5ths pull off unlikely victory with only nine men

Arriving at Chiswick's pitch at far end of the massive Kings Sports Ground on Saturday, I could be forgiven a sinking sense of deja vu. Four Highgate colts practised diligently in the Chiswick Nets. No other adults had yet arrived. It probably shouldn't have been a surprise then when the Chiswick skipper decided upon my arrival that I was the Highgate skipper. This was news to me, but we were late so there's a limit to what one can say in these situations.

Having determined my role for the afternoon, I happily conceded the toss in return for 20 minutes grace to organise my team which the Chiswick skipper graciously granted me. Given that I had no idea who our team included, I set about surveying my troops - all 8 of them as it turned out.

Throughout it's short and turbulent history, Highgate 5th team's performance has been characterised by frequent lows of apalling mediocrity and sudden, magical moments of adequacy. This season has been no different. During the previous week's capitulation against Ally Park I had almost made up my mind to quit league cricket forever. As I stood trying to figure out how to prevent Chiswick piling on a mammoth score with only 6 fielders, I frankly wished I had. I could not have known what was to happen next.

Having only 8 men sharpens a captain's mind wonderfully. There is no room for close fielders or the like. You just have to figure out where the ball is most likely to be hit, and put someone there. Then you have to pray that your bowlers can hit the cut stuff.

Colts Andrew Johnson and Harvey Bleakley have both shown flashes of potential greatness for the 5ths this season, but bowling in tandem here, they showed more than that. The lines and discipline they both stuck to showed huge maturity. The two Chiswick openers may have expected to dominate, given the huge gaps in the fielding ring, but neither bowler let them get away. Andrew in particular swung the ball alarmingly, whilst Harvey plugged away remorselessly on his trademark middle-off stump line. As a result, both batsmen seemed to go into a defensive mindset, and Chiswick crawled along at barely 3 runs an over.

After both colts had bowled their maximum allowed spells of 6 overs, I replaced Andrew with Eusebi Vickers - a similar sort of bowler to Andrew, though maybe a bit quicker and a little wilder. He bowled an admirable spell also beating the bat of several occasions. Around this point we saw a familiar figure walking onto the pitch in whites. It was Shelley, we were now nine! I had to have a bit of a think about this, I wasn't too sure sure what to do with an eighth fielder...

Somehow we were yet to take a wicket, somehow at drinks, Chiswick were just 70-0! It was time for something different.

Now, Abbas Khatri is a player who in my opinion suffers from versatility. He's practically plagued with the stuff. Bowler, batsman, wicket-keeper he bounces between 3rd, 4ths and 5ths and rarely gets asked to do the same job two weeks in a row. Today I wanted him to be a bowler. No, I NEEDED him to be a bowler. Abbas rewarded my faith with worthy 16-over spell of well controlled spin bowling allowing our meagre fielding resources to provide sufficent cover. I wasn't going to take him off, he started looking at me with a sort of sad look each over, but I was resolute and kept him on till the end. Pace off the ball was working, you see the Chiswick batsmen tied in knots, desperate for some honest medium pace to knock around. No more spells for the seamers, I told myself, not today. Sorry chaps, we may be the 5th team but it's still league cricket...

Using this as justification I decided to put myself on at the other end. Luckily this worked for about 5 overs. Thanks to the hard work of previous bowlers Chiswick may have had wickets in hand, but not enough runs and time running out. Good ol'fashioned scoreboard pressure did the trick and some dubious slow left arm from the skipper yielded 2 wickets.

This brought a rather good batsman to the crease. Thinking only of the team, I took myself off and put Kashif on in my place. He demonstrated rather more control than I, Chiswick's best batsman hit a few mighty blows but fell to a rare Kash full toss. A sporting declaration followed shortly after: 213 required off 45 overs.

I shall be utterly candid here, at tea I felt my job was done. The only thing on my mind as we took the field had been to avoid a total debacle. Now, against all the odds, we were chasing an emminently gettable score. The only problem was, we were effectively 0-2...

Cue Mathews and Kashif. They set off at brisk rate, punishing everything and anything wide or too full. They scored at similar rates until Kash decided to go big one too many times and was bowled. We were 92-1 (or 92-3) at drinks. Daniel Johnson then showed us his class with a well- judged knock including the best shot of the day, stroking the ball through extra cover for four. He and Martin put on 85 for the second wicket. This was getting serious, I suddenly had to face the fact that this was now ours to lose. Any one who knows me knows I don't like this sort of talk - and even daring to think it brought about the inevitable as Daniel lost his off peg to Marsh. Chiswick's best batsman had turned out to be their best bowler too - even with a broken finger! Presumably a five-fingered Marsh would have been playing for a higher Chiswick side, but even with four fingers he was pretty tidy for 4/5th team standard.

At 177-2 (or 4) and with scant batting resource remaining, the game was finely poised. Out strode Shelley, from this position the man who could basically win or lose us the game. Bang. First ball over cover for four. A brisk 30-run partnership later the game looked to be ours until a disastrous mix-up resulted in Nik nobly sacrificing himself with Martin in the nineties. Martin's response to this largesse was to hit Marsh straight up in the air and was out, caught and bowled for 92. It had been an excellent Mathews innings, mixing pugnacious hits and watchful defence. It just fell short of being a match-winning one. I felt a bit queasy.

Abbas and Andrew Johnson tried to push the ball around, but Chiswick had their tails up and the bowling - and their fielding - picked up considerably. Then Andrew was bowled with the score on 206. With only two wickets left it felt as though fate was mocking us, allowing us the dream of a most unlikely victory - before cruelly snatching it away.

Anyway, I went out there and hit two consecutive fours and we'd won - but enough of that.

Amazing victory, amazing spirit and contribution from all 9 players. I must mention that one of the trials of playing 5ths cricket is managing everything with few adult players who can score or umpire. This wasn't an issue on Saturday - everyone did everything unprompted or willingly, including the colts who all uncomplainingly did their stints at square leg - and Kash and Abbas who both performed marathon umpiring spells.

Now if we could just find the same focus and unity of purpose with 11 men. Every week. We'd be unstoppable.