A Birmingham Weekend

After a weekend of summer sunshine and heat, almost to the point of oppressiveness, I woke this morning to the comfortably familiar sound of July rain, falling steadily from a grey sky. It took me back to a weekend away in Birmingham, thirty years ago.

Birmingham sounds like an unusual destination for a weekend away. I don’t like the city, and I don’t like the action, but Lancashire were playing a County Cricket match against Warwickshire at Edgbaston, and I never minded an opportunity to visit Nostalgia & Comics (from where I acquired my Cerebus no 1, by trading a complete set of the Claremont-Cockrum/Claremont-Byrne X-Men and still got ripped off) and the still much-missed Compendium Books, the best second-hand SF bookshop I’ve ever visited.

In addition to all this, I had a good mate back then who’d not long since moved out of Manchester to train to become an Addiction Counsellor. He was now working in the Midlands and staying at the Nurse’s Home attached to a hospital in North Birmingham. So we set it up that he would give me directions to find the Nurse’s Home from the A34, so I could drop off my overnight bag and he could lend me a Birmingham A-Z, and I’d find my way back there after the cricket.

I made a bright, early start and was at the Nurse’s Home for tennish, picking up the A-Z and my mate and one of his fellow residents, and driving them into the centre of Birmingham.

Compendium and N&C were handily close together, a walk of less than ten minutes. There can’t have been much in there to interest me because I ended up splashing out on the new Tolkien History of Middle Earth, edited by his son, Volume 5, The Lost Road and other writings, which was something like £20 even then. I tucked it into my shoulder bag and drove on to Edgbaston.

I visited that ground a handful of times in the Eighties, in the first occasion to watch the Saturday of the Third Test against the West Indies, and then a couple of times with Lancashire. Cricket grounds have their own feel and appeal. Old Trafford I love, of course, and despite its several flaws, and I’m not even including the preponderance of Yorkshiremen about, I have always liked Headingley. Trent Bridge has always been a delight, but Lords leaves me cold, too much smugness in the air. Edgbaston is a small, oddly mis-matched ground, no two parts of which look alike and I’m not keen on it.

It was a typical, relaxed cricket day for me, kicked back in the stand, idly diverting my attention between the cricket and my new book, with a bit more time for the latter than I’d really wanted when the rain came over in the mid-afternoon, and the infamous ‘Brumbrella’ was winched out.

This was a unique extended tarpaulin that in the event of rain could be winched out to cover the entire playing field, except for one awkwardly-angled corner. It stretched out prophylactically and I eased back and read.

For a time, I got talking to a couple of home supporters, about their ground, and ours. They were pleasingly loyal to Edgbaston, well aware of its flaws, but content with it because it was theirs, as they should be. They eventually left, but I stayed because I’d travelled all this way to be here, and I had nothing else to do, and I was content to read and absorb the atmosphere. If I have to be somewhere when it rains, a cricket ground is a very pleasant place to be.

By the time play resumed, the ground was virtually empty. I wandered round, looking at the pitch from different angles. In one corner, opposite the Pavilion End, was a high-banked stand and I was at the top of that when Graeme Fowler struck a perfect flat cover drive, straight to the fence below me. It was one of those shots, all along the ground, where the ball hits the fence before the sound of the shot leaves your ears, and the fielders didn’t move because there was not enough time for them to move.

By close of play, the evening had become sunny and dry, and the sky and the air was a rich, warm gold. It was perfect weather for driving in, looking at what was around me, exploring a strange place. If I couldn’t be in the Lake District, at least I was somewhere I didn’t know, and I decided impulsively that, instead of using the A-Z to plot a course back to the Nurse’s Home, I would just point the car in its general direction and set off.

It didn’t take me very long to have no idea where I was or where I was going. In other circumstances, this would have qualified as being lost, but this was practically the purpose of everything. I found myself heading out of the city towards the south west and the M5 and curving back in again. At one point, I found myself driving along Handsworth main street. It was a slow, straight drive, full of people on both sides, and not a white face to be seen.

