I always look forward to the "Clacky" encounter, and I know I'm not the only one. Something about it captures the cricketing imagination: the setting; the real score-box; the pavilion with a little fence in front of it; the warm welcome and even -- go on, admit it -- even Dave's jokes all contribute to that feeling of the Clacky game being what the touring cricketer in each of us is really up in Scotland for.
"Clackmannan County...", I announce to friends on rainy days in the office, delivering the first word with grand importance and emphasising the second with a flourish, as if to underline the worthiness of our cricketing ambitions: "Of course we're a proper touring side," I assert indignantly, "for do we not play against Clackmannan County?", thereby launching in to the Boys' Own world of encounters with test batsmen, sixes that clear roads, national newspaper clippings ("...there, just below the West Indies vs Australia test card...") and finishes that would grace any Lord's final, until I sit with a Ready-Brek glow of pleasure and yet another colleague making a mental note not to bring up the subject of cricket again.
Yes, the Erratics game may be the fine pate de foie gras with melba toast, and Breadalbane the sumptuous gateau topped with chocolate flakes sitting in a wild berry coulis, but Clackmannan is undoubtedly the piece de resistance, the plat du jour; always different, always appetising and always a satisfying success.
And so it was that we arrived on this wet Wednesday, wondering what the game had in store. One of the locals told me that if you can't see the Wallace Monument then rain is on its way. Standing out on the field I struggled to make out the pavilion, so I guess the rain had arrived: a little shower is never something to worry the stout-hearted Clackmannan men, who always treat us to a game worthy of its billing, so I barely noticed the drizzle, transfixed as I was by the opening spells by Healey and Freddie. Barely had the rain had a chance to settle on the Clacky top order before they found themselves back in the pavilion, and at 6 for 3 a period of stability was required by the home team, along with First Aid for the visiting supporters, bruised from pinching themselves.
Sodhi and Weeks, sounding like a gentleman's outfitters, began to tailor-make a Clacky revival, applying themselves to the task of making a defendable total against the miserly bowling that was spreading like a rash through an unusually focussed Mystics attack. Feeling their way carefully around Freddie and Chris's varied bails, and bolstered by the reappearance of the Wallace Monument out of the gloom, the Indo-Australian alliance spent the best part of 15 overs gradually playing their side back into contention. The introduction of the lofty Wendon proved the end for the Australian who achieved the only double-figure score of the innings, and broke the partnership 1 run short of a deserved 50.
The Indian pro, sensing that a total now depended on him, embarked on a campaign of strike-farming that would have earned him a rosette for productivity at an agricultural show. An impressive array of shot selection combined with brutal treatment of the odd bad ball saw him to 50 with his 7th four, and whilst a succession of partners admired from the other end the scoring accelerated and Mystic fielders were dispatched to far-flung corners of the outfield. Sixes replaced fours as with impeccable timing Sodhi opened out towards the end of the 35 over allotment, and a succession of bowlers from the Mystic Hall of Fame failed to stem the flow.
A few successes were achieved at the other end, whilst Sodhi punctuated some wonderfully timed sixes with a couple of singles to sail past his 100 in just over 100 balls. Windy was unfortunate to be the one to play the fag to Sodhi's school bully, as the rest of us watched his assured batting in admiration, secretly thankful that we weren't the one in the firing line.
Without bowling at all badly, Windy finished with 0 for 46 off 4 overs and a dazed expression, whilst Dudbridge's 3 for 17 off 7 was the pick of a most acceptable fielding display. Sodhi harvested the last 22 runs of his innings off the last 5 balls, contrasting dramatically with the 45 balls he faced to acquire his first 22 runs, and with 151 on the board the game was by no means over.
After a most welcome tea, the Mystics innings began with a false start, Rasul bowling several deliveries before realising that the scorer was still on his way to the box. Clackmannan may have wished he had taken longer, as 6 runs came from the 1st over after the re-start. It looked as though the Mystic top order had forgotten their usual early collapse, but Ernie, Adrian and Deke quickly remembered where they were and Chris Healey joined Duncan at 18 for 3 in the 5th over.
The pair progressed gingerly until Duncan was undone, caught behind off the bowling of Singh, and when Sid the skipper took as guard it was vital that the two left-handers didn't lose the runs advantage that had been built up over the first few overs. Against bowling that was far from profligate they moved through the middle overs of the innings, gleaning runs like tetchy magpies in a jewellery store, and their business-like performance was rewarded with a 50 partnership. However, a very tidy spell by Weeks was squeezing the scoring opportunities to a minimum and eventually his pressure paid off, with Sid falling to a catch by Dave Wilson.
The arrival of Windy at the crease, determined initially to prove that he could participate in some dot balls during the day, was the signal for Healey to find a way out of the becalmed waters, and as his creativity took him to a well-earned 50 and beyond, so the feeling of cautious optimism in the Mystic camp rose. The fielding side were beginning to worry, and a flurry of agitated Hindi (or similar tongue) was helpfully translated by a Scots observer as: "In other words, stop bowling crap!".
With 32 required off the last 5 overs and Healey in tenacious form, the pendulum of fate seemed to be leaning towards the Mystic camp, but the re-introduction of Singh to the attack secured Windy's wicket and the denouement looked too close to call. Graham Sharland strode out knowing he had little time to play himself in, but needed to avoid getting out. Meanwhile Healey steeled himself for a run- chase. Wasting no time at all, Sharland's first ball secured a leg-bye, and mid-way through the next over from Sodhi there began a decisive sequence of 15 consecutive scoring shots from Mystic bats, as clever run stealing as Mystics had ever seen.
Fittingly the winning runs came as a nurdied four from Graham, whose only dot ball was the leg-bye, and, with just an over to spare, Mystics were celebrating a tense victory after another absorbing and thoroughly enjoyable contest. It
was indicative of the close nature of the game that each side took 6 wickets, and every batsman to be out was caught, with all 4 openers caught behind.
Yet again our friends at Clacky had succeeded in providing us with an excuse to dream and rave about seminal cricket for another year. We may have beaten them at the game, but they certainly beat us at the fines, and if the endurance of Dave's jokes is the price to pay for such friendship, then 'tis a small price indeed. As the evening progressed, laughter, beer and the sound of Charlie chasing rabbits across the landscape filled the ground, whilst my daughter slept happily under a towel in one corner of the clubhouse, unaware that our hosts had, yet again, made a small touring party very happy.