I was sitting in a tourist bar on a deserted Goan beach in May 2009 when it first became a clear intention. Most of the traders had already shut up shop and migrated north to where the bulk of the tourists would now be found as the monsoon season neared. It was a hot night and I was coming to the end of a two-month trip round a large part of India; a journey full of the highs and lows of largely solo travel in a strange land – joyful sense of freedom, tedious grind, illness, loneliness, eye-opening beauty and ugliness, intense encounters with strangers, ecstatic train rides, melancholy sense of the vast human struggle, guilt at my own privileged, voyeuristic gaze. As I stared out at the powerful waves rolling in from the Arabian Sea, drinking that chemical Indian lager, my thoughts turned to home and, as a traveller in a faraway place is inclined to do, I sat trying to give clear shape in my mind to the things that would transform my life when I got back, the things I really wanted and needed to make happen.
Most of these goals soon drained away on my return as I floundered, unable to find the purpose and direction I craved, falling into dejection, self-doubt and muddle. (I came to have misgivings about the common notion – one that had partly brought me out there in the first place – that travel can show us who we are and what we need to do). But one of those resolutions on that beach I did manage to turn into reality pretty quickly. And that, of all things, was to start a cricket team.
As many well remember, Sam was a very good cricketer, captaining the 1st XI at school and playing for the village side in Steep, and he had a passionate love for the game. I’d been sharing a flat in North London with him before I left for the trip to India and we’d become close mates as well as brothers, the age-gap shrinking. When I told him about the idea, he was excited about it, and we made plans to put the word out among his friends and mine. When we did, the response was very positive. We reckoned we’d find enough people to make a go of it.
I hadn’t played much cricket at all since leaving school, but I’d started missing it more and more. There were certain cricketing sensations I’d never had I knew I wanted to experience: I’d never scored a hundred, never taken a slip catch. And there was the fun and enticing prospect of all the bonhomie of a team adventure and of something created to one’s own vision. Perhaps the ubiquity of the game in India had brought all this to the surface.
I wrote a list of potential team names for Sam to have a look at. A couple of them I wrote as jokes, including the ‘Earl of Rochester’s XI’, after the scabrously funny and drunkenly wise 17th Century Restoration poet, who was always getting thrown out of Charles II’s Court for satirising his flighty royal patron. I’d remembered that Sam had been tickled by some of the obscene verses of Rochester’s I’d read out loud to him one evening when we lived together. It seemed a daft name for a cricket team to me but, naturally, it was the one he pushed me to go for. I never could have imagined as we laughingly argued over those names that we would never play cricket together again and that I would be returning to India a few months later to help bring his lifeless body back to England.
I arranged a handful of games against London social sides found online, nervous that the whole thing was going to be a failure. We had our first fixture at Victoria Park in Hackney while Sam was travelling and he wanted to hear all the details about it in our email exchanges and couldn’t wait to get involved when he returned in a few weeks. Between that game and our second we got the terrible news.
We lost every match of the handful we played that first season – I remember very little of them. But the seed was sown. A core of committed players was established. In the desolation of the following year and beyond, the team became a welcome distraction. The time and energy I devoted to it doubtless would and should have been much more productively invested in other areas of my life, which drifted on with familiar shapelessness. In fact there was something a bit absurd in the way I gave the thing such elevated importance. But in return for all the hours spent booking pitches, sending bad-tempered emails trying to chivvy eleven people to turn out, and putting together teas, I can’t say it wasn’t worth it. This cricket team has undoubtedly given me some of the happiest hours of my life.
It created a means of meeting up regularly with a group of friends in London, never an easy task. The claims of status, work, relationships are dissolved for a few hours. It takes you to the parks of London and the silently beneficent green presence of trees and grass. And then there was the glow after a game, being out in a pub garden somewhere in a corner of town you wouldn’t normally go to. Laughter, the feeling of camaraderie, the heightened effect of a few pints, the post-match analysis of where a game was won or lost, personal triumphs and failures discussed, as well as any other topic of interest. London, a city I’ve always found hard to love, always seemed to uncoil herself in those grace-given moments of a summer’s evening, and the streets of Wandsworth or Hackney revealed themselves refreshed and full of promise as you stepped out towards that night’s plans. If you were lucky, the memory of a good catch or batting performance might linger pleasantly in the mind over the following days and gently buoy your spirit.
