mean that you and your dad won’t be turning out for Denton in the afternoon?”

“Yeah, dad’s really cross. He wanted to get you out again.”

The day was getting better and better. Without Steve and his dad, Denton would be missing a strong bat and a key bowler, who was also not bad with the willow. I can almost smell that League Championship now. The boys should be okay at the T20 match without Steve, but it would be more difficult.

Early on Saturday morning Jim was in the best of moods. The weather was excellent – sunny, warm and bright. His First XI should get to the County final this morning – despite missing Steve. But best of all he had a strong team out to play the local rivals in what looked like a league decider – and Denton were seriously weakened. By 12:30 that mood had changed dramatically. The weather was still fine, he’d had no-one drop out from the big game this afternoon, but he’d just sat through a thoroughly disappointing couple of hours.

The opposition, Parkhead School, had batted first. The openers had been knocked over quickly but then things started to wrong. The lad at number three was a real steady-Eddie. He nudged balls into the gaps with little trouble, and gave the other lad the strike. And strike it he did. By the time he was caught in the sixteenth over, the damage was done. Parkhead eventually posted a very impressive 175 for 8. The response had started off okay, as Jim anticipated, his wicketkeeper, Alex, batted well but he too was a steady-Eddie. And Jim’s big hitter was at a bloody wedding. The others tried, but had no response to the quick, short bowling that Steve would have dispatched over square leg and mid wicket. In the end, they fell just nine runs short. Nine runs that Steve would easily have delivered. Ah well, I’ll just have to make up for the disappointment with a ton this afternoon. Especially now that Steve’s dad’s leggies won’t be there.

Jim, with Alex, arrived at the game to see his team warming up, ready to take to the field. His vice captain looked over and shrugged:

“Sorry skip, lost the toss.”

Jim told him not to worry, and that he had a good feeling about the game either way. And he was soon proved right as the game started pretty much as the morning’s game had. The first opener was caught behind off a rapid ball that got big on him, and the Denton skipper had come in at three. When the other opener, who had never looked happy, also went (dragging an away swinger on), the score was barely in the twenties.

“Bloody hell, they must be well short, it looks like they’re sending in an under 13.”

Jim turned to see a small, helmeted figure stepping over the boundary and confidently striding to the square. As the figure got closer, the bowler, almost in a whisper, declared:

“Christ, it’s a bloody girl.”

The blonde pony tail coming out of the helmet, confirmed what her body shape had already informed them. It was a girl, and Jim realised exactly who she was when he heard her confident voice:

“Two please umpire.”

As she marked her guard and looked carefully at the fielders, the bowler turned to Jim:

“What do I do skip? I don’t want to kill her.”

“Look, just pitch it up on off stump and clean her out. Then we can get on with the game. God knows why they think she’s capable of playing in a men’s match!”

Jim called all the fielders to come in 5 yards, except third man and fine leg. He took out extra cover and added a fourth slip. He turned to the bowler:

“That slip of a girl probably can’t hit it off the square!”

True to his orders, the bowler ran in, pitched the ball up, but it was wide. The diminutive figure stepped in line and raised her bat a let the ball fly harmlessly through to Alex. The next ball was the last in the over, and this time it was in line, pitched up and a nice half volley. The Harrow size Grey Nicholls blade flashed. The off drive was perfectly timed, and split bowler and the mid off who was now far too close in to react. Four runs. Clare was off the mark.

“Don’t worry mate,” Jim patted the bowler on the back, “that was a fluke. Beginner’s luck.”

“Doesn’t look much like a beginner to me. That was a bloody good leave, and a really well timed drive.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll get her next over, if Des doesn’t get her first.” He nodded over to the tall, bowler going back to his mark at the other end.

But Des didn’t get a chance, as the next over was played out with just one scoring shot – a two out to deep mid wicket. So, the ball was back with Jeff Haynes, the quickest of the two bowlers, and the wicket taker. Jim nodded and mouthed to him “You know what to do, fast and straight, hit the stumps.”

Clare played out a maiden, the first two were straight and on a good length. She left the next three – all wide of off stump. She was annoyed with herself on the last ball – it was short and wide and she missed a chance to score runs. Never mind, you’re getting the pace of this now, and the bounce. You’ll get more chances.

Over the next two overs Clare and the skipper rotated the strike – neither looked in too much trouble, and both were settling down and the score had moved into the forties. At the start of the next over, Jim went to consult with Des and Jeff.

“Alright lads, I’m getting a bit fed up with this – let’s change tactics. You two have a couple more and put in some balls round her ears. Let’s bloody well get rid of her.”

“But she’s only a kid!” protested Des. Jim turned to the scoreboard:

“See that? She might only be a kid, but she’s a kid that’s already in double figures. If she can’t handle short stuff, she shouldn’t be here!”

