Chez moves on from his usual essay, and writes a book about Quokkas 2015 Tour
It’s a good job the Hotel de la Bradley serves not only wonderful food, but great drink too when I come to stay on the eve of a cricket tour, especially the latter, in large doses. I’m not sure I could cope with some of the `incredibly deep’ conversations that take place between father-son without having consumed copious amounts of red wine beforehand. I’ll give you a sample of this year’s pre-tour discussion.
The art of good conversation
“Villa are going down, they haven’t signed anyone.” “Well I’m not so sure about that. They’ve added pace to the side.” “Maybe, but name one Villa summer transfer signing then Zoolander?” “Er, well, they signed that fast fella on the wing, haven’t they?” “Yes, what’s his name?” “Erm, well, he’s a fast young guy, plays out wide” “You mean Traoré?” “No, I don’t think so, he’s a fast fella, plays out wide, out on the wing.” “You mean Traoré?” “No Robin, I’m talking about a quick winger.” “Oh yes, I know who you mean, that will be Traoré…” “Sigh, no Robin he’s fast and a winger….” and so it goes on well into the early hours of the morning.
Thankfully the logistical manager has again provided us with lunchtime flights, which allows me time to sober up from all the wine I’ve had to drink, but sadly it also provides us with enough time to resume the fast Aston Villa winger conversation whilst partaking in a beer or two at our favourite airport.
It’s here in Luton that I discover that my 12 months of Plan-F preparation are totally wasted because Fudger has pulled out with a suspected broken eyelash. Zoolander swallows Skip’s ‘he needs to make up with the girlfriend because of infidelity with another man’ explanation and spreads the word to the rest of the touring party, all of which already know about the broken eyelash.
We depart on time having `upgraded’ from EasilylateJet to WizzAir. However, these guys take economy class flying to a new level, with a deep vein thrombosis inducing 21 cm seat pitch that renders pretty much anyone over 5ft 10 from getting in or out of their seat. Binman absolutely loved them. Ronnie did too, but more for their selection of refreshments. At this point I instantly regret my earlier suggestion that `very young children shouldn’t be allowed to fly’ as instant Karma has me sat directly in front of two, three month old babies that start crying as soon as we take off. Safely airborne and shoehorned into our seats we get Quokkas top trumps underway. Sadly I’m still represented by a photo of Mantis’ groin.
The flight is uneventful, although the plane was “going too fast on landing” accordingly to the completely unqualified pilot Zoolander. An ever increasing taxi price into downtown Sofia provides some of the East-Midlanders with something to moan about, and they continue this discussion pretty much right through until we board the plane back to Luton. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if it had cost more than 3 Euros each.
Cold war hotel
We are staying at the `not quite as good as it was’ Hotel Rila, opened in 1962 for the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party and subsequently under constant monitoring by the Safety & Security Directorate. If you like the smell of stale cigarettes, running water that tastes of cigarettes and décor discoloured by cigarettes, then this is the hotel for you. The place certainly has character. It also 24 hour techno music from the club below it, beds that could double for KGB torture contraptions and large biting bugs to share those beds with. I wonder if previous guests Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova enjoyed their stay? I imagine there wasn’t a Sheraton just round the corner back then as an alternative, which is where half the Quokkas checked into the following day. I took my chances with the two way mirrors and bed bugs.
We meet up with Bowtie Killer at the McMurphy’s bar. Conan arrived early, something about being concerned that Ronnie might drink all the beer before he got there. We are informed that pints cost three Bulgarian Levs and that Conan’s cheeky grin had earned him an extra half from Nicola the waitress. We didn’t have the heart to tell him that that was the happy hour offer. Instead we join him and focus on watching England take the convicts to the cleaners, yet again.
Keep the noise down chaps
The beers start to go down well, but our merriment at England closing in on ODI victory was momentarily curtailed by a menopausal local who informed us that she “wished to enjoy her last five minutes in the establishment by drinking her coffee in relative peace.” Chastised like schoolboys for being too loud in an Irish sports bar, during happy hour. You couldn’t make it up. Eighteen more beers please barman!
England’s win and Maxwell’s wonder catch put us all in the mood for our own forthcoming international ODI [I’m still waiting for the actual international caps to be presented to me by the way] but as everyone knows, hydration is critical in top level sports, so as has become traditional we search for a rock music bar to gain that much needed lubrication.
The Rock’n’Rolla Bar turned back the clock to 2001, with vodka red bulls and Jägermeister’s aplenty, all served to us by the lovely Nicola whilst we laze in large brown velvet armchairs. Having discovered it was an hour wait for our turn on the karaoke we moved on to another bar whereupon The Egg dropped a tray of spirits. That was something we saw a lot of on this tour.
Despite having our confidence boosted by Tequilas recycled from said tray, in the absence of the Verger there seemed little interest in a mano-e-mano. With my top trumps drinking prowess still stuck on 5, I certainly wasn’t going to chuck my hat into the ring. However, I did take Binman’s bet that he’d score more runs than me over the course of the tour. Just how much is 50 Lev worth exactly? Whatever, it’s easy money.
