A Long And Nervous Wait

BY BOZZA

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy.

There’s vomit on his sweater already, mum’s spaghetti.

He’s nervous, but on the surface, he looks calm and ready.

On Sunday afternoon, Day 2 of our Grand Final against Cheltenham Park, the words of Marshall Mathers’ grandson were true of the situation I found myself in. True with the exception perhaps of the reconstituted spaghetti and, if I am being truthful, looking calm. Moments earlier our pursuit of 91 runs and premiership glory was in fine shape at 3/74. Now I was busily trying to put my pads on  – a difficult task when you are shaking like a leaf – and fearful that my services would be required now that the Emerald Hill chase had slumped to 6/81. Sensing the chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat our undefeated opponents were pressing hard make further incisions into our teetering batting line-up.

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As perilous as our position may have been at this stage of proceedings, they were not as dire as the team had faced earlier in the week. Cheltenham Park’s first action upon qualifying for the grand final was to petition the Association to have our semi final result overturned. The basis of their appeal was the eligibility of one of the eleven who took the field in grand Final qualifier. Ender Turker had played the minimum number of games requiref to be eligible for Finals action but Cheltenham Park argued that his two games in our 2nd XI, matches he played due to our Thirds not playing, made him ineligible.

In a flurry of activity, our leadership team spent the early parts of the week responding to our concerned opponents protest. Having listened to spirited submissions from both Cheltenham Park and our team, the five members of the South Eastern Cricket Association retired to their deliberations. After considering the arguments they returned a 3-2 vote to allow us to contest the Premiership decider but with one big proviso, Ender would not be eligible to bat or bowl in the game leaving us with only 10 batsmen in the biggest game of the season. In proving himself better than most Ender, despite the obvious disappointment, took his place in the field to do all he could to assist the cause.

Having survived the administrative challenge, it was then up to us to stare down the challenge of facing an undefeated team for all the marbles. Our fearless leader Miles ‘Millsy’ Howie won the toss and elected to unleash our potent bowling attack against the might of Cheltenham Park’s explosive batsmen. A decision no doubt aided by the knowledge that the shiny new rock would be taken by the dangerous duo Brent “Sarge” Johnstone and Matthew “Storph” Costorphin.

Fresh off his 5 wickets for 8 runs in the semi final, Storph was in rare form. Bending his back, he was unleashing his deliveries at the kind of speed that has both batsmen and slips fielders concerned for their health. Sarge, in his first senior cricket grand final, not quite as sharp but equally difficult to play was keen to add to his tally of 19 wickets from his seven Third XI matches. With no relief available from either end, Cheltenham Park succumbed to the withering onslaught presented by the two in-form spearheads. At the first drinks break, Storph and Sarge, had reduced our opponents to 5/13.

It was a start beyond even the wildest expectations but there was still work to do though. When your opponent hasn’t scored less than 225 batting first all year, you know that even at five down they still have resources in the shed that could push them on to a competitive score. This was evident when you took a look at the pair at the crease at this moment. In Phillip Lobb, fresh off 41 in their semi-final, and Michael Williams who had made nearly 300 runs for the season, there was still a lot of work to do to bowl the minor premiers out.

It made for an interesting session until the tea interval with Lobb and Williams knuckling down in the hope of breathing life into their team’s innings. Charged with the responsibility of building on Storph and Sarge’s brilliant beginnings, was club legend Raph Tripp and Mark “Checkers” Checkley. In a gripping 15 overs, Raph and Checkers probed away at the Cheltenham Park pair. Despite the challenge presented by the relentless and impeccable line and length, Lobb and Williams were given a rousing reception by their teammates and the assembled crowd when they survived until the tea break.

It was at this stage, 20 odd years after my first senior game, I was presented with my first chance to bowl in a grand final. A ball tailor made to swing, aided by humid conditions and a batting team ready to try and push on, it was a perfect moment for me to enter the contest. The Lobb and Williams partnership was broken with the assistance of a sharp take by Jimmy Adams behind the stumps. A top edge from Williams was swallowed by Storph at backward square leg before Rodney Johnson was beaten by the swing and was bowled.

Jason Norris was the most unlucky man of the day, presented with a full toss he was only able to prod it back to where it had come from and I completed the caught and bowled with a smart catch with my legs!! I was perhaps the only person on the ground that realised that I had completed the catch between my legs until I extracted the ball by reaching back between my knees and presenting the pill to a devastated Norris and bewildered bunch of teammates. The scene prompted the officiating umpire to suggest it was perhaps appropriate if ‘Send in the Clowns’ had started to play. In my mind, it might have been more appropriate when the same umpire turned down an LBW appeal a few balls later that would have been unlikely to survive DRS scrutiny if the video review system was available in Third XI games.