Both bowlers agreed and Des trudged to his mark. The first ball was his stock away swinger. The captain got a thick edge through a now vacant third slip and they took a single. Des looked at Jim, who fixed him with stone faced stare, and nodded. He then called up square leg, told him to get a lid on, and to take position just a few yards from the bat at short leg.

Okay, one bouncer coming up! It was a real effort ball, pitched well short of a length. Clare saw it was short and quickly ducked under it, with little trouble.

“Wide ball!” The umpire’s voice boomed and he turned, arms outstretched, towards the scorers.

“Aww come on!” Jim was striding towards the umpire from his position at cover point. “It wasn’t that short!”

“”It wouldn’t have been a wide to you, or anyone else here. But that girl’s barely five foot – that was over her head by a good way. Wide ball.”

Jim raised his eyes to heaven and said to Des:

“Okay, same again but not quite so short. Okay?”

Des nodded and went back to the start of his run up. The next one was just about shoulder height. As she stepped back and across the light bat was high, and she whipped it round at astonishing speed. As she rolled her wrists to keep the ball down a part of her brain was saying to herself you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out THAT was coming. The ball fizzed over the boundary.

Over the next few overs, despite the fact they were tiring, the bowlers tried everything. When Clare was facing she defended good balls, drove over pitched balls, and anything short she cut, pulled , hooked, or simply ducked under. The only scare came when she got a thick-ish top edge off a hook, but it landed safely in between two players.

On 70 for 2, Jim switched to spin and was rewarded when the captain skipped down the wicket and tried to smash a ball straight. He missed and Alex made no mistake whipping the bails off. It was the last ball of the over and as Alex walked to the other end, Clare tapped him on the shoulder:

“Hey, nice glove work. I watched you at school in the nets the other night. You’re good!”

“Thanks. You’re bloody good. Could’ve used you this morning.”

Clare just shrugged:

“Ask Mr Skidmore about that.”

It soon became clear that Clare was even more at home against spin than the quick bowlers. Her quick feet and hands, coupled with well coached technique saw to that. The hundred came up, and shortly after that, Clare executed a perfect paddle sweep to bring up her fifty.

At the drinks break the score was 120 for 4, and Jim gathered his players round:

“Look, I don’t want to chase more than 220, so has anyone got any ideas?”

Implicit was the end of the sentence: how to get her out. Des and Alex together suggested that Jim have a go. He’d been quick once, but now bowled little away swingers with an off cutter and an in-swinger variation.

“Yeah skip, hardly anyone can pick your in-swinger!” Jim nodded an okay.

As they discussed further tactics, Alex looked over. Clare’s helmet was off and she was hot and flushed, and her hair looked a sweaty mess. She looked up and saw Alex looking at her, and flashed him a smile. He quickly looked away, embarrassed he’d been caught.

Clare was on strike after the break. She saw Jim mark out his run up. Well, this will be interesting. She turned to Alex who had taken position behind the stumps.

“What does he bowl then?”

“Oh that would be telling. What’s it worth?”

But before she could answer, the umpire called “Play”.

Jim’s first four deliveries were nice away swingers. Clare watched two go harmlessly by, defended one and drove the other straight at the fielder at extra cover. Jim looked up from his mark, switched the ball’s position in his hand. Okay, let’s see you pick this. The ball left Jim’s hand on the same trajectory as the last ball, starting on off stump, but instead of going away, this one swung in at the batsman’s legs. Clare’s front foot was somehow planted more to leg than for the previous balls. Once again, the blade flashed and with the extra room that had been made by having her front foot wider, she lifted the ball over mid-on’s head.

“No need to run for that!” Alex declared. “How did you pick that?”

Clare turned and grinned:

“Well, he’s obviously a good bowler, so had to have a variation. Fifth ball was a bit obvious. But as soon as I saw his change of action, his right arm was more over to the left, I knew. Plus I could see the changed seam position.”

Alex shook his head:

“You are good aren’t you?” Clare smiled.

The innings ended on 210 all out, with Clare stranded on 95 not out. Jim thought that was quite gettable and was not too unhappy at tea. He was less happy at 50 for 5! Alex had opened and was still there, but the powerhouse of his top order had failed. As he got to the middle he prodded the wicket and looked at Alex:

“Okay Alex, you and me, nice and steady. We’ve lots of time. First target is to survive the next five overs. Alright?”

They both defended and nudged the score to seventy when Jim said that he’d pick up the pace and let Alex play anchor. The overs ticked by and the runs accumulated. When the score passed 150, both batters had fifties. The fielding captain could feel the game slipping from him, and called his senior players together.

“Where are Harry’s legbreaks when you need them. He’s got Jim out for the last 3 years! Bloody wedding! Any ideas?”

There were shakes of the head, and a few comments about fielding positions, but no dramatic solutions.

“How about giving Clare a go? I think she bowls leggies. She can’t do any worse.”

The captain called her over and asked if she fancied a bowl.

“I’d love to but women play with a smaller ball and my hands aren’t very big. But hey, I’ll give it a shot if you want?”

