If you’ve ever played cricket in the vicinity of a lake, chances are you would have had an opportunity to be thankful that the ball doesn’t sink like the proverbial stone. A mis-hit into the water may happen, but you have some time to retrieve the ball. Which is great, and exactly the kind of the thing you want – unless you’re trying to play underwater.
Amphibians and fishes could possibly have evolved their own form of cricket – it does seem primordially genetically encoded in humans, especially when you hear a full stadium chant a cricketer’s name – but for a short while sometime in the 2012-13 English season, they had a chance to witness humans play it when members of the Threlkeld Cricket Club in England, outfitted in scuba gear, gathered on the bed of the Derwent River in Cumbria, situated in the northern part of England, for a spot of bat-on-ball action.
It wasn’t for a movie shoot, and it wasn’t because the ICC was trying to expand into previously untapped territory. It wasn’t an experiment to show how cricket could be played in the rain either. It could have been a stunt dreamed up by a marketing whizz, but it was actually something much less, and yet, much more. Threlkeld’s cricket ground, voted amongst the prettiest by Wisden in 2003, was devastated by a June 2012 flood that left the outfield in ruins and the pitch buried under silt and minerals, some of them toxic. To restore the pitch and the ground, the club needed close to 100,000 pounds – which was about 100,000 more than what they had as extra, disposable cash.
The England and Wales Cricket Board promised to help out substantially, but forking out the entire sum was not feasible. The idea to raise funds came, as most great ideas tend to, when four of the club members were sitting in a pub. Unlike most brilliant pub ideas though, this one didn’t die after the final round had been consumed.
Threlkeld would make a calendar for 2014 – as outrageous and interesting as possible – and sell it.
The most obvious idea for joining ‘outrageous’ with ‘calendar’ was proposed and quickly vetoed. “Most of us are not particularly blessed when it comes to physiques. I don’t think anyone was too keen to see that,” said Michael Webster, club treasurer and a medium-pace bowler in the first XI, about cricketers posing in the buff.
What Webster, Simon May (the No.11 in the first XI), Michael Harrison (club secretary, middle-order batsman and slow bowler in the first XI) and David Jackson (top-order batsman in the first XI) decided instead was to make a calendar with photos of members playing in the most unlikely, but picturesque, locations and sell it to raise funds.
Flights to exotic locations were out of the question in a budget-constrained exercise, as was any payment to Stuart Holmes, the photographer, who did the shoot for free. However, amazingly enough, Cumbria had a diversity of locales that fit requirements perfectly.
Consequently, the members were photographed playing cricket on a rickety bridge, on a disused railway track, on a freezing mountainside with ice for pitch and snow for the outfield, and even on stage in a theatre, in addition to the underwater shot that Webster says was hardest, because “how do you stop the ball from floating upwards!”
The players didn’t actually play for more time than was necessary to get a good shot or three, which meant getting, or sometimes trekking, to the location involved more time and effort than the actual play.
As cricketing locations go, the calendar covered the gamut of extreme and out-of-the-box locations.
There have been matches in picturesque locations earlier, and matches at imaginatively chosen sites to mark the occasion as special. The Brambles Bank Cricket Match took place annually till 2010, where the Royal Southern Yacht Club and Island Sailing Club played a friendly match on the Brambles sandbank. The bank appears only for a limited time annually when the Solent Sea is at low tide.
Mirza Waheed has written evocatively on cricket played in Kashmir, and going by first-person accounts and photographs, there is the occasional impromptu match played in winter snow in England. And in India, kids routinely find the most creative ways to be able to hurl a ball at another kid holding a bat.
But this effort is unique, and not just because it has brought together so many diverse scenes together. The concept is such a perfect fit for a small club who have lost their ground – they have to find unique locations to play in, because their home is gone.
Threlkeld’s cricket-playing dates back nearly a century. “We play in Eden Valley League which is a rural Cricket League in a sparsely populated part of England,” said Webster. “We have a first XI, a mid-week side and an Under-13 side.”
Sparsely populated, with three teams where the only ones who take an active interest in scores and results are probably family members, if that. And yet, it’s a cricket club with the game as its raison d’etre. When the elements snatched that away, the members could have sat around and waited for aid, and who would have blamed them? That they took the trouble to come up with a brilliant idea and then execute it speaks of the passion and love that the game inspires.
By a happy coincidence, the calendar was launched on June 25, 2013, the 30th anniversary of one of modern cricket’s most seminal moments. In 1983, less than 500 kilometres from Cumbria, Kapil Dev lifted the Prudential World Cup and India’s path towards embracing the sport as religion, and becoming its new home, was set. While not quite as world-changing as that, the launch of Threlkeld’s calendar is, in fact, a launch to regain a home.
Heart-warming? Certainly. Inspiring? Of course. But most of all, it’s an attempt by man to ensure that an elemental desire to play cricket is not thwarted by the elements.