When the Eye has Gone

The retired sportsman, missing the acclaim of his career, is a familiar trope in sporting literature. It is true of those who made it, and it is true of those who did not.

I could have been a contender.

In the case of Colin Milburn, there was no 'could have been'. He was very much a contender, and then some. Although my memory of cricket and cricketers increasingly, and somewhat worryingly, seems to me to resemble that of the Ancient Mariner, I am too young to remember his heyday, although I have a vague and uncertain recollection of his fruitless comeback attempt in 1973 and 1974. But there is abundant folk memory, and literature, and the recollections of those who do remember his best days. It is clear that he could play. Really play.

Certain days and times have worked their way into the wider cricketing consciousness. Hooking the fearsome Wes Hall for six on the way to an unbeaten second innings century at Lord's in his second Test match in 1966; 243 in a day for Western Australia against Queensland in late 1968, an innings which Sir Donald Bradman memorably described as one of the greatest played by an Englishman on Australian soil; the car crash which cost him an eye and a career in May 1969. His later fading from view and his death at the age of 48.

Anyone would miss playing sport for a living. How many jobs are there in which you are well paid to do something you would happily do for nothing, and people - sometimes tens of thousands of people - will applaud you for doing things which you might not find all that difficult, but which they cannot do (however much they long to)? A few years of that and the world as it is inhabited by the rest of us starts to fade into the recesses of memory. If, that is, you ever knew what the real world was like anyway. If all you have ever done for work is sport, the adjustment will come even harder, and its effects will be all the deeper.

If you have played for as long as you can, and you know your time has come, it is easier. If you find, with shocking finality, that your career as it was is over at 27, it is never going to be easy.

This was Colin Milburn's life.

Dougie Blaxland's play When the Eye has Gone, in which Milburn and a host of other characters are played with powerful versatility by Dan Gaisford, is currently touring many of the grounds on which Milburn made his mark fifty years and more before. It comprises a series of vignettes (if that is not too subtle a word, and it probably is) from his life and times, in which his progress from the then fallow first-class cricket territory of County Durham to the game's heights and back, is charted. Here is Milburn in the school playground, pretending to be a late-career Wally Hammond facing Ray Lindwall; there he is as a young pro, taking the great Les Jackson for a ton on a Buxton green top; here he is impersonating 'Jim' Swanton as he passes Olympian judgment on his clumsy fielding; there are the would-be voices of Arlott and Trevor Bailey and The Don; here is the boundary-edge sage at Burnopfield who tells him he'll never be as good as his father; there is his mother, dusting furiously as she advises him not to neglect his schoolwork. The medics; the eye surgeon, the nurses, the doctor repeatedly warning him about the blood pressure and cholesterol levels which would lead to his death. The hollow jokes and the forced bonhomie.

The pint glass of gin and coke.

Gaisford infuses the play with relentless energy, an impeccable Geordie accent and a bullish, confrontational style, which leads you to suspect that you are watching someone who has lost everything but cannot possibly bring himself to admit it. For Milburn, as for so many ex-sportsmen (and others) life looked better through the bottom of an empty glass.

For anyone who (as I do) spends long hours watching cricket and other games on modern satellite television, it is often possible to drift towards the impression that you are watching a series of adverts for rival online betting companies, with a little cricket or rugby mixed in. There comes a time when you start expecting to see Ray Winstone's head in your dreams. As a result of repetition I hate most of these adverts with a passion, but one phrase (inserted, one assumes, to please whatever regulators take an interest in such things) has a tendency to stick in the mind.

When the fun stops, stop.

But what if you are forced to stop while it is still the most fun you could ever have?

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