I was thinking this morning I would write a piece about the love of cricket inspired by the feats of great players, not specifically about Rodney Marsh as the news of his death came through, but in one of those reflective moments when those you are familiar with as a child leave us. I was in two minds about doing it, there’s nothing worse than seeing such news breaking and immediately thinking of how to make it about me, or us. And then the shocking news of Shane Warne came through as well. I can’t write a tribute to them, I’m neither capable nor do I deserve to.
I didn’t know either of them, never met them, never anything more than seeing them across the field or on the television. I’ve no story about queueing for an autograph or a quick chat in a bar somewhere, they were and ever will be strangers to me. So plenty will tell their tales of when they did, while the chroniclers of cricket history will place them in their appropriate position as giants of the game, statistically and in terms of their impact. And we will read their wise words and nod in appreciation, as we should.
Their different generations make the reflections and memories so different, Rod Marsh for me was the permanent presence behind the stumps for Australia when I was a child, listening to the commentators (also largely sadly gone now) talking about how he was a truly special exponent of the art of wicket-keeping, which to my young ears was simply irritating, because he was an Aussie, and the reason they were talking about that was because he’d just flown in front of first slip to take a great catch, and thus yet another English wicket had fallen.
Warne was of course much later, and part of that dominant Australian team that ripped England to pieces for a decade and more. As a near contemporary, today’s news perhaps appals more, but in his case it was his sheer vitality, and larger than life presence that makes it such a shocking thing to hear about.
In both cases, they formed the backdrop of the rhythms of a game that is an ever present part of the lives of so many of us, the flow of opposition cricketers who evoked a feeling of grudging admiration and considerable irritation as they weaved their magic on hapless English victims – and it was always English in those days where matches between other teams were never shown on television. So to that extent it was always every couple of years you’d renew televisual or ground acquaintances who would proceed to ruin your summer most of the time.
Perhaps that’s why as an English person the fondest memories either came later or in other circumstances. Marsh might have had a fantastically brilliant career, but for me it was his shaking of his head, crossing of his arms and clear unhappiness at the Trevor Chappell underarm incident that raised him from opposing-far-too-good-player-how-irritating to three dimensional character. I doubt I saw that incident at the time either, but was familar enough with it at the time I was watching him. And of course towards the end of any great player’s career you start to appreciate them more than was previously the case.
Warne too, his brashness when he announced his arrival with that ball, was bound to wind up pretty much every English supporter, especially so when he backed that brashness up, again and again. There was that dawning horror in all England supporters as he became rather obviously far more than just a show-off, but in fact on his way to being one of the all time greats. And doing it for years. Saving his best for England, which invariably makes an Australian the pantomime villain, the one we adore but daren’t admit it. Thus it was that his last series in England, the 2005 Ashes ended with him becoming something of an honorary national treasure, the chants of “We only wish you were English” alongside the clear and abundant pleasure he was taking in being part of such a special series, even on the losing side. And perhaps it was partly because he was on the losing side he received that transparently warm and affectionate farewell from the English crowds. Either way, he deserved it.
And ultimately, isn’t that the point? Cricketers rise and fall, are new and exciting or veteran and grizzled, but what they leave behind even more than the runs, wickets and catches they score and take are the memories – the honour of watching them, the laughter or the frown when they end up on the front pages as well as the back. Feet of clay the lot of them, imperfect as all human beings are. Marsh was fantastically sardonic as a radio commentator, Warne endlessly frustrated because he could so often be banal, before suddenly being so extraordinarily insightful to the point you were hanging on every word.
But didn’t they seem fun? Characters you’d want to share a pint with and just listen to all evening long, at least while still upright. I can’t pay any kind of meaningful tribute to them, and the loss for their families is too much to take as it always is. But they have been part of the soundtrack of our lives, and maybe that’s as high a praise as can ever be offered. Cricket is poorer for their loss, but we’re all poorer for their loss.
The words are hopelessly inadequate. They’re the best I can do. I’m upset at the news of two people I didn’t know. And so are very many others.