8.10.17

Two Players

Taunton, early season 2017. As the sun fades, the blustery wind starts to chill the bones. Any county ground after play ends has a feeling of spent energy, a feeling of faded drama, a feeling of reflection, as evening settles in. This is as true of Cheltenham in high summer as it is of Taunton in bitter mid-April, a time in which cricket never feels natural, but where it is increasingly required to dwell.

At the Cooper Associates County Ground in Taunton, outside the nondescript, functional pavilion named after Andy Caddick, players often congregate after play. They will sign autographs for the men, mostly near or past pension age, who are always there with their albums and books.

The attention is drawn to a youngish man from the east of England with a fresh, windswept complexion. You sense that he always looks like this, but recent time spent in Sri Lanka has enhanced his cricketer's tan. He is surrounded by his family and friends; there is a transparent air of humour, of expectation, of cheerfulness and of hope; of wondering what the coming season holds. At this point he doesn't know it, but for Tom Westley this will be the best season of his young career. He will play in a team which wins the County Championship, and he will do something he has always dreamed of; he will play Test cricket for England. He is right to look hopeful, because he will enjoy what is to come. He will be tested by it, and, after a promising beginning, he will fail that test, but he will end the season in the same frame of mind. This time, though, it will be hope of a recall, of another opportunity. Lose that, and you lose everything.

Scrolling forward to another time and place in England's south-west, we see an older player, one who doesn't hope to play for England anymore because he has no need to. That dream has come, and it has gone.

The County Ground, Exeter, August 2017. Devon are playing Berkshire. With a typically diligent and innovative innings behind him, Chris Read walks around the boundary with his young son. Read is revered in his adopted home city of Nottingham, but now he is back in the county of his birth and his cricketing roots. He is a small man, with few unusual or distinguishing features, and someone who self-evidently feels uncomfortable in the limelight. If you knew nothing of his achievements, you would pass him in the street without a moment's thought. And he would be happy with that.

As Read stops by a well-known local sports photographer, who graciously allows his son to look through his camera's all-seeing lens, you can't prevent your mind going back to the time, more than twenty years before, when you last saw him play for Devon. He was just a kid of 16 then, with a burgeoning reputation in his native Torbay, and the same preternatural assurance behind the stumps which would see him to more than one thousand dismissals in first-class cricket. He could always bat too; not especially stylishly, but with an innate ability to seize the moment. This is a man who knows what it is like to play in front of full houses at Lord's and to win one-day trophies; to play Test cricket in the West Indies, in Australia, in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. But, for good or ill, for most of his career, his natural home, his place of work, has been the county circuit, with its grounds, its devotees and its constantly evolving cast of participants.

English county cricket is a secure and civilised world. An environment which few would wish to leave behind, but for different reasons, these are two players, at distinct points in their careers, who want, or even need, to do so. In Read's case it is the march of time, with Westley it is the need to see if he can be what he has always wanted to be.

Every season, indeed every match, of an English county season is full of vignettes like this, and, as the light changes as autumn sets in, and the leaves begin to turn, they settle in the mind. One player's horizons beginning to expand, but simultaneously on the point of faltering, another's narrowing, fading, reverting.

Neither of them is especially upset about this, although, as he leaves the scene of one of his Test match failures, Westley's mind will be flooded with doubt and concern. And as Read is applauded to and from the crease on the occasion of his final game at Trent Bridge, he can be excused a moment or two of wistful sadness, even if it is usually no more his way than that of any other professional sportsman.

From the Victorian era onwards, so many aphorisms, truisms and cliches have been uttered about the qualities and values of the game of cricket that it can sometimes be hard to be sure where realistic appraisal ends and romantic fiction begins. But the English county game, especially when played over four days, continues, even in its marginalisation, to embody something unique, and, in its way, beautiful and life-affirming.

At the heart of this are the players, with all their hopes, fulfilments and regrets. When the 2018 county season begins, Chris Read will be elsewhere and he will have nothing but fulfilling memories and, perhaps, a few regrets, while Tom Westley will still be there, at Taunton, or Chelmsford or even Worcester, full, again, of hope.

29.7.17

Journeys

As I get older, as I watch more and more cricket - well, more and more cricket and more and more rugby union, for these are the sports which dominate my consciousness during many of my waking hours - I become increasingly aware of, and fascinated by, the nature of the journey (this is the type of expression which people employ to describe their progress through reality television programmes, but for once it feels like the right expression to use).

Not just my journey, although if you stop to consider it there can be a sense of your advancing life being measured out in eighty minute or four and five day segments, but the lives and careers of those fortunate enough to be employed to live out the dreams of those of us who were never good enough to fulfil them for ourselves.

Earlier this month, at the ageless Cheltenham College ground, where Gloucestershire have played since 1870, as the home side completed a comfortable two-day win over Glamorgan, a marquee at the College Lawn End contained a range of men for whom the journey through a cricket career isn't an abstract product of the imagination. For these people it is a facet of memory.

