22 May 1982.

For some the date may be memorable for one of the worst Cup Finals in living memory. A dull 1-1 draw between Tottenham and QPR, played on a dull day, with a dull outcome. However, 22 May 1982 will always be remembered by your humble author for feeling as low as he ever has on a cricket field. On 22 May 1982 I scored, if you can indeed score “a nothing”, my first duck in proper organised cricket. Not for me a scrappy nought, playing and missing, a couple of airy shots, followed by a biff straight up in the air. No, mine was a most soul-destroying, devastating duck. First ball of the match, a nick to second slip, pouched.

In a series of however many I feel like, but limited to the number 83, I am going to have a little go at the numbers of cricket as related to my wholly useless cricket “career”, and watching the game over the years. To start us off, I am going to probably take on the longest piece of the whole series, the futility of zero.

For some cricketers, they aren’t bothered about getting nought. For people like me, who in club cricket pay their £10 a match to bat for at least a little bit of time, it is something to be feared, and at school, something to worry about. For me, getting off the dreaded nought is the be all and end all. It is such a focus that when, in a work game a couple of years ago, Matthew Wood of a work outfit we played against induced me to play on for a wretched six or seven ball nought, it was a disaster. Because, since August 1999, when I got floored by a toe-crushing yorker that bashed big toe and leg stump with equal ferocity, it had been the first nought this Millennium for me.

I’m no Bradman – walking to the station today I was wondering whether I’d passed 50 more than ten times in my illustrious career (I think I have 13 or 14 scores over that) – but getting out for nought is something to be avoided at all costs – the self-perpetuating stat is that I haven’t scored a 0 for the Old Jos since 1999 – I pretty much stopped playing in 2004. Whether it is a fraud (Catford Wanderers away –see the article upcoming on the number 1) or whether it is a jobbing 4 playing like a blind man, avoiding nought was more than just avoiding packing the kit, the punishment bestowed on the lowest score made in the team. It was to not have your contribution in the scorebook count as much as a dead man. As I walked off the pitch at Alleyns on 22 May 1982, I think I’d rather have been dead.

I recall it vividly – and the context is as amusing now as it was then – and I can see the scene now. As usual, because my year cricket team were full of cowards who wanted the fatboy to take the shine off the ball and maybe tire the quick bowler out, I was put up front to face the opposition’s opening bowler. His surname was O’Gorman – I think his first name might have been Tom – and for a 12/13 year old he had a pretty long run up. No bother, he couldn’t be as quick as Vivekenandam, that Emanuel School bowler who terrified the life out of us the year before, and who I watched take a hat-trick as I stood at the other end as non-striker. He was to be feared, but until he whistled one past my bat, I’ll take it as I see it.

Walking out facing first ball was always a nerve churner, whoever the bowler. Negative thoughts pervade you – just see this ball out. Sometimes you get that elusive wide one that you leave well alone and then breathe for the first time in a minute. Sometimes you get one just a little too good that beats you – no bother, that’s never worried me, playing and missing. I much rather play and miss than mistime an attacking shot. Other times you get the one you fear, the straight one, a little quick, and pray you can dab down on it in time. Little did I know on 22 May 1982, that none of these would happen, and that such a chain of events would ensue that would affect our year’s cricket team for the rest of its days.

You see, people of a young age, in 1982 FA Cup Final day was a huge deal. People wanted to watch it as it was one of the few games shown on live TV. It was a massive occasion. In 1981, my first year in secondary school, we missed out on a school cricket game on Cup Final Day (or it might have been the morning), but in 1982 we did not, and when it was clear that Alleyns was the game on the calendar, the moaning began.

What did not help was that our new Master-in-Charge, a Mr Farrar was of the brooding, malevolent type (a good economics teacher as I was to find out at A Level, but a stubborn man when it came to cricket teams) and the two forces – obstinate teacher, moaning kids – were going to meet. We had the youthful “need” to watch one of the few live TV games against a teacher who loved to prove a point – what followed was bizarre in the extreme. In the run-up to the game three players I recall started to moan about playing. I recall their names, but I’ll spare them here, but one of them was a very talented batsman who we would miss if he didn’t play. He came back to haunt me at the end of the year when he spanked us all over the park in an inter-form game. He was, I recall, the most vociferous, but he wasn’t alone. Another came up with the great excuse that he had Harlem Globetrotter tickets that night and couldn’t play. As events turned out, he played, and got there with plenty of time to spare. I was one of those that just accepted his fate and knew that part of the deal with the school is that you were required to attend events outside school hours if selected. I was used to it in the choir, and now I had to accept it for cricket. Those that were forced to come, and moaned, never played for us again.

