I made a pre-Christmas trip to the supermarket today picking up the usual Christmas treats. All was going well until I got to the sweet’s aisle. There in front of me, both looking amazing, were the Mars and Cadburys Selection Boxes. Both were appealing, both had their positives and their negatives, both had excellent qualities but both had areas that needed improving. I could only go for one so I picked Cadburys and went on my way. 1st world problems I hear you say. More like 1st team problems I thought to myself, reminded of the numerous selection meetings I attended over the years. If this were the 4th XI, my basket wouldn’t be big enough to carry the selection box I picked, I probably couldn’t afford it, one of them would be on the shelf above where I could reach, their boxes would be damaged, my favourite bar would be missing and there would be no replacement available, and on getting it to the counter the barcode wouldn’t scan and I’d be told to find a less inviting alternative.

I first captained a side in 2001, the 3rd XI in Middle A, approximately Leinster Division 5 in today's currency. I was in my early 20’s, but with little alternatives I landed the job uncontested (as is normally the case in cricket down the leagues) at the clubs AGM in 2000. We were a decent side on paper, based on the first 33 names in the clubs starring list, but were probably a league too high. This proved to be the case, when at the end of the season we were unluckily relegated finishing 2nd last with 5 wins. I’d go on to captain numerous other sides at various levels below that over the years, some quite successfully, others not so. Each season was different. Sometimes we were a strong side, sometimes weak. Sometimes we would be in contention, sometimes closer to the bottom. Sometimes we’d win a trophy, most of the time our season would be over by June. But one thing remained consistent throughout thanks to being a lower league captain, the idea of selection was generally an ideal, not a reality.

Ideally a cricket side is selected on ability, the best XI you can muster take the field. There can be slight variations on what the best side is, based on the weather and how the pitch might play. There also needs to be a balance struck as to how many batters, spin bowlers and pace bowlers one needs on any given day, as well as a mix of youth and experience. You’ve got to pick a wicket keeper obviously, and if at all possible, you’ve at least one all-rounder in there to help you out if one of your bowlers or batters are on an off day. Simple really you would think, but nothing is that simple down the teams. Below is what a 4th XI skipper may face, based on past experiences.

Selection really starts for a lower-level captain during the winter. This is the time to tap up your mates, ensure they are going to play at least one more season and preferably just for you. This is vital as this will be the core of your team and can be done successfully over a Christmas pint or two, when they are in a good mood and even those that don’t like playing forget how much they hated cricket the previous season. Next, you’ve to talk to those that played last year at the level you’re captaining to ensure they are around. Then it’s time to get on to a few guns you played youth cricket with that have long since retired, try persuade them to come out of retirement, assuring them, while probably lying, that all their mates from back then are playing. And last but not least you check if there’s any kids coming up, or older heads coming down that will be available to you that year. Once you’ve ticked all these boxes, you’re in contention for sure in January to win some silverware.

You can replace the names, the nationalities and the circumstances but this is the norm for February. A new lad called Sachin, from India starts in the office. He talks a great game. He’s played for Rajasthan Railways Under 14’s, once getting out Virat Kohli in a league game, and scoring a ton against Jasprit Bumrah in another, you’re informed. You sign him up. The following weekend you hear an Aussie accent in the pub. It’s Macca from Cape Jaffa. He tells you how he plays in the United Churches League of South Australia and he’s mad for a game. You sign him up too. Macca vaguely knows Brad from playing footy back home. He’s living in Dublin too it seems and is keen. You sign him up also. You’re optimistic for the year ahead now, enthusiastic, you’re going to win the league now you believe.

Then March arrives. Pre-season nets start. Brad rocks up. He’s a gun. You’re not going to see him as he’s a 1s player. Macca turns up, he bowls off the wrong foot and is a dreadful bat. Sachin turns up, he’s a number 8 that bowls average off spin. The opening bowler that took 20 wickets last year rocks up, he’s 3 stone heavier, as is the lad who ran marathons the previous season. A couple of the guns you’d talked into playing again in January are nowhere to be seen. You’re back to being in contention for promotion only.

It’s April now. The 1st starring list is due. 3 lads that played 1sts last year haven’t shown up at all, one has moved to Ballyjamesduff, one has changed club, and one is simply not answering anyones calls. The knock-on effect of this is 3 lads need to be moved up the teams. Aussie Brad fills one of the holes, you lose the number 3 from last year and you drop the lad up the teams that thinks he’s good, is keen, but is utterly useless. You lose one of your mates up the teams, as you’re told you have to give Sebastian, a talented 16-year-old that played higher last year, a bat and a bowl. You’ve no choice but to follow orders, the committee has spoken. What looked good on paper is now in a mid-table side at best.

May comes quickly, your first game approaches, only 6 of your best XI have appeared at nets. You meet with your selection committee on Tuesday night. You’ve your side down on paper. It’s decent. The 1st team captain announces his side. You scratch the talented 15-year-old off your team as he’s been picked as a fielder in their friendly. The 2nd team captain picks his team. Selects none of your side. Dodged a bullet there. 3rd team. Doh. That’s 3 gone. Your page that had 11 names on it is down to 7, and that’s before a phone call is made. You read out your 7, and you’re informed X is not playing before the Leaving Cert and Y is in Ibiza. You’re down to 5. What’s worse is the 3rds captain has taken 2 of your drivers, and you’re over in Fingal on the Saturday. Time to make some phone calls and see whose still outside at nets. You are relegation fodder now, especially if this continues for the season.

