It’s been a reflective time for me the last few months, and in a cricketing sense too. Watching England play has been a joyous experience, seeing them throw caution to the winds in an attempt to entertain has been both startling and impressive. I wasn’t bothered that they lost the 2nd Test to New Zealand, that they – as some insisted – threw away a series win simply didn’t matter to me as much as how they played. Perhaps it is a thing about getting older, to care less about the outcome on the field than the process that led to that point. Certainly English cricket and world cricket isn’t short of problems, many of their own creation, but if the England team are raging against the dying of the light of the game as we’ve known it, then I’m going to be right behind them and express both my wonder at how they’re doing it, and my complete forgiveness when it goes wrong.
Perspective and context. The essence of this blog has been to highlight so many of the hugely damaging initiatives the ECB have brought forth in the last decade, and they are still there, and those problems have far from disappeared. English cricket remains in trouble, and the objections remain the same. It doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what is happening, nor is there a “but” when offering up that praise. Ben Stokes has proved to be a remarkable captain, Brendon McCullum a remarkable coach, and Rob Key an astute selector of people. Perhaps it could even be an indicator of where those in charge are looking to go, we will wait and see.
And yet that observation, of taking succour where it is offered, could be seen as simply taking the positives – a phrase that invokes a sense of doom whenever it is heard. Perhaps that is so, but for now, for me, it is enough. My father entered his final illness at the start of the year, a period of distress for all the family, leading to something of a sense of release when he passed away. His influence on me was far and wide, but in a cricketing sense he was the one who first put a bat in my hands, who bowled to me for hours in the back garden and insisted I keep the ball on the ground in order to avoid dumping the ball over the fence to the neighbours. It did have an influence on how I played for decades, rather more than I would have liked to admit. Certainly I was forever stronger in the arc of the offside than the onside, where a wall a few feet away from me meant as often as not pinging the ball through there meant it came back and smacked me in the legs. But he was proud that I became a much better player than him, and it’s unsurprising that given he was a bowler, I was a batsman. The wicketkeeping came much later, but certainly I cared little about bowling to Dad when I had the alternative of him bowling to me.
Several years ago I wrote this: https://beingoutsidecricket.com/2017/04/12/standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giants/, a tribute to those who formed us, who taught us the game and who we failed to appreciate at the time. In a cricketing sense, this is more true of my father than I ever realised, for his contribution above all else was to imbue in me a love of the game itself. He would tell me entirely fictional cricketing stories using players from his childhood or early adulthood, meaning that someone like Alf Valentine was a hero to me long before I knew a single thing about the real man and cricketer. All entirely down to long forgotten father’s tales made up on the spot. And perhaps that he was telling such stories about so many West Indian cricketers says a lot about those he considered his heroes too.
In his last years he suffered a traumatic brain injury, and became an echo of the man he had been. But he still enjoyed the simple pleasure of seeing cricket. When I went to visit him I would download (entirely illegally, and no I don’t give a shit given the context) recent cricket matches to watch with the highlights with him and talk through what had happened. His face would light up watching it all, that part of his mind still able to appreciate the simple joy of a game of bat and ball. And that is why England under the new bosses (not the same as the old bosses) will get so much affection from me whether they win or lose. Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter, the pleasure of the game is everything. That is not how I played, where winning absolutely mattered, otherwise why bother keeping score, but it is a perspective that perhaps comes with moving through life and seeing other things as more important.
