The James Hardcastle Challenge

This story is a little different and will take some explaining for my non-British reading public. I say this because this ghost story revolves around the sport of cricket which is a very English sport although they do play it around the world in countries like Australia, Pakistan, India and various others. But my American audience for instance might find the story puzzling without some introductory notes about cricket.

There are certain similarities between cricket and baseball. The pitcher in baseball is replaced by the bowler in cricket. The bowler is twenty two yards away from the batsman when he bowls. There are two ends the bowler bowls from with a batsman at each end. A bowler bowls six balls from one end (called an over) and then another bowler takes over and bowls 6 balls from the other end. The catcher in baseball is replaced by a wicket-keeper in cricket. Whereas the catcher has one glove, the wicket-keeper has a pair of gloves. There is a strip of ground called the cricket pitch which the bowler bowls onto. At each end of the strip there are wickets which are three stumps sticking in the ground, the same distance apart from each other and the bails on top. The batsman has to defend these wickets. There are fielders throughout the ground helping stop the batsmen scoring runs. If a ball is hit high in the air and goes over a rope which runs around the outer fringe of the ground the score is six runs. If it goes along the ground and hits the rope it is four.

Well, I hope that description helps for the Americans and others around the world visiting this site to whom cricket is a new game. Who knows? It might get some of you interested in the sport. It is one of my favourite games to follow and has been from a young age. Well, that’s enough of the preamble: here comes the story! Here we go, then, with ‘The James Hardcastle Challenge.’ I hope you enjoy it:

As I marched onto the cricket ground with bat in hand, I drank in the beautiful sunshine which had descended on this quaint scene. The location for this encounter suited the occasion well. We were deep in the Kent countryside, playing on one of those peaceful village greens which have always held a kind of fascination for me. I now hold a rather different view, as I am sure the following story will make plain.

Having taken my guard at the crease, I awaited the opening delivery of the match. The bowler in question proved to be of a nifty pace. He roared in as if his very life depended on it. I was relieved to feel a breeze blow passed by face, as the ball thudded into the wicket-keeper’s gloves. Whew! I grimaced. That was some ball to receive first up.

The over continued in much the same vein. Somehow I managed to survive the experience with both my body and wicket still intact. I acknowledged the bowler’s effort at the end of the over, but only received an aggressive grunt in return from the fiery fellow.

“That chap’s a bit fast, eh?” pointed out my batting partner with a smile, as we met for a mid-wicket conference.

“Gee, Tom!” I grimaced. “That must be the understatement to end them all.”

“Yep, and from the looks of things, his partner-in-crime looks as though he’s made of similar mettle. Let’s see what he can produce for us.”

“Right, mate: best of luck to you. Let’s try and get some runs on the board.”

As Tom then faced up to his first ball of the match, I took a look around the ground. It really was a picture. Beyond the boundary’s edge, there were benches dotted hither and thither. This was followed by a road with a collection of historical-looking buildings beyond it. To my left as I looked, there was a church standing in stately posture hidden behind some trees and bushes.

I was hurtled out of my dreamy state as the sharp crack of bat on ball heralded a crunching shot from my fellow batsman. Tom knew instantly there were a couple of runs in the shot and made his corresponding call.

As I slowed down on completing the second run, I felt a chill come over me. Looking skywards, I was dismayed to see dark clouds hovering overhead. They had come from the direction of the ancient houses at the far end of the ground.

Dismay soon turned to alarm when I glanced round and noticed a strange-looking fellow sitting on his haunches but a few yards from me, wearing some pretty outdated looking cricket whites. Indeed, he took on the appearance of a long-ago cricketer. I was reminded of those old matchbox cards popular in my father’s youth.

I blinked my eyes somewhat at the sight of this curious figure and glanced back at him, only to find nobody there. This was unfathomable. How could the chap have appeared from nowhere and then just vanished?

I had no further time for reflection, as Tom called me through for a quick single. As I faced up to the next delivery, I took another quick look round the ground, half expecting that blasted fielder to show up once again. Happily this didn’t happen. Something else did, though, and it made me even more uneasy than before, if that was possible.

“You’ll no get far battin’ the way you did in the last over, me lad. You must sharpen up or you’ll no last long!”

“Did you say that?” I asked of the wicket-keeper in trembling tones. “If so, I don’t think much of your tactics. If you want to unsettle me, let it be through your play, not through petty remarks.”

“Eh?” replied the ‘keeper with a look of bewilderment. “What are you going on about? I didn’t say anything to you. Hey! Are you ill or something? You’ve gone really pale.”

“No,” I insisted. “I’m okay. I just thought you’d spoken to me, that’s all. Let’s get on with the game.”

“Sure, mate: no problems.”

As the ‘keeper settled himself down into his crouching position behind the stumps, I returned my attention to the bowler who seemed rather put out by the delay. This was nothing compared to my feelings, however, which were ones of dread and trepidation.