This was a new experience. I wasn’t disturbed, or angry, or threatened, or resentful, or anything. I was merely curious as to how far I could go without seeing another white face. It must have been at least a mile, of continuous crowds.

I left Handsworth behind me and motored on, still relishing the driving conditions. This couldn’t last forever and, after something not far short of two hours of wandering, I reluctantly decided that I couldn’t carry on like this forever. I looked for a quiet place where I could pull up, out of the way, find myself in the A-Z, and work out the route home.

There was a turn up ahead. I pulled round to the left, started to slow down, and then burst out laughing. I recognised this road. I had driven down it this morning. The hospital was about a quarter mile down the road, at the bottom. All that driving around, amusing myself, had ended with me getting where I wanted to be, as if by dead reckoning!

We didn’t do anything that evening. I remember sitting around in a bit of a group, including five or six of the nurses, and chatting. One of them in particular I remember, because although she wasn’t the prettiest, and she said very little, a couple of years my mate married her, and they had three children.

We didn’t sit up too late, and I went off to my room and went to bed.

In the morning, I woke about sevenish to the sound of rain. Steady, heavy, unceasing rain. I lay in bed, listening to it for some time before going and looking out of the window. It was falling unchangingly, into the trees dotted around the gardens. There were no gusts, no winds, no bursts, just a long hard fall, and the sound of it was a constant bass note drumming outside the window.

We had no plans, and I didn’t know where my mate’s room was, so after a while I dressed and lay on the bed, reading Tolkien and listening to the rain. It went on and on, for hours, without changing. It must have been after midday before there was a knock on my door.

The rain meant there was nothing to do, so after a drink, and a bit of lunch, I was going to make a dart for it. very few people were about, just one of the nurses that hadn’t been with us last night, and we invited her to join us.

I was working full-time as a Solicitor then, and relatively flush with cash, and thus quite happy to buy a round of drinks, especially as the young lady was quite pretty (not that I had any hopes, let alone expectations). My mate warned me against it: the nurses were badly paid even that far back, and didn’t tend to accept rounds as they couldn’t buy them themselves, and had their pride.

We stayed an hour at the pub. It was still raining, now at least six hours, without any variation in its intensity. I wondered whether there’d be any effect on the drive north, but I got home without incident, taking things slowly and easily. The rain was calming and stilling, the driving easy.

It seemed that the rain was a purely local phenomenon. In London, at Lords, the MCC Bicentennial match, and a Rest of the World XI, had gone on uninterrupted, and the BBC News had an item from the game that I watched with interest, apparently an amazing run out. Given that this was the famous instance where Roger Harper ran out Graham Gooch, it was actually deserving of mention as a news item, and when it came up on screen, I was in awe and disbelief.

Harper was a West Indian cricketer, 6′ 6″ tall, whip-thin and one of the most athletic and agile fielders the world has ever seen. Unusually, he bowled offspin, approaching from the left at an acute angle, almost hopping into the crease and delivering the in an astonishing arc that saw it come out of virtually the small of his back and over his head. After releasing the ball, Harper fell away, quickly, to the left.

Gooch was well-set, with over 120 runs under his belt. He came down the wicket to the ball, played a crisp ground shot, with forceful pace to the right of the bowler’s wicket, his momentum taking him about two yards out of his ground. In ordinary circumstances, the shot would have flashed past the stumps and raced to the fence, with no fielders in position to intercept it. Gooch was already slowing down, secure in another boundary. Except.

Except that Harper spun out of his movement left, shot across right, bending double, his right hand trailing the ground, taking the hard-hit ball in his palm, lifting it up to his shoulder in a single flowing movement and hurling it back down the pitch towards Gooch’s stumps. Gooch, seeing this, knowing he had no chance to get back, was turning as if to throw himself back, diving into the path of the throw, but it was two fast for him and he was still turning when Harper’s throw flashed past him and hit the stumps.

It was an unbelievable moment. If I’d been at Lords to see it, in real time, it would have been like the time, six years later, when I saw Shane Warne bowl THAT ball: it would have been two fast, too furious to comprehend, and I would have needed to go home to watch the TV replay, to understand what I had seen.

