This post is utterly, completely and thoroughly self-indulgent. By all means skip the RTs, the likes and the comments. I really will understand. Because for so many of you kind followers you will have no enduring fascination with this engrossing ancient sport (not you, Dylan; if I don’t get at least a like from you I’ll not read your next book, so there, nrrrrh).
Cricket crept into my life in 1967 when tragedy struck. England cricketer Fred Titmus, touring the West Indies, lost 4 toes in a boating accident. I was 11 and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t really aware of cricket as a national sport at that point.
Odd how one man’s despair can be another man’s joy. Not the incident but the revelation that sport can hit the headlines. I think what fascinated me most was the issue of whether without toes he could still bowl. Yes he could, but the geometry of his foot swivel engrossed me.
A year later and another tragic cricketer came to my attention. Colin Milburn was fat. Not an athlete but, boy, did he hit the ball a mile. So when he canned the Australians in 1968 I loved him. I was overweight and unsporty but with ambitions to defeat both limitations. Colin was my role model and probably why cricket became my sport. It wasn’t long after that that he had a car accident and lost an eye. For a hand eye coordination sport that was a disaster. Was I being ghoulish in my choice of heroes?
By now I was devouring cricket books, relishing the statistics and the details of matches long gone. As only a new to something passion can do for you, I was utterly, devoutly in love. By 1971 Dad had picked up on this and he took me to see the Indian team play England at the Oval. We had a magical day. At a time when teams rarely scored more than 250 runs in a day, England managed 350. John Jamieson hit sixes into the pavilion, huge blows to my eyes. A woman was carried out with a cut head. My ghoulish streak continued. Others – Alan Knott, Richard Hutton – scored runs. The exuberant Indian supporters chanted and sang all day and, best of all, during the breaks – is cricket still the only sport to take meal breaks? – Dad and I played our own test match on the outfield, something now long stopped, sadly.
We were meant to have two days but day two, the Friday was rained off. We had the day together in wet and dank London. I loved it, being with Dad all to myself, hearing about other sporting games he had been to. We went up the Post Office tower – which you could do then before the threat of IRA bombs stopped that. The view from the top was… non existent. It was raining for Pete’s sake. But I loved being with him and laughing at the stupidity of hunting out a view on such a day.
We went back the next year to see the Australians play England, again at the Oval. Three days this time. We sat on the bleachers – rotten wooden benches where splinters were a major risk. It was baking hot; the man next to us smelt of dried sweat. Dad didn’t seem to notice and they started talking. The man offered that he had been coming to the Oval for thirty years. He knew all the great players, all the great matches. Dad nodded and made the right noises. ‘My son loves the history. He reads all about the old games.’
The old man had a smug look. ‘What do you now then?’ he said.
Dad pressed me. I recited some of the best bowling figures at the Oval. He corrected me. The second time I knew he was wrong. Dad knew my look. He moved the conversation on.
The year before, six months before I would have left it. He was an adult. He was old. But he was wrong and I was pretty clear he hadn’t got a clue. So while he and dad chatted I pulled out my copy of the statistician’s cricket bible, Wisden and turned up the right page. I read it carefully to myself. I had a choice. I could close the book and simply know I was right. I could have told Dad later. Or…
I leant round Dad, whose body was blocking me. ‘You might want to see this. In case you need to tell someone else what the best bowling figures are.’ I offered the aging smarty-pants my Wisden.
The old man’s gaze met mine. He didn’t look at the book. His expression didn’t change. He just collected his things and walked away. Later I saw him sitting with another father and son, animatedly talking at them.
‘That was rather rude, Geoff.’
I didn’t say anything, just focused on the new England opener Barry Wood trying to fend off the manic Australian fast bowler, Dennis Lillee. I could have acknowledged that Dad was right. I could have offered an excuse. No, I was right and in some indefinable way I knew I’d dealt with someone who was showing off in a polite but firm way. I could do smug too and I found I quite enjoyed it.
I think it was probably in that moment that my path to eventually becoming a commercial lawyer, enjoying the bruising battles, where quick wit and smart put downs are a staple of the negotiator’s lot, began. England cricket has a lot to answer for.