The tour really started on Thursday. OK, so there was some sunshine on Saturday and Monday, and we even played a bit of cricket on Tuesday; but that was just the overture. Sitting in the London Inn with a pint of Tribute in one hand and my late-arrival-on-tour wife in the other was the real deal. Outside the sun was shining and there was the promise of an afternoon of proper cricket. And, as far I'm concerned, Saint Neot is the acme of proper cricket: a flattish farmer's field with a lichen-patterned low stone wall around it and a generous pavilion; competitive opposition who understand that the declaration game is the only sensible way to organise friendly cricket; and a picture-postcard village with a Good Beer Guide pub. Perfect.
The toss was a strange affair. I suspect that Andrew Kent and Ernie had already sorted it out at the pub, but they wandered out to the middle for form's sake. The home skipper was carrying a car battery (there was some speculation that this was there to jump-start Ernie in case he dropped off) and carried on past the square to the remotely operated electronic scoreboard in the far corner. Anyway, we were batting on a pitch the colour and consistency that my childhood Plasticine would turn after a few hours of intensely wayward model-making. Nathan Searle (of whom more later) asked if we wouldn't mind if he provided the match ball. His company, Tiflex, made the balls that were being used in the second division of the County Championship, and Nathan wanted us to try the same balls - presumably to see how they respond to proper cricket. One thing we can say for sure is that the ball swings. It swings like pendulum in an earthquake. Dave Masters, Barrie O'Brien and Chris Rogers posed the same sort of problems to Sid and Pete that Jimmy Anderson and Graham Onions would pose to the Australian batting order at Edgbaston the next morning.
That our opening partnership kept up a healthy rate of about four an over was partly thanks to byes as Jack Kent, the home team's young 'keeper, struggled with the swing. Both openers (and six further Mystics) were bowled, first Pete, elegantly, by an extravagant in-ducker, and then Sid by one that kept low and left him bent double and unhappy.
The genial medium pace of Barrie O'Brien was replaced by Dave Watts's slower, spinnier stuff. It was too slow and too spinny for Deke. "Oh, how vexing!" he exclaimed to the scorers after being bowled. All very Wodehouse, and I can certainly see Punchy Matravers sitting down to a late supper with Tuppy Glossop, Stilton Cheesewright, Boko Fittleworth and Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright at Bertie Wooster's London club, The Drones.
Dave Masters returned to clean up Chirpy, putting an end to a useful 23 Healey-Healey partnership (a contribution that cemented their position at the top of the Mystics fraternal-partnerships league, almost 200 runs ahead of me and Sid in last place). Jimmy Ton joined Chris. Both men scored 42, but that similarity is superficial. If Chris Healey's 42 was the big white wooden pole around which our innings was constructed, then Isaac's was a gaily beribboned frolic around that pole (and that, I claim, is the most overworked metaphor ever used in a Mystics match report). There were boundaries in Chris's 68-ball knock, but they seemed somehow effortless and inevitable in comparison to Isaac's muscular heaves to and over the picturesque low stone wall.
By the time they were both out, 71 for four had become 144 for seven, and Ernie's pre-innings goal of 160 was well within reach. The Sharlands (the second least prolific fraternal partnership) took the score to 155, then Sean straight-drove a distinguished four. I scraped a single off my first ball, and we had reached the captain's target. My second ball was bowled by Dave Watts, Saint Neot's gently deceptive off-spinner. It was a full delivery on leg stump. "Aha," I thought, "the sweep would be an appropriate shot to this: positive but not fool-hardy." Then, with the spinner's natural drift, the ball slowly changed its line towards off stump. I'm not sure what a proper batsman would have done, but as a bowler and a gentleman, I thought it uncouth to change my shot at this late stage - rather like a chess player who has to move the piece he touched even though he now realises it will lead to certain defeat - and was bowled. 160 all out off 43.1 overs was a decent score: achievable for the side batting second, but defendable by the fielding side.
After one of those big welcoming teas that make me wish that my captain had decided to bat second so that I could eat a lot more, we waddled out to field. Sean and Pete opened the bowling with a brand new Tiflex ball. After an expensive first over, they settled into an excellent rhythm, with Pete's in-ducking bananas presenting plenty of problems.
