(contribution by Jan Webster – 2017)
Just like Somerset and Northamptonshire CCCs, the Far from the MCC have never won the County Cricket championship. Unlike those counties, however, this doesn’t seem to gnaw away at the soul of the club. ‘The thoughtless world to majesty may bow [and] exalt the brave, & idolize success’, as Thomas Grey once put it, but it requires a very different kind of collective idiot joy to be able, say, to celebrate a man falling into a hedge as the team highlight of a very long afternoon spent playing cricket in the shadows of what looks like the Arkham Asylum from the Batman movies as this club did relatively recently.
The Joker is housed top left apartment.
It’s not clear whether Grey was a cricket fan, but since half his poem, Elegy Written in an English Graveyard, has him musing over the graves of his contemporaries, it suggests someone well able to find comfort, pleasure even, in the ultimate failure of his fellow men. This essential schadenfreude rather brings us to this particular cricket club, and what I love about it – what Grey called Far from the Madding CC’s ‘ignoble strife ‘.
Cricket clubs are funny things. It’s easy enough to find one (I’ve seen a concrete cricket pitch in Minsk and watched a game or two in Vancouver, even Carterton has a ground, I believe), but it’s finding the right one that that’s tricky. Some clubs advertise, The MAD’s process seems similar to a carpet roller picking up lint. My own experience with the MAD was a simple matter of ineluctable fate – although Mr Ian Howarth once kindly remarked, “What other shithouse team would have you?” which has a certain harsh ring of truth to it.
League cricket finally lost its appeal for me one damp Saturday night in June in Glasgow in 2009. It was a quarter to ten at night and both teams were still grinding our way to a stupendously boring draw after 90 overs of near inertia. I couldn’t feel my fingers, the opposition, frankly, were the kind you’d cross a road to avoid, and the whole affair just felt like a chore; everything seemed predicated on the few measly points available at the end of the game. We sometimes seemed to travel miles for some games to turn out against teams determined to ape all the shoddier elements of professional sport (largely a matter of overpriced equipment and being arseholes). It all seemed to be too serious and lacking something really basic. This was supposed to be my leisure time, my fun time, and sometimes fun felt that it was at a premium. How serious does cricket have to be?
In 2011 we moved back south, back to Oxford and one wet afternoon we pottered over to Wantage. The town, largely famous for King Alfred and shoddy cake management, also has a proper bookshop, one of a dying breed, called The Regent. Once there I gravitated towards the sports section to see what sort of cricket book selection there was and found what they used to call a ‘slim volume’ entitled ‘Not at This Level’. It detailed the first ten years of existence of a pub team which no longer had a pub. The sheer detail and effort crammed into this little book seemed to demonstrate a dangerous level of obsession, leavened mainly by a certain black humour and a tendency towards benign lunacy. A team so unhinged that they actually wrote a book about it seemed… quite a good thing actually. It suggested a certain amount of pride and of continuity.
The Aussies have a term for a particular type of cricket fan; a ‘tragic’. I reckon I am one, up to a point at least. I’m immoderately fond of the game and all its peripheral faff (all those ticking stats and stories, love ‘em), but as my wisdom and competence ebb and flow in exact proportion I’m less and less bothered about the result and far more interested in having an interesting time. Essentially, I like playing cricket, watching cricket, and talking about cricket. I also like talking bollocks about anything else in good company and drinking beer, preferably in nice fields.
Me, playing a delightful shot off the fearsome pie of Keith Ponsford.
As luck would have it my new works team had some pre-season nets in Cowley and we were forced to share the sports hall with what looked at first glance like some kind of care in the community project. No one ever looks at their best in the nets or on Sunday mornings, but this lot was like watching a deformed and almost satanic simulacrum of cricket through a lysergic kaleidoscope; a distorted and writhing orgy of sweat, swearing, cross bats and bowling actions which appeared to be based on hammer throwing. At least they were friendly though, welcoming even. And they appeared to quite like each other, and they looked like they were enjoying themselves. Most odd. Dimly, I realised the man they called Moo looked familiar from somewhere. Of course! It was the man on the front cover of Not at This Level. I had found The MAD.
In May of 2012 I made my debut against Milton CC. We arrived in a green field, a very green field. It was pleasant enough, but it seemed to lack a cricket pitch, or at least did until the oppo arrived and made one seconds before the game started. It was a blazing hot day and the game set a pattern which has since become very familiar to me. We drank beer before the game, we went from 77-2 to 84-6, then managed to go from 106-6 to 110 all out to lose. Mike Reeves scored 30 odd and took a couple of wickets, then we went to a pub and moaned a bit. It was bloody ace.
A key hint to the nature of this club is to be found on home page of the website: ‘Far from the MCC’ it headlines, and underneath that it also says, ‘a friendly Oxford cricket team’. Pleasingly, this is actually a perfectly accurate description of The MAD. ‘Friendly’ is actually something absolutely fundamental to the club, not just in the way the team plays, but also in the way it socialises – it’s even enshrined in the club’s constitution. It’s nice to be nice they say, and, generally, other teams like playing The MAD. They know they’ll get a decent game played as it should be. As part of this the club is good at welcoming new players and also partners. I’ve played for clubs where the presence of a partner is treated with the kind of suspicion usually reserved for shoplifters.
The MAD is also a club where pleasure is taken in a far broader array of ideas than simply that of runs scored and wickets taken. Meeting in new pubs before the game is part of it, the chance to play on some lovely grounds is another. Andy Darley pirouetting round his wicket before hitting them with his own testicles is a fairly typical cherished moment. This means there is actually a rich and sophisticated depth to what might look to a casual observer to be some kind of cricketing adult crèche. So, this is clearly not a club which revolves entirely about the relative skills of a player. A great batsman or bowler who was a match winner, but who was also a bell end would not last long at The MAD. There is almost as much pride in the scores against the team (Hiram Shallow, J Rahman!) or the most ducks and run outs as the feats performed by our own players. There is room for both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cricket in this club, provided it is done with good humour and positive intent. “PMA!” (or positive mental attitude) is a cry which occasionally goes around, largely from James Hoskins, who, to be fair, genuinely seems to follow the doctrine whereas for most it seems tinged with a certain irony. The sight of Spam or Dave Emerson charging down the wicket to the first ball of a 40 over game regardless of the ball’s trajectory or likely outcome is a typical MAD sight, as is Dave Shorten suggesting we can ‘turn this round’ after the oppo have scored 150 off the first 15 overs. No one actively enjoys a pasting, but I’ve never seen The MAD leave a game with their heads down. About the only thing which seems to wind the club up is another team not playing in the right spirit and this is usually resolved by some judicious editing of the fixture list.
Me, with some of the guys high-fiving my head.
This is also not a club that plays cricket as if the game itself is not worth taking seriously. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, but it has to matter in the moment or there is no point playing. The MAD manage to balance these two apparently conflicting notions without stress and largely because it attracts people who can understand this without having to articulate it.
As with any club, the credit goes to those who put the time in to make this happen and who ensure that the spirit of the club is maintained. While pretty much every one of the 145 players who have turned out for The MAD since 1998 has contributed to some degree or another, since I’ve been playing the likes of Spam, Moo, Timms, Reevsie, Matt, Russ, JMO, Dave have skippered, organised, cursed and guided the club onwards in a way that’s managed to maintain a sense of serious cricketing fun. They have shepherded this friendly, mildly obsessive Oxford cricket team into its third decade
Chapeau to the Board and up The MAD. Here’s to the next 10 or 20 or….
‘Jan vdG Webster’