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Cricket Wonderful Cricket
By John Duncan
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2011 John Duncan
All rights reserved.
'... HE TURNED ROUND, THE BALL HIT HIM FULL IN THE MOUTH AND HE WENT DOWN LIKE A SACK OF SPUDS.'
John Alderton was born on 27 November 1940 in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. He is an actor, best known for his roles in Emergency Ward 10, Upstairs, Downstairs, Thomas and Sarah, My Wife Next Door, Wodehouse Playhouse and for the lead in the long-running series, Please Sir! He has often starred alongside his wife, Pauline Collins, and has made many West End stage appearances, including roles in Alan Ayckbourn's Confusions and Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party. His film appearances include Zardoz and more recently Calendar Girls, and he narrated the children's series Fireman Sam and Little Miss.
We meet in the kitchen of John's Hampstead home, the scene of many splendid gatherings after days of golf, cricket and any number of theatrical occasions with Pauline. A number of times, to my certain knowledge, reasonable quantities of fine chilled white wine have been consumed, but on this grey December morning it is to be mugs of hot coffee and warm memories of cricket.
Every Yorkshireman wants to play cricket for Yorkshire and John was no exception. But to play for the county you have to be born there and that was a big problem for John, a proud man of Hull. 'I wasn't born in Yorkshire. I blame Hitler for that because, in 1940, three weeks before I was born, that despicable man nearly ruined my life. The Luftwaffe used to fly over Hull to Manchester to drop their bombs, but they couldn't always find their targets. They would return down the Humber on their way back to Germany and offload their bombs on Hull. One night the city took an absolute hammering and they hit the local maternity hospital where I was supposed to be born. My mum had to go to Lincolnshire and I was born in Gainsborough – but only because there was no maternity hospital in Hull any more. So it's as simple as that; it was Hitler's fault that I never played for Yorkshire.
'Even so, when I was a kid, that was still the dream – that I was going to play for Yorkshire. I used to go to the county ground in Hull and always took my tennis shoes in case Yorkshire were a man short, always thinking that one day it would happen, that they would ask if there is anyone out there who plays a bit ... It was always a dream. They want your autograph, you're going to play for England ... And then ...
'So it was a case of hero-worshipping Hutton and anybody who was playing for Yorkshire. They were all my heroes, although I never saw Hutton in his pomp. Then there was the excitement of the Australians coming up to Leeds, seeing the great players. And that was the first time I was ever on television – running on to the field at lunchtime, patting these big, brown, sunburnt Australians on the back and beaming into the camera. So, for me, cricket and television came together for the first time in that little moment.'
Once he had come to terms with this earliest and gravest disappointment, John next had to accept that football was not where his sporting potential lay but there was ample compensation in his instant love of cricket. 'At school, I thought I could bowl a ball and keep wicket a bit, and be quite good. I didn't have to do a lot of running, because I never scored many runs, so I didn't have to get too fit! Nobody in the family had played – my dad certainly didn't. But I enjoyed the mechanics and the pace of it all – even though, when I was eight, I got a smack on the nose – broke my nose – because we didn't have helmets or anything and there were one or two who could ping it down. That didn't put me off so I kept going. Basically, I played a little bit of knock-about stuff, and school cricket for the first XI, but it was not really until some time after I came to London that I became a regular and reasonable player.'
My research shows that John, in his prime, was a more than reasonable player. Whether it was a product of modesty or memory, or a mixture of both, is a difficult judgement to make, but he has to be reminded that he once made a ton for the Lord's Taverners against a useful Sussex side at Hove. After the briefest of pauses, he chats on, seemingly unmoved by this achievement! 'Although I didn't play for a long time I eventually started to get involved in charity cricket and the Taverners, although there were other sides, like The Stage and the Cricket Society. To play with these heroes was a great thrill and, of course, what was so good about it was that you were in awe of these people. You'd see them – Denis Compton, Bill Edrich, Johnny Wardle, Eric Hollies and all these people – but they were also fans of what you did. There's always been that wonderful, wonderful mutual respect, even going back to the 1870s and 1880s, when there were charity benefit games. Half were show business and variety people and half were from international cricket. It's always gone on and the great players have always liked to be a part of that.
