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25 December 2000

A good, old-fashioned must-buy

NS Christmas - Forget computer games, a cricket scorebook could help your child go far

By Quentin Letts

So you failed to find your child a £299 Sony PlayStation 2 for Christmas. Despair not. How about buying the disappointed youngster a cricket scorebook instead?

Before you dismiss the suggestion as absurdly fogeyish, hear the case. A scorebook might seem an unseasonal present, but it could do your child an awful lot more good than yet another whizzo PC game.

A new handbook, Cricket Scoring, notes that scorers are “essential to the game of cricket, but seldom receive much recognition”. New Statesman readers’ acute sense of fair play will at once tingle. Scorers appear to be the oppressed of cricket, the downtrodden of England’s summer game.

It has been that way ever since the early 18th century, when they were called “notchers” and stood – horribly exposed – at silly mid-off. They held a stick and would “score” (from the Old Norse “skor”) each run into the wood, provided they hadn’t been flattened already by the batsman’s lusty blow.

Modern cricket scoring is more bucolic, and slightly melancholic. The scorebox at Chorleywood cricket club is adorned with a poem called “A Scorer’s Lament”:

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Will there be a scorebox in heaven
one where all the numbers work?
With windows not shrouded in cobwebs
and corners where spiders don’t lurk?

Even the smell of a cricket scorebox is almost lyrical. One sniff of that mixture of mower oil, limewash for the crease markings, and discarded mud from players’ studs is intensely evocative of the English summer.

The archetypal scorer tends to be bespectacled, eyesight affected by the pinpoint precision of the work. Keith Andrew, in his The Handbook of Cricket (1989), notes that scorers are introverts “with a fondness for statistics”. Physically, scorers may often be imperfect specimens, having turned to scoring after discovering that hard balls were not for them. It may sometimes niggle them when the players swan by in their whites and ask, with maddening nonchalance, “What’s the score then?” – just as it infuriates them when people talk of a batsman out for nought “failing to trouble the scorer”. A duck causes a terrible flurry of work. The batsman who scores a slow 20 is far less trouble. Scorers can get their revenge by ordering lazy players to change the plates on the rusty old telegraph board. The fielding XI’s impatient cries of “Tally!” are an intrinsic sound of the summer. So is the scorer’s riposte: “Bowler’s name please!”

Schoolboy scorers are the sort of pupils whose fountain pens explode in their corduroy pockets. They normally have the nickname “Prof” or “Brains”. Scoring was producing nerds long before Charles Babbage built the first computer.

The first scorecard appeared in 1744. The design has changed little over the years and, today, a scorebook can be had for £10.

A scorer’s reward during the day might be little more than a half-chewed fairy cake in the pavilion at teatime, or the slops of the match beer jug once he has finished totting up the bowling figures.

However, things are changing for the better. With even beach cricket becoming fiercely competitive, scorers are finding themselves as important as Florida returning officers. Listen to BBC Radio’s Test Match Special. The commentary team treats the scorer, Bill Frindall, with rare respect. If Henry Blofeld asks Frindall a silly question, he is very smartly rebuked.

Country cricket clubs now employ two scorers apiece – one to fill in the traditional book, the other to operate a computerised scorecard for broadcasters. Meanwhile, the Association of Cricket Umpires recently added “and Scorers” to its title. It conducts exams throughout the country to train the next generation of scorers. Scorers have discovered self-esteem.

Nowadays, scorers are awarded medals in the National Village Knockout and, at Minor Counties games, they even get to share the umpires’ table in the pavilion at lunch and tea. Who says life ain’t sweet?

Scorers have an inner discipline and analytical bent that equips them formidably for modern life. They can be black or white, male or female, young or old, able-bodied or physically handicapped. My mother, who was a cricket widow for years, took up scoring and soon became a vital part of my father’s cricket club. At college, our scorer was a cricket nut who could not play the game because he had asthma.

John Major recently told me that, when he was a lad, he often took a scorebook with him to the Oval. “It was a great aid to concentration,” he recalled. By filling in the details of each over in his book, the 11-year-old Major probably knew more about the team performances than either captain; this analytical nature was to serve him well in his rise through government. It’s not a bad sales slogan: buy your child a cricket scorebook for Christmas and watch him or her become prime minister.

Cricket Scoring, by Derek Hibbs, is published by Quacks Books (£5)

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