As we moved into our second year, the aristocratic tone of our name began to grate on me. And I also felt increasingly ridiculous mumbling the biography of a Restoration poet when opposition sides asked where the pub was that we must be named after. Perhaps it was just too painfully tied up with Sam as well. We had a season called ‘Westway’ after that, a terrible name I came up with that made us sound like a bus company, and was universally disliked by the rest of the team. But at least we had started to win games by this point, which I knew was vital if I was going to keep the thing going. And I had to do that. It was mine and Sam’s team. We’d started it together. I couldn’t let it fall apart.
I was making some runs myself and batting became a prized moment of release. Nothing for the mind to concern itself with other than focusing on the red ball coming towards you. Pure absorption, pure escapism. I got more runs that season of 2011 than I ever had before or since. I’ve never been so determined not to get out. Like medicating on a powerful opiate, time spent in the middle was the only time the pain went away.
And somewhere inside me, despite the generally modest nature of the bowling we encountered and the pitches we played on, each innings was also a kind of antagonistic encounter with the forces of dissolution itself, of death and despair. Normally such a vague and abstract thing, death had swept in to overturn our lives and stood there with fearsomely intense physical reality. Reeling from the shock of losing Sam, confused about my own direction and identity, I think batting became a fleeting, fairly pointless, middlingly-skilled, but personally meaningful expression of the individual will. There is something mysterious at work in cricket, I can never fully put my finger on it. At our level particularly, the comic moment is never far away, but the themes of endurance and loss are always part of the underlying drama that plays beneath this game. It gives it a dramatic depth and resonance that few sports can match.
The sense that we were establishing ourselves grew – we now had regular fixtures against a range of well-matched sides – but the name was still an issue. Reading a book of essays one day by the Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies I came across the word ‘Antares’, connoting the red summer star at the heart of the Scorpius constellation, that can be seen in the northern hemisphere low on the southern horizon roughly in tandem with the length of the cricket season. It’s a vast star, around 700 times larger than our sun, due to its more advanced state of expanding and burning up to its shared doom. Its Greek meaning is “rival of Mars,” because of its similarly reddish colour. It seemed like a nice fit for a cricket team. I liked the suggestion of seasonal return and the flash of cosmic context. Some people say it’s as poncey a name as our original one. And there are times when I find myself having to explain this business about the star that I wish we were just called “The Balham Strollers” or “Fat Gits CC” or something; no explanation required and a straightforward manly jocularity thrust towards the world. But it seems this one’s stuck. Most seem to like it and, as you’ll see today, we have great looking caps with a red star on our badge.
Since moving away from London, I’ve had to be less involved with the club but it’s been really pleasing to see it continue in good health as others have taken over the organisational side of things. New players have continued to enter the side, settle in and enjoy themselves. We play a dozen or so fixtures a year all over London and the surrounding counties. There have been tours to Dorset and Devon too. Earlier this summer we made a memorable visit to the stunning ‘Valley of the Rocks’ ground at Lynton on the Exmoor coast.
The team that I captain today in this fixture stays with the name ‘Earl of Rochester’s XI’, the name Sam chose. When we were thinking of putting together a Memorial in 2010 it just seemed natural to play a game of cricket. It’s been a wonderful thing to carry on doing it every year since. Colin Baty has been a formidable opposition captain as well as a true gent. He leads a side called ‘The Old Duns,’ mainly made up of Sam’s contemporaries, many of whom are Antares regulars, and has helped bring the tally of wins since we formalised this fixture back from a 3-0 deficit to 3-3. It’s all to play for this year and I hope for many, many years to come.
In a way, it deepens the sadness that Sam never got to play with us. He would have loved it so much and brought such a lot to the team. How I long to walk out onto a cricket field with him, to see him walking out to bat or flicking leg-breaks from his long frame; to throw him the ball from mid-off! It cannot be. But his large, warm, funny, generous spirit is near on this day and I think we all feel it again for a little while. Here especially, cricket is much more than just a game.