Our year team was weakened and it was utterly understandable that we won just one game each season in the two seasons we had Mr Farrar in charge. However, the incessant moaning and whingeing were to have a much more immediate consequence, and I started it.

The day of the game, and we were praying for rain to watch the Final. It didn’t. My Dad was a star, saying that as his son was missing the Final, so would he, and he came along to support. Now not until the last game my dad ever saw me play did I put up anything resembling a performance in his presence, so that wasn’t necessarily a good thing, but my Dad was a very important cog in the day as I’ll come to later.

We traipsed over, moaning as we went, to Alleyns school in Dulwich from Lee, where my school was based. We got changed, and the moans didn’t die down – the thought of this happening now just defies belief, but this was 1982 – and our captain, Geoff, went out to toss up. I can’t remember if we won or lost the toss, but we batted first. Mr Farrar looks at me and says, “Old, number 1″. As usual, I padded up, scared witless at what might befall me, but knowing this was my role in the team. I think in the two years Farrar was in charge he dropped me down the order twice. I scored sweet eff all down there, so hardly made a case to not be the team’s cannon fodder.

I can’t remember who my opening partner was that day, but it hardly mattered. It may have been James Harris, because his dad had come along too, but that’s by the by. I took my guard – middle in those days, it is so much more sophisticated to ask for two legs now, pretentious idiots we are – and looked behind me at the keeper and the slips. The thought here was that with two in place, my best scoring area, the nick along the ground, was gone. Unlike this fat lump at first slip, the chances are these guys looked like they could have stopped my thin edges. That said, if Jabba the Hut were there (no jokes) he’d have looked like Derek Randall when I faced a first ball. Already doubts were in my mind – where am I going to score runs? (I did not hit a four in front of square until I was nearly 14!)

So, DF Colt bat in hand, I take my usual stance, which has changed little during the years. I wait for the umpire to say “play” and then I start to concentrate big time. The breathing becomes slower, and the heart races. The bowler starts his run-up, and it looks a long one for a 12/13 year old. He gets ready to raise the arm up and propel the missile down towards you. The thoughts race…”It is first ball of the match. It is Cup Final day. Your team needs you Dmitri. It needs you. Geoff, Simon, the rest don’t need to be facing the rough stuff early. That’s your job fatboy. It is what you are “good” at, because quite frankly, you can’t hit a ball off the square. Your 150 minute 27 at Kingston last summer proved that. You are there to take shot and shell. It is why you are in the team, and not the B team like you started in last summer, and got promoted because the Prep School boy couldn’t/wouldn’t open.” Yep, all that in the time it took for O’Gorman to reach the crease. I wonder what a sports psychologist would make of all that. “How did he have the time” probably. I think, in professional parlance, I might have been “primed for failure”.

I have faced hundreds of first ball since, and I have been out to just two of them. One was unplayable and knocked my middle pole out – you really can’t do anything but tip your hat to one of the fastest bowlers you have ever faced – and the other I foolishly tried to square drive and was caught at gully. More of those later. These came a bit later in life when I’d grown up a bit and didn’t have that utter terror in me, and quite frankly, I could tell anyone having a go to “fuck off”. This was 1982 at fee-paying school. Telling Mr Farrar to “fuck off” wasn’t really an option.

On 22 May 1982, I did have that terror in me. Every first ball was a hell. An experience to fear. Not for me the KP push to cover and run like the wind – I ran more like I had the wind – but it was about survival. See off the first ball, and the tag “golden duck” couldn’t be applied to you. I recall the ball. As it came out of the hand it looked short, but not too short. The run-up was a bit deceiving in that he had some pace, but not the quickest I’d faced (I found that out when I faced him in the next two years). He was a little tall, I think, for his age, so if there were any bounce in the pitch, then it would lift a little, but this was May, not July, and pitches were like puddings, and this wasn’t Alleyn’s first XI square we were playing on. Yep, I thought all that. Primed for failure.

The ball carried a bit further and the inclination to go back was over-ridden by my default thought – get forward. Fancy Dan’s call this stuff a “trigger movement” these days, I’d all it a rigor mortis movement as I’m scared stiff and hell, you get everything in the way. If it hit you on the pad and you were stone plumb in front, you could always claim that an LBW wasn’t really out and it was the deluded evil motives of the opposition’s Master-in-Charge who without exception, wherever you played, was a cheating bastard. This wasn’t going to be LBW though.