Still, it's not always good bowling that takes wickets. I came on with the score at 31 for none, and soon persuaded the younger opener, Rory File, to scoop an ugly wide half volley to mid off. Well, actually it was sort of over and to the left of mid off, but Chris Healey ran round and took a beautifully judged catch. A few overs later, he went off pleading a bruised finger - a quick 42, a few overs in the field and then off to sit in the pavilion. Cheers, Ashok.
In my next over, Andrew Kent took a couple of steps down the track and played over a straight one. Both openers were out and Saint Neot were 39 for two. Jimmy Ton came on, and he too got some extravagant swing, this time away from the bat. Sid stood up, and did a tidy job in testing circumstances. Chris Squire took a good catch over his head at square leg, the mistiming of the shot and of Chris's jump seeming to cancel each other out. In the next over, Jimmy's pace and swing were too much for Chris Arthur, the young number three, and it was 49 for four. Had Sean held on to a very presentable chance at mid on, it would have been pretty much game over. Instead, Graham Kent and the left-handed Nathan Searle built a solid partnership of 40.
Chirpy replaced me and then Graham Sharland came on at Jimmy's end (figures of one for nine in six overs give an indication of how tightly Jimmy bowled). Graham Kent chipped Chirpy to midwicket where Ernie dropped to his knees and took a sound catch. Ernie took a second kneeling catch later in the innings, and it's not clear whether this is a question of style, of technique or of praying to Jesus that he be allowed to hold on to the chance. Whatever the reason, it works, and his catching, along with that of the two Chrises, was in marked contrast to the botched behaviour of the Broadclyst boys - it seems that they can only catch the ball when their testicles are directly threatened (witness Cliff at Lanhydrock). Perhaps a hypnotherapist could persuade each of them that they have gonads the size of a blue whale's, and then they'd never drop anything. Just an idea.
Dave Masters and Nathan Searle began to bat well, and 160 began to look more achievable than defendable. Saint Neot were still 50 short, however, when Masters drove at Graham and the ball went in the air to the bowler's left hand. Changing direction with the manoeuvrability of a Broadclyst blue whale, Graham only managed to get a forearm to the ball. His disappointed "ugh" soon turned into a whoop that would have had Monty Panesar in trouble for over-appealing. The ball had deflected on to the non-striker's stumps, leaving Searle still a few strides down the track. A miserable way to get out, and one that loaded all the responsibility on to Masters's youthfully narrow shoulders.
Next in was Spencer Ham (S.Ham soon became Sham in our scorebook, then Baby Sham before settling as just plain Baby). Ernie ratcheted up the intensity - to about 0.2 - and the battery in the scoreboard gave out. He had brought Sean back after a quick discussion with his brother, the gist of which seemed to be that Graham thought that there was no need for him to carry on bowling rubbish and that Ernie might as well bring Chris Healey on to do that. Anyway, it was Sean that persuaded Baby to pop up a catch that was cleanly and competently taken by Chris Squire. Graham carried on bowling, rubbish or not, and took the next two wickets - another prayer-book catch by Ernie and then, crucially, Masters as he tried to win the game with a single titanic blow (which, given that they still needed 30, was a touch ambitious).
Dave Watts came in to join Barrie O'Brien with 20 balls to go and one wicket between us and victory. I'd like to record that it was a thrilling finish with fingernails chewed, hair pulled out and gasps of disbelief from the enraptured crowd; but the truth is that numbers ten and eleven batted so sensibly and safely that we never had a sniff. Nevertheless, the very fact that we reached the last 20 balls with four results possible - a home victory or a tie would have required some brave, even reckless batting, but an away win and a draw were equally likely - and with important decisions to be made by batsmen, bowlers and the fielding captain, demonstrated again the innate superiority of the declaration game over its brutish, ungentlemanly bastard cousin, the overs game.
And soon we were back in the London Inn, talking about our game, where it was won, lost and drawn. As near-winners, we were able to hand Saint Neot's trophy back to them, which was a relief since it's an unpleasant-looking thing. There was a lot of discussion about the Ashes. How could an England team that had looked so abject at Cardiff have become world beaters in a few short weeks? I know only one possible explanation: hypnotherapeutically enhanced testes.