When Autumn Comes

When autumn comes, we reflect. We reflect on what we have done, where we have been, who we have met. Where we are going. Literally and metaphorically.

County cricket supporters do this. This, of all autumns, we do this.

At this time of the English year, with skies darkening early and covers in place, there is always a sense of loss. For people whose lives revolve around the game, this can be acute, and now, with so many of the game’s old certainties cast to the winds and many more to go, it is stronger than ever before. It is reflection tempered by uncertainty, by confusion, by anxiety. Nobody likes to relinquish the things which have defined their life.

This sense of loss can be for players, for grounds, for memories, for things which are tangible and things which you just feel. This is what life is about.

For around half his life James Hildreth played cricket for a living. He didn’t become rich and he didn’t become famous. At least not in the way in which fame is generally understood now, but this is of no consequence to him or to those who knew and loved what he could do.

One of the signature emotional narratives of all sport is that of the lost player. The player who had it all and lost it, through carelessness or untimely misfortune. The player who could have had it all and didn’t, whether through design, circumstance or luck. The player who nearly had it all but let his chance slip.

The second of those descriptions fits Hildreth like a batting glove. And in Somerset, with its history of glorious failures and occasional success, it added lustre to an aura guaranteed by what he could do with a bat.

I moved to the South West as a young adult in the early nineties and so missed experiencing Somerset’s greatest years in person. I’ve often thought about what it must have been like to watch that team. In the era of transient overseas players who come and go as quickly as birds on the outfield, the idea that you could watch a county side containing Ian Botham, Viv Richards and Joel Garner seems like something from a fantasy world. But, apart from those years, Somerset teams have mainly been founded on more prosaic players and their virtues: dedication, devotion, honesty.

This was James Hildreth’s world, but he occupied his own space, somewhere above it.

A short man, whose body language tended to speak of his modesty, an untutored eye could mistake him for a mere mortal, especially on one of those days when he scratched around for form. But to see him at the crease on a good day was to see batting as art.

It is an observation so well worn that it has become a cliché, but it is nevertheless true that one of the essential signifiers of greatness in any sport is the way in which certain performers seem to have more time than others. Time to think, time to decide, time to execute. It may be illusory, but you know it when you see it. James Hildreth had time.

The kaleidoscope of the mind supplies the images at times like these. For me it begins with his 72 in the second innings of the game in which he made his maiden first-class century, against Durham at Taunton in May 2004. The young Hildreth is much the same as he always was: compact and unpretentious, stylish, if not in the elegant manner of Gower or Vince, in the way of a player who will get you runs with certainty and assurance when the force is with him. He immediately looks as though he belongs at the highest level of cricket he has ever played at, even though, to most of the people watching, he is just a kid.

The next time I see James Hildreth close up, he is not batting. He is not even playing. It is late July in 2005 and he is acting as twelfth man for England. He has very short hair and he is doing what twelfth men do as England toil in the field: running out drinks and towels, maybe even offering some reserved words of encouragement. I am standing at the back of the Long Room as he waits for an over to end and I notice him looking around. The Long Room at Lord’s is the sort of place that makes you look around, especially if you have not been there before. It is possible that he is thinking about what it would be like to play for England. Later that afternoon he does play for England, taking an easy catch at point off Matthew Hoggard to dismiss Ricky Ponting. He is mobbed by his temporary team-mates – Vaughan, Pietersen, Flintoff, Strauss – and he would not be human if he did not think what it would be like to play for England as a selected player, and to bat with the lions on his chest. Little does he know that it will never happen. This, in terms of international cricket, is as good as it will ever get.

Years pass at Taunton, and I see him make lots of runs. Soon, it seems, it is 2015 and he is creaming a rapid early season 187 off Middlesex. This innings is why, when it comes to the last day of that year and I am with a group of people who I don’t know, overlooking the lights of Cape Town, I am talking to anyone who will listen about James Hildreth. I am drunk, but not too drunk to get the impression that they are wondering who I am talking about. To them he is just another county batsman; I know he is far more than that.

The late Hildreth years see him as an elder statesman in the Somerset side, although that is a designation which doesn’t quite suit him, partly because of his nature and partly because Marcus Trescothick, whose career pre-dates his by ten years, plays on for so long. But he has the badges of honour: the faded cap, dyed by hundreds of hours of crease-bound sweat, the greying beard, the tens of thousands of runs and centuries in the book. By common consent – if that means anything – he is the finest cricketer of his time never to be selected to play for a full England side in any format of the game.

I can’t get to Taunton as much as I’d like these days. With work, poor fixture scheduling and the pandemic conspiring against me, I didn’t see a ball bowled there between July 2019 and August 2021. My first game back was a Royal London One-Day Cup match against Yorkshire which was reduced to 20 overs per side by rain. James Hildreth played a match-winning innings of 61 not out off 34 balls, batting for a pivotal period with James Rew, a player who was yet to be born when Hildreth made his first-class debut. There is a feeling that this confluence of careers – one embryonic, one fading – pleases Hildreth, even if it gives him a sense of his cricketing mortality.