As we moved into the witching hour the tour party became split depending on which vice they preferred. Those that did head back to the hotel probably wished they hadn’t bothered. A lack of air conditioning (requiring open windows) and thunderous house music from outside meant that sleep was nigh on impossible. Those that had regarded sleeping as cheating, made it back just in time in time to see the sun rise, taking in a breakfast of champions, within the hotel casino.
A hastily rearranged start time enabled us to arrive fashionably, rather than ludicrously late.
The pitch was located deep within a very large sports complex being utilised predominantly by a large number of discuss throwers, sex unknown. We eventually found the cricket pitch hiding behind a one-hole golf course and in the world’s shortest driving range. A muddy outfield brought back memories of Corfu, but helmets rather than snorkels would have been more useful for those fielding in the ever so slightly uneven outfield. The track itself was of the concrete variety, covered in an old Subbuteo felt pitch and was perfectly positioned to avoid the pylons and overhead power lines that cut through the ground.
As is customary we fielded first, starting brightly, but as hinted earlier, catches were dropped at regular intervals. Binman made sure everyone knew who it was that was dropping the next one by shouting his name loudly just before spilling it. Mind you he should have been applauded for his efforts compared to others. One skied chance saw Evil Dave run almost 40 yards before making a valiant, but ultimately failed diving effort, only to find that it had landed less than five feet from where Ronnie had been standing all along. I myself joined in on the act, albeit dropping a particularly difficult chance that came directly out of the sun [Ed: what a load of bollocks. A tame hit saw Chez hightail in the opposite direction with his arms waving in the air and screaming like a girl] which despite my Maxwell-sharp-like-thinking couldn’t be taken over my shoulder at the mere guess of where it might land.
Our ranks were supplemented by locals Ivo and Evgeny, who do pretty much all of our fielding. Out in the deep Evgeny, resplendent in a wonderfully ill-fitting new Quokkas jersey struggled a little to prevent boundaries as he kept slipping on his own shirt. We do eventually take some wickets, I’ve no idea how, but with my good-self brought on for a few overs of pie throwing, the scoreboard tickled over nicely.
The home team eventually make 152 from their 20 overs which, with an incredibly unrewardingly slow outfield felt like quite a tough ask. We start badly, struggle in the middle and the less said about the end the better. Actually, whilst Ronnie was in and finding the boundary on a regular basis we looked likely victors, but once his wicket fell the run rate came to a standstill. One noticeable dismissal was The Yak, first ball without facing, but I can’t tell you who scored what, as I was firmly concentrating on Binman’s tally. Thankfully it was paltry, but still saw him taking a three run lead in our bet. We eventually fall short of our target by 20 and go one down in the series.
The lunch break is short, but it does offer just enough time to discuss the virtues of a high healed white and patent silver trainer shoe sandal. With lunch quickly over we are straight into the second match, this time against a Bulgarian Youth XI. Sadly we are another man short as the heat, combined with a bad pint (or 14) gets to The Yak, who had turned a wonderful shade of green.
We bat first and get off to a very slow start, failing to trouble the scorers in the first four overs. We lose wickets before Binman and I steady the ship, but with our strike-rates lower than the late Runako Morton, there is a concern we might not have enough runs. The Quokkas are rescued as we both lose our wickets in quick succession, but not before I demonstrate what Plan-F might have looked like: “yes, no, yes, wait, maybe, no, yes…noooooooo, shit, sorry Egg.” Thankfully Snoop puts our slow progress to shame, effortlessly striking the ball over the boundary, which enables us to set our hosts a reasonable 148 to win. Most importantly I have opened a 15 run lead over Binman.
As we take to the field again the Quokkas mean business. We grab wickets at regular intervals and can even offer one young opponent a second chance. Strangely Skip decides to run him out the very next ball, albeit in brilliant style. That’ll learn him Skip. The young Bulgarian players are confident, but seem intent on running each other out at every opportunity. It’s time for some coaching from two of our leading running between the wickets experts – Zoolander and Skip. With lots of arm movements from our coaches, and plenty of nodding and smiling from the pupils, the quality of coaching is immediately apparent as after the very next ball both batsman find themselves standing next to each other at one end.
Having got into the tail, victory is within our grasp, but we still have to get their best batsman out, who by now is well set. With two overs remaining they need 21 to win, which they look likely to get. The Egg has other ideas, for once taking the pace off the ball to great effect, and with support from Evil Dave in the last over sees us home. The Quokkas win by 12 runs and we are all square after two games.
We immediately make a start on rehydrating with some magically appearing Zagorka beers. On the return to the taxi rank The Yak shows us how he earned his name and is laughed at by a small child.
Anyone want chips?
