Until it ceased publication a couple of years ago I was a regular contributor to a magazine called Cricket Lore. Sometime in 2001 or 2002, the editor, Richard Hill, wrote to me and a number of the other writers to ask us to produce a piece of writing which summarized how we came to love cricket, to be called 'The Appeal'. In the autumn of 2002 - with Michael Vaughan's 197 at Trent Bridge, and the reception it received, still at the forefront of my mind - I wrote this.
For one reason or another, though, Richard never got round to publishing it, so it's appearing in print here for the first time. To me some of it now appears a bit dated, but it's generally a faithful reflection of what cricket means to me.
In adulthood, you somehow expect to recover from all this.
You assume that, as youthful zeal fades, the grim drudgery
of daily life will supersede all such nonsense. But it doesn’t
happen. Your obsession remains as vivid as ever. For once
cricket has claimed you, it never lets you go.
Marcus Berkmann, Rain Men - The Madness of Cricket
Berkmann was right. Cricket claimed me sometime in the early seventies, and I’ve never yet managed to kick the habit. Not that I’ve ever really tried.
I can’t really say how it all began. Like most addicts, I suspect, I simply can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in cricket. If I try a little harder I can recall going out into the back garden and attempting to bowl in the manner of Gary Sobers (using my left hand for added authenticity, which, for an overwhelmingly right-sided person, wasn’t easy) because my father and elder brother had told me that I had been watching (for this was 1973) the greatest player of them all. I can also remember getting up at strange hours of the night for the first (but hardly the last) time to listen to radio commentaries from Australia in the winter of ‘74-75 and Lillee and Thomson scampering runs in the Lord’s twilight as the first World Cup Final drew to a close. By the time the West Indian summer of 1976 began with us in our new home a few streets away, cricket had become an integral aspect of the fabric of my life. It’s difficult to pinpoint what it was that I liked about cricket then, but it seems logical that the things I like about cricket now are the same things that got me hooked on cricket then.
I love the physical beauty and vivid visual dynamics of the game. The balanced tempo of any good first-class match - the sense of rhythm, comprising history and mystery and latent expectation, which keeps you watching, ball after ball, session after session, day after day. Season after season.
As time moved on I started to play seriously, encouraged by my father, who’d seen Compton and Edrich batting together, and my brother, who once bowled a whole side out on his own, hitting the stumps on nine occasions. A bit of fine-tuning was provided by my friend Gary’s father, who’d played for the Club Cricket Conference and had been on the fringes of the Buckinghamshire side in the sixties. He knew what he was doing, even if I didn’t, and some of his guidance certainly rubbed off, though I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I joined Sunbury Cricket Club, on London’s south-western fringes, a club with an exceptional colts section which has since set Richard Johnson and David Nash on their way to the county game. These days, when I’m watching Johnson bowl at Taunton, my mind often drifts back to those days, as it always did with Graham Rose who was nearer me in age and once came to the club with a Middlesex junior side. Could I have done what they did? Well, no, actually. I was - and remain - a player whose enthusiasm and appetite for the game compensates for a moderate ration of ability. I played in the school team, which was quite successful for a while, and also made the district schools’ side. Some of my friends got into the county side as well but I was never that good. A few runs here, a wicket or two (or five) there, the odd catch. That was cricket for me as the seventies ended - minibus trips to away games all over south London and Surrey, roughly equal helpings of celebration and commiseration, a developing awareness of the game’s wider resonances. And, of course, I was still watching the game at the highest level. Between 1976 and 1981 I attended all the major limited-over finals at Lord’s, including the 1979 World Cup Final, and several Tests at both Lord’s and The Oval. These are some of the things which I saw during those years:
Thomson and Lillee in their pomp, 1975. The young Michael Holding turning within a few yards of the pavilion ropes at Lord’s in 1976 and embarking on the most beautiful and artistic bowling action I’d ever seen. Procter, Richards, Collis King and Gooch infusing Lord’s finals with their coruscating skills and dominant personalities. Gavaskar stroking the England bowling all over The Oval as I sat transfixed in front of the television one late summer day in 1979.
Of course, for an infatuated teenage cricket follower, 1981 was the season which topped the lot. I’m sure many new converts to cricket were won that summer and if I hadn’t already been hopelessly devoted to the game, 1981 would have confirmed the extent of my obsession. But I already knew what I liked about the game and, if I’d bothered to think too far into the future, I would have felt that my views weren’t going to change.
They did, though. I continued to play the game, but as adulthood approached I found that I wasn’t quite as successful as I used to be. I was playing with men rather than boys and I wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not. So, as the eighties wore on, I gradually played less and watched more. The Tests came thick and fast and I started to watch county cricket with seriousness and passion. In comparison with the long, barren period which was to follow, these were rich years. England maintained some of the veneer of success which had been established during the Brearley years, culminating in the dismantling of Australia at home in 1985, the year in which I did my A-levels and enjoyed a long summer off before going to university. University came and went, punctuated by days at the cricket, and, in 1990, I found myself in Brighton to see Middlesex claim the championship. I’d become fond of Gatting’s Middlesex side, but, within a few months, I was living in Devon. More than a decade on, I’m still here. These days I can usually be found in the Ian Botham Stand at Taunton, and occasionally at Tests at Lord’s, The Oval or Trent Bridge. Also, after several years of inactivity on the field, I began playing again in 1996. Village cricket in Devon is far from the cricket environment I grew up in and I haven’t achieved much but it’s a decision I’ve never regretted.
When you watch a huge amount of cricket it can all start to blend together and you can find yourself wondering what you’ve been left with. In my case it’s a kaleidoscope of random memories; unconnected but often conjoined by events and the passage of time. The young Steve Rhodes keeping to Richard Illingworth in the New Road shadows, 1988; Bob Woolmer and Keith Piper conferring in the nets at Coventry, 1992; Dave Richardson and Paul Adams driving England to distraction at Newlands, 1996; Shoaib Akhtar bowling to Sherwin Campbell at Bristol in the World Cup, 1999.
I instantly liked the look of Rhodes and thought he’d be the England wicket-keeper for years. I got that one wrong, but years later, when I finally saw England play abroad, he was wearing the gloves. When England crumbled in the shadow of Table Mountain, Woolmer was in charge of the South African side. I never thought I’d see a quicker bowler than Thomson or Holding. More than twenty years passed before Shoaib emerged, but he was quicker than anything else I’d ever seen. In 1987 I was at Lord’s when the entire ground stood to mark the conclusion of Sunil Gavaskar’s career; in the summer of 2002 I was again privileged to be present as the Nottingham crowd rose to acclaim Michael Vaughan’s 197. The applause spanned the years and reminded me of the essential humanity of cricket.
So, in cricket, as in life, what goes around tends to come around. And in cricket you can enjoy it again and again.