Street cricket. Played on ancient, cracked tarmac. The wicket: three sticks whitewashed on to the high stone wall of the cul-de-sac where my grandmother lived. It backed onto the wall that cut us off from the railway yards that led into High Street Station. That wall was the boundary, as were the neighbor’s front yards. Six and out if you hooked the cricket ball and hit it behind the wicket and over the railway wall. And you had to retrieve that ball. Lost ball stopped play and play stopped until you went across the bombed buildings at square leg, for a right-handed batsman, climbed the railway wall at its lowest spot, looked down at the rail yards forty feet below, and shouted until someone emerged from a workman’s hut to find the ball and threw it back.
No worker … no ball … no game. Then you had to run out of your street, down the main road, up the hill for two streets, beg permission at the locked railyard iron gates: “Please, mister, can I get my ball?” Then run all the way back to where the waiting cricketers hung over your own street wall, by those bombed buildings, shouting and cheering. Search for the ball among shiny rails, shunting rails, rusty rails, dandelions, thistles, and nettles. Avoid the occasional shunting engine, with the driver leaning out of the cab and screaming warnings as the steam hisses out from the engine, brakes squeal, and wheels slowly clack on crossing tracks. Find the ball. Try unsuccessfully to throw it back over the wall. Try again. No good. Wall too high. Carry ball back to iron gates. Thank gateman politely so you can come back next time. Return ball to game. Game continues, rain or shine. Unless it’s real rain. The pissing down type. If so, run for nearest house and shelter by fire in kitchen.
Other rules. Six and out over the railway wall. Two runs and fetch the ball yourself if you hit it into the bomb buildings at square leg, next to that railway wall. No fielders there. Too many loose bricks and too much scattered debris. Fragile walls still wobble or crumble warning you of cellars that might open up. Low walls that might collapse. You score four and out if you hit the ball into neighbor’s front yard. Some neighbors are nice and don’t mind. But watch out for the old witch whose fenced off garden is guarded by a gate. If you hit her window, even with a tennis ball, she’ll be out quick as a flash, and steal your ball or stick a knitting needle in it, old spoil-sport. Otherwise, it’s single batsmen. You run your runs and walk back from singles. One hand one bounce, and tip and run once you’ve scored twenty. Much more difficult to stay in and everyone gets a chance to bat. One hand off the wall if you don’t clear it for a six and out. Dog stops play if your fox terrier gets the ball and runs around in circles, chasing its tail, with the ball getting soggy in his mouth. Damned dog. Damn difficult to catch. Lost ball stops match if dog runs back into the house and gives the ball you stole in secret back to your gran who was saving it for tennis.
Cricket, in those days, was civilization. It had survived the bombing raids that missed the railway yards and bombed the bomb buildings. It had survived the machine-gun fire from the fighter-bombers that had strafed the street leaving bullet-holes, still unrepaired, in walls and shattering now-mended windows. It gave us a sense of rule and law, for the rules were strict and nobody broke them and stealing runs, touch and go, in tip and run was a skill and never a crime.
Cricket: a small, bright window on the back-street where I lived, a window filled with happiness and light, even when it’s over the wall and six and out, or the dog runs away with the tennis ball, or the ball vanishes down a mysterious rabbit-hole in the bomb buildings and slides down to someone’s ruined cellar.
Game’s over. The real Test Match is on, England versus Australia, though we live in Wales. The one primitive, tiny black-and-white tv screen in the street lights up with flickering figures and we sit around on the floor watching real men playing the real game on a sunny field in another world, the world, the world of black and white that many of us, us backstreet children from a ruined neighborhood, will never be allowed to know or see.