Social media provides a candid window into the lives of others and when a photo of me appeared on Facebook gleefully claiming my 20 Euro winnings from Binman (having `thrashed’ him in the tour runs challenge), my friends suggested that I’d never looked happier. Of course none of these people were present at Anfield to see me pogoing rows of seats in elebration of Shane Long’s last minute winner to take us to Wembley, but they did have a point, I did look like I was having the time of my life. Putting to one side the obvious joy of taking money from Binman, I wondered what is it was about the Quokkas cricket tour that gives me so much enjoyment? I mean when it comes down to it, all we are talking about is a few days off work, a little sunshine on your back and perhaps a few too many beers after a game of cricket. That’s not exactly the strapline for the next Qantas holiday advertisement, so perhaps this is something a pessimistic, fun hoover ought to carefully consider whilst writing this tour report.
As you might expect of someone as cynical as me, a joyous experience is not always easy to come by, so to have the opportunity to tour a city of the very name, was one that was too good to be missed. Bucharest was founded by a flute playing shepherd called Buchar (which literally means `Joy’) who supposedly dazzled local traders with his flute and wine to such a degree that they named the city after him. I have to say that I can’t recall the last time I was so impressed by a Shepard’s flute playing that I felt the need to name a city after him, so I am inclined to think that it perhaps had a little more to do with the quality of that local wine he sold them. I said I was cynical, but then again, who am I to question a 2500 year old Romanian legend?
On arriving at Skip’s house the night before the tour I found I wasn’t the only one tempted by legendary Romanian red wine, with Zoolander, fresh from his third round-the-world caravan tour packing a `sports bag’ with his usual array of coach driver outfits. An evening of bolognaise, rioja and Premier League 7th place contenders (aka Everton FC) on the box, presented the perfect opportunity to put Skip Sr’s Eastern European football knowledge under the microscope. His expertise was brought immediately into serious doubt when he provided the names of Sodov, Bogov and Jerkov as three examples of non-premiership players from the region. He quickly returned to firmer ground, recounting tales of 1970s and 80s cricket, but the lack of a “true story” endorsement at the end of all but one, left Skip and I wondering the validity of the others.
Our amusement at his expense was short lived when Mrs Skip pointed out that cricket bags weren’t on the list of sports equipment accepted by Wizz Air. This would mean the `baggage charge loop hole’ that Skip had discovered might actually turn out to cost each Quokka a further £110, rather than save them £10. A search for jumping poles, antlers and oversize trophies was fruitless, so we decided to do what any other self-respecting Quokka would do, open another bottle of rioja and `wing it’.
A very pleasant early afternoon flight time provided just enough time for me to erode any confidence I had in my batting as Skip’s 7 year old continually bowled me out in his back garden. Avoiding the usual red eye flight also gave us time to get our money’s worth from the Luton Airport Executive Lounge, which unsurprisingly had a tankard with Ronnie’s initials engraved on it hanging behind the bar…only kidding…it was a shot glass. I say Ronnie, but with Skip having failed to input his name correctly when booking his flight, not once, but twice, despite having his passport in front of him on both occasions, Ronnie became `Roland’ for the trip. True story that.
Fortunately, Roland wasn’t charged extra for the error and Wizzair’s generosity extended to recognising cricket as sport, thereby enabling Skip’s `hold luggage gamble’ to come off. We were therefore off to a flying start, but as we made our way to the departure gate we discovered that the plane was late – something about `wrong type of sunshine’ – which encouraged Skip and Roland to return to the lounge for one last lemonade…silver linings and all that. “Hurry up” Whatsapp messages accompanied by photos of the inside of a Wizz Air plane grabbed from Google were enough to convince the pair to sprint back to the gate only to find that those that had remained in the queue were still in that queue and now were experiencing a little of the joy that I mentioned earlier.
