Thursday, January 03, 2008

Cricket, drinking and bribery

On the subject of tedious, pub bore style reminiscing, there's even nudity in this one - and it's not hairy male Afrikaner nudity either. While I was in Zambia I managed to be almost the opposite of my previous African trip. At 18 on my Gap year I went off to Zimbabwe to teach in a rural mission school for about six months. I was based 70 km out of Mutare in an old Tribal Trust Land (ie: dusty and waterless) called Marange, briefly famous since when they discovered diamonds there (along with thieving Belgians, light-fingered arresting officers and so on). Now's not the time to go into it much, but I was basically what the locals called a TWOG - a Third World Groupie. I had the messy long hair, the copper bracelets, the jade Africa on a leather thong round my neck - I was basically a smelly backpacker with a modicum of local knowledge.

When, 5 years and a degree later I returned to Africa - this time as a research student - I decided that I'd had enough of the backpacker routine, and became an expat instead. I bought a car, went to the British High Commission for drinks and football and even joined a country club - so that I could play cricket. Lusaka South Country Club is (or was) predominantly a polo and polocrosse club. For those of you that don't know, polocrosse is basically lacrosse played on horseback - and is every bit as insanely dangerous as that sounds. It takes an unusual degree of sang-froid to field at long off - next to the polo field, and concentrate on a high catch when you can hear thundering hoof beats charging towards you. Pretty soon I put my hand up for the slip cordon.
The cricket itself was surprisingly good - given that Zambia aren't going to be challenging for a place in Test cricket any time soon. The team I was playing for was made up mostly of white Zambians, exiled Zimbabweans and a few miscellaneous odds and sods, like a Sri Lankan leg spinner, a couple of African kids from the local school (Baobab College - a far cry from Marange High School) and me, the English one. I was played as a middle order batsman and off-spinner, and found the latter considerably easier than the former. Give me a pitch that hasn't been rained on for three months any time - the ball went practically square. The batting was less easy - you don't get that smooth English grass for one thing, for another the ground had been laid out to the same scale as the MCG - meaning an 80 yard straight carry. I didn't have the oomph to clear the boundary.
But there is something very special about playing proper cricket in Africa. You have to start at 9.30 because it gets dark so early. Taking a slip catch at that time in the morning leaves the hands stinging like they've been bitten. Drinks breaks are frequent, but owing to the weather-beaten nature of our lot, it was considered pretty wet to go for anything other than a cold beer.


Drinks Break?

But if the cricket was hard, it was as nothing to the drinking afterwards. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of the opposition were Muslim Asian sides, who didn't even eat with us, let alone have a pint after the game. So we were compelled to hold ludicrous numbers of awards and forfeits after the game. 'Acting like Douglas Jardine' was one new award that season, and there was only ever one winner...

Unfortunately, public transport in Africa being what it is, I had to drive home after these sessions. There are no drink-driving laws in Zambia. On the back of whisky bottles it says 'We do not recommend the operation of heavy machinery after excessive consumption of alcohol'. I presume light machinery is fine. The beer, coupled of course with the light-fragmentation/head-out-of-window thing I mentioned earlier, led to some slightly hairy drives home, but I always managed it. This was largely because, the one time I nearly didn't get home (because I was at a party) it only took until 11pm for the hostess to take all her clothes off. If I was going to go to a car key party, I thought I'd better have slightly better keys... Oh, and the girlfriend thing as well of course. This meant that I was the man who 'made his excuses and left' in fine old News of the World style.

But drink driving was a way of life out there - two quick stories illustrate this, one involving me. After another cricket match (we won, I scored 80 odd - these things are important) we all went clubbing in Lusaka, which was almost exactly the same as going clubbing in, say, Oxford. I heard one of the guys shout over.

'Hey Pommie' which was, originally, my usual form of address, 'we're lining up shots - you want one?'

'No thanks mate,' I yelled back, 'just get me a beer, I'm driving.' It's moment like that you realise that you've acclimatised too well.

The other, rather more extreme one happened on my first weekend in Lusaka, at a party at the High Commission. A tall, bald bloke called Kevs was holding forth about the braai he'd been to the day before.

'We got there for 11 man, and by 3 all the fuckin' beer had gone, so we had to go onto shorts. By 10 all there was left was tequila - I tell you man, I was so pissed that when I drove home I had to get someone to drive behind me to make sure I didn't go in a ditch!' I never got that bad - but give me a year...

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