I write this en route to Stormont for the Knights’ three-dayer against Leinster. I am drenched. For once, the Met Office set aside the magic eight-ball and forecasted the weather correctly: I took a risk, though, and near-drowning was the consequence. The rain in Ballymena had a Noachian quality; if it reaches Belfast, there shall not be cricket.
At the weekend we lost heavily to Instonians at home. The margin was eight wickets and that speaks for itself; without Azeem’s unbeaten half-century it could have been much worse.
Upon his arrival, I congratulated Jordan McClurkin – who this week debuted for the Knights and kept well – on making his annual pilgrimage to the holy lands of Eaton Park. Later in the day I made him feel even more welcome by shelling a sitter at cover point.
Perhaps reasonably, McClurkin questioned the notion of ‘cricket in Ballymena as religious experience’. Yet given that most of Western religion is rooted in the emotions of fear, guilt, and shame – and on the acts of transgression, punishment, and penitence – I think that playing cricket for Ballymena is almost precisely a religious experience.
Both the Abrahamic faiths and Ballymena CC have their eschatologies too. For the New Jerusalem, Gehenna, and limbo, read relegation. The past few weeks have convinced me that I want Ballymena to go down, although I haven’t quite got round to praying for it.
Now, do not confuse the desire for demotion with wanting to lose cricket matches, for there is a very real difference between the two. In the short term, winning is always a good thing and it just about makes tolerable the drudgery of the sport. In the long term, however, survival could be disastrous for the morale and development of Ballymena’s cricketers.
It is obvious that we no longer – following retirements, injuries, and emigration – have the resources to compete in the Premier League. And this does not take into consideration incidental problems during the season, problems that are always aggravated when a team is struggling.
Holidays are stretched from two weeks to three, or booked Saturday to Saturday, or suddenly a wedding reception for a distant cousin could become more important than it would have been during a better summer. As some Kiwis sang, it’s only natural: this is the psychology of losing.
Availability is no more of a problem than punctuality. I cannot remember an instance this year when our team been on time for practice, for the warm-up at home, or for departure from Eaton Park. We are always waiting for a miracle, and sometimes we are waiting for Godot.
Our main problem, though, is that because we cannot replace our dearly departed with outsiders, we must make do with our own, and the heirs presumptive are still too young. So not only are they inexperienced, but learning to play senior cricket in a weak Premier League side is a torturous education. Gradgrind may as well be standing with a cane at short leg shouting ‘Facts!’
Put simply, you do not learn when you are outclassed and stuffed; you learn only by losing narrowly, when you are competitive. And we might do this in Section One; we might even win regularly. We could therefore learn to love the sport again, for recent years have been painful.
Now, in a bizarre volte face, I’m going to be positive about sport in Ballymena. Unfortunately, the sport is golf. The Northern Ireland Open concluded on Sunday with Clement Sordet, a Frenchman who went through the American collegiate system, shooting 66 to win by a shot.
Before the tournament began I had filmed a few ‘on the course’ video clips that are circulating online. If he were dead, Ken Brown would be turning in his grave. Since he is not, I imagine that he is rolling about in the Coffin Bunkers at St Andrew’s as the next best thing.
On the final day, overcoming the sullen despondency that comes with losing at cricket, I found myself in a buggy, following the last two groups around the parkland. Harry Cook – are there many better bowlers who never played for Ireland? – rolled the camera while I commentated in hushed tones. Maureen Madill and Wayne Riley would have been proud…or disgusted.
35,000 people came to Galgorm Castle over the four days. In only its third year, the tournament has been established as one of the best weeks on the Challenge Tour. A few of the players commented that the greens were the best on which they have ever putted; the referees suggested that the course is only a few hundred yards short of hosting a top-level professional event. Galgorm Castle has built the field of dreams and surely they have come.
Can cricket follow that lead? The fact that the attendance at Stormont this week has not broken twenty suggests not. It’s probably not a ‘crowd’ when you know almost everyone by name; it’s certainly not a crowd when the spectators send their apologies for the next day: Chris Harte, for example, is going to Portrush for the home internationals (again, golf > cricket).
The panicked meetings about ticket sales for the ODI against Australia later in the month suggest even worse. Various numbers of tickets that have already been sold are being kicked around. Some say 1,500, others 3,000. And at least 500 of those are complimentary.
We know for sure that Cricket Ireland have refused to advertise the match on CricketEurope, instead paying for GoogleAds that none of us have set eyes upon. As a favour to the NCU, however, CricketEurope has volunteered to advertise tickets for the ODI … except that twelve days later we have not been provided with the advertising material.
They could, perhaps, learn a trick from the evergreen and ever-rapid Michael Glass, who seems to have erected a series of billboards throughout Ballymena to make sure that everyone knows just how quickly he is bowling these days:
We travel to Waringstown at the weekend. Actually, I might start praying now…