Fotherington-Tomas and the Ashes Affair
… Ice cream, leather on willow and a mysterious moving bush. There’s no game quite like cricket…
“Why are we here, FT?” asked Maxwell, giving his Mister Whippy a quick lick and leaving a fine trace of melted ice cream along the bottom of his freshly trimmed moustache.
“Well, from a biological perspective, it’s to ensure the widest possible spread of our genes, thus maximising the success of our line through the next generation. However, from a philosophical point of view, I always tend towards the teachings of Nietzsche, who said…” replied Fotherington-Tomas, his granite jaw making short work of the bubble gum treat nestling at the bottom of his Two Ball Screwball.
“No, I mean why are we here, at The Oval?” interrupted Maxwell, sweeping his hand in a wide arc, emphasising the huge stadium, packed to capacity with avid cricket fans on a rare and beautiful English summer’s day.
“Ah, I see what you mean,” said Fotherington-Tomas awkwardly, the splinters from the little plastic spoon that he’d mistaken for the second bubble gum in his ice-cream, making it difficult to talk as they scraped painfully down his throat. “Tip-off from MI5. Apparently, they’ve received information that Yorkshire based villain, Aldo-Passlington, is planning to steal The Ashes and from under the very nose of the Prince Regent too.”
“The Cad!” exclaimed Maxwell in disbelief.
“Indeed, which is why we’ve got to be extra vigilant and make sure that the nefarious, whippet loving ne’er-do-well doesn’t get the chance to bring shame on the Empire and on one of the greatest traditions in the noblest sporting game in the world,” said Fotherington-Tomas, his bushy eyebrows furrowing in anger at the thought of his beloved cricket being sullied by such a base deed.
“So, how are we going to apprehend Passlington? There are thousands of people here. He’s going to be almost impossible to spot. He is a master of disguise, as well you know. He could be dressed as anybody, even me, and you’d be hard pressed to know,” said Maxwell, scanning the Pavilion, as if half-expecting to spot the evil fiend right there and then.
“Well, I’ve been thinking about that,” replied Fotherington-Tomas, stroking his beard, which he’d been training into a fine-looking replica of that worn by his hero, W.G. Grace. “You’re going to provide close support to the Prince Regent, so that you can pounce on Passlington, should he try to snatch The Ashes during the presentation ceremony, while I shall maintain a lookout from the pitch itself,” he continued, a slightly smug tone entering his bull-like voice.
Maxwell looked sideways at his great friend and then slowly said: “And of course, it has always been one of your dreams to play for England during a Test Match, hasn’t it, FT?”
“Well, if one gets the chance during the course of one’s duty, then one would be a fool to refuse the honour,” answered Fotherington-Tomas with uncharacteristic embarrassment, doing his best to avoid Maxwell’s knowing stare.
“But how are we going to maintain communication over such a great distance, FT? What do you propose: semaphore, a series of bird calls, like we used that time in Marrakesh, or possibly Venezuelan throat singing? I’ve been practising, you know,” said Maxwell, allowing his windpipe to relax, in the hope of being allowed to give a short demonstration.
“No!” interjected Fotherington-Tomas, before Maxwell could begin warbling like a foetid leper. “Throat singing won’t carry far enough over the noise of the crowd. Bird calls are a possibility, but then I’d look like a bit of a buffoon if I go tweeting and cawing my way around the boundary. And the way that I swing a bat, semaphore would just be too confusing. No, I’m afraid we’ll have to rely on these new-fangled radio communication devices, which MI5 gave me,” he continued, handing Maxwell a tiny, flesh coloured earpiece and shoving its partner unceremoniously down his own vacuous lughole.
“Great idea, FT, I can hear you perfectly!” ejaculated Maxwell, as he inserted the earpiece into his own freshly plucked ear.
“Well that’s because you’re standing right next to me, you foolish young duffer! Honestly, sometimes I despair of you. I really do. Now, go and take your place, quickly. Play will be starting soon and I’ve still got to change into my cricket whites,” said Fotherington-Tomas, giving Maxwell a withering stare, as he turned on his heel and strode off towards the changing rooms.
“Right-O, FT,” replied a suitably chastened Maxwell, as he began shuffling his way past the gathering mass of spectators, towards the executive luxury of the Pavilion building.
The sun was blazing high in the clear blue sky, when England, having won the toss, began batting against the Australians. Malinga was up first, opening with a mighty six that sent the ball cannoning into the delighted audience, before being caught out by Ullabong, just three runs later. Dickwella was up next, working with Chameera, beginning a splendid batting partnership that saw almost a century being put on the massive digital scoreboard, before Loogaborooga’s long bowl-spin knocked the bails from the stumps and sent Dickwella off the pitch.