Apart from Roland’s nominated drinking partner on the flight, everyone arrived safe and sound and excited to sample the delights of Bucharest, but before we got a good look at the Paris of the East we took it upon ourselves to meet a Romanian ecclesiastical celebrity to discuss sex in the church after he had concluded his appearance on the evening news.
[Ed: a truly remarkable spot that Locky].
An evening of garlic flavoured meat a truly terrible attempt at traditional dancing (did anyone know if it was English or Romanian?) proceeded a packed nightclub serving up Drambuie and the very best of 1990s pop music. Needless to say the locals were impressed by our enthusiasm on the dancefloor, but bemused by our ability (something that has become all too familiar on the field of play). With an international cricket game fast on the horizon we did what any Chris Gayle enthusiast would do and continued long into the night, favouring socialising with the locals and team bonding over any sort of professional match preparation.
Transylvania CC vs Quokkas CC
I find that those four hours of unconsciousness are just never quite enough, but suitably fed and watered by the club’s nutritionist, we travelled in high spirits to the village of Moara Vlasiei for the first game of the tour. Not exactly the first place on the map you’d look for an international cricket ground, but sandwiched between a prickled carp lake and the P?durea Surlari park is a brand spanking new pitch that is beautifully cut into the landscape and presenting a tremendous view of P?durea Brânzeasca park.
We are met by the all too familiar sight of incredibly keen cricketers doing extensive warm up routines. The smashing of balls towards the upper atmosphere certainly had me wondering if the team bonding exercise was the right way to go, but we’ve seen all this `professionalism’ before [Ed: and lost on numerous occasions], so now is not the time to worry. Losing your best batsman third ball perhaps might be though.
As Skip explain to his Dad over the course of the tea interval, what you want when you have travelled 1650 miles to represent your country is to get off to decent start, with your best batsman setting a platform from which the rest of the, ever so slightly hungover, batting order can work from. What you don’t want is your own umpire to trigger said batsman in the first over. No one was surprised to hear that Faggie felt he wasn’t out, but Skip’s suggestion to Zoolander that perhaps he could have been “a little less honest”, did place us at a slight moral disadvantage when we later came to question the sportsmanship of a non-walking opposing batsman.
Thankfully our concerns about the quality of the opposition were put at ease by Imran, who having been donated by our opponents provided us with a detailed description of his team mates: “Do you see that guy? He is very dangerous, very fast bowler, very accurate, very good, and that guy to the left of him? Very dangerous, very fast, very good bowler…oh and that player over there , very good, very fast, very accurate bowler…”
As is so often the case, we don’t need intervention from umpires or even opposing bowlers to get us out, we are more than capable of doing that ourselves. And this case was no different. First Imran raced so far down the wicket he was effectively `lobbed’ by the bowler, then I added `played on’ to my ways of getting out this season (Ed: just `timed out’ to complete the set now Chez). I don’t think I have the vocabulary necessary to describe the shots attempted by The Yak and Evil Dave that were their undoing, this before Binman presented me with a 12 run lead in our run scored challenge by offering a top-edged-duck.
Mr Shaker, strangely not one of the bowlers Imran felt we needed to worry about, somehow contrived to take five for 27 during this completely non-threatening spell. There was probably an important lesson for Quokkas to be learned here, but the only thing I could think of was that if you bowl long enough at the Quokkas you will eventually have figures better than Malcom Marshall.
Our innings was held together largely by extras and Skip, who played sensibly for his 31 not out. That said, the outstanding performer was undoubtedly The Egg, who, played with great assurance and confidence at number 11. A previously unseen straight bat and decent front foot defence helped to forge a last wicket partnership of 49 and ensure we didn’t totally embarrass ourselves. As Skip so beautifully put it, `it’s a very fine line between being good enough to play for the Quokkas and good enough to play for Yorkshire’, although I am not quite sure if that is a compliment or who to. 117 all out was however somewhat below the “250-300” Imran suggested “were essential” on a plastic pitch that offered little to the bowlers other than a little variation in bounce.
