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A short story by A. A. Milne

On The Bat's Back

Title:     On The Bat's Back
Author: A. A. Milne [More Titles by Milne]

With the idea of brightening cricket, my friend Twyford has given me a new bat. I have always felt that, in my own case, it was the inadequacy of the weapon rather than of the man behind it which accounted for a certain monotony of low-scoring; with this new bat I hope to prove the correctness of my theory.

My old bat has always been a trier, but of late it has been manifestly past its work. Again and again its drive over long-off's head has failed to carry the bunker at mid-off. More than once it has proved itself an inch too narrow to ensure that cut-past-third-man-to-the-boundary which is considered one of the most graceful strokes in my repertoire. Worst of all, I have found it at moments of crisis (such as the beginning of the first over) utterly inadequate to deal with the ball which keeps low. When bowled by such a ball--and I may say that I am never bowled by any other--I look reproachfully at the bottom of my bat as I walk back to the pavilion. "Surely," I say to it, "you were much longer than this when we started out?"

Perhaps it was not magnanimous always to put the blame on my partner for our accidents together. It would have been more chivalrous to have shielded him. "No, no," I should have said to my companions as they received me with sympathetic murmurs of "Bad luck,"--"no, no, you mustn't think that. It was my own fault. Don't reproach the bat." It would have been well to have spoken thus; and indeed, when I had had time to collect myself, I did so speak. But out on the field, in the first shame of defeat, I had to let the truth come out. That one reproachful glance at my bat I could not hide.

But there was one habit of my bat's--a weakness of old age, I admit, but not the less annoying--about which it was my duty to let all the world know. One's grandfather may have a passion for the gum on the back of postage-stamps, and one hushes it up; but if he be deaf the visitor must be warned. My bat had a certain looseness in the shoulder, so that, at any quick movement of it, it clicked. If I struck the ball well and truly in the direction of point this defect did not matter; but if the ball went past me into the hands of the wicket-keeper, an unobservant bowler would frequently say, "How's that?" And an ill-informed umpire would reply, "Out." It was my duty before the game began to take the visiting umpire on one side and give him a practical demonstration of the click ...

But these are troubles of the past. I have my new bat now, and I can see that cricket will become a different game for me. My practice of this morning has convinced me of this. It was not one of your stupid practices at the net, with two burly professionals bumping down balls at your body and telling you to "Come out to them, Sir." It was a quiet practice in my rooms after breakfast, with no moving object to distract my attention and spoil my stroke. The bat comes up well. It is light, and yet there is plenty of wood in it. Its drives along the carpet were excellent; its cuts and leg glides all that could be wished. I was a little disappointed with its half-arm hook, which dislodged a teacup and gave what would have been an easy catch to mid-on standing close in by the sofa; but I am convinced that a little oil will soon put that right.

And yet there seemed to be something lacking in it. After trying every stroke with it; after tucking it under my arm and walking back to the bathroom, touching my cap at the pianola on the way; after experiments with it in all positions, I still felt that there was something wanting to make it the perfect bat. So I put it in a cab and went round with it to Henry. Henry has brightened first-class cricket for some years now.

"Tell me, Henry," I said, "what's wrong with this bat?"

"It seems all right," he said, after waving it about. "Rather a good one."

I laid it down on the floor and looked at it. Then I turned it on its face and looked at it. And then I knew.

"It wants a little silver shield on the back," I said. "That's it."

"Why, is it a presentation bat?" asked Henry.

"In a sense, yes. It was presented to me by Twyford."

"What for?"

"Really," I said modestly, "I hardly like---- Why do people give one things? Affection, Henry; pity, generosity--er----"

"Are you going to put that on the shield? 'Presented out of sheer pity to----'"

"Don't be silly; of course not. I shall put 'Presented in commemoration of his masterly double century against the Authentics,' or something like that. You've no idea how it impresses the wicket-keeper. He really sees quite a lot of the back of one's bat."

"Your inscription," said Henry, as he filled his pipe slowly, "will be either a lie or extremely unimpressive."

"It will be neither, Henry. If I put my own name on it, and talked about _my_ double century, of course it would be a lie; but the inscription will be to Stanley Bolland."

"Who's he?"

"I don't know. I've just made him up. But now, supposing my little shield says, 'Stanley Bolland. H.P.C.C.--Season 1912. Batting average 116.34.'--how is that a lie?"

"What does H.P.C.C. stand for?"

"I don't know. It doesn't mean anything really. I'll leave out 'Batting average' if it makes it more truthful. 'Stanley Bolland. H.P.C.C., 1912. 116.34.' It's really just a little note I make on the back of my bat to remind me of something or other I've forgotten. 116.34 is probably Bolland's telephone number or the size of something I want at his shop. But by a pure accident the wicket-keeper thinks it means something else; and he tells the bowler at the end of the over that it's that chap Bolland who had an average of over a century for the Hampstead Polytechnic last year. Of course that makes the bowler nervous and he starts sending down long-hops."

"I see," said Henry; and he began to read his paper again.

So to-morrow I take my bat to the silversmith's and have a little engraved shield fastened on. Of course, with a really trustworthy weapon I am certain to collect pots of runs this season. But there is no harm in making things as easy as possible for oneself.

And yet there is this to be thought of. Even the very best bat in the world may fail to score, and it might so happen that I was dismissed (owing to some defect in the pitch) before my silver shield had time to impress the opposition. Or again, I might (through ill-health) perform so badly that quite a wrong impression of the standard of the Hampstead Polytechnic would be created, an impression which I should hate to be the innocent means of circulating.

So on second thoughts I lean to a different inscription. On the back of my bat a plain silver shield will say quite simply this:--


Thus I shall have two strings to my bow. And if, by any unhappy chance, I fail as a cricketer, the wicket-keeper will say to his comrades as I walk sadly to the pavilion, "A poor bat perhaps, but a brave--a very brave fellow."

It becomes us all to make at least one effort to brighten cricket.

[The end]
A. A. Milne's short story: On The Bat's Back