Throughout the excitement, Maxwell remained vigilant, taking up a position just behind and to the left of the Prince Regent, who was thoroughly enjoying himself, knocking the tops off glass after glass of iced sherbet with gay abandon and cheering just as loudly as the rest of the spectators, as England continued to pile pressure on their ancient rivals with a series of stunning fours from Udawatte. However, no matter how hard Maxwell strained his eyes, he could see nothing out of the ordinary. Everything was just as a well-run, top-level game of cricket should be. Sipping rather more reservedly on his own glass of sherbet, he continued to monitor both the match, which was indeed turning out to be a superb start to the Test and the surrounding landscape, wondering exactly when Aldo-Passlington would inadvertently reveal himself.
For his part, Fotherington-Tomas was sitting with the rest of the team, patiently waiting for his turn to bat. As a fine amateur spin bowler, he would rather have had England open by fielding so that he could have demoralised the Australians early on, bowling a few of them out before they had any chance to set up a decent lead. As it was, he was quietly impressed with the lead that England had made and was looking forward to doing his best to add to it when his turn came. Looking around at the other players, he was fairly certain that he’d be paired with either Weerakoddy or Munaweera, both of them formidable sportsmen in their own right. The only thing that he was worried about, apart from the threat of Passlington’s planned assault on The Ashes, was the fact that he’d chosen to play with his trusty ‘Zuru X-Shot bat’, which he’d got from Argos twenty years earlier and wear his antique Bexhill Cricket Club cap for protection. Looking at the Australian bowlers, especially Todger, who was hurling the ball as if it were a live hand grenade, he was slowly realising that the game had got a lot faster and a lot more dangerous than the last time he’d played at this level.
With the morning fast coming to an end, the umpire called a halt for lunch and the players, slicked with sweat from their exertions, proceeded into the welcome shelter of the rest area for a round of cucumber sandwiches and a refreshing glass or two of home-made lemonade, kindly provided by Fotherington-Tomas’ lovely wife, Sarah.
Back in the Pavilion, the Prince Regent was settling down to a fine repast of cold salmon mousse, French truffles and chocolate ice-cream, while Maxwell and the rest of the crowd were treated to highlights from previous Test matches, displayed on the side of the Goodyear blimp, floating languidly above the famous cricket ground. As the Prince and associated dignitaries noisily gorged themselves on the feast, Maxwell continued to watch the pitch, straining for any sign that something was amiss.
And then he spotted it. Right on the edge of the boundary line. A small bush, where a small bush had no right to be. Certainly not on the crisply mown baize of a cricket pitch, that was for sure. How he had missed it earlier was beyond him, but there it was, as large as life and twice as annoying. Maxwell stared at the bush, wishing that Fotherington-Tomas had given him X-ray glasses instead of the tiny earpiece that was starting to irritate his eardrum. Straining his eyes to the point where they began to water, he shot bolt upright as the bush suddenly gave a little shudder. Someone was in there and Maxwell was in no doubt that it was Aldo-Passlington.
What an amazing disguise, thought Maxwell admiringly. Passlington was known to be a master of altering his appearance, but up until now, he had tended towards impersonating little old ladies, Heads of State and Swedish poultry chefs, rather than topiary. As the bush gave another minute wobble, its man-handled branches trying to emulate the light summer breeze floating through the air around it, Maxwell remembered the earpiece and pressing his finger to his ear, made contact with Fotherington-Tomas.
“FT. Are you there? I think that I’ve found Passlington,” whispered Maxwell excitedly.
The sound of someone munching a cucumber sandwich and then swallowing it hastily erupted into his cerebellum, followed by Fotherington-Tomas’ rich bass tones. “I’m here, Maxwell. Now, where do you think Passlington is hiding?”
“Far end of the field, disguised as a small bush, FT. I’m sure that it’s him. What are we going to do? Do you want me to call security?” replied Maxwell, never tearing his hawk-like gaze away from the artificial shrub sitting, quivering gently, at the edge of the pitch.
“No, leave it to me. I’ve got a better idea. We’ll be back on in a minute. I’ll have a word with the captain and get the batting order changed,” said Fotherington-Tomas grimly, as the line between them went dead.
Maxwell absentmindedly scooped up a truffle from the table, earning himself an angry stare from the head of the Prince’s bodyguard and then wiped his waxed moustache with the back of his hand, as he waited for the Oval Bell to announce the start of the afternoon session.
As one, the two teams marched back onto the field and resumed their positions, eager to resume the encounter. Both were revitalised from Sarah’s cool lemonade and as Todger loosed the ball, it slammed past Chameera’s defences, coming to rest in the red-hot gloves of Nullonga’s trusty wicket-keeping hands.
As the roar of the crowd died down and Chameera began his despondent walk back to his team, Fotherington-Tomas took to the grass. Pulling his cap down low over his eyes, he strode up to the crease and took his position opposite Udawatte. With a curt nod towards his batting partner, he tapped his Zuru X-Shot on the ground a couple of times and waited for Todger to begin his run-up.
