Up and down the country, young people are picking up a bat or a ball for the first time. It might be in the back garden, it might be in the local park, but at any given moment someone who will go on to be a cricketer is gaining their first experience of the game. For most, it will go no further, a casual game with the family or friends, and a memory that will occasionally resurface through life. For some, a few, it will instil a deeper affection for and love of the game itself. Those people will seek out a club, will learn how to improve and will play on a regular basis for years to come, and perhaps even for a lifetime.
At some point will come a time for reflection, a wondering of how they got to that point and about those who played a part in it. Family is often first and foremost, and perhaps it goes without saying that it was my father who first put a bat in my hand. But that is frequently just the start of the story, there are many others who play an instrumental role in what follows.
A few years ago I received a text from my mother to let me know that one of those who introduced me to the sport had died. He was an old man by that point, the circle of life I guess, but nevertheless it came as something of a jolt to the system to hear the news. In our minds people stay the same, and particularly so as we move away from our childhood homes and lose contact with those who were present in those formative years.
Neil Duncombe was someone who was in the team when I first started. The excitement of being in the Sunday 2nd XI for the first time aged about twelve or thirteen is a vivid and evocative memory, far more so than playing for my school. Of course at that point playing involved batting somewhere in the lower order, making up the numbers and doing the running around for the older players (wondering why they wouldn’t make an effort in the field, only to discover 30 years later that they were making an effort), and realising that the boundary was a hell of a long way from the wicket keeper. The contribution in terms of runs was minimal – to the point I can recall reaching double figures for the first time and considering it a substantial achievement. Neil was already about sixty by then, his career was coming to a close and he spent the day stood at first slip imparting wisdom and the humour that is so particularly a part of the game. Yet he was one of the gods of the team to my young mind, a proper player to whom I looked up who I would spend the tea break sat next to just so I could listen to him, and who showed me how the game should be played. He had been a good cricketer too, and a lesson gleaned from that was that if a 60 year old is playing against you, then don’t see them as they are now, imagine how good they must have been in their youth to still be on the field at that age.
Nor was he remotely alone in imparting wisdom, the captain was a man called Mike Connell, not the greatest cricketer – although at the time I thought he was of course – but the one who worked endlessly to ensure eleven players turned out every week, who organised everything, who walked the tightrope of friendly cricket game management in terms of trying to keep everyone involved and happy. He was also the one who after a couple of years asked if I’d ever thought about keeping wicket. Of course it hadn’t occurred to me, but given it was abundantly obvious I was one of the worst bowlers anyone had ever seen (capable of reasonable pace but entirely unable to direct it even vaguely in the right direction) he rather pithily pointed out that being behind the stumps might actually lead to me offering at least some kind of contribution to the team in the field. He took me beyond the boundary, lobbed the frankly rubbish and oversized club gloves to me and started throwing cricket balls. That I remember clearly, along with the “OK, you’ll do” observation having watched me.
To that point I’d had no desire to do the role at all, batting was all I cared about and by that time I was developing and scoring runs. Mike was also the one who to my shock told me one day I was opening the batting. I scored 19 – hardly an innings to pull up any trees, but I batted for a fair while and came off to lots of smiling team mates telling me that this was my metier and that I was a born opener. My wicketkeeping on the other hand had to be pretty much self-taught; in those days the idea of qualified coaches in a club was something of a pipe dream – even now finding those capable of teaching wicketkeeping is a rarity. Nevertheless, with encouragement I learned and progressed, and it gave me the added bonus of now being stood next to Neil on a Sunday afternoon where he would tell highly amusing tales and periodically offer up pertinent advice. He may not have been a wicketkeeper himself but he knew the game, and importantly he knew when to keep quiet, that advice can be counter-productive if it’s not from a position of knowledge.
Curiously enough his son Chris also would become a keeper (and in my adult life a good friend) and some years later we would battle each other for the position in the first team, with me being driven on by the fact he was usually the first choice. I was much younger than him and I was learning – put simply he was better than me at that point, though naturally enough I didn’t see it that way at the time. Besides, my primary role in that side was to be a batsman, first as one of those not quite good enough for the firsts and then moving up the order until reaching the opening slot where I would spend most of my subsequent career.