Uh-oh. As the ball pitched, just short of a good length, I knew I was in trouble. On a pudding the bloody thing took off. My bat, draped away from my body like hanging a cat out of a window, froze. I lurched back a little, but not enough, or not quickly enough. As I went back, so my bat came up, and as the ball veered up and in to me it took the outside edge, somewhere near the shoulder and looped. “Uh-oh. Trouble here. Where’s the bloody thing gone?”. Or something like that….

It didn’t take long on its fateful journey, although it wasn’t moving fast, to reach second slip who pouched it. The cheers went up, and the home team were jubilant. At that point I wanted to die. I walked off the field as disconsolate as a young child can be, feeling as though the home team were laughing at me, and those in my team were too, as well as thinking “he’s shit”. I felt that horrible feeling of utter shame. I was beyond embarrassed. Geoff, a great bloke, walked past me, and you could almost sense his visceral hatred of me at that point. “Old, you idiot”. It was stamped all over his face. The eyes started to fill with water, or as Band Aid sang “the bitter sting of tears”.

I didn’t even remember my dad was there, and I just did not want to talk to him even if I did know. This wasn’t one of the highest points of my life. The fact that it got laughs in subsequent years does not replace the fact that at the time, I felt like the world’s biggest loser. There was, however, to be a very large sting in the tail. My nought was to be the start of one of those great school games of cricket…..

In my own cloud of despair I barely remembered how or why it happened, but wickets kept tumbling, and, quite strangely, mostly at the end I got out. And by tumbling, I meant rapidly. By the time our innings had wrapped up, Colfe’s School Under 13s had managed a deeply impressive score of 18 all out. I hope Alleyn’s have kept that scorebook, and I’d be delighted to reproduce it if anyone ever stumbled across it, but it was a day where my 0 had really great context. As a certain TV programme I’m no longer allowed to mention might have said in the title song “My duck, was only the start of it….”

Farrar was fuming. Steam out of the ears fuming. As the innings ended, my dad, and James’s dad went out to look at the pitch. Farrar was in a very stern conversation over at the 1st XI square where our Headmaster was stationed watching them put up a slightly better effort. The conversation ended and Farrar marched back, face like thunder, and said something along the lines of “That was a disgrace. The Headmaster wants to see all of you NOW. Over to the other side of the field NOW.”

I have a number of words to describe this action in hindsight, and bastard is about the mildest one. I was in bits when I came off, but this chump believed that due to all the moaning and groaning, we’d, or more to the point, I’d done this on purpose. I loved batting, especially as I wasn’t getting a bowl for this mob so I better had love it, and if he thought I got out on purpose he had to be off his stick. I choose humiliation, ritually. It’s what I do. It’s why I support Millwall.

When we got over to the Headmaster, who was some behemoth, someone we saw at Assembly and that was all, and in his own way a pretty scary figure, I think my emotions were of fear – I was petrified. This man could do ANYTHING to me. What followed indicated just what Farrar had said. I obviously don’t have exact recall, but this is the gist of it.

Mr Farrar has told me about your appalling performance over there. I have heard from him how you have moaned about playing this weekend because of the FA Cup Final. This is no excuse for embarrassing our school. You have let yourselves down and Colfe’s School down. Scoring 18 is a humiliation and I am given to believe that it is because you lack effort and will to play. You had better make up for it. When the game is finished, and if I hear that you have not put in the effort of your lives to at least show some heart and pride in this school’s name, and I will be over to watch you (he did say at some point – bloody good job we didn’t open the bowling with a hand grenade merchant or we’d all be in detention still – I digress) then you will be in detention Monday after school, and every day after that until I see fit. Now off you go.”

Well – fuck off headmaster wasn’t an option here, either. One could interpret that as a magnificent pep-talk that geed up the boys and got them going, but Vivian Stanley wasn’t Brian Clough. At the time I thought it was a scary, horrible thing to do. I felt like I was the one most responsible as I’d got out first ball, and that the number one honcho in the school was blaming me. That infused the confidence – Yes, I really wanted a catch to come my way in the second innings. I rated my chances of holding the easiest dolly at about 100 to 1. I wasn’t shot, I was jelly. Utter terror. To think, I played cricket for fun, and I got this?

As we went out to field, I noticed my dad, along with James’s walk back from the pitch and straight over to the Headmaster. I’d caught a word with dad on the way out, and said the headmaster had given us a real telling off, and dad, in his own very understated way, just shrugged and looked a little concerned. Dad didn’t give a lot away, and I loved him dearly for that, but one thing Dad never stood for was nonsense, and as far as he was concerned, what had transpired between the two teachers was just that. As he told me later on the day, this is how his and Mr Harris’s conversation with our headmaster supposedly transpired.