Fotherington-Tomas remained motionless as Todger thundered down the pitch, arm twisted around as if he was going to bowl a googly and strangely reminding him of the time that he’d once faced down a charging African bull elephant in Somalia. Then, with barely a sound, Todger released the ball. As it sliced through the air, Fotherington-Tomas realised that it was, in fact, just a normal leg-break and swung his bat around in a mighty arc, sending the ball right back over Todger’s glistening head, where it came to a rest just at the edge of the boundary.
The crowd went wild, as Fotherington-Tomas and Udawatte charged down the twenty-two-yard strip, twice and twice more, before coming to rest back where they had begun. Then it was all on.
Over the next hour and a half, Fotherington-Tomas played the game of his life, revelling in the crack of willow on leather, first equalling and then surpassing Dickwella’s performance, racking up his first century with ease and then starting on his second, all the time with one eye on the innocuous looking bush at the far end of the field.
With the sun scorching his eyes and his arms only just beginning to ache from the continual swinging of the bat, Fotherington-Tomas fixed Todger with a determined stare, as the exhausted outback bowler began once more to try and thwart the grizzly old bear of a man that had, so far, resisted everything he’d thrown at him. Floating almost gracefully down the turf, Todger released the ball in an unexpected flipper, which caused Fotherington-Tomas to bend forwards to meet it, scooping the wildly spinning orb way up into the air, where it clipped the side of the Goodyear blimp and bounced off it at high speed, landing in the small bush at the end of the pitch, where it made a very un-shrub-like thunk.
Fotherington-Tomas held his hands up to quell the cheering at such a magnificent shot and then walked over to the umpire, asking him if he would be prepared to suspend the match for a moment or two, while he investigated a serious crime in progress. The umpire, himself amazed at seeing such astounding cricket in play, agreed and with a bemused look on his face, followed Fotherington-Tomas, as he casually strode towards the boundary, seemingly to retrieve his lost ball.
When he got there, much to the continued amazement of both the crowd and umpire, he yanked the bush hard, pulling it up and over the limp form of Aldo-Passlington, who was sporting a nice, egg-sized lump on the crown of his otherwise baby-bald head.
“Arrest that man!” shouted Fotherington-Tomas, his foghorn voice echoing around The Oval. “This is Aldo-Passlington and I have it on good authority that he was going to steal The Ashes at the end of the match, from under the very nose of the Prince Regent himself!”
The crowd booed their disapproval of Passlington’s misdemeanour, as a squad of policemen, fronted by Inspector Cromwell, approached and clamped the limp body of Passlington in irons, before roughly dragging it off the pitch.
“To think that anyone would want to steal The Ashes and a Yorkshireman at that. It’s beyond me. It really is… Well done, FT. Once again, you’ve saved the nation and also put up a formidable score, which I think the Aussies will find hard to beat. In fact, I’d be surprised if it’s not still standing by the time that this yonder criminal gets out of prison, which will be a fair way in the future for such a heinous crime as this,” said Cromwell, tipping his hat towards Fotherington-Tomas in a mark of respect.
“Thank you, Cromwell, but the day’s not over yet. There’s still a few hours of light before sundown and the last time that I looked, I wasn’t out,” said Fotherington-Tomas, nodding to the umpire, who happily called for play to resume.
“What a man… what a man… what a mighty, mighty good man,” said Inspector Cromwell to himself, as he watched Fotherington-Tomas make his way back to the crease.
Three hours later, England declared for the day, leaving Fotherington-Tomas with a second century in his pocket and then some. After copious pats on the back from his ecstatic team mates and receiving the thanks of the Prince Regent in person, Fotherington-Tomas stepped out of the changing room shower, to find Maxwell waiting for him, the tell-tale traces of yet another ice-cream smearing the bottom fringe of his moustache.
“Well done, FT. What an amazing shot. I assume that you planned it?” said Maxwell admiringly.
“I did indeed, Maxwell. I’d been watching Passlington’s bush gradually make its way around The Oval and when the moment was right, I struck like a snake, using that airship as a deflector. But, if it hadn’t been for your eagle eyes in the first place, then I would never have spotted him. That bush was a fiendishly cunning disguise. His best yet, in fact. So, in no small way, today’s victory is really down to you, my friend,” said Fotherington-Tomas, making Maxwell blush fiercely in response.
“Talking of victory, you played magnificently, FT. I mean a double century and more to boot. It’s amazing. It really is,” replied Maxwell modestly.
“And it’s not over yet,” said Fotherington-Tomas, with a broad smile. “The captain was so impressed by my performance today, that he asked me to play the rest of the Test with them.”
“Really? A dream come true, eh, FT?” said Maxwell, with a happy grin plastered across his smooth visage.
“Something like that. But only if we win, of course. Now, come on, let’s go home and tell Sarah the good news!” roared Fotherington-Tomas, clapping Maxwell heartily on the shoulder and marching, as naked as a new-born, out of the changing room and into the warm evening beyond.
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