And that was my weekend in Birmingham, when it rained for hours unbrokenly, like the rain with which I began this morning, summer rain in the best British fashion, going about its business unfussily, just pouring it all down.

Running-Out the Bicentenery

Roger Harper was unusual for a West Indies Test Bowler in the Eighties: despite being 6’5″ and athletic with it, he was a spin bowler. And a decent one too, if statistics are your measure. Though he only took 46 wickets in his Test career, his average was greater than the legendary West Indian spinner, Lance Gibbs, and he would surely have taken more if he’d not been playing in the era of four quicks, when his was primarily used to bottle up an end whilst one of the pacemen took a breather.

Harper did not bowl in any classical style, running in from an angle and, as he hit the crease, leaping in the air as he brought his bowling arm over in a massive, wheeling arc, from behind the small of his back, his hand at delivery near enough eight feet off the ground and landing the ball on impossible lengths.

But, like such legendary names as Colin Bland and Jonty Rhodes, Roger Harper was best known for his fielding. For such a tall man, he was incredibly fast and limber, and his reactions were fast beyond belief. In one Test against England, when he was fielding at a widish gulley to a left-handed batsman, the ball was hit, fast and uppish, over his head. I say over his head: it was way over the head of any normal fielder and four all the way from leaving the bat. But Harper, from a standing position, leapt straight up, like an Apollo space mission launching from Florida only faster, and caught the ball one-handed, his arm stretched ramrod straight above his head.

Having only ever been out once through no fault of my own, I know the sickening feeling of hitting the ball clean, sweet and unstoppable, only to see it caught, and have an innings of promise ended abruptly. Roger Harper did that to a lot of people.

The one we all remember took place in the MCC Bi-Centenery match, at Lords in 1987, between the MCC and the Rest of the World. I was not there to see this, so this is not an I Was There in the usual manner. But I’m reminded of it because of today’s Guardian feature in their ‘Joy of Six’ series, which offers up six moments of stunning fielding, and which doesn’t include this.

MCC, batting first, were rolling along nicely at 254-3, the current England captain, Graham Gooch, having already scored a century and looking booked in at 117 not out. Harper bowled: Gooch came a couple of paces down the wicket and drove the ball, flat and hard and very straight. It might have hit the non-striker’s wicket, it might have missed it and shot through for another four, for this was one of those classical straight drives that would have run to the boundary in a matter of seconds.

And Gooch was already relaxing and slowing his forward momentum, reckoning in absolute confidence that he would not need to run. And he would have been right with any other bowler in the World, let alone the Rest of it.

But because of Harper’s unusual action, he did not fall as far away to the left as an off-spinner would normally have done, and because of the speed of his reactions he had assessed the shot Gooch was shaping to play and had stopped himself on the popping crease. And when Gooch played the shot, Harper moved, back and across, bending his 6’5″ body to drop his right hand into the path of the ball, a speeding ball with tremendous impetus, to grasp it in his hand brushing the turf and in one fluid, unchecked movement, straighten up with the hand rising above shoulder height, turning the momentum of the ball into an instant response and hurling the ball back down the wicket, spearing towards Gooch’s stumps.

Gooch was well-set. He had 117 runs already and looked good for another hundred on top. He was in his pomp. He’d hit a four, no two ways about it, until in an instant of shock he saw Harper reaching for the ball, and a shitload of panic dropped into his head out of a cloudless sky, because he was two yards out of his grounds and was suddenly as vulnerable as Smaug the dragon after Bilbo spotted the chink in his armour. The pace of the ball was such that he had no earthly chance of regaining those two yards. All he could do in the time he had to save himself was to turn back towards the wicket, and even then Harper was too fast and Gooch could only go sideways and start to fall.

Maybe it was a primitive urge for safety, perhaps if he fell across the path of the ball and blocked its path he would be safe (except from the inevitable appeal for obstructing the wicket that would have immediately followed). No doubt it came from the safe place as the instinctive move, six years later, at Old Trafford, that made Gooch swing at a delivery falling onto his stumps and swat it away with his hand, incurring dismissal for handling the ball.