He tossed her the ball, and they discussed the field:

“Jim’s going to have a go at me, so let’s put two out deep on the leg side, and one sweeping on the off. Have fine leg up a bit for the paddle sweep. Then, mid on and mid off up, extra cover, deepish gulley cum cover point, and a mid wicket.”

He stared at her, amazed. He’d played with some guys with twenty years experience who couldn’t even think about setting a field that confidently.

“Are you sure you don’t want one of the straight men back on the fence?”

Clare smiled:

“No, I want him to try and hit me straight. He may get a couple of boundaries, but if it turns at all we’ll have a chance to get him stumped.”

The skipper nodded and went to take up his position.

Clare felt the ball in her hand. It felt huge compared to the 5oz ball she was used to. She told the umpire her action, and marked her short run up. Jim stood there at the far end. She took a breath: Here goes nothing!

Jim had played too many games to let the red mist come down. He watched the ball al the way from her hand , watched it turn away from him (Hmm, not bad!) and heard the gentle thud as it was collected by the ‘keeper.

He did the same to the next one. The one after was a little bit shorter. He stepped to leg a little, gave himself room, and smacked it with the spin, square on the off. Two runs. The next one looked the same, and Jim went to play the same shot. But the little bitch had thrown in a bloody googly. It came back and rapped him on the pads. The close in fielders all went up. But the umpire looked, shook his head and declared it too high.

Two balls left. Jim was more circumspect for the next, taking a big step forward and smothering the spin. He nudged the final ball, another googly, for a single just wide of mid wicket. At the start of Clare’s next over the score had moved to 160, and it was definitely getting serious. Alex was on strike. His eyes were a lot younger than Jim’s and he could see the ball spinning. He picked the googly, turned it round the corner and picked up a single.

Jim prodded the pitch and met Alex in the middle:

“Time to end this, one big over and it’s ours. I’ve got the measure of her.”

Alex responded they were doing okay, and there was no need to be rash. But Jim just shook his head and said it was time to do it in style. The first ball was a well pitched up legbreak. Jim’s slog sweep was beautifully timed – but was heading straight down the fielder’s throat on the fence. Time stood still, the ball seemed to hang forever. The fielder looked confident, but at the last minute realised he had misjudged it – not by much – but the ball was going to go over his head. He stepped back and reached up, got his hands to the ball, but all he could do was parry the ball over the boundary. Six! Jim smiled at Alex. He felt utterly invincible.

Clare’s stomach was churning inside, but she kept thinking of Swanny. What does he do when he gets slogged? Keeps bowling as tight as he can! The next ball was a googly, and Jim’s slog sweep came out again, and got four runs – the ball bouncing not far from the fielder. 170. Another good length leggie followed, but Jim was on a roll. A little skip down the wicket, and bang! The ball fizzed over Clare’s head. Another six!

“Are you sure you don’t want someone back?” The skipper looked worried. Three more hits and they’d be within spitting distance.

“No, it’s okay. Honest!” Clare said it with a lot more confidence and conviction than she felt.

She ran up to bowl the next delivery, and saw Jim had already left his crease for another massive straight slog. But she had time to adjust. She had started as a seamer, and her delivery was a good ten miles an hour faster than her others and was deliberately down the leg side. Jim was too committed to adjust. It all depended on the ‘keeper now – four wides or a key wicket. The big glove flashed out, and the ‘keeper threw his arm sideways and demolished the stumps. Jim’s desperate effort to get back reminded Clare of Bambi on ice – legs, arms and bat everywhere.

The rest of the game was an anticlimax. The momentum had gone and Denton won by 9 runs. As Alex walked across the boundary he turned, applauded, joined the line of his team-mates and shook hands with everyone. Clare was the last person he shook hands with:

“You batted really well you know. I really thought you and Jim would do it.”

“Yeah, thanks. Two games. Carried my bat in both, two fifties and two losses. Great!”

“Yeah, bummer.”

Alex realised he was still holding her hand:

“Err, look. You doing anything tomorrow?”

She smiled and shook her head.

“Do you fancy …”

“Yes, anything, as long as it’s not cricket!”

Half an hour later as Clare was heading for her mother’s car with the Gray Nicholls bag in tow, Jim tapped her shoulder:

“Clare, I owe you an apology. You were very good today, and I’m sorry I fobbed you off. And definitely don’t go to third eleven practice on Monday. First eleven nets, Tuesday. Okay?”

“Okay!”

“Oh, and you will play next Saturday won’t you? It’s the semi of the County Forty over competition. Chance for revenge against Parkhead.”

“No, sorry Mr Skidmore, I won’t”

Jim’s mouth dropped open at the rebuff. Her mother had walked over from the car:

“I’m afraid she’s going to be away at Loughborough with the rest of the squad. She’s been selected for the England Girls Under 15 World Cup Team.”



© Ken Orford, 2011



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