Time to declare

Zimmer Men: the trials and tribulations of the ageing cricketer

Marcus Berkmann <em>Little, Brown,

Some people retain, from childhood, vivid memories of academic or cultural inspiration: the teacher who introduced them to Tolstoy, the moment they grasped Newton's laws, the museum that sparked a passion for history. I think all those things happened to me, but my recall is fuzzy. I can remember in precise detail, however, my dashing 5 not out for the house XI. I was promoted up the order for the next match, but was unfortunately out second ball and then dropped from the team. I remember, as though it were yesterday, taking three catches in consecutive balls at short leg during a scratch match - which is surely a world record. Then there was the moment, playing for a village youth XI against the village first XI, when I drove the local demon bowler to leg and drew spontaneous applause from the field. Unfortunately, I was run out from the same stroke, going for an impossible third run.

I could also bowl. I ran a long way, and then stopped before delivering the ball off the wrong foot with a very low arm. Batsmen were so astonished to find a ball heading towards them after this performance that they often missed and were bowled. I developed this technique at home because the backyard was tiny, and I could emulate Fred Trueman only by running from the front gate, down the side of the house, and then taking a 90-degree turn before bowling at a bucket about three yards away. (Well, you try it!)

My total incompetence did nothing to detract from my passion for the sport. I do not think of 1975 as the year I left the Observer. I think of it as the year Leicestershire won the County Championship - and that helps me to remember it was the year I left the Observer. Likewise my children's birth years: respectively, the year Chandrasekhar took 6 for 38 at the Oval to give India a first Test series win in England, and the year of Ray Illingworth's last Test as captain of England, which he lost to the West Indies by an innings and 226 runs.

It is for deranged people like me - and there are thousands of us - that Marcus Berkmann published his hilarious Rain Men in 1995 and now, ten years on, a sequel, Zimmer Men. Berkmann is also a lifelong cricketing incompetent who could hardly get a game at school, but he formed a team at university, mostly comprising other hopeless cases, which still survives. He calls it a "mixed-ability" team but, like mixed-ability (or comprehensive) schools, it is mostly low-ability, because anybody of the slightest talent gets creamed off - in cricket's case, by clubs that practise seriously and take part in competitive leagues. The cricket authorities are very keen on leagues, partly because they want to snaffle government grants, partly because they expect leagues to raise standards all round so that England win more Tests.

But leagues miss the whole point of cricket as it is played in England. In Australia, India, the West Indies and almost anywhere else, the point is to win. Here, the point is to celebrate amiable underachievement. Unlike other team sports, cricket welcomes players of any age, size, shape or level of fitness. If you can't play football to a minimum standard, you just get in the way. If you're a hopeless front-row rugby forward, you will make things uncomfortable for your side and perhaps even endanger lives. If you're useless at cricket, however, your uselessness will not detract from others' enjoyment. On the contrary, it will enhance it. Your duck won't stop your team-mate scoring a century (unless yours is the last wicket to fall and he's 99 not out), and he can feel superior in the pub afterwards.

Until Michael Vaughan spoiled it all, the national team reflected perfectly this English spirit and was rewarded with an ever-growing band that followed them worldwide. When the England football team lose, their supporters riot. English cricket followers just laugh, drink another pint and raise a banner calling themselves "the Barmy Army".

Berkmann understands all this. Though he is a Tory and an awful lot of cricketers are Tories, we socialists should welcome something that implicitly rejects the divisive national obsession with meritocracy. I am sorry to report that Zimmer Men is not as good as Rain Men: it starts brilliantly, but I suspect Berkmann then decided a sequel wasn't such a good idea after all, because the jokes become repetitive and laboured. Yet it doesn't matter. There's plenty of sad old gits who will buy it. I would.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain is great