Last week an iconic figure at my old club passed away. The pain of that was sharpened by losing my father not long before, that circle of life might be inevitable, but we all focus on our own lives and experiences. David Silverson was someone who played the game for over half a century, one of those for whom a couple of generations saw as an ever present backdrop to their own sporting lives. Since I had moved to the area as an adult, he wasn’t one of my cricketing heroes of my formative years, but he was for the generation behind me. And my own thoughts about my heroes led me to put together the club statistics, detailing every player who had been at the club. He was top of the list, with over 20,000 runs and 1,500 wickets, and when I first produced the spreadsheet I called around to his house to show him. His reaction was for his eyes to fill with tears, I think not because of caring at all that he was at the top, but because someone had taken the trouble to put it all together. And you know what? I’m damn proud of doing that, because the existence of those tables, and the awareness of the entire club membership about them made a material difference in how the kids saw him. No longer was he just the old man coming to watch and making appearances for the Sunday 2nd XI, he was an icon, someone who had been there and done it all. We persuaded (forced might be a better word) him to play the odd 1st XI friendly match to get him over that 20,000 run landmark, and the sheer pleasure of everyone of all ages when he did so is a treasured memory.
But he was anything but a relic. He came to watch with huge enthusiasm the women’s matches when they began, offering support without ever pushing his opinion. He cared for the game of cricket first and foremost, for the people who played it and the culture and lifestyle that it conveyed. It mattered to him because it is a part of life and community, something far more important than the result, whether in a Test arena or a Sunday friendly. To him, both were parts of a greater whole. He was a wise man.
Yet if a player wanted advice, he was there – and it wouldn’t be unusual to see a young player, male or female, in deep conversation with him about their game as he would talk it through with them in his gentle way. He was a modern mind, caring less for the detail of coaching and more for the mindset and how to make the most of what someone had. And for those who came to him, that support was firm and unending. One young player was languishing in the Sunday 2nd XI, just another player who would be an entirely social one and never make it as a key performer at the club. He disgreed. Oh how he disagreed. When all others had written this young man off, he was insistent he would be a 1st XI player. When asked why, given the modest returns on the field, he would answer “because he wants it”. And he was right too, that young man did go on to be a central player for the club.
And this is where it all comes around again. When I wrote that piece about our influences, that young man read it. He said it made him cry, because he did so thinking time and again about David, and how instrumental he had been to him and how much he valued it. “So tell him”, I said. “Go and see him, and tell him how much he has meant to you”. And he did. And I imagine that must have been deeply emotional for both of them. David’s passing is as desperately sad as it always is, as it has been for me with my father’s. But they remain enormously consequential to us all in our own lives and in how we live them.
I will miss them both, for different reasons and in different ways. But from them both will be the pleasure of watching an England team who play in a vibrant manner because of a love of a game I have at different times fallen out with, and that they never forgot. It has been an honour.
Just like the original, this is a masterpiece.
Thanks for taking the trouble to write it, Chris.
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I’m with you so much. My dad got me into cricket. Not a well man but helped me enjoy cricket in the garden and at the local park. It was a release when he left us. He was at peace. My brother, also a cricket lover died from motor neurone and in his last days we watched cricket on TV together. I bought an England cap to be buried with him.
I’ve always enjoyed cricket – for the cricket. Laker’s 19 wickets, May & Cowdrey overcoming the WI, Fiery Fred in all he did, the Sunday League, Botham in the 80s, 2005 and now Stokes’ and McCullum’s England. Don’t care about the results
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Beautifully written (as always) Chris. And it got me remembering those older players at my club who, looking back, were truly the ones who taught me cricket as I came through the XIs. Ernie Smith was a fine player who was in his 60s when I met him, and was about to give a kidney to his son. He was the kind of man who’d noticed my head moved too much in my back lift, but waited until I asked to give the advice (the correction was made and runs followed). But more than anything, he was a player who taught me everything I needed to love the game properly. There was a Sunday 3rd XI game and I was maybe 13, and run in from cover and noticed the batter (not much of a player) hadn’t realized he was out of his ground. I had the ball, looked at him, he looked back not understanding, so I quickly faked throwing the stumps down as he scrambled back and he then looked up to see I’d instead under-armed to mid-on without a word. Nothing mentioned from Ernie Smith, but he was there at slip with a huge grin on his face at my choice. It was then that I think he knew I got it, got cricket, understood. He’d taught me well.
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That’s lovely. And made me laugh.