Archive for June, 2015

This is an old post from a few years ago…but I have resurrected it as the annual Embers cricket match is to be played this Sunday (21 June) and this may inspire some of you to go along!

Crex Crex Cricket – a day of blood, sweat and cake in Sanday – 2012.

Test Match Special has never seen anything like it – what is believed to be the world’s most northerly regular cricket fixture took place last Sunday between Stromness Cricket Club and the club on the island of Sanday. At a latitude of 59 degrees, with a brisk easterly wind blowing across the school playing field, Lord’s it ain’t, but The Embers, as the match is known, provided a cracking day out in more ways than one.


The rag-tag-and-bobtail team (including Mr Dragon) assembled on MV Varagen at 9.00am as she set sail for one of the bonniest of the north isles. The clue’s in the name – Sanday, boasting miles and miles of great sweeping white beaches and huge dunes, crystal clear water. And every house on the island (many undergoing renovation of some kind) seems to have a breathtaking view.


On the ferry, the talk was cricket: over tea and Tunnocks Caramel Wafers we discussed the relative merits of TMS commentary. The verdict; Blowers is a star, Boycott’s an ass, and Michael Vaughan knows what he’s talking about. Another cuppa? I took the chance to quiz a few seasoned players about the origins of the Embers. The idea of the Sanday/Stromness fixture came about 12 years ago, the brainchild of two cricket enthusiasts who wanted to develop the game in the islands. Money was available for kit and coaching, and anything that involved Orkney’s outer isles was viewed with favour. Approaches were made to Westray and others, but only Sanday responded with any conviction. Any truth, I wondered, in the story that Sanday was the only island with enough flat land for an outfield? Nah, came the response, but it might have had something to do with the number of Yorkshiremen living there.

At the pier, several cars were on hand to drive us to the ground, along with the kit, the beer, and a large bag of dog food brought by local Member of the Scottish Parliament, who was there to play for the Sanday team. ‘Don’t make a mess now’, quipped R, as we clambered into a Range Rover full of dust, hair, straw, sundry tools and the odd plastic spoon.


My previous Embers trips have usually involved dropping off the players at the local school/community centre, then zooming away in someone’s car to explore, returning only to sample the fabulous tea and make casual enquiries as to the score. On previous occasions I have walked miles along flawless beaches, investigated ruined crofts, visited Stone Age chambered tombs, and met Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, out walking his dog. This time however, due to distinct lack of like-minded CWAGs* and transport (previous partners in crime having been lured by the sandcastle competition at Evie Sands), I decided to stay and watch. Mr Dragon coached me through a variety of arm signals (fours, sixes, wides, no balls, out, byes etc etc), in case I was called upon to umpire. In the event those honours were done by DC, ex-captain who is now semi-retired from the game after several shoulder dislocations. Cricket’s a dangerous game, you know.


Proceedings started with a cup of tea and a biscuit – after all, we had been on a boat for nearly two hours with only a snack shop and a Quick Reads library for company. The pitch was inspected by a largish Antipodean chap who (in the tradition, dare I say it, of his fellow countrymen) fancied himself a bit of an expert. This same fellow earned himself some high-spirited teasing during his innings, prompting the teaser to observe that he didn’t think he’d ever sledged somebody in his own team before.

As Stromness won the toss and opted to bat first, I wandered off to the boundary in the hope of seeing one of Britain’s most elusive birds, the corncrake. Once heard all over the UK, intensive farming practices mean that corncrakes have now all but died out completely in England, but are clinging on in Ireland and the north and west of Scotland. Rarely seen, it has a very distinctive call – a sort of throaty rasp – which led to the onomatopoeia of its Latin name, Crex Crex. The birds migrate from Africa to Britain for breeding, and every year the RSPB in Orkney recruits a Corncrake Initiative Officer to monitor the birds across the islands, counting them and gathering sightings/hearings from members of the public. This year the post is held by Amy Liptrot – she has a Twitter account (@Amy_May) and often posts beautiful photos of Orkney at 3am, as she travels the length and breadth of the islands in search of the secretive birds.  As I strayed near to the boundary I heard it – rasping away in the long grass, just as the Sanday locals had told me.  My mobile phone came out, in order that I might share my discovery with the world. ‘Guess what I can hear?’ I tweeted to Amy: #crex #crex!