In the evening we dine with a selection of expats including Mat, who has got a pass out from his wife despite him recovering from a hernia operation. The 180 page menu before us would have Gordon Ramsey fuming, but we are starving, so waste no time and order several meat platters before tucking into Priest’s wife party, a rabbit with expired shooting license and several other wonderfully name dishes.
Our hostess Nicola serves us homemade red wine, which washes down a superb selection of cakes, before we all try to justify why we shouldn’t get fines. Our debating skills are as suspect as our cricketing skills, so the bottle of Bulgarian brandy, aka Rakia, is polished off in record time. Binman tries to pass off his water as Rakia, probably to ensure he is fresh enough to claw the runs back tomorrow, but Skip’s having none of it. That’s another fine.
Just as desert is being polished off Zoolander orders himself five portions of chips and makes a reasonable effort of finishing all of them. The remaining portion follows him around for the rest of the tour.
The Rakia is supplemented by a beer or two at a fashionable bar before we ignore our waitress Nicola’s advice not to go to the Biad Disco Bar. Doorman tax paid, we find that the venue is packed to the brim full of cigar smoking gangsters who have come to see Bulgarian’s third most famous pop-folk singer. Emilia delights the enthusiastic crowd with quite literally hundreds of songs that sound exactly the same taken from anyone of her eight studio albums. Everyone except us knows every single lyric. We don’t stick out…much.
We lose half the Quokkas as they seek selfies with Emilia. Skip then makes a Bulgarian faux pass by buying Coca-Cola, which sees a local grab the bottle and smash it on the bar in front of him. I befriend the Bulgarian Tony Soprano (this really is him in the photo) who has a bottle of Jameson on the go. His bodyguard looks uneasy as I offer them a drink, but it breaks the ice and I’m free to select whatever mixer I like. Our attempts to place our glasses on a half empty table has another Emilia enthusiast keen to impart some old fashion Bulgarian hospitality, so we take a safe haven next to a six foot eight bouncer on the toilet paper covered dance floor…don’t ask. Egg later describes the Biad Disco Bar as amongst the scariest places he’s ever been to and we did well to get out in one piece.
Match 3 – ODI
The next morning it’s hot, very hot. The mud in the outfield has now turned to dust and 60 long overs beckon. Skip decides we need to sweat off the hangovers, so we are into the field. Somehow Skip, fresh from his thirty three minutes sleep opens the bowling, with Evil Dave in fine support. With a quickening outfield, 200+ looks highly likely, but some tight bowling and absolutely outstanding catching helps to keep us in the match. The break through comes from Skip and then the Yak grabs a wicket with Skip taking a beauty at slip. The quality of batsman doesn’t seem to falter, but just as they get themselves in, they are trapped like WizzAir passengers. We get into their tail and eventually bowl them out leaving ourselves needing 175 runs to win.
Binman, desperate to overhaul my 15 run lead, sneakily volunteers to open and quickly takes the lead with some lusty blows to the boundary. To my horror he starts playing straight to the good ones and slaps the rest to the boundary. The scoreboard ticks over nicely and I start to regret fighting Skip and The Egg for 9, 10, Jack.
At the other end Snoops batting form deserts him, Conan smashes the ball to the boundary, before getting out and we get a chance to see a double teapot, albeit for just a few overs. Eventually the tiring Binman plays round a straight one, but not before taking a 19-run lead and a sizeable chunk out of the overall total. There may not be enough runs left for me.
By now Ronnie has entered the fray. I particularly like his energy saving running between wickets. His technique is to `run’ (it’s a walk really, with a bounce in it, like a dressage pony rider) the first half incredibly slowly so as to make absolutely sure that there is a need to complete the second half. But who needs to run singles when you are striking the ball to all parts of the ground? We are almost home, Ronnie only slowing down to tease the Quokkas crowd before the shout of “beer getting warm” sees him smash the winning runs. Binman is especially pleased as I am padded up, but not needed. 50 Levs is worth how much?
Fancy a few beers at Sainsbury’s
We dine at the Saffron Indian Restaurant owned by our opponent’s skipper, Prakesh, and now proud owner of a too small Quokkas baggy cap. Afterwards we consider joining the hundreds of locals drinking beer immediately outside the local supermarket, but sadly we can’t see a space free amongst the shopping trollies. So, we head back to the bright lights of central Sofia for cocktails served by the delightful Nicola. Here we discuss Quokkas Ashes tactics, debate Estonia or Romania for a future tour and then out of the blue discover from Snoop that the absolute undisputed best supermarket curry is a Waitrose fish number. As fascinating as that conversation might have become, Skip spots the danger and suggests such talk is left to when Snoop and Zoolander are alone. Thank god, because I haven’t drunk enough Hotel de la Bradley red wine to endure that level of conversation.
As always many thanks to Skip and everyone else (you know who you are) that helped to organise yet another fantastic tour. See you at the Annual Awards Dinner, where I look forward to supermarket curry reviews and details of where I can buy high healed trainer shoe sandals. I’m guessing my almost great catch should see me take the Bestest and Fairest award, so make sure that you attend.