Cricketing tales of times past

PUBLISHED: 10:00 18 July 2020

Trevor Bailey demonstrates a stroke for younger members of the Essex County Cricket Club

Trevor Bailey demonstrates a stroke for younger members of the Essex County Cricket Club

PA Archive/PA Images

With the Shepherd Neame Essex League starting a short nine-week season this weekend, Hutton’s Ivan Minter takes a stroll down memory lane.

Jim Laker bowling for EssexJim Laker bowling for Essex

It’s strange to recall events from a long time ago when traditions were stronger and life was so different.

My grammar school had always played an Essex Club & Ground team during our cricket week and I well remember as a 12-year-old seeing Trevor Bailey and Doug Insole – at that time both playing for Essex and England – taking morning coffee on the lawn with our headmaster and his wife.

I’m sure they weren’t playing. On second thoughts it could well have been during the cricket week which took place each year at the Castle Park in Colchester.

Whichever it was, they were doing the social round on behalf of the county club. We were encouraged to watch the county and each year on Old Boys’ Day, the chairman spontaneously asked the head to give all the boys two half days off to support Essex.

Essex's Graham Napier hits out in a limited overs match at ChelmsfordEssex's Graham Napier hits out in a limited overs match at Chelmsford

One of the benefits of Essex playing in venues around the county was that it was easy for boys like me to see famous players without travelling.

I well recall seeing Fred Trueman play for Yorkshire against Essex. We were allowed to walk across the outfield after the game and we were fascinated by the great man’s footprints from his bowling run-up. It looked as if he was wearing size 15s! Such are the things that stick in our memories.

Jim Laker played a season for Essex after he left Surrey and I was impressed at the way he could bowl teams out in the fourth innings when there was a run chase on.

That’s a good excuse for repeating an old Laker story which contrasts conditions at county grounds at that time – Jim having spent most of his career at the Oval.

Apparently, Essex were playing at Ilford and they sent Jim out to have a look at the wicket. He was gone for ages and when he finally came back and was asked what he thought, his answer was “couldn’t find it!”

Probably the most enjoyable innings I’ve ever seen was Graham Napier’s 152 against Sussex in a T20 game in 2008.

I wasn’t at the ground, but the game was on TV while I was attempting to assemble an IKEA wardrobe. I know Chelmsford is a small ground and the boundaries are pulled in for T20s, but these shots were going out of the ground and would have been sixess anywhere.

‘Napes’ put in some brilliant performances for Essex but what made this one so special for me was that he appeared to be enjoying the innings as much as the spectators were (quite apart from setting a new world record for six-hitting!)

It was almost like playing with the kids in the garden, but at first-class level. (Nip round to the neighbour’s garden and get our ball back, Bumble). He thoroughly enjoyed himself as did the enthusiastic crowd, leaving Sussex with a target they had no hope of getting.

I almost saw his four-in-four at Chelmsford against Surrey in a 40-over game in 2013, bowling 90 mph yorkers. “Almost” because when he got the first of the four, I thought nothing would happen for a time while the new batsman got set so I went off for a toilet break – only to be surprised by a huge roar when I was past the point of no return.

I got back to enjoy the last two, though. It was quite a spell as he’d already got Ricky Ponting middle stump (sweet for any England supporter) and went on to get seven in total. Not bad in eight overs!

Before my sons were old enough to play, we used to watch professional cricket when we could. I remember taking them to Lords a long time ago – when Dickie Bird was umpiring! – and we were so frustrated at the constant stoppages for bad light and drizzle, we didn’t go again for a long time.

It obviously wasn’t Dickie’s fault – he was just the unfortunate individual who was following the playing regulations of the day. It made you feel that Test players were a really pampered breed compared to club cricketers who are reluctant to stop for anything short of a monsoon.

Speaking of which, in a Middlesex League fourth-team game for North London, we completed our innings and went out to bowl in a very light drizzle, which was not heavy enough to stop play. Unfortunately, it got steadily heavier and heavier without a noticeable change to prompt the captains to call it off.

Both teams became committed to finishing and we got wetter and wetter in the persistent drizzle. Drying the ball became almost impossible as all our clothes were soaking.

After taking the final wicket, a very bedraggled, but jubilant, team made its way back to the clubhouse to be greeted by the bar steward, who’d been snug in the bar all afternoon, greeting us with, “Where have you been? Playing in an abattoir?”

Less understandable, was an end-of season game I played for the same club’s fifth team when we visited a club “somewhere in Essex”.

The weather forecast was grim, but we decided to make the best of it. Once again, the weather deteriorated and we found ourselves fielding in the second innings with what felt like a force seven gale lashing the rain horizontally across the ground.

Bowling off any run-up was impossible as the mud was so slippery. Mercifully I can remember none of the details. The groundsman declined to intervene in the safe knowledge that the strip had all winter to recover.

It’s the unpredictability which makes the lower reaches of club cricket so interesting. I remember during my brief spell as Aylesbury third-team captain, being surprised that the opposition, who we payed regularly, were late arriving.

Eventually, by means of the newly-invented mobile phone, we established we both had it down as a home fixture. So it came down to who could cancel the teas with fewest repercussions.

We agreed to travel and the game got underway about 3.30pm. Fortunately it was a glorious day in mid-June and we were able to get in a full game, finishing about 9pm.

I once captained Aylesbury threes in a Saturday afternoon friendly against a local village team in the Chilterns.

We bowled first. Our opening bowler was a fit teenager who was quite quick, but didn’t take his cricket very seriously, so didn’t realise his potential.

His first ball of the innings was short of a length and the opening batsman obligingly stepped forward and took it full in the mouth. He disappeared off to hospital while we collected up the broken teeth.

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On his return a few hours later, he explained “Last week I hit the first ball for six and thought I could do it again”.

