Every year at Midsummer, Clare Hall, the very smallest of the Cambridge colleges, plays out the ritual of a Grand Challenge Cricket Match between the College President’s XI (XII, XIII or so) and the students.
Since everyone who works or studies in the college is invited to play and there is a huge annual turnover of graduate students and visiting scholars, there are as many newcomers to the game playing as experienced players. The following is an account by Nadiah Thanthawi-Jauhari of being one such newcomer last year.
On the day of The Match I walked over to the ground with Ben (the baggy-capped captain from Australia), Dylan, Pascale and Martin [three newcomers to the game from, Canada, Switzerland and Germany]. I was very, very nervous. While the others went into the pavilion with their gear, I quietly got my prayer-mat out of my bag, put it down under a little tree on the boundary and prayed for a miracle.
Not for the first time, I was wondering whether I really ought to be there. I had felt exactly the same arriving in Cambridge and even more so during my first cricket practice at Fenners. Fenners!
Coming to Cambridge to be a student again after being a lecturer in Malaysia for 12 years was an unexpected dream come true. I wanted to immerse myself in all aspects of English life. What could be more quintessentially English than cricket? I signed up.
When I first turned up at Fenners, although I wasn’t the only woman trying out, it was so obviously a men’s game. The bat was heavy, the ball was hard. When I posted a picture on the family WhatsApp group of me with a cricket bat in my hand, it was met with a deafening silence. What did a mum with two children think she was doing? Was this a mid-life crisis?
Fortunately, Adam my husband, is – unheard of in our culture – incredibly supportive. For my part, I wanted my children to learn that being a woman, a Malay Muslim who wears a headscarf, should not stop you from doing whatever you reasonably want. That includes playing cricket.
The outside nets we moved out to in the spring were the best of times: the smell of cut grass, the lively faces of my team-mates as they gathered and talked and practiced until it grew late. Some came out for an evening or two, then vanished. Maybe they had exams, maybe they were worried about what people would say or think of them if they didn’t perform well?
I was sorry when Lydia, my friend from Austria with whom I practised catching, eventually dropped out, leaving me as the only woman. We both had broken finger-nails but, being a bit older with major surgery behind me, I could look at the cricket ball as I look at life in general. You have to face up to it, I told myself, you have to learn how to handle it.
I missed the matches we played among ourselves in May: I had to look after my in-laws who were visiting. As the day of The Match approached, all my club-mates urged me to take part, especially a tall player who looked like Edward Cullen in Twilight. I thought how nice it would be to stand in the field with my shades and hat and run about occasionally.
This fantasy quickly faded as the day of playing dawned. No wonder as the hour approached I was down on the boundary praying quite literally for a miracle. Not to let my team-mates down. Not to be out first ball.
Given that Nadiah attributes no agency to herself for what happened during the Match, perhaps one of the umpires may be permitted to take up the story and provide the mundane details?
When it was her turn to go in to bat – at #9 - for the Student team, Nadiah danced down the wicket first ball and scored a run. Trying this trick a second time, she missed and a kindly wicket-keeper appraised her of the need to secure her ground. Too excited at scoring a run to hear or heed him, Nadiah was stumped shortly afterwards. No matter, her prayer had been answered.
To her surprise, when the Students took the field, Nadiah, was asked to be one of the opening bowlers. Eureka, third ball she spread-eagled the stumps of her opponent, the Senior Tutor, Holly, herself a brave soul trying to upgrade from rounders. Nadiah, her over bowled, made her way to cover point, thanking God for giving her all she could have wished for on the cricket field.
All? Two or three overs later, the President’s star #3, Ram, was going great guns and had already dispatched several boundaries. Another should have been on its way when he miscued an off-drive. The ball spun high and towards Nadiah. She held her nerve and – to everyone’s amazement, including her own – the catch. The ritual of cricket is not to be compared to religion but, in all reverence, this was the third miracle.
Let Nadiah resume.
My joy at holding the catch was short-lived. One of the reasons I had chosen cricket over other sports was because I wouldn’t have to make body contact with other players, contact with men outside the immediate family circle being absolutely taboo in our culture. With the catch, everyone was rushing over to hug me or give me high fives.
Fortunately, seeing the look of alarm in my eyes as well, perhaps, as my hijab, they pulled up sharply and, forming an arc around me, celebrated the catch.
That was not all. In the evening following The Match there is a cricket dinner in the college. My family came with me. An award is made to the Man of the Match and several of my team-mates, Veer, Nick, Pradip, Unni, had been outstanding.
Ben, in his speech, made that point before announcing the award, a miniature bat (in place of the customary bottle of fine wine). He said that a change was called for since the award would be made not to the Man but to the Player of the Match. Never had I expected this to be me. But it was.
Everything that happened to me at cricket that day was by the Grace of God. I no longer feel quite the impostor I did being at Cambridge.
Nadiah Thanthawi-Jauhari, a senior lecturer at the Universiti Teknologi MARA in Malaysia, is currently studying for a PhD at Cambridge.