Whatever it was, it didn’t work. Harper was just too fast. The ball flew under Gooch’s frame, smashing the wickets, leaving him kneeling in submission.

As I said, I wasn’t there to see it. Instead, I saw it on the News: an on-field moment in an essentially friendly game of Cricket, picked out and given its own spot on the nightly national News. These were the old days, the BBC days, where one fixed camera was used, from one end, and every other over the batsman’s stance saw his facing away and the bowler running towards the viewer, and anything that happened in front of the wicket was invisible: thankfully, we had at least progressed to a second camera point, at the other end, if only for replays from a startlingly different angle.

It was unbelievable to see. If I’d been there at Lords, as I would be six years later, at Old Trafford when Shane Warne bowled the Ball of the Century, I doubt I would have truly understood what it was I would have seen until I saw it on TV. It was fast, too fast for instant comprehension. Sometimes it’s like that.

I’ve seen that run-out many times since, studied each component of it. We don’t get to see that in real life, can’t replay time to let us truly see what we have seen. And it didn’t make the list: inconceivable.

So, for once I wasn’t there. But if I had been…

The Ball of the Century

I hardly need set the scene for this recollection, do I? The title identifies the time, the place, the people, the moment. It brings up the picture in all cricket fans’ minds, that twenty years after, still has the power to awe us.
But this blog is for more than just the already aware, so let me describe what I’m talking about.
It was 4 June 1993, after lunch, on the Second Day of the First Test between England and Australia, at Old Trafford, a somewhat dark, overcast day, with the threat of rain at several points. I was, as usual, holidaying from work, taking the full five days of the Test, and sat in the Pavilion. Australia had won the toss and elected to bat, and had scored 289 all out. England began their reply comfortably enough, scoring 71 for the first wicket, which had brought former captain Mike Gatting to the wicket.
I confess to not liking Gatting, especially as an England captain. Everybody spoke of his qualities as a leader, that the players would follow him anywhere, without ever conceding that he had no idea where to lead his team. He’d played under Mike Brearley and hadn’t even absorbed Brearley’s simplest maxim – if it isn’t working, try something else. Nor could I admire his habit of deliberately misunderstanding the question whenever he was called upon to defend himself over the way he had thrown away his wicket, and England’s chances of success, in the 1989 World Cup Final against Australia.
Personally, I didn’t believe he deserved his place, but I wasn’t a Selector, and have never suffered from the apparent belief of Selectors everywhere that past success demands a player be selected forever. That he was to be at the wicket added a personal pinch of spice for me.
Australia had brought over a bowler, a leg-spinner, who was being boosted as the next greatest thing. And a leggy as well: that art had been virtually dead until Abdul Qadir opened the tomb and started entertaining everyone. His name was Shane Warne, and he looked like a bleached beach-bum and surfer, and in his only Tour Match to date, against Worcestershire, Graeme Hick had taken him apart quite thoroughly. So, another Aussie wonderboy who would prove to be unable to make an impression outside his native land, then. They got us with that one, and good.
Border decided that it was time to bring Warne into the attack, his first Test over in English conditions. They placed the field, somewhat conventionally. Gatting, the master of spin, the aggressor and smiter of the twirly men. Except in one mean and malicious heart, sat before the Pavilion, everyone was mentally settling in for some lusty blows from Fatty Gatting.
So Warne started ambling in for his first ball. Just an aimless few paces, wandering forward, before springing into his delivery stride: pretty much what I did when I bowled, in fact! Gatting clearly decided it should be left alone and didn’t play at the ball.
But wait! The Aussie slip cordon and the keeper were roaring, and sprinting forward, waving their arms! Warne was celebrating. Gatting was standing there, looking the picture of What The Hell. Was he out? He was out? How the Hell…?
Those people who were sat in Old Trafford with something like a straight on view of the wicket already knew what Warne had done: the rest of us, including the whole Pavilion, were left to look at the big digital screen for a replay of what we had witnessed but been unable to interpret. Even Gatting, heading back to the Pavilion, stopped to look at just what had been done to him.