'You know that they all give their wickets away once they've scored a few runs – although Boycott never did, until he did to Cloughie [Brian Clough].' This prompts us to start shuffling through the papers that litter the kitchen table – the combined results of our pre-interview research – until one of us comes up with a scorecard. It is for a match played on 18 August 1975, at Lord's, between the President's XI of MCC and the Lord's Taverners. And there it is – Boycott caught and bowled Clough 68. John is suitably pleased. 'Yes, that was it. It was, I think, the Taverners' Silver Jubilee match on the main ground. We used to get big crowds because in those days there wasn't any other cricket, or any other sport, played on a Sunday.'
John played in the Taverners' match against Tiswas that Chris Tarrant describes elsewhere in this book, a match he remembers for his part in a very painful accident right at the start of his innings. Fred Rumsey was captain of the Tiswas team and he told me how he had been having problems with Chris, who had been nattering to a broadcasting colleague from ATV, Peter Tomlinson. Fred had to swap fielding positions with him and was still making his way to backward square leg when Josh Gifford bowled the first ball of the innings. John takes up the story.
'Josh bowled a long hop down the leg-side and I hit the ball out of the meat of the bat as hard as I could. It was going at a rate of knots towards the back of Fred's head as he was walking away, which would have been all right, because he's got a thick conk. Chris shouted, "Fred!" and when he turned round, the ball hit him full in the mouth and he went down like a sack of spuds. Absolutely spark out. We all ran over to him – there's blood everywhere – and when he came round, Fred said, "I've lost all me teeth." I said, "No you haven't, Fred – I've got some of them here!" He went to hospital, where he had 12 stitches and found he'd lost four teeth. He came back from the hospital and said to Ed Stewart and me, "That's great. There you are, having a party and chatting up the wife while I'm away." I bought him a bottle of nice red wine for each of the stitches: 12 bottles of red wine and four bottles of beautiful white wine for each of the 'pearlies' he had lost. But, from that day, he had to grow a moustache to cover the scar underneath, and that's the only injury Fred ever got in cricket.'
It may or may not have been poetic justice, but John himself was destined to sustain injury, when playing for Surrey in a benefit game at Beare Green, a small village near Dorking. Arnold Long, the regular wicketkeeper, didn't want to go behind the stumps but John readily agreed to do so. 'So, Robin Jackman is bowling and it is on a lively green wicket. Pat 'Percy' Pocock, fielding at slip, says, "John, wind him up. Go and stand up to the stumps and when he turns round, tell him he's not as quick as he used to be." So I go up to the stumps, Jackman turns round and I say, "Percy says you are not as quick as you were." He says, "Get back, get back." So I go backing off, the gag's over, but I don't back off quickly enough because the first ball broke my finger. I don't know this at the time but I know it hurts and it is swelling up. All the professionals are hurling the ball in like Exocets from the boundary, as they do. When we throw a ball in, it goes up in the air and comes down again, but when the pros throw, it seems to come in hard and flat. So it is hitting me, and banging me, and at the end of the day I can't get the glove off. Jackman asks, "What can I do for you? I'm terribly sorry." I told him not to worry and mentioned that I was due to play against him at the Oval. I said, "I've always wanted to hook a ball at the Oval. If I'm in and you're bowling, drop me one short, second ball of the over, and I'll be able to ..."
'So when this game does take place at Surrey's ground, he comes in and I know this ball is going to be the one. He digs it in so short, down by his own toes, that by the time the bouncer gets to me, it's coming down again! I'd gone through with the shot, made no contact, the bails are off and Pocock laughed 'til he wet himself. The umpire wasn't quick enough to call no ball, so off I walked, the only guy ever to be bowled at the Oval by a bouncer!
'In a match for Denis Amiss's benefit, I played against Warwickshire for Vic Lewis's XI. A young Bob Willis was bowling for them but he didn't quite know what charity cricket was all about. Michael Parkinson opens the batting and Willis comes haring in, big mop of hair all over the place, and fires one in at 150 miles an hour. Parky doesn't even see it, let alone play it. He's castled, stumps are all over the place and the umpire again doesn't shout no ball. I'm first wicket down and go out to bat and Parky, as he is passing me says, "Just wait! Just wait 'til it's Willis's benefit!" He was livid. So I'm thinking that by now somebody must have told Willis to slow down, but he comes tearing in, second ball of the match, and I don't see it as it brushes my eyebrows! And they all went up to him and said, "This is an actor, Bob. He doesn't bat – he's an actor, not a batter!" It hadn't entered his mind. So first they slowed him up, and then they took him off and sent him off to field on the boundary.