A corncrake recently

I had decided at the start of the day to tweet the highlights for the benefit of ‘remote attendees’, an idea I picked up whilst being involved in #IslandGovCamp last month. For more information on that event, please visit the blog of my pal, Northern Blethers. The phone signal in Sanday was reasonable for most of the day, the only limitation being the resilience of my battery as I forgot to bring the charger. My tweets about the actual score were intermittent it’s true, but I did managed to mention that the first Stromness wicket to fall was a run-out. Mr Dragon also got a mention for a creditable double-figures performance before being caught at gully.

The bright conditions and occasional blue skies began to disappear, and a very fine mizzle began to fall as Sanday struggled a little to make inroads in the Stromness batsmen. Without boring non-cricket fans with too much detail, the away side scored 165 runs in their 30 overs. At about 1.30pm the innings ended and it was time for the finest cricket tea north of Edinburgh; the Sanday ladies always put on a fantastic Embers spread. Home-made pakoras, fruit loaf, chocolate cake, cream sponge….all washed down with copious amounts of tea. Chatting to several players (including the local nurse, recently moved to the islands, who made two excellent catches and hit the stumps for a cracking run-out), it struck me that for all the banter and friendly chat, they did all take the game seriously. ‘Of course,’ one Sanday player told me, ‘what would be the point, otherwise? We’re all very competitive, and that’s the way it should be!’


The start of the Sanday innings signalled the arrival of the home ‘crowd’, a dozen or so women and children (and a Labrador puppy) came to cheer on the team and ask ‘why don’t they run faster?’ as the batsmen peched between creases. Some spectators sat in their cars and watched through the windows, others produced picnic tables and cracked open the wine. A little cheer went up as Liam the MSP got off the mark with a 4, better than last year when he was bowled out first ball (a golden duck) by Mr Dragon. He hoisted his bat in the manner of a test cricketer acknowledging a century, to further cheers and perhaps a smattering of lighthearted abuse from the Stromness fielders.

The 70-plus-year old behind the wicket hunkered down for the next ball, delivered by A, Stromness fast bowler. A clunk, the ball was in the air….the cries of ‘catch it!’ were immediately drowned out by the cries of ‘First Aid kit! NOW!’ as it appeared that Liam had hit the floor and was in considerable pain. Luckily, his team-mates included amongst their number the island nurse (who had fielded with some panache in the Stromness innings) and a locum doctor from Kirkwall. Within minutes an enormous First Aid kit had appeared, closely followed by the island’s resident doctor: no injured cricketer has ever been so well attended. Liam retired injured and was led away, very wobbly, whilst the game resumed.

The wickets tumbled and at 27 for 5 the Sanday captain was heard to remark, ‘I think personal glory is the best we can hope for, boys’. But the sun came out and the team rallied, cheered by a dropped easy catch. A boundary was greeted with a cheer and a jubilant air horn, which at least shut the corncrake up for a minute. Just as the words ‘it’s picking up’ fell from my lips, a wicket fell – caught and bowled, Mr Dragon – and the end of the innings was in sight. After a very valiant 86 all out, the Sanday team accepted defeat gracefully.


Presentations were made, speeches were given, more cake eaten, the quaich of Highland Park whisky started making the rounds, and Liam returned in triumphant style with a couple of stitches in his head and a few parliamentary debates’ worth of anecdotes illustrating the importance of adequate medical cover in Scotland’s remoter islands. The match had it all, we agreed: blood, sweat and cake (‘there’s the title of my autobiography right there’, said our MSP). As the tremendous tea was cleared up around us, one of the Sanday ladies sat down at her wheel, prompting cries of ‘should have brought on the spinners earlier’.


Finally, it was time to head for the ferry. No chance of getting inside the cabin, full as it was of Sanday school kids travelling to Kirkwall for their week’s stay in the hall of residence. However, out on deck the sun was beating down, and everyone was discussing their highlights. ‘That has to be the only cricket match played to the sound of crex crex,’ I offered. ‘Except perhaps one played between Angola and Mozambique,’ countered TD. Trust a bird expert to know the migratory habits of a corncrake.


*Cricket Wives and Girlfriends







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