The gathering is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Professional Cricketers' Association; some of the union's founders are here, along with a range of others, all of whom are former professional cricketers. Some are instantly recognisable, in spite of the inexorable passing of the years, others are people that you assume did important things - in some cases before you were even born - but you have no idea who they are.

JT Murray, your best friend's boyhood hero, still stylish and quipping at 82; Vanburn Holder, evoking memories of New Road summers forty years past; Graeme Fowler, a man who faces down intangible demons daily; Pat Pocock, genial and ruminative. Others: Duncan Fearnley, maker of bats for the stars; Neal Radford, still with the looks that so captivated a female friend during his Worcester heyday; MJK Smith, with his perpetual air of distracted diffidence.

And there is poignancy.

A man in a motorised wheelchair leaves the tent, accompanied by his carer. We don't notice him at first, and he is moving away from us before his identity registers.

It is Winston Davis.

The last time you can recall seeing him in the flesh, he was playing for Northants at Luton during the summer you graduated from university, the summer, now rapidly fading into time's mists, when England had five captains. Even then he was better known for what he once did in the World Cup, one of the few times he got a game for the West Indies. You'd heard about him, of course. The fall from a tree in Saint Vincent which cost him the use most of his body.

Journeys can change, or end, in so many ways.

For most of the players on the field, those journeys show little sign of ending. For some, relatively speaking, they are only just beginning.
In the modern, reflexive, intolerant, shoot-from-the-hip world, professional sportsmen cop more abuse than most. As with so many other dialogues, it is the product of limited and inadequate understanding and awareness, and what often seems like a calculated and deliberate lack of empathy.

On the face of it, the life of a professional sportsman is all roses; 'Peachy Creamy', as Lesley Sharp's character Louise was fond of saying in Mike Leigh's Naked. But this is not all it is.

Yes, you can earn your living doing something you would be happy to do for nothing, even pay your own money to do. Yes, you can travel the world staying in the best hotels (although a life on the county circuit - the life led by most of the men in the Cheltenham tent - may not quite match up in this regard); if you are a cricketer you may never experience winter. Yes, you will get the girls. Being young, being fit, being famous, being relatively rich, are powerful aphrodisiacs.

Conversely - and these are important things - while you may get paid so much more than the lads you knew at school, in their office jobs or on their building sites, they don't have to concern themselves with the fact that if they have a bad day at work they will be scrutinized and criticized in the papers, on the radio, on TV, or by the trolls who populate the World Wide Web. They build you up, of course they do, but boy they will knock you down.

Also, your mates outside the game don't, in most cases, have to worry about their career being summarily ended by an injury, by a dramatic loss of form, or, perhaps, by the yips. Redundancy can come, but it will not usually entail the need to embrace an entirely different way of life. The need to commute, to work in environments where a majority of your colleagues are female, or to experience the strip-lit torpor that settles over a characterless office on a winter afternoon when darkness settles at ten past four and the rain is hitting the windows with hypnotic force, driven by a howling wind.

This is a different way of being; something which most of us have to embrace, even if we once held ambitions, or in most cases fantasies, of doing what professional sportsmen do.

Sometimes it will take until they have to exist outside the games they have known so well for a sportsman to appreciate what they have. Others, those with an uncommon maturity or breadth of perspective recognize it early, but for many it takes their career to be on the wane for them to truly know what they have. Then comes fear, and the rage against the dying of the light, whether it be swift or protracted. Sometimes you see this outside sport but in most cases it is retirement which is welcomed rather than feared. The rage comes later, as age and infirmity cloud the horizon and the end of a life, not just a sporting career, approaches.

The men in the Cheltenham tent have been through all that and have lived to tell the tale; youthful promise, careers of varying lengths and achievements, retirement, the need to find, and become used to, an alternative way of life. Some will have been more successful as players; others in the afterlife.

Cheltenham, with its encapsulation of a certain type of distinctively English idyll, always does this to me. When I returned to the ground in 2015, after seventeen years away, it was Stephen Peters, his long stint in the county game in its very last throes, who set me thinking about the nature of cricket careers and their conclusions. How is it that you adapt to the change from a life, with all its precariousness and pressures, where your places of work include arenas like this, to an existence which, while it is more stable, can never be anything other than more mundane.

The answer is that you probably never really do. When I see Ken Palmer at Taunton, 80 years, 866 first-class wickets and countless hours of umpiring behind him, he looks happy enough, but it is easy to imagine how he misses his lengthy involvement in the game.

For those of us who perpetually occupy the land beyond the boundary ropes, the way we experience the game is different. We have enjoyed some of the most exciting, joyous and uplifting moments of our lives on cricket grounds, but we have never shed blood, or much sweat, or many tears while doing so. Ours is a more limited experience, but it is no less profound. And it will continue for the rest of our lives.

Some of the occupants of the Cheltenham marquee were among the founder members of the PCA. They didn't just play the game for a living; they created something which has stood the test of time.

There are journeys and then there are journeys.

For now, for Winston Davis, the journey from one end of the ground to the other is all that is on his mind.

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