Fully aware that the Quokkas are an internationally franchised drinking team with a cricketing problem, the tea provided consisted purely of beer and pizza. Despite the local kids deciding to join us and play loud European folk pop techno through their phones, we took the opportunity to catch up on some sleep. Unfortunately a cricket got in the way and before you know it were out in the middle under a searing sun.
A suitably lubricated and fired up Roland raced in from the `prickled carp lake’ end. An equally motivated Faggie and the Tom the Yak supported him at t’other, but the faster they bowled, the faster the scoreboard ticked over. Despite Roland’s efforts to convince the batsman that they were actually really quite nervous, they didn’t look it and runs flowed freely, helped by some rather dubious fielding. A long night on the tiles, combined with a pre-tour drinking induced ailment were perhaps reasonable excuses, but Skip still remarked in amazement at how much Binman `had regressed since he last played 12 months ago’. Harsh perhaps, but strangely accurate as the ball seemed to whistle over, past and often straight through him. He wasn’t alone. Put a chocolate fireguard out in the field and it would have prevented more runs than I did.
We desperately needed wickets and thankfully Faggie obliged with one, but with runs at a premium and the game running away from us, Skip turned to spin, or should I say my slow bowling. Taking the pace off the ball immediately paid dividends though as their number three was caught by TD via a juggling catch straight out of the Michael Leask’s top drawer. Amazingly he replicated the feet exactly a couple of overs later, earning me a second wicket and TD the `Juggler’ moniker with accompanying circus tune soundtrack.
At the other end the Juggler grabbed two wickets for himself with some proper spin bowling. Just for a moment we were really in the game, but despite some ferocious appealing and international standard sledging, we just couldn’t make a further breakthrough, leaving us to rue our earlier poor batting display.
Returning to Bucharest we ate neck-sweat-coated-pork-string and drowned our sorrows to a 1980s soundtrack. MC Hammers’ `Can’t Catch This…Quokka time’ sliding comfortably into the Quokkas songbook. After a tour of a mini brewery and a formal dinner in dressed in new highly flammable Quokkas ties and joined by our excellent hosts, we continue the live music theme into the evening by watching an all-girl band covering pretty much everything in Skip’s record collection. There’s no accounting for taste, but we’ve avoided the folk pop techno for a second night running and that’s worth celebrating…and we did, right up to the point where we had to get up to play the second game of cricket.
Romania XI vs Quokkas XI
Thank god for Maccy D’s. Not for the food of course, it’s not fit for cattle or swine, but for the chance to stop and get out of the sauna, also known as the tour bus. Despite Skip and Faggy’s best attempts to lift an ever-so-jaded group of Quokkas by reworking Pharrel Williams’ `Because I’m happy’, what we really needed here was the transfer of matter from one point to another without traversing the physical space between them. Teleportation was just part of the tour bus conversation, which leapt from overpriced photos of pole vaulters to the mixed reaction to the Building of the Union of Romanian Architects. Just as we were pondering the odds of all four Australian fast bowlers being fit on any given day we arrive and Skip is adamant that won’t make the same mistake of setting a low target, so like mad dogs and Englishman he decided to field under the hottest of suns.
Showing he has learned absolutely nothing from the previous game Skip opened with pace at both ends, but it worked a treat with Tom the Yak and Evil Dave providing us with a tremendous spell of bowling and having our opponents in real trouble at 71 for five. Two overs from Skip undid all their hard work, but to be fair the 2016 International Cricketer of the Year (Mediterranean region) was now at the crease and as you’d expect he could bat a bit. Whether he was out first over caught behind we will never know (Skip: he was), but if he was nervous, as Roland suggested to him, repeatedly, it wasn’t for long, sweeping me effortlessly to the boundary.
Catches win matches, which is unfortunate as we seemed to have a phobia of intercepting and holding anything other than a pint glass. Just a small selection of those drops are recorded for prosperity here.
