Cricket

Willow Crescent was an abandoned street not far from the edge of the Swain House estate near Five Lane Ends to the north of Bradford. At that time, it had just two semi-detached houses. Ours was the second. Outside our front gate, across the road, was a waste land of scrubby grass and beyond that a stone wall backed by trees. To the left the view was broader and bleaker. The wasteland stretched away until it merged with what might have been part of the Yorkshire Moors – rolling grassland, intersected by the rough black lines of dry stone walls that seemed to stretch away forever beneath a grey sky. The roadway stopped at our house but if you went a little further and fossicked about it the grass you could find bits of crumbing asphalt and the old kerbstones that marked the rest of the intended layout. Willow Crescent was a failed venture.

Bradford was a grey city. Most of the buildings, including the houses were made of grey stone. The air turned to thick, grey smog in winter and even in the summer time you had to bring the washing in as soon as it rained or else it would be covered in grey blotches.

Of course, I was depressed. Not only had I just lost my father but four years in London had turned me into a southern, middle-class milksop, unprepared for the working-class north. On my first day at Swain House County Primary School, I sat next to a snotty-nosed little girl who bestowed on me all the essential English swear words and then proceeded to explain them to me when I asked her what she was talking about. At least, I think that was what she was doing. Her heavy West Yorkshire accent was almost a foreign tongue. Shortly afterwards two boys were caned in front of the class, a stroke each across the palm of the hand by our teacher, Mr Dewhurst. I had never before witnessed such a thing and it filled me with terror.

I hated that class. For the first time ever, I was scared to go to school – not because I was threatened personally but simply because the atmosphere was so unthinking and brutal. I dealt with it by keeping my head down and behaving myself. My school report for July 1951 was unremarkable, although Mr Dewhurst gave me ‘Good’ for Scripture and noted alongside my C for Written English: ‘writes a good story’ and ‘uses punctuation marks very well’.

Happily, the school year ended after a few weeks and the long summer holiday came as a relief. That was the summer we went to the Isle of Wight and I fell in love for the first time. Back home I played cricket with a few of the neighbourhood kids on the wasteland outside our house. We had four stumps, a bat and a pitted compound ball and we paced the pitch out for ourselves. Most of our strokes consisted of hoiks to the leg side but I remember one occasion when Julian, one of the two boys who lived next door to us, connected with a shot the flew high and far to the off. I was fielding over there and I turned to chase. For a moment, I thought the ball was going to go over the wall into the next property where all the trees were but it fell just short. I ran to retrieve it.

I had never been that close to the wall before this. I knew it marked the edge of the grounds of  a big house that we could see as we walked up Wrose Road but I hadn’t paid much attention.  The wall was about was about four foot high and I could just see over the top. Beyond was a park-like area with beautiful trees just touched by the first signs of autumn. Fifty or so yards away, half obscured by the foliage was a cricket pitch, properly mown and laid out, with a game in progress. The players were wearing white, the batsman had real pads. One of them was wearing a cap in the colours of some club or school, maroon and orange circles. As I watched, the batsman received a ball and cut it stylishly backward of square.

‘Shot!’ someone said as he took off for the run.

I didn’t get chance to see any more. The players in my game were calling for the ball. Julian was was waving his arms triumphantly, claiming he’d scored a six.

A few weeks later, I went back to the wall for another look. I was by myself and felt an unprompted surge of curiosity about the cricket players. There was no one there, nothing to be seen except the trees and the close-cropped grass. I quickly turned away. I don’t think I ever looked over the wall again.

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