I just couldn’t understand it. The person who had talked to me had done so from immediately behind my position at the batting crease. The only fielder it could have been was the wicket-keeper. There was nobody else within thirty feet of him. So, if he hadn’t spoken, then who had? This was indeed baffling.

As I played a forward defensive stroke to the next delivery, I half expected ironic applause to reach my ears, courtesy of the mysterious fielder. After all, he had taken severe issue with the quality of my batsmanship only moments before. But who, exactly, was he? And why had he chosen me as his target? These were tricky questions and I couldn’t for the life of me find any ready answers to them.

Then an additional thought came to my mind. Why had he spoken in that weird accent? He clearly wasn’t from around these parts, whoever he was. He sounded northern, like he came from Lancashire or maybe Yorkshire. But that couldn’t be. The opposing team was made up entirely of local lads. They had all been born within a thirty mile radius of the very cricket field we were playing on. So where in the hell did this northern character come from?

My innings came to an abrupt end while these disturbing questions were still playing merry havoc inside my mind. To tell you the truth, I was almost glad at my dismissal. Anything to release myself from the grip of my phantom tormentor.

It occurred in the following over. Tom was on strike and had hit a belter into the outfield. There were easily three runs in it, if we had maintained our usual good understanding when running between the wickets. Today was certainly not one of those days, thanks to the efforts of the mysterious fielder.

I had just put my bat down for the second run and was turning round to return up the pitch, when I came to a shuddering halt. For there standing plumb in front of the stumps facing me was the damned northerner again. He slowly materialized in front of my very eyes, moving from a wavery image to a solidified form in a matter of seconds. It took barely that time for the stumps to be shattered, and as I looked on still stupefied, the phantom fielder vanished with a smile on his face.

On the way back to the pavilion, I could only shake my head at Tom as if unable to come up with an excuse for my dilatory performance. How could I possibly tell him I had been run out after seeing a ghost on the field?

During the luncheon interval between innings, I found myself doing just that. As I did so, I expected Tom’s loud guffaws to explode around the room. To my great surprise, however, he was the epitome of understanding.

“Yes, mate,” he sighed. “It must have come as a great shock to you. God knows how I’d have reacted if I’d seen the fellow.”

“Eh?” I looked at him as if I couldn’t believe what he’d just said. “What are you saying?”

“Simply this: that the guy you saw is something of a legend in these parts. I was told the story this morning on the way here by that very same demon fast bowler who nearly took your head off.”

“Yes, charming bloke!”

“Oh, he’s okay once you get to know him. You just got off on the wrong foot, that’s all.”

“All right, I can accept that. But come on, Tom: don’t leave me on tenterhooks. Tell me about this mysterious cricketer.”

“Oh, there’s no mystery about him, at least not around here. You see he was a keen amateur cricketer in his day, who was really passionate about the game: some would say obsessed. Anyway, he lived in one of those old-fashioned houses which overlook the ground. He died…”

“He what?”

“Yes, it’s quite true. He’s a ghost, Colin: a phantom, a spirit or whatever other term you prefer. He passed away about 100 years ago.”

“Well, that would certainly explain his outdated cricket gear. I thought he looked like WG Grace. He had the beard, anyway!”

“Really? I bet that was a sight to behold. The thing about him is that when he died, he wanted his ashes spread over the outfield.”

“What a weird notion!”

“Yep,” smiled Tom. “But I did tell you he was obsessed about the game.”

“And I’m starting to believe you.”

“The legend which surrounds him is that once a year he comes out to play, so to speak. That’s to say on the anniversary of his death he materializes on the cricket field he loved so much.”

“But why did he only appear to me? Why not to everyone else as well?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I guess it must be one of his special quirks. You know: one’s intimate, the rest are a crowd! Something along those lines.”

“Yes, very droll. But there’s another thing. This chap spoke with a definite northern accent. It sounded Lancastrian or maybe…”

“Yorkshire? Yes, that’s quite true, Colin. How clever of you to spot that. His history is that he came down from the north when he was a young man and settled down here. The locals made him feel so welcome he stayed for the rest of his life. And a happy, peaceful existence it seems to have been.”

“I see. And now I’ve been struck by something else.”

“Oh yeah? And what might that be?”

“Well, this cricketer from another time: his name wouldn’t happen to have been James Hardcastle, would it?”

“Yes, indeedy! ‘The James Hardcastle Challenge’: it’s got quite a ring to it, wouldn’t you say? An excellent title for what should prove to be a gripping contest. Come on: drain that drink and let’s get back out onto the field and give good old James a match befitting his name.”

“You know what, Tom: I think that’s a smashing idea!”

Copyright © Mark Campbell 2022

Categories:My Ghost Stories

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