Saturday comes. You’ve managed to get 11 out after 47 phone calls and 2 more of your lads being picked for the 3rds, including Macca, as the 3rds captain thinks he is good due to the fact he is an Aussie. You have 4 cars and enough people to cover the umpiring. You’ve just about enough bowling though you need to get lucky with the 10 overs you have to find. You've got at least 4 to go to the pub with after the game. You’ve remembered the keepers gear, scorebook and ball. You’ve succeeded. You’re exhausted before the game starts. Your team is picked entirely on who is available, not who was selected and is as balanced as you can possibly make it. You’ve had 6 texts that morning asking is the game still on as there is due to be 4 millimetres of rain at 4 o’clock. And you’ve had to replace one lad that cried off at 9 a.m. You’re just hoping they are as bad as you. Your XI inevitably looks like this or a variation of same:

  1. Has opened since you can remember. Is about 50 but has looked about 50 for the last 20 years. All the opposition know him. Never makes massive runs, but you can rely on him to bat 20 overs, and make 270 runs in the season. Bucket hands and stands at slip even when they are 200/3. Only bowls to end a game quickly to get to the bar. Is willing to umpire for the last 20 overs and drives a car. Loves batting first so he can enjoy his tea. 1st name on the team sheet every week.
  2. The young gun, Sebastian, you were made pick by the selection committee. Looks good. Never scores runs. Always gets an amazing ball in his opinion. Has no respect for Number 1. Makes one 70, and 110 runs all season. Bowls terrible leg spin. Wears a hair band. Saves 20 runs a game in the field. Claims he doesn’t know how to umpire or do the book.
  3. Your one batsman. Far too good for this level. Only playing because he is your mate. Has no interest in the game anymore. Turns up late and half cut most of the time and is first in the bar afterwards. If he gets to 15, he makes 80 plus. 350 runs a season. Bowls darts nobody can score off. Catches everything.
  4. Fancies himself as a bat but is pretty useless. Bats 4 as he will stop playing if you drop him down any lower and you don’t have the numbers to lose him. Gets new gear every season. Drops most things but insists on keeping when your keeper is missing. Never buys a round.
  5. If 1 and 3 fail he is your last hope to bat the overs/get to 100. Terribly ugly to watch but grinds out 30s. Keeps wicket, only because he can’t field, catching most edges, particularly the hard ones, while dropping 2 regulation balls an over
  6. Despite thinking he’s Viv Richards he bats like Courtney Walsh. Scores approximately 11 every innings thanks to 2 lusty blows and an edge to third man. Comes off once a season. Bowls long hops he claims to be off spin. Drops more than he catches.
  7. Insists on Number 7 as he is a bat who doesn’t want to bat, but wants enough time to bat if he has to. Claims he hates being stranded but loves the amount of not outs he gets in a season which gives him an average of 27 with his 54 runs. Can’t bowl. Enjoys beers.
  8. The captain. Drives a car, umpires and/or does the book. Attends every club event. Better bat then number 8, but doesn’t want to annoy any of those above him in the order. Can bowl but always under bowls himself so as not to annoy any of the others who bowl.
  9. 19 years of age. Excellent bowler that fancies himself as a batsman. Always talks about stopping bowling to concentrate on his batting. Can’t bat. Umpires reluctantly. Cycles to the game. Never hangs around after as he is too cool for the rest of the team.
  10. Dad of Number 2. Is always available. Only picked as he has a car and is willing to do a stint of umpiring though he doesn’t know the rules. Loses the 20 in the field his son saves.
  11. English gentleman. About 45. Loves bowling seam up. Knows exactly where he is putting it. Has no interest in batting and insists on batting number eleven no matter who is playing. Enjoys bowling first so he can enjoy tea. Opens umpiring and gives at least one LBW a game. Drives a car and will bypass the opponent's ground on his way to your ground to pick people up to bring them to the game.

The opposition rock up. 2 are struggling with a hangover, they’ve 4 kids playing, their captain informs you some lad called Jonno is still an hour away. You ask him how he is. He says “Bloody awful mate, 36 phone calls to get this motley crew out and we only have 10 after a cry off this morning.” It’s going to be a close one. And it is. You win by 3 runs. Everybody is super excited, back in love with the game. You ask in the dressing room whose around next week, thinking the positive vibes will ensure you’ve almost a side for next week already and hoping to keep a winning team together. 6 yeses, your opener being the keenest despite getting 0 today, 2 maybes as they could be golfing, 1 is playing GAA, 1 is off to his mother in laws for brunch, something he insists he can’t get out of, and 1 is down the country. So much for that. It will take a few more wins, and a sniff of silverware to get these boys keen. Back to the drawing board. That’s cricket for you down the leagues. It’s not Mars or Cadburys. It’s a bit of Mars, a bit of Cadburys and a lot of whatever you can find to fill the gaps.