People talk in terms of parents and grandparents taking pleasure in knowing that their offspring will be making their mark in the world after they have gone. This is natural, and it can be the case in cricket too. There will be a time when James Rew’s career will be coming to a close, and it will be a surprise if it is not for a very long time. He will find himself at the other end from a prodigy as yet unborn and he will feel like James Hildreth once did with him.

In the meantime, James Hildreth has time to reflect.

James Hildreth always had time.


First World Thinking

There was once a time – we can call it 2019 – when we in the world’s rarefied zones of privilege could lapse into thinking that we were immune from death. The feeling could drift at times, sure, with the death of an elderly relative, even parents, just as long as they’d lived until the arbitrary point where their passing didn’t come as a shock and you felt that they’d lived a full life.

Age diminishes this – and didn’t I know it, even before today – but what kills it stone dead (no pun intended) are pandemics, and wars and the death of the greats.

Over the last two years we have seen and heard of too many deaths for it ever to seem a remote possibility again. Deaths from Covid-19 and now deaths in war. Not in Africa or the Middle East but in Europe, and the result of a calculated invasion and not ageless sectarian tensions (which is not, of course, to overlook or accept what happened over generations in Northern Ireland or the Balkans).

So, if we didn’t before, we know we are all vulnerable, all the time. Life is just as fragile, just as precious as it has always been. Living in the first world – even as one of the greatest cricketers there ever was – guarantees you nothing.

One minute it is morning in England in early March; you notice how early the sun has risen and the clarity of the light. The next you are thinking about what is happening in Ukraine, where people have more pressing things on their minds than the coming of Spring. The next you are taking in the fact that Rodney Marsh has died. Rodney Marsh, who you saw from the very earliest time you knew what cricket was; Rodney Marsh, who was just about the first international cricketer you ever came close to (you were standing next to the pavilion steps at Chelmsford when he led the Australian team out, throwing his fag away and telling your 11 year-old cricket friend where to go (impolitely, it must be said) when he asked for an autograph). But Rodney Marsh was 74, and you knew that had recently suffered a heart attack, so it wasn’t especially shocking, just sad in the way that deaths of great sportspeople always are to those of us who believe.

Soon it is early afternoon. The sun is still shining and you are at home trying to work. You struggle to concentrate; it has been a crowded and draining week, although that is just an excuse really. So you look at Twitter and the first thing you see is that Shane Warne has died. Looking back you’re not sure what you said, but it probably bore a strong similarity to the expletive used by Rod Marsh that time in Essex 45 years ago.

This is different. For one thing Shane Warne is – was – younger than you. Shane Warne was one of the best people ever to do what he did; Shane Warne was famous; Shane Warne was (you assume) rich. Shane Warne wasn’t living in Ukraine; Shane Warne didn’t have Covid-19. But Shane Warne was dead. In a few weeks it will be the cricket season in England; he will not see it.

Like anyone who was interested in cricket (and you were much more than simply ‘interested’) in the years either side of the millennium you had your memories of Warne. In lots of aspects they are the same as everyone else’s, but the random fragments coalesce rapidly into thoughts about The Oval on Monday 12th September 2005. This is far from surprising since you think about that day a lot. It is one of the times in your life (along with the week you spent at the London Olympics) about which you are inclined to think that people who weren’t there can never know what it was like. You can only reach for clichés about there being ‘something in the air’ and they are inadequate. You had to be there.

Shane Warne was there. He bowled from the start that day in an atmosphere pregnant with hopes, dreams and suppressed euphoria. As you watched Vaughan and Trescothick battle away against him you saw a great bowler who wasn’t going to let the Ashes, held by his country since long before he became a Test cricketer, slip without a fight. Of course, ultimately, slip they did, and a dropped catch by Warne himself sealed their fate. It was the best of times for some of us, and it was the worst of times for others.

Only later do you remember that years earlier you saw Warne take a hat-trick at the MCG on your birthday, but that was a different time. England were falling headlong to depressing defeat in a cavernous ground. There were no resonances.

In these turbulent days when our first world thinking can lapse in a different way – towards a feeling that all the old certainties are gone for good (and they are, because of course they were never certain at all) – we need sport, and we need cricket, and we need our recollections more than anything else. Once more it is cliché, but if the present is too difficult to bear and the future is as uncertain as it ever was, you can always think about a better time in the past. Things are different there.

Old players’ epitaphs are not engraved in stone; they are made of memories. Memories of days when the Ashes came home and you walked back to Victoria Coach Station in the September twilight; memories of remembered glory; memories of times when life and the world was better.

Shane Warne, with all his skill, and optimism and ingenuous joviality, would have settled for that.

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