Saturday, 20 November 2010

Nostalgia - it's just not what it used to be - part 2


Youth would be an ideal state if it came a little later in life (Herbert Asquith).

This is the second part of Fantasy Bob's fading memories of growing up in Aberdeen and how his interest in cricket was nurtured.  If the first part bored you stupid, then you know what you're in for.

For a short time, when he was 10 or 11, FB lived close to Mannofield home of Aberdeenshire CC.  By concidence so did his parents.  That summer he and chums used to hang out in the nets - a beautiful suite of grass facilities, now covered by an office block or something similar FB suspects. 

Those long summers also brought many centuries - scored in the street, or in the garden, or on the waste ground cum playground.  Cricket just seemed to be there - part of the fabric. The names of top county and Test players were in currency and sweet cigarettes had cards with their handsome sun-burnished and brylcreemed features.  A last flourish of a golden age before Beatles cards and similar junk dominated the market.  Ted Dexter was a colossus striding the known world.  As the winds of change stirred through Africa and the Commonwealth so the coming of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith loomed and the first vigorous shake of West Indian supremacy would thrill FB and his chums. 

But despite all this background, coaching eluded FB for some reason.  Maybe some one looked at the raw material and thought that coaching was not going to do any good.  A tough but probably accurate assessment.  But it just seemed things in those days weren't set up that way.  Coaching at Mannofield was for older boys, and by the time FB was old enough he had moved house and his immediate sporting priorities had passed elsewhere.  But he remembers vividly batting in the garden with a stump with his father bowling to him with a golf ball (and a wondrously side on high action) and saying sensible but incomprehensible things like, 'Get in line.'  'Keep that elbow high.'  But no school coaching, and no club participation, left an aching void and a skills gap that is there until this very day.

But cricket was still a keen interest.  He still had the hand knitted sweater. 

Period knitting programme
- isn't the kid just loving every moment of it? 
A present for FB's 12th birthday was a new full size bat - he chose a Slazenger Rohan Kanhai (a local after all) with a dark red grip.  Part of that present was also a pair of  what the shop said were the latest high tech batting gloves.  'As worn by all the top players.'  Now there's a phrase of which FB has been suspicious ever since.  These articles were brown and had 'state of the art' sausage padding on the fingers, but they weren't really gloves.  You placed your fingers individually inside a mitt kind of thing and the thumb piece dangled on a bit of elastic which was wrapped round the wrist before the thumb was inserted.  If they had anything going for them, it was that the hands did not get as hot as they would be enclosed in a glove.  Not that the risk of a long innings where that might be an issue was one that FB faced.  But fingers would pop out on the slightest pretext.  So perhaps it is not surprising that the design has not proved a lasting success. 

Sadly, cricket at Aberdeen Grammar School was a bit of a  non-event, so this wonder bat with all the Kanhai shots locked up in it was rarely used.   But occasionally a cricket team had to be pressed into service.  It was selected on roughly similar criteria to that at primary school, basically the rugby team minus the front row who, in those days before total rugby, wouldn't know what to do with anything resembling a ball.

FB remembers a match in Fraserburgh and his intense objective of hitting a six into the caravan site on the square leg boundary.  Epic fail of course.  But even in midsummer there is nothing between Fraserburgh and the Arctic, and FB thought it would be a bloody good idea if someone invented base layers. 

In some years, school house games were keenly fought and lasted all evening.  FB can remember first bowling in anger during these games and seemed to have more success than he deserved by simply aiming at the batter's toes.  He still does this and calls it an inswinger.

But as rugby dominated FB's sporting attention, cricket became a more passive, almost academic, activity.  His father's interest continued.

All through his childhood FB and his Dad played long games of rainy day cricket (not that it rained in Aberdeen so this name is an inappropriate mystery - presumably a joke).  This was played with nothing more than paper and pencil.  A page would be totally covered with figures 1,2,3,4,5,6 or relevant letters, b, lbw, c, etc.  Players would draw up their XIs and, after the toss had been won and lost, play would commence by closing the eyes and plumping a pin on the page.  (This may well be where FB gets the habit of closing his eyes while batting). The outcome of each ball would be recorded.  There are variations of this game with a bowling and a batting sheet, and using dice but his version made solo play possible.  The great attraction was that it allowed you to pick your own team - a hugely critical task.  FB can remember great partnerships he played with Sobers, Dexter, Popeye the Sailorman and Julie Andrews.  Another virtue of this game is that it taught the mechanics of scoring – a vital skill to learn and nurture.  Why cricket scoring is not on the school syllabus is one of life's dad mysteries.