It was at this point Ricky Parker and Aaron Robins frustrated our attempts to finish off the Cheltenham Park innings. The 10th wicket pair showed up many more of their top order mates as they dug out the good balls and took toll of any loose deliveries that came their way. It was more than a little appropriate that it was Sarge who sent Parker’s stumps flying to end the fight back with the score on 90. Both he and your correspondent had helped themselves to four wickets in their grand final debuts and the dangerous Storph claiming the other two. When Brendan “Bubbles” Butler and Storph saw out a nervy five overs until stumps, only 79 more runs were needed with 9 wickets left in the shed, it had been a magnificent day for the Dragons.

Day 2 dawned another muggy, but sunny autumn day in Melbourne. Cautious but confidently Bubbles and Storph went about chasing down the target. With both men having had 300 odd run seasons, the tension in the air was slowly evaporating when Bubbles was dismissed with the score on 30. The Cheltenham Park boys were rather glad to see the back of our big hitting opener if the send-off he was given was anything to go by. There was still an air of confidence in the air in the pavilion though, when Bubbles was replaced by Brad Jackson, another Emerald Hill bat with over 300 runs to his name in season 2016/17.

The score had barely reached 50 though when Storph followed his opening partner back in the sheds and was quickly joined there by Millsy who was out LBW with the score on 54. Having won a ‘rocks, papers, scissors’ battle with Millsy to bat five instead of four, the lightly batted Stewart Andrew strode to the crease to help Brad get us home.

Brad and Stew went about their work, a task made more difficult by tidy bowling and an outfield that made a Heavy 8 at Caulfield look positively lightning quick. Undeterred, the pair, only weeks removed from a massive 3rd wicket stand against Kingston Heath, continued to keep the scoreboard ticking over. In ones and twos, their partnership brought the chase to within sight of the finish line when Stew was removed with the score on 74.

Replacing Stew in the middle was Raph. Already a member of 4 Emerald Hill premiership teams, he was a man well suited for the task at hand. Unfortunately on this day, despite a promising start, 2 runs later it was Raph’s turn to join the other dismissed men as a spectator to the drama developing in the middle. With Brad looking irremovable at the other end Jimmy Adams joined him the pursuit of 91. With the pair surviving until tea, hostilities were ceased so that its combatants could share a sandwich, cordial and nervous, awkward conversations.

With Jimmy’s dismissal, not long after the contests resumption, it was time for Checkers to join the fray and for me to make my nervous trek to the dressing room to pad up. A task made all the more difficult by the inability of my arms and legs to cease shaking. As I went about the twin tasks of preparing for the possibility of batting and calming myself down, I missed a disappointed Jimmy with arms stretched out wide explain to the team that the ball he had missed had moved “this far”.

Drawn out of my seclusion by the cries of a nervous crowd, I wandered out to join my team-mates to find our score had moved along to 6/85. Unfortunately, as had been the case throughout the day, just as a position nearing comfortable was reached, the mood was quickly changed. In this instance, the catalyst to the shift was an attempt by Checkers to win the match with one blow that instead disturbed his wickets. Despite the collective apprehension on the sidelines, Checkers was perhaps the calmest man in Australia, explaining that the shot was perhaps not his best decision, but had he hit it “it would have gone.” Calmness was far from a shared condition though amongst the Emerald Hill contingent. Ray “Razor” Britton, Second XI Captain and the man responsible for scoring the contest, found his duty a little more difficult, suffering as he was with the shakiness of hand common amongst Dragons on this day. For Millsy, so close to leading his team to glory, he beat a hasty retreat to the dressing room, unable to watch the finishing stages of the stomach churningly tight contest.

With deeply held fears for the man to follow them, Brad and Sarge cautiously approached their task. Each and every run of their blades drawing enraptured cheers from those of us watching on. Each run another blow to the confidence of our opponent who had dared to dream of an unlikely comeback. Then, having taken the score to 87, came perhaps the most decisive moment of the day. A loose delivery outside off-stump gave Sarge a chance to free his arms and play an expansive drive. Ferociously played, it meant that despite only managing to get an edge to the delivery, it was a difficult chance Sarge presented the fielder at point. When the ball burst through his hands and safely to ground, the relief felt by us all was almost palpable. The excited cheer was only bettered by that which followed Brad’s drive over point the next over which brought the winning runs.

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The next few moments were an elated blur of screaming, hugging and perhaps even a tear or two. For me, after 20 odd years of trying, I had finally reached the promised land in senior cricket. The preceding two days and the night and Mad Monday that followed is one of the best long weekends of my life.

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Although the vagaries of life most likely mean that this XI won’t take the field together again, I will forever be grateful to the 10 of you that helped (some might say carried) me to this day. Go Dragons.

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