“Hello headmaster, I’m Mr Old/Mr Harris”

“Hello Mr Old/Mr Harris”

“I understand you’ve told the boys off for a bad performance”

“Yes, Mr Old. 18 all out isn’t acceptable.”

“Have you watched any of the game?”

“No.”

(My dad didn’t go into sarcasm, but you can hear it dripping in his voice, and as he told me the story, you could see that little smile he had, and at that point he had that look – the rolling of the eyes as if he were dealing with a complete muppet. I have that look, but it is blatant. With Dad, unless you knew it, you missed it. I know I go on about his demise a lot, but I really miss that little smile, that little glint, that roll of the eyes in an imperceptible manner. He was such a great dad….sorry about that….Farnborough Hospital, unlike Farrar and Head, I can say “fuck off.” Dad wouldn’t approve though.)

“That pitch isn’t fit for 12 or 13 year old boys to play on. If you go out there, as we have, there is a ridge in the pitch on a good length from one end. It lands on one side of it, it flies up around their heads. It lands on the other side of it, it scoots. I suggest you watch when bowling from this end (pointing at the O’Gorman end) and you’ll see. I’m not very happy that kids are playing on it, to be honest.”

(My dad wasn’t a health and safety freak, and kiddywinks, we never wore helmets at that age. It is a shame we do now. We respected a cricket ball then…)

“Oh,”

“Because, headmaster, to suggest that my son isn’t putting in any effort isn’t particularly a nice thing to say, is it? I saw Dmitri after he got out. He was extremely upset.”

“Well, I wasn’t particularly picking on him, Mr Old.”

“No, but you’ve threatened them all with detention, and didn’t stop to think, did you?”

“Well….”

You’ve got to love my dad – he wasn’t one of those screaming on the line about his “boys”, but rather would put us down in a very charming way (no malice ever intended, but you earned your praise – as an aside, I came off the field having bowled a dreadful spell in a work game in 2005, and Dad was there. He was a shadow of his former self, and it was great to see him out. In front of my work colleagues, in his quiet, but audible voice, said to me  “well, that was a load of old rubbish then, wasn’t it?” My colleagues laughed. Old sod). As it happened, Alleyns thought 18 wasn’t much of a target and reversed the batting order. 18 wasn’t much of a target, I mean, how silly is that statement? Of course Alleyn’s did win….by three wickets!

22 for 7 chasing down 18. We fielded well, except for a chap called Hobbs dropping a catch I’m glad I wasn’t under which might have made it more interesting, but when the winning boundary took a relieved home side to victory, all we were worried about was whether we’d done enough to save our skins. The game had finished at around 3:30, and the Cup Final was the last thing on our minds.

As it transpired, my dad hadn’t finished with his quiet word…

“So headmaster… do you think you were a bit hasty?

“I see what you mean Mr Old.”

“I thought you might.”

We were spared detention. The headmaster was not apologetic, you couldn’t be with 12 or 13 year old kids, but he was grudging in saying we’d shown a good effort and were not to be forced to go to detention where presumably we’d be told to write “We must not be crap at cricket” a thousand times. My dad had witnessed a debacle but along with the other dad there, saved our arses. Sure, the pitch wasn’t brilliant, but it wasn’t really an 18 all out wicket – as was proved in the next couple of years, we were utterly hopeless, and if Geoff failed, we failed.

The reason our team was more rubbish was because after this game and this FA Cup Final, several of the team were told they’d never be picked again. Brilliant. We were crap, and just made ourselves worse and those “most responsible” were told they didn’t have to bother as if it were some sort of punishment. Banning them from rugby might have hurt them more, but this was a rugby school, and you could have done all sorts and not be kicked off that.

Those left were to pick up the pieces and play on.Character in being thumped and all that. It was only in our fourth and final year, when we got rid of the albatross that was Mr Farrar, in favour of a new master-in-charge, Paul Hollingum, when we improved out of all recognition and actually made the Kent Cup Semi-Final. The two years before were miserable, and cricket was a chore.

As ducks go, this golden, or is it platinum or diamond duck, was a beauty. You know what else was a beauty that day? We were so rubbish that we got home in time for extra-time in the Cup Final where we saw both goals in a turgid final. Alanis Morrissette sang a song about that.

I have so much more on the number zero in cricket to write, and I’ll be back. Any errors in this piece are down to my tainted memory and may have got exaggerated or warped over time. Of course they would, it was 28 bloody years ago and they are probably over-egged. It’s a good story of a crap team on a crap day and a crap Cup Final.

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