My earliest memory of cricket was my father’s disbelieving excitement as grainy black and white images flickered on a big, square television set and Lancashire (our team) got over the line in the 1971 Gillette Cup Semi-Final. Legend has it that the clock was showing quarter to nine that 28th July as David Hughes crashed ball after ball to the boundary. It was certainly pretty dark – as this clip shows (from 2.20 or so). The carnival atmosphere (typical of Old Trafford on a Gillette Cup occasion) was almost tangible – men standing, beers in one hand and fags in the other, looking on, as youngsters invade the sacred turf again and again. Nobody minded back then – in fact, everyone loved it.
I’d discovered that I could bowl tolerably well and that anyone in schoolboy cricket who could get the ball to the other end at any pace got a bit of respect too. So I was hooked on playing the game as well as watching it, turning out for my primary school and then year groups at secondary school, as well as playing in parks and bowling against an electricity sub-station as four of us played with a tennis ball in a church hall’s garden.
I continued to watch cricket on television whenever it was on (to my mother’s disapproval) and, aside from some great times watching Lancashire win the Gillette Cup with their mix of bits and pieces merchants, class acts and one towering genius (Clive Lloyd) whom my father revered in tones otherwise reserved for Muhammad Ali and Everton players of the 50s and 60s, my next memory is of the 1975 World Cup Final. That was another televised cricket event – a Watney’s Bitter Party Four for my dad (open both sides, so it flows properly into the glass) and a weak shandy for me, with the curtains closed all day for the final, lest the sun shine on the screen. That match has passed into folklore and, these days when my kids can see cricketers from all over the world on television on demand or via youtube, it’s hard to explain how chest-tighteningly exciting it was to see some familiar faces from county cricket (Greenidge, Kalli, Boyce, Julien, Roberts) mixed in with exotic newer ones (Fredericks, Richards) and the mythical Australians (both Chappells, Rod Marsh, Lillee and Thomson). And there, head and shoulders above them all, literally and metaphorically, was Big Clive, with his ton off 82 balls and 1-38 off his 12 overs, to say nothing off his panther-like fielding in the covers. “That’s our Clive,” my dad would say. “Wouldn’t swap him for Sobers”.
Later in 1975, my two brothers and I went to Old Trafford in one of my dad’s big old cars (a Cortina Mark I or Vauxhall Victor, I guess) and were in place five minutes after the gates opened to eat endless spam sandwiches watching Lancashire play Hampshire in the Gillette Cup (it was very much cricket’s FA Cup back then). Hampshire’s openers were none other than Gordon Greenidge and Barry Richards (who might well have opened for Earth vs Mars had Allen Stanford been around to finance the rockets) and they thrilled us with some outstanding strokeplay, before the gentle medium pace of Bob Ratcliffe and Barry Wood saw them off and Hampshire collapsed to 98 all out. Lanky went in to face the fearsome Andy Roberts, who dismissed both our Lloyds (Bumble and Big Clive), but another contrasting pair, Frank Hayes and Faroukh Engineer, guided Lancashire home and the match finished not in the gloaming of a Manchester evening, but in mid-afternoon sunshine. Just have a look at those bowling figures!
I was back watching the same two teams again a few days later, this time alone, as my 12 year-old self caught the 61 bus from Seaforth to Aigburth. I saw Barry Richards score a ton on Monday and Big Clive respond with a ton on Tuesday. Lancashire lost, but I had seen two glorious days of cricket and been that close – I mean that close – to Andy Roberts and Big Clive.
Cricket in 1976 was astonishing. There was Tony Greig with his infamous “Grovel” comment, setting up a Test series that didn’t need much setting up. We saw that interview on Sportsnight and my dad said that it wasn’t a smart thing to say, but that was all you could expect from a South African who shouldn’t be playing for England. He was definitely right on the first score and probably right on the second, at a time when the sporting boycott was making its mark.
