Wisden run a yearly writing competition with the best article being published in the Almanac. I entered the following article for the 2015 competition. I did not win. Rule number 1 of writing to winning the Wisden competition – don’t write about the same thing as Harry Pearson. However, every person who entered was given a credit. Whatever the future brings, I know my name is written in the book.
Most things with cricket peak early and decline; it is a game of new balls and long tails, a child’s game marketed to pensioners. Every so often though, like Mitchell Johnson, what has been around forever reveals itself as cutting edge. So it is for Owzthat, a pre-war era cricket game played with two distinctive barrel shaped dice. Do not be fooled by the retro packaging if you find the game in a high street book store, Owzthat has never been more contemporary.
In my family, Owzthat has passed down like an heirloom of the imagination. My dad taught me to play two innings matches, with compulsory declarations after 25 overs. When dad bought me a new set a few years ago, I was keen to share the game with my numerate, cricket loving son. Tests were too long and intense for him, but he embraced a shorter format. Like Tom Good in ‘The Good Life’, we took inspiration for our teams from an abundance of cultural references, kings and queens, prime ministers, poets and players, and created the Ten10 league.
Could the originators of Owzthat, shaving paint from pencils in 1930’s Britain, have imagined how closely their game would mirror the 21st century? The ‘reality ratio’ of Owzthat to first class cricket is approximately one dice over to seven actual ones. With Ten10 Owzthat and Twenty20, that ratio is reduced to 1:2 with a par score of around 160. The extremes of the IPL are congruent with match-winning innings in our league. Yusuf Pathan’s heroics are not dissimilar to the time last season when William IV dispatched Clement Attlee on route to a 78* from 23.
Owzthat even reflects modern cricket through the constant scourge of match-fixing. My dad could engineer the statistical improbability of a maiden by measuring dice rolls. I created Frankenstein batsmen who were half Gayle – half Boycott, hitting 5 sixes in an over and then stealing the strike with a single. My son refuses to give extra overs to wicket taking bowlers when he is cheering for the other side. Sometimes, he explains that the fielders are appealing too much as the dice flips to a 2.
While it converges on what is, Owzthat still allows you to picture what could be. Like long wave radio commentary and old scorecards, the two barrel dice trust you to add the colour. As they roll and she runs in to bowl, Margaret Thatcher’s eyes morph into Dale Steyn’s, seething with meritocratic fury. In our world, Wally Hammond plays the Dilscoop and the ball rises like a sea angler’s weight being tossed towards the deep beyond the boundary.
Nostalgia is a poor captain with no ideas when the shine rubs off, although an old ball may still reverse swing, or spin, or be hard to get away. Playing Owzthat may seem anachronistic, but we are investing with every roll. We are buying long on the love of the game. We are up early in pyjamas, keeping score with a phone app, cheating a bit, and getting closer to the real thing.