These early big screens were far from HD, and often the ball was visible only as a dark blur, or smear, if it could be seen at all. It took two replays to comprehend it. One to simply stare in disbelief, the other to begin to look, with cold calculation, at what it was we were seeing.
Warne brought his arm over, released the ball. It was the prototypical loosener, pitched on leg stump and then drifting further out in its trajectory to pitch well wide of leg: imagine into existence a second set of stumps, continuing the line, and this would have pitched middle stump on set 2. And then it leapt, yes, leapt, spun viciously back on itself, spat past the precautionary edge of Gatting’s bat and hit off stump on the corporeal set.
Could a ball do that? I mean, it had, but it had never done that before, not in my life or my experience. In the moment of that first replay, there was a strange sound from the crowd, myself included. It was shock, awe, appreciation, all mixed into the sound of a moment of passage from past into future,
It was just a ball, just a bloody good leg-spinner, but in that moment, Shane Warne won not merely the First Test but the entire series, and he shifted Cricket itself into a future where, having shown what could be done, he had initiated a furious race to do it again. We have lived in Shane Warne’s world since then, and cricket has been immeasurably better for it.
And it was his first bloody ball too! What would he do when he’d warmed up?
The first thing he went on to show was that that was not a fluke, as if, in some corners of desperate English minds there was the faintest of hopes that it might have been some sort of freak ball, something that could never happen again. But later in that innings, he bowled one to Alec Stewart that pitched on leg stump of the imaginary set and came back so far it passed outside off stump of the real set.
The two sides were playing in different dimensions from that point on. The crowd was intent upon Warne’s every delivery, none of this relax and wait for him to come in and bowl, every delivery could be something unforgettable and no-one wanted to miss any of it. From the Pavilion, we were all helplessly reliant on the big screen to show us what we were watching. I remember laughing my head off, unable to control myself, when Warne induced Gooch to throw his wicket away with a hasty swipe to mid on: it wasn’t that ball that got Gooch out but the half dozen before it, the balls that Warne were making boom every which way, and Gooch unable to pick anything, until the sloppy full toss came straight at him and his desperate resistance broke in the chance of a hittable ball, an actual hittable ball, and he bagged it straight to the fielder.
Oddly, the same game offered another I was There moment on the final day. England were batting for the draw, hoping to hold out, and generally managing with relative comfort, thanks to the captain’s innings by Graham Gooch, which had already reached 133 runs. And in comes the gloriously moustached Merv Hughes, with his mincing, almost tiptoe run and his upper body bulk, and unleashing a delivery. Gooch tries to cut but it’s too close to his body. He chops the ball down into the ground behind him: it bounces to waist height and drops back. It’s going to hit the stumps, but Gooch sweeps his right arm at him, knocks it away off his forearm, and I’m going ‘oh shit’ and that’s before the Aussies go up.
He’s out. I’ve never seen it happened, but I know the Laws, he’s handled the ball. He could have knocked it away with his bat, and it would have been Hit Twice but he’d have been ok because of In Defence of Wicket. He’d have been safe with the back of his hand, as long as it held the bat. But his arm was free and he’s used his forearm and he’s Out. Only the sixth English player in Test History to be out Handled the Ball.
Dickie Bird knows it’s out, the Aussies know it’s out, but he tries to give them the chance to withdraw it, to not do this, for some, unbelievable reason to not claim the wicket of a top rank opponent holding out against victory, for a perfectly legitimate, merely rare dismissal. Are you sure you want to do this? he asks out there, as the crowd waits in suspense for a decision. But he’s out, clear as day, and why should Australia withdraw? So Goochie has to walk, and with him goes the faint hope of denying the Aussies victory.
Two incidents in one memorable Test. The Ball of the Century and a Handled the Ball, in one game. Almost an embarrassment of riches. You don’t expect such things to come to you in clusters, but they did, and I was there.