During the Test summer, FB home from school and father home from work would be excused the dining table and would  hold their plates balanced perilously on their knees in front of the flickering black and white cathode ray tube of the TV to absorb the last 30 minutes play before lunch - which in those days was taken at 1.30 – or close of play at 6.30. 

And then Peter West would say in his cut glass tones 'Over to Jim Swanton for a summary of the session's play.'  And EW Swanton (why Jim? - a continuing mystery to FB) would roundly describe the events that had just been seen.   He would talk through a beautifully hand scribed score-card.   This was pre-instant replays, pre-video analysis, pre-Hawkeye, pre-hotspot, pre-snicko, pre-everything in fact.  At first the camera angle on TV coverage was not even behind the bowler's arm and the camera was fixed at one end.  We really have come a long way - but some of the magic may have been discarded along the way.  Because there was no replay, you paid attention both to the screen and to the words.    And in those summaries the words had to tell what happened, not support slow motion pictures. One thing that has never been bettered is the class of Swanton's summary of play - eloquent, precise and engaged in effortless and beautifully phrased sentences.  The names of that period still trip through FB's mind with Swanton’s (and later John Arlott’s) inflection - Simpson, Cowdrey, Barrington, Titmus, Trueman, Lawry, McKenzie, Sobers, Nurse on and on and on and on..........

But there was more to TV coverage than the Test matches.  Limited overs games began to be seen adn cricket came to dominate Sunday afternoons.  At first there were Cavaliers games – in which mixed teams of cricketers and what would now be called celebs played in charity matches – often for senior players’ benefits but also for external charities.  These were great fun – FB remembers Leslie Crowther in particular being a stalwart.  But among the teams on any day were retired players and FB remembers such stars as Tony Lock and Fred Rumsey in matches.

These gave way to more serious contests with the Gillette Cup, and who can forget the 1971 semi final at Old Trafford when Lancashire’s David Hughes came in at 8.45pm to blast 24 off an over to take them to the Final.  Lancs were unassailable in the limited overs game at that time and FB can still recite the majority of their team from Farouk Engineeer to micro batter Harry Pilling, from skipper Jackie Bond to David Lloyd, Bumble himself, Ken Higgs and Peter Lever. 

The John Player League then gave us limited over cricket every Sunday afternoon and showed us all the county grounds and their idiosyncracies.  The tree at Canterbury.  The football pitch at Northampton.  The sea view at Hove.  And grinnin' Jim Laker.  When it comes down to it, it was the BBC that maintained  and nurtured FB’s interest in cricket.  Unless he paid the Murdoch tax, he would be lost now.  What a sad indictment of broadcasting policy. 

As FB grew up, Test Match Special on Radio 3 was discovered and revered.  Long mornings in the summer holidays would be spent lounging in the garden - yes I'll mow the lawn today Dad - with John Arlott and Brian Johnston.  How could that ever be bettered?

FB's last cricketing in Aberdeen was in the summer when he left school. The AGSFP 3rd team being desperate, he was summoned as an enthusiastic eleventh fielder for a couple of games.  One of those was in the grounds of Balmoral where Her Majesty walked her corgis round the boundary.  FB remembers having to restrain potentially treasonous language at a misfield because of her presence.  But playing in front of the Queen is not something that many of Carlton's elite can claim.  Sadly the Queen affects to have no memory of this major sporting event.

And so the sun dims on these early days.  The stumps of a blissful childhood are drawn.  Youth is indeed wasted on the young.  The googlies and flippers of adolescence and adulthood have to be faced.  But what a base for an unending love of cricket.

Son - unlike father
FB feels a huge debt of gratitude to his Dad for having stimulated quietly and unobtrusively his interest  in this game.   His Dad now lives in Linlithgow and still wanders round Boghall  as he did at Mannofield all those golden summers ago. (Of course unlike subtropical Aberdeen of all those years ago it rains now and again in West Lothian.)  He still longs for the returnof Jim Laker to the England team. 
But Fantasy Bob also has a huge sense of lost opportunity that he never had coaching or more playing opportunities as he grew up.  What did he miss?  He could have been a contender............ Marlon Brando's words in On the Waterfront - tru for everyone in some way.

Fantasy Bob didn't come to play cricket regularly until several years later - anotehr story for another day - and found out how hard the skills are to develop. 

That is  why he will eulogise the junior set up at Carlton at any opportunity - it has given FB's son Neil all the structure he never had.  It will set him up for life.