Most games are played in a good spirit, so you notice the exceptions. Captaining a weak Sunday second team for Aylesbury away in a declaration game, I had the problem that, at the point where I wanted to declare, one of our young players, who’d not previously passed 50, was stuck in the nervous 90s, and I delayed.

This prompted their skipper to waste time by bowling donkey drops off a 25-yard run up! We eventually declared and took tea. After the resumption, they won at a canter with time to spare. I‘m not sure there’s a place for such gamesmanship at that level.

A few years later, playing against the same club for Dunstable, I captained a third team in a Sunday friendly, again at their ground. (Don’t guess. There are a lot of clubs who played against both in the Cherwell and Bedfordshire leagues).

We agreed on a declaration game with tea at a set time and 20 overs from six o’clock. We had an inexperienced team and batted really slowly.

Conscious of my responsibility to set a competitive total, I said we needed to bat on for a while after tea (as I was entitled to do). This upset them and when it got to six, they insisted on delaying the start of the 20 overs by 20 minutes to compensate.

Against my better judgement, I acquiesced so that we could finish the game. With the extra overs, they won with 10 minutes to spare and we missed out on a competitive finish. I wonder how satisfying such a result is to the winning team.

We are all competitive when we play, but the enjoyment of the game is paramount to me – I’d rather lose trying to win than have a boring draw. But as I don’t captain teams any longer, this attitude doesn’t count for much.

Such clubs are rare fortunately; the opposite is more normal. I remember travelling in an Aylesbury club team on a Bank Holiday to play against an Oxfordshire club who were far stronger than we were. It was a complete mismatch, but it was played in a competitive spirit with everyone trying their best to the end.

We had some good players, but probably half of us were from the second and third teams. The opposition were a sporting crowd and we had a good time in the bar afterwards – on their performance, they bought most of the jugs. It’s the only time I’ve seen a player buy three after scoring 150-plus!

The entertainment doesn’t always stem from the cricket. A unique post-match session took place in the bar on a May Bank Holiday away to St Albans.

Playing for Dunstable, we lost an unremarkable game and adjourned for a pint to find their ladies’ hockey team in possession celebrating their league championship success.

They allowed (forced?) us to join in. “Climb, climb up sunshine mountain” took on a whole new dimension from my Sunday School memories!

Travelling to away games was a different proposition in the days before satnavs and mobile phones. Playing for Aylesbury threes against a north London team, I was late for the meet at our home ground and found everyone had gone.

I later discovered the captain had done a head count instead of a name-check, without realising that (unusually) we had a scorer that game. Fortunately I had one of my sons with me as a spectator and between us we used the London A-Z to find all the green spaces in the general area where I thought we were playing, eventually arriving half an hour late.

More recently I was reminded of the importance of satnavs. A couple of years ago, my regular car broke down and I had to use a Zipcar with no satnav to reach an Essex Seniors game against Surrey at Twickenham.

It looked pretty straightforward on the map, but after going through Elephant & Castle three times, I realised I was in trouble. After a frustrating journey, I arrived just as the game was starting – with us in the field.

I got changed and only missed about three overs, but I wasn’t a happy bunny. I think I picked up three wickets and must have bowled quite well because players who were there still ask what they have to do to make me angry.

There’s an endless supply of cricket stories. At one point when I was captaining the Aylesbury thirds, I had two of my sons playing in the team and I was always conscious of avoiding favouritism.

My eldest son had by then retired from all cricket – apart from the garden variety – at the age of 15, but the younger two, teenagers, liked playing.

Giles got in on merit, opened the batting and kept wicket. Ralph was younger and was good enough to play, but lacking strength. He had a good technique and got to open the batting as he was left-handed and my theory was it would upset the opposition bowlers.

One of our home games took place on Cup Final Saturday and we batted first. Numbers three and four in the batting order settled down in front of the TV until I gave them a lecture on team spirit, supporting their team-mates and – above all – being ready and focused to go into bat.

The latter was always necessary as we were quite a young, fairly weak team. On this occasion we were up against an even weaker team and the openers put on about 150 for the first wicket! No-one held a grudge – fortunately!

Playing in the same team a season or so later one of my mates, Nigel, who’d joined the club on the same day as me years before told me it was his last game, so I said he could open the batting.

He was a very slow bowler who normally batted in the tail, so I thought he’d soon be out, he’d have a special memory of his last game and it would then be business as usual.

Ralph opened with him. I went out to relieve one of the umpires after 12 overs and found the atmosphere electric – to say the least. The score was 16 for 0. Ralph had been unable to hit the ball off the square and Nigel had taken his responsibilities seriously and produced a dour forward defensive regardless of the delivery!

The occasional exceptional performance also helps us through the low points. Playing for my company team in Basingstoke when I was rookie in my early 30s, I was fielding at short mid-on about 15 yards from the bat when the batsman took a step forward and middled a half volley.

Like everyone else I looked to the boundary to see where the ball was, only to be surprised by finding it in my left hand. I certainly never saw or felt it.

It was years before I did anything remotely similar. This took place in an Essex Seniors touring game in Malta a couple of years ago.

I was fielding about 20 yards from the bat at short extra cover when the batsman middled a shot along the ground about a foot from my left boot. Without seeing it, I reflexively bent down and picked it up cleanly. The batter was impressed – he came over and shook my hand. Not bad for a Yorkie who’d been deprived of four certain runs!

It’s an indescribable experience when such things happen – there’s a sort of a pause in reality while everyone catches up. And to think Ben Stokes does it all the time!

I don’t know how many games I’ve played or watched, but I know cricket is an important part of my life. To misquote the one and only Bill Shankly “Don’t think it’s a matter of life and death. It’s far more important than that!”

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