Evil looked to have dropped the Ashes when the International Playboy Cricketer of the year failed to smash another of my pies into the fishing lake. Fortunately, for the carp, he redeemed himself shortly after with an absolutely magnificent running, over the shoulder catch. I celebrated with much Buchar. With the International Bright Young Thing back in the hutch, we regained some control of the game. Wickets from The Egg and TD even gave Skip the opportunity to bring on a couple of the Romanian youngsters to bowl and was rewarded with wickets from both, which helped to restrict the Romania XI to 216 for 9.
A reversed batting order saw The Egg join Roland (who only had 30 minutes available in his busy schedule before needing to catch an early flight to Scotland…something about a family holiday he was supposed to be on) open the batting and we got off to a flying start with Roland smashing several balls to the boundary. His need to score quickly was his undoing though, caught trying to heave yet another length delivery into the pond. The Egg, Evil Dave, Imran II and Tom the Yak all followed him attempting to maintain the scoring rate. This brought Binman to the crease, and up until the point where he needed a blood transfusion (having hit the ball into his own face) he was looking like the cricketer of 12 months ago, emulating The Egg with a solid front foot defence, but adding his well-versed cow corner hoik into the mix.
When he reluctantly retired hurt, I used the opportunity to extend my lead in our bet, but more importantly Skip and I eyed the win. Despite me scratching around for 5 or 6 overs, we more than maintain the required rate. When Skip was out, Faggie took up the mantle, smashing a huge six, before the International Man of the year found a big old gate. Not too long after I fell on my sword, caught trying to hit over the top, but this just allowed TD to show some of his Guru-esque class with the bat before he was eventually out. With overs running out, the game beyond us and the youngsters brought on to bowl, Binman saw his opportunity and returned to the fray. Supported by Zoolander, who took the opportunity to show us all how it’s done, Binman rapidly closed in on my runs tally and by the last over just needed four more. After a couple of dots (nice one Zoolander) he regained the strike, but thankfully failed to get the ball off the square thereafter. I had won, but the Quokkas had lost.
Although defeated for a second time, it was an excellent display (catching apart) by the Quokkas and one that left everyone content with their efforts. We recovered from this festival of cricket by taking a trip to the Arena Na?ional? to watch Steau Bucharest take on Universitatea Craiova. This gave Zoolander the chance to introduce himself to random locals on the journey to the stadium and brush up on his Eastern European footballers. Amazingly we failed to identify anyone that would strengthen Birmingham City’s strike force, but we did unearth a women selling match tickets that were dispensed directly from her ample cleavage. Noroc!
Caption: It’s probably worth mentioning to Zoolander that stalking is now a crime
Those uninterested in cleavages spent the evening doubling taxi drivers annual wages and chewing their way through half a hundred weight of pork at the local beer keller. Each to their own. Once reunited we treated ourselves to Aperol Spritzs, Eastern European folk pop techno and magic shows until the early hours of the morning. Once we had extracted every last bit of joy from Bucharest, it was time to return home and with that another magnificent Quokkas tour was over.
So having recounted this year’s tour to the best of my memory, have I managed to establish what it is that makes it so special for me? Well, I think I might just have…it’s not just the adventure, the pretending you are still young, or the dressing room banter and great socialising that a team sport offers…it’s actually the hard graft a tour requires, the travelling, the late nights, the lack of sleep, fielding under a burning hot sun with a hangover, batting and bowling whilst dehydrated, giving your all for no other reason than that’s what sport is all about…before doing it all over again the very next day, only now it’s tougher. It might not sound like fun, and it probably isn’t always at the time, but there is something deeply pleasurable about burning the candle at both ends for a three or four days when you have thrown some competitive and entertaining cricket into the mix. I think that’s what makes the tour so great for me and I encourage you all to sample it next summer. Remember, like me, you are not getting any younger!
My thanks to Skip and everyone and anyone who helped make the tour happen. Fantastic job as always. I look forward to seeing you all at the Annual Dinner and hopefully in Hamburg next summer for some more joyous hard graft.