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…