With their captain doing them no favours, Brian Close and John Edrich were caught, like rabbits in headlights, by Andy Roberts and the new, God-like, figure of Michael Holding, whose majestic approach to the crease was, was… well no words can capture it – it’s one of sport’s greatest sights. We were watching that Saturday evening session and my dad wasn’t happy – “They may be great bowlers, but enough is enough,” was his verdict, along with a few jibes at Brian Close for being a bloody fool. Despite that criticism, he loved the West Indian quicks (“We can see what’s happening – not like Cowdrey and May padding up to the spinners all day”) and that love was inherited by me – as I try to explain in this analysis of my favourite sporting photograph.
On my 14th birthday in 1977, Liverpool won the European Cup for the first time, and I played my first match for the school’s open age cricket team at St Francis Xavier’s College in posh Woolton. I did well enough to play for the school for the next five years and I was soon spending weekends playing with the grown-ups at Hightown, meaning that I visited some beautiful old grounds, homes of the Liverpool Competition clubs. Once I got into the Seconds in 1979, I played on the main squares at Aigburth (using the same wicket Lancashire had used the previous weekend, I ran in tracking the marks left by Richard Hadlee, whose figures were better than mine), Southport, Neston, Oxton, Birkenhead Park and, memorably, at Bootle, where my father had watched cricket just after the war. He was proud of me that day, despite Ronnie Cockbain (patriarch of the batting Cockbains, the youngest of whom is playing for Gloucestershire) clattering me half way to Goodison Park. Ronnie had a fearsome reputation for sledging and he had a few words for me on the field – he had a few (of a different kind) in the pavilion afterwards, for which I was grateful. He played 32 years for Bootle did Ron Cockbain.
There were many highlights watching cricket live (Lance Cairns launching a huge six that landed a couple of rows in front of us in a lost cause at an Old Trafford ODI, Ken McEwan making a century before lunch for Essex at Southport, Big Clive (again) smashing the ball everywhere as a full house enjoyed the Bank Holiday for Charles and Di’s wedding, Ian Botham’s 118 in 1981 and 300 in a day for the much-loved Neil Fairbrother in Grahame Clinton’s match at The Oval, Imran Khan and Garth le Roux bowling for Sussex at Lord’s in 1982). Cricket on telly – as memories burnish it – was just as good (Botham’s 5-1 to beat the Aussies at Edgbaston, King Viv’s 189*, the Ball of the Century (in a pub), Lara’s 375 (in a pub), fighting off sleep to watch VVS Laxman’s extraordinary batting in Australia, McGrath’s awesome riposte at Lord’s in 2005, 2-3 at Adelaide).
After a break in playing cricket, when I spent my weekends in art galleries and art-house cinemas (with the sort of persons with whom one does that sort of thing), I started playing again in the 90s, having a whale of a time at Putney at a level that was the prefect balance of fun and seriousness. I also had Putney’s riverside pubs and restaurants at my disposal on summer Saturday evenings – which made up for the lack of galleries and cinemas. All good things must come to an end, and that very good thing stopped when parenthood made me put away childish things.
What I learned from all this cricket is incalculable. At 15, I took 8-34 for Hightown III’s on a Saturday and did not bowl for my Sunday club the next day, batting at 10 and fielding – humility’s value in a weekend. I enjoyed the wins and forgot the defeats by the time I’d stepped over the boundary rope. I felt the joy of making the ball do exactly as intended – not often, but it did happen – pitching off and taking the outside edge. I understood how crowds could be warm and funny and not the mobs dominating football matches, like that roused by Mark Anthony’s words in Caesar’s funeral. And, the greatest lesson of all: here was a game that would reward my attention, my thoughts, my love, not by revealing its secrets, but by leading me further into its recesses, its mysteries, its oft brutal oft wondrous loveliness. For that, and for everything above, I thank the greatest of games.
Part two: talking and writing, is available here.
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