The third member of those seniors in the Sunday 2nds was the opening bowler, Derek Robinson. A seamer who eventually had to stop playing when his back finally gave way rather spectacularly during a game; he was also supremely accurate, something of a boon to someone having to learn how to stand up to the stumps from scratch. With the batsman’s healthy disregard for bowlers of all types, I probably had less direct interaction with him initially in a learning sense (after all, bowling was for lesser types in my mind), but his delightful disposition and humour made him a joy to share a field with and a source of wisdom about the wider game. As my keeping developed so would his advice in that discipline and his study, usually from fine leg, became a valuable source of information.
Of course, it wasn’t too long before I outgrew the Sunday 2nd XI, progressing through the sides to the league teams, initially the Saturday 2nd XI and then the 1sts. Runs came much more freely, wicketkeeping progressed rapidly, life developed and I moved away eventually to a new club in a different county who got by far the best of my cricketing career. It is a deep regret that while their time and effort allowed me to develop into a reasonable cricketer, those at my first club never remotely saw the best of me on the field.
Looking back now, everything in terms of my cricketing life developed from those few short years on the lowest rung of the cricketing ladder. Those three people were hardly alone, there were numerous different ones at every step of the way, even when I was old enough to hold my own as a player at a decent level. But nothing is so formative as those in the early years who encourage, advise, criticise and perhaps especially when they tell you off. An opposition player did that once too; I don’t know who he was and never played him again, but one of his team-mates scored undoubtedly one of luckiest fifties I’ve ever seen, balls flying in the air just past fielders, edges past the stumps and so on. Reaching his half century was greeted by us in silent disbelief, with one or two making unfriendly observations about good fortune. But as with many friendlies, one of their players was standing at square leg umpiring. He came in at the end of the over and quietly said “People have different levels of ability – this is a big thing for him, respect his achievement”. That opponent may never have scored a fifty again in his life, but that was his day, and it was magnificent.
His comment is seared into my mind, I felt deeply and utterly ashamed instantly, and the lesson he taught my fourteen year old self remained me with ever since. I would always applaud or acknowledge an opponent’s landmark from then on, no matter how fortunate it might have been, and that wise cricketer’s words were passed on by me to many a young team-mate in similar circumstances. I doubt he would ever even remember saying so, but I cannot thank him enough for delivering that quiet, understated bollocking.
For here is the point: Few are ever aware of the impact they have on other people, young people especially. They would doubtless be surprised to learn of their part in it all. Neil Duncombe even gave me my first set of batting pads, old-fashioned cane ones with buckles that provided limited protection to my legs, but they were mine and they were a gift from someone I both looked up to and adored. Mike Connell made me into a wicketkeeper. Just him, no one else; hundreds of stumpings and catches down to his decision on a sunny day. What made him do that, I have no idea. Derek Robinson taught me how to improve, how to get better, and how to have fun on a cricket field.
I never told them. Oh dear God, I didn’t tell any of them, not these three, not Paul Brook – a modest cricketer but a great man, not Martyn Cobb who taught me that cricket is a game that rewards thinking, not one of the many others I could list who weren’t my father yet who did so much. In at least one case it’s now too late, and for the others I don’t know where they are or if even they are still around. These people were instrumental in my cricketing life, yet I was far too self-absorbed with the arrogance and certainty of youth to realise it at the time. They taught me everything, they gave up their time – yes to have fun, but also to guide, encourage and teach a young player about both the game and about life itself.
Everyone reading this will have had the same kind of experience; it might be in cricket, it might be in any other sport. It doesn’t even have to be within a sport itself, for we all have those who have made the difference to who we are. These names mean nothing to all but a very few, but you will have your own who do. Tell them. Express to them what they did for you. Tell them how important they were, thank them for being who they were and what they did.
Before it’s too late. Before you fervently wish you had taken just a moment to do so.