We have lived in a phildickian world of ever-increasing data gathering and distribution for so long now that the advent of Google Glass, with its capacity to upload everything one sees to the net, doesn’t feel like much of a threat / opportunity.
One backwater of the Information Age in which everything is recorded, is the “Before They Were Famous” TV clip show, in which the stars of today are shown in grainy VHS recordings of school concerts or in poorly lit local TV magazine shows from all of about ten years ago. Invariably (and understandably) these adolescents, as yet untouched by fame and the confidence it brings, are gawky, self-effacing and, well, ordinary – and therein lies these shows’ appeal. But not everyone is as terrifyingly bad as Ronan Keating and co on first going public.
David Gower was an unknown just out of his teens when I first saw him playing for Leicestershire at Liverpool in 1977. I’ve no recollection of his batting (48 opening) – I’m sure I was too busy ogling Colin Croft’s extraordinary leap to the edge of the bowling crease and brutal lifter into the right-handers’ ribs (and his enormous feet) – but I’ve a clear picture in my mind of Gower’s fielding in the covers. Unburdened by the injuries that slowed him in later years and still magnificently blond and curled of hair, he seemed to glide over Aigburth’s baize outfield, eschewing mere mortals’ need to plant foot on turf. There were no sliding stops in those days (unless you were watching Derek Randall) but the one-handed pick-up and throw on the run was still in vogue and Gower could execute that most thrilling of moves with balance entirely intact for all the contortions required. And it was that balance that set the man apart – as it so often does.
Twelve years later and I’m under the old scoreboard in The Oval’s Peter May Stand with a samosa in one hand and a beer in the other to watch Surrey take on Essex in a Sunday League game. Mark “Afghan” Waugh was still “The Forgotten Waugh” after half a dozen or so undistinguished ODIs and, at 24, was learning his trade in rather less pressured environments than his twin brother. He didn’t bowl, but, as with David Gower (with whom he shares a tremendous record as a batsman and yet the nagging sense that he under-achieved, so vast was the talent) ME Waugh’s fielding caught the eye. Of course there was the balance – later so familiar to us even in his batting stance – but there was also the speed over the ground and in the return to the keeper, stinging the gloves from anywhere on The Oval’s full outfield. Cricketers, with a handful of exceptions most of whom were West Indian, were not obvious athletes twenty-odd years ago – but here was one, a gazelle amongst donkeys.
Not every player whose first sighting is sufficient to drop the jaw goes on to garner over 100 Tests caps like Gower and Waugh. Ambati Rayudu played one of the greatest one day innings I’ve ever seen to get India U-19s over the line chasing a mammoth target of 304 and so defeat England’s youngsters back in 2002. Rayudu was still 16, stick-thin and small of stature, a schoolboy in an end of term match against the teachers. But he hit the ball all round Taunton, in the air and on the ground, and paced his innings as if channeling Michael Bevan. It was simply impossible to play better and I think I may have stood up in my living room and applauded him from the field. He’s gone on to have a solid career in domestic cricket, but never represented India at senior level – sometimes, it just breaks that way.
With the sun rising in Spring skies, the English county cricket season is but a month away. One of its enduring pleasures is the chance to spot a future star Before They Are Famous. Who will be the Joe Root of 2013?
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