How many of us can identify the exact moment we were caught in crickets obsessive grip, never to be let go? I can. Watching Botham and Dilley hit out during the 1981 Headingly test, ensured the strange game granddad always had on TV, was now part of my life forever. Marcus Berkmann can pinpoint his moment of realisation too. Whilst on a boyhood holiday to Spain, he can remember reading the back page headlines from the British newspapers and being struck by just how bad it felt to be missing an important match of that summers test series. He refers to it as my first cricketing bereavement.
Cricket has been an integral part of Berkmanns life ever since. Leading him and a group of like-minded friends at university to form a travelling cricket club called The Captain Scott Invitation X1. The ups and downs of playing for the club were documented in Berkmanns first book, Rain Men, which was published in the mid-nineties, and described by the Daily Telegraph as crickets answer to Fever Pitch.
Ten years later, life and club have moved on. Berkmann, now in his mid-forties, is facing the knowledge that his peak sporting years have gone, not that a career batting average struggling to reach five indicates much of a peak. Muscles now stiffen at the sight of a pitch, injuries take longer to recover, and younger players are eyed suspiciously.
His club felt the effect of the passing years too. As it first split into separate teams along lines of ability and ambition, before finally Berkmann took the step of forming a new club, named after his first book, and containing those, who in the words of Howlin Wolf, are built for comfort not for speed.
Zimmer Men chronicles the misadventures of Berkmanns new club, and reveals the pains and pleasures of the cricketer growing old disgracefully. The themes will be familiar to everyone who has played at this level - somewhere between Pub 2nd XI & the current England ODI side as all aspects of the amateur game are lovingly covered. The mid winter compilation of the fixture list, where strong sides are avoided, teams easily beaten in the past hounded until they agree to play you again, and matches with new sides approached like a blind date. The difficulties of raising a full team, when players drop out at the last minute with increasingly unconvincing reasons, to be replaced by co-operative, if slightly bewildered girlfriends or children. Bad batting, bad bowling, bad fielding and bad tempers feature in every match. So by mid book Berkmann is in full Grumpy Old Men mode, laying into the new fads to have entered the club scene in the last decade, from sunglasses and baseball caps to the rise of the ill judged sledge.
Some of the chapters read a little like newspaper columns and the books organisation can feel cutnpaste at times rather than having a smooth narrative running its way through. If this were a scholarly study of W.G. Grace that would represent a problem, but somehow it feels a prefect match for the muddle through nature of club cricket. Humour, which is the strong point of the book, is also well pitched. Very few jokes miss the mark, and unlike so many cricket books, anecdotes ring true rather than appearing made to measure.
Verdict: Whilst Zimmer Men is at first glance about the life of a cricket club, its real subject matter is the nature of being a cricket obsessive. The language used at times ranges from mildly fruity to weve received a complaint from Lenny Bruce so a PG rating applies. But for everyone else, this is a warm, funny, gem of a book. Wholeheartedly recommended.
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