Consider this delicious parallel: It's weekend softball, a Sepulveda Conference title game, and Acme Plumbing & Heating (Proudly Serving the Valley Since February) fears naught from Leekfree Radiators. Then Leekfree announces a substitute leadoff batter. Pete Rose.
Or this: You've set up a $100 sucker bet. Men's doubles at the Tennis Center, you and your dentist (who just happens to be an ex-collegiate player) against good ol' Doug and Earl. Then Earl shows up without Doug and you recognize his replacement. John McEnroe.
So it was at Woodley Park on Sunday when Ian Botham flew in from London to play cricket and Lord High Executioner for the King's Head XI.
Ian who? Playing what? For Whose XI? What, indeed, is an XI?
Ian Botham. He is considered, by peers, public and publications wherever cricket is known, to be England's most prodigious all-round player since W. G. Grace (1848-1915), the bearded doctor who fathered the modern game. A precise comparison would be that Botham, today, hits like Babe Ruth, pitches like Cy Young and fields like Brooks Robinson. "A dazzling cricket career," decided one British magazine. "An instinctive and exultant winner of cricket matches."
Botham, 30, also lives like Errol Flynn (a public fistfight and one fine for possession of marijuana), a towering profile that has earned him antipathy and adulation depending on one's view of personal freedoms, men with highlighted blond hair, and cardinal British traditions.
Language of Its Own
Cricket. That's one of those cardinal British traditions. There will be no further explanation of this national game nor labored fun made of its maiden overs, popping creases, stumps and hooks to square leg. It's been done. As with the Cockney accent, English summers and Marmite, the composition defies explanation and analysis.
The essential truth is that cricket is a bat-and-ball game and the winner is the team that scores the most runs and that's no different than baseball.
King's Head XI . A two-part answer here. An XI is an 11 and that's how many players there are in a cricket team. As a cricket team always has 11 players and nowhere in the history of the game will you find mention of a Puddleford IX, it seems a little redundant to add a designation after the name. But that's another one of cricket's little mysteries.
The King's Head is a pub-restaurant-embassy-hiring hall beside the seaside in Santa Monica. With the possible exception of Joan Collins, it's the most visible monument to the 350,000-person British presence in Southern California.
A dozen years ago, Phil Elwell, the Birmingham-born owner and landlord of the King's Head, decided to satisfy a local hunger (while increasing a local thirst, no fool he) by forming his own cricket team.
A chef. Three or four British journalists. A caterer. A doctor. Two photographers. A real estate man. A hardware salesman. Publican Elwell, of course. Somewhat older lads of distant and different summers but all ready to risk hernias and fingertips for Queen and egos as the King's Head XI. They stood (slouched, actually) ready to play any team with a penchant for casual sports and drinking Watneys ale alfresco and in broad daylight.
And it followed--in secondary pursuit of a Commonwealth custom established when English cricketers played against Australia's best in 1877--that Elwell's team should be reformed once a year into a local English team to challenge a local Australian team.
Competing for the Ashes
In the real thing, England and Australia compete for the Ashes, a small wooden urn, a symbolic trophy containing the ashes of a piece of equipment. (OK, one stump.) It was ceremonially burned to mark a particularly disastrous defeat of England by Australia (ergo the funeral of English cricket and cremation of the corpse) in 1882.
In matches over here, however, even old equipment is at a premium. It most certainly isn't available as trophy kindling. "So as a patriotic gesture we burned one of Tom Jones' old shirts and put it in a biscuit barrel," Elwell explained. "It was a polyester shirt so the ashes are more of a plastic blob, really."
Nobody seems to knows the win-loss record in 11 years of local collisions between the England and Australia cricket XIs. "Some to them, some to us," is Elwell's diplomatic recall.
But competition certainly is intense. Emotions commonly follow the mood and results of the matches in England and Australia. Rivalries are further fomented over darts each Friday night at the King's Head.
And this summer, when England humiliated Australia in a series played in England and a man called Ian Botham was the largest single factor in that defeat . . . well, Dave Heaney of Van Nuys, skipper of the local Australians, served notice.
No quarter. No prisoners. Australia's national honor lost in England, vowed Heaney, would be salvaged on the playing fields of Woodley Park and the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area. And no more shrimps on the barbie until vengeance was theirs.