Cricket is an astonishingly difficult game to define for those who do not instinctively understand its subtleties, its rhythms and, most of all, its length. Worst of all, when you show them what the game is capable of producing, the skill and drama inherent in its every moment, they will say that yes, they’d be more interested in it if it were like that all the time.
But one of the fundamental aspects of cricket is that it is not like that all the time, but the potentiality is always there for it to be like that at any time.
One superb example is the ultra-rare circumstances of a hat trick. For those who are corrupted by too much exposure to football, a hat trick is not three of something. It is very simple and very precise. It is three wickets taken by the same bowler in three consecutive deliveries. In forty years of watching and playing cricket, I have only seen hat tricks on three occasions.
The joy and brilliance of a hat trick lies in the intensity of the moment of potential, of anticipation and desire, that covers the very short space and time between the second and third balls of the achievement. No matter what the state of the game, the drama or otherwise of the situation, the first wicket is, of itself, commonplace. Even if it only happens, at most, twenty times during a game, it’s one of the objects of the game: we expect it.
It is only when the next delivery takes a wicket too that the excitement reaches an immediate height. The second wicket is essential: without it there is nothing to expect. But it’s real function is to open that door onto the vision of a future memory, a moment you’ll take deep within you, for ever, if only…
But only is all too often only. How many times have we seen two-in-two’s, been brought in an instant to that line? There’s no longer any relaxation in the ground, no somnolence, no leaning back and letting the game flow. Everyone cranes their necks, concentration is shifted, with laser-intensity, on the moment that might be to come.
Then the batsman blocks the ball, or sways out of its way, or knocks it away for runs and it’s over, the bubble gone, and everyone falls back in denied tension. The game returns to its base state. But oh, when it doesn’t…
The first hat-trick I ever saw as it happened was bowled by me. It wasn’t exactly something to boast about, given the circumstances, though the figures – O0.5 M0 R1 W4 – are fabulous. There’s a more detailed account of it in my book My Brilliant Sporting Career for those who might be interested.
The second came in a game in which I was playing, for the Nottingham Articled Clerks in August 1979, and I had nothing to do with it. Thankfully. It was taken by Nigel Kay, our left-arm spinner and, if not our best bowler that summer, then certainly in the top two.
We played twenty overs a side after work and, as far as I can recall, the Articled Clerks were batting second. If I’m right, we must have had the game wrapped up by the time the last over started, with our opponents seven wickets down and with no realistic prospect of winning. Then Nigel got a wicket with his fourth ball, and another with his fifth.
What a situation. Last man in, last ball, last wicket and hat trick ball all in one. Our captain pulled us all in to surround the bat – I was one of two fielders in the decidedly short covers – and I didn’t know who was more nervous: their Number Eleven, ringed around by all of us, or me, in case the ball came in my direction at catchable height, at which point it was almost certain there would be no hat trick.
And Nigel spun it in, the batsman prodded desperately, it came off the edge and Rob Penna clutched it, throat height, at third slip, to give Nigel his deserved hat trick and get me off any nasty hooks.
But only once have I been through the full, breath-holding experience.
Flash forward to the summer of 1995, a summer of blazing skies, sun and heat and a West Indies tour. These were my second favourites: I marginally preferred Ashes tours, because of that visceral, deep-seated rivalry, but the WIndies were the only other side for whom I took off the entire Test to watch. Even in these diminished days – no matter how good he was, Brian Lara was, at the last, not Viv Richards – I waited hungrily to see them play. Even though we could now put up a fight against them, these were days when partizanship died on me: five days of cavalier cricket, fiery fast bowling, lusty striking, the sheer joy of watching the West Indies engage in playing their natural game: this was what I came to see.
Old Trafford was hosting the Fourth Test, to which England came 2-1 down, results having alternated thus far. England’s team included the Derbyshire all-rounder, Dominic Cork, winning his third cap, and having already making his mark on the series by taking the best bowling figures for an England débutant, 7 – 43 at Lords, as well as falling only 7 runs short of a début century.
I wasn’t having that great a summer. Three times in six weeks, my car had been broken into or had a window smashed whilst I was at the cricket, and it now seemed to be targeted, so for the rest of the season I kept it away. On the first Sunday after that decision, I’d parked it in back of Piccadilly Station and used the new Metro the rest of the way. I’d hardly been in Old Trafford for half an hour, having described my plight to my friends by way of explanation for being late, when there was a loud, reverberating bang from the City Centre. “Knowing my luck,” I said, “that’s probably my car going up.” (Thankfully, the joke did not rebound on me by coming true, though I did worry when I got back to Piccadilly…).
For the Test it was public transport all the way: bus to Manchester, Metro to what was still, then, the Warwick Road Station. Despite the freedom to drink all day, I brought Diet Coke: initially two 1.5 litre bottles but, when the days scorched down so hard, two 2 litre bottles, which were still only just sufficient to keep me hydrated until close of play.
Travelling was extra difficult on the Fourth Day, Sunday 30 July, but I was in place in the Pavilion well before start of play., basking in the sun and trying not to down too much Coke too early.
West Indies started play on 159 – 3, still 62 runs away from making England again, but with the batting power ahead of them to make that a formality and perhaps, by close of play, put themselves into a position where they could set England a last day target. That vanished in the first over of the day.
It was bowled by Dominic Cork from the Stretford End. Richie Richardson and Brian Lara added a single apiece in the first three deliveries. Off the fourth, Richardson managed to drag the ball onto his stumps whilst trying to leave alone one outside off stump. A noisy crowd was appreciative of such a quick start.
Junior Murray took guard at the Warwick Road End. Cork returned to his mark, bustled in again off that curved run, swept his arm over fierce and fast and rapped him on the pads. The roar went up in anticipation as Umpire Mitchley raised his finger. Two-in-two.
There was no indolence in the ground. This was a hat trick ball and everyone turned to the field of play, the vast majority I’d guess being like me, who’d never seen one and we’re once more caught up on the hook of that moment of is-it-this-time?, tuned higher because this was England with a Test series to level, and this is still the first over of the day. Bloody hell.
Carl Hooper wandered out, calmly took guard, looked round, keeping his nerves to himself. Cork started his run-up. The tide of sound from a crowd building their throats up to a roar rose with every step, and he was delivering the ball, and it pitched and shot through, and it smashed Hooper on the pads and that roar crested and broke into a collective howl of exultation, and I, in the Pavilion, sat at cover point, at ninety degrees, the absolute worst position to judge a leg before, was on my feet and roaring, because I knew, I KNEW he was out, that it was foursquare, it was plum, I’d just seen a hat trick after all these years, and Mitchley’s finger, overcome by the explosion of sound and fury, came up, even if, on sober recollection, that ball might have been sliding down the leg side a fraction, but fulfilment had come for once on that screw of tension that exists between the second ball and the third. A hat trick. The West Indies blown apart, their guts dragged out of them. And the second over to come.
England went on to win. Brian Lara held things together superbly, ninth out for 145, setting England a target of 94 to win, which they dithered over but won after losing four wickets, saving the game from going over into its Final Day. And there was the history of it: only England’s eighth hat trick and only the twenty-second in all Test Cricket: the first since Peter Loader almost forty years before and only the second since the Second World War: only the second home hat trick of the Twentieth Century.
None of which changes what is the greatest significance of that moment: it was my first hat trick. My only hat trick. It turned a Test Match on its head, it was the greatest start to a day there has ever been but most of all, I was there to see it. I was there.