'I know I've mentioned it before but to be out there with these guys is just wonderful. Going back 40 years, for example, to a game for the Taverners against Old England, with such a rich mix of Test players and celebrities on both sides. Reg Simpson, Jack Ikin, Bill Edrich, Ken Barrington, Godfrey Evans, Johnny Wardle and Doug Wright were all in the England side. We had Don Kenyon, Peter Richardson, Jack Robertson, Doug Insole, David Frost, Brian Rix, Harry Secombe, Don Brennan. And I was in the midst of this array of stars, coming in at number four on the bill! It was simply a knockout to play with these guys. It was like meeting Hollywood stars when Pauline was nominated for an Oscar – and finding Gregory Peck sitting next to you!
'Talking of Godfrey Evans, he once took me to an event which was a part of Percy Pocock's benefit. Godfrey, after we'd done the speeches, suggested that we go to the Sportsman Club near Marble Arch. This is Godfrey all over: he always liked to gamble. I am not a gambler but we go, and there is nobody there. Tables are up and running and we go on to the roulette. We had 200 quid chips, only had three or four bets and in four minutes we had won £800 each. He said, "That's it, come on, let's go and have dinner and just enjoy ourselves."'
John's close relationship with Yorkshire cricket resulted in him being invited into the dressing room at Lord's by Brian Close. 'I think it was an MCC game against the Australians and it was Graham Gooch's first England trial. He got a big 70 or a little 80. Len Hutton was chairman of selectors at that time and young Gooch was 21 years old. He's sitting with just a towel wrapped around his waist and Hutton says he wants to talk to him. I'm also sitting there on the bench, with Goochie between me and Hutton, and I can hear it all as Hutton asks him who he plays for, where he fields, can he catch, and so on. This is the chairman of selectors – he should know all these things! Nevertheless, the England team is announced at 12 o'clock on the Sunday and Gooch is in against the Australians.
'That day, I'm playing in Essex somewhere, in a Lord's Taverners game. I'd played with most of my fellow team members before but not with Bill Edrich, who looks at me – and thinks I'm Graham Gooch! For some reason, he's got it into his head that I'm Graham Gooch, because I look a bit like him. So I go into the dressing room and he says "Congratulations – nice batting." And I'm thinking, I got 50 last week for the Taverners; maybe someone has told him. Then we chat about the Australians until we go out to field, where the ball is chasing me a bit, and he's looking at me, thinking, "He's not a natural athlete, throwing the ball in with a polythene arm." He's watching this and looking at me a bit quizzically, but he still thinks I'm Graham Gooch. We go out to bat together and he's going to have a look at the new England opener from the other end. It's a pudding of a pitch and I'm hitting it too early, and missing it and nicking it, and he's gone white, because he just can't believe what he's seeing. The following Thursday, Graham makes his England debut at Edgbaston. On the second day, he goes out to bat with England three down. Three balls later, he's back in the pavilion, having been caught behind for a duck. In the second innings he manages to last seven deliveries before Jeff Thomson removes him – again without a run to his name. Edrich is not surprised; he is absolutely not surprised. But it's not until months later that somebody tells him that it wasn't Graham Gooch that he had played with in Essex!'
John then moves swiftly from one case of mistaken identity to his suspicion that he might have been involved in another, of an altogether different kind. 'One day I get a call from someone who says he is the Queen's Equerry and that Her Majesty would like me to come to lunch. I immediately think that this is a mate winding me up and said, "Yeah, who is this? Who's calling?"
"No, this is the Queen's Equerry."
So I said, "Who else is coming?"
"I'm not allowed to say."
"Is the wife?"
"No, not invited."
"What dress?" I asked.
He said, "Buckingham Palace."
"No, no, I know where she lives – what do we wear?"
"Oh," he said, "just a lounge suit."
'On the day of the lunch, I suddenly see Colin Cowdrey's Jaguar, with its MCC number plate, parked near the Palace and I thought, "Right, I know you're going to lunch, otherwise you wouldn't be here." So I jump out of my taxi and say, "I know you're going, so give us a lift." Colin drives up to the gates, winds down his window, and the copper leans past him and says, "Good afternoon, Mr Alderton. I hope you have a very pleasant lunch." Colin is sitting there, staring forward, wanting to know where to park. "Well, mate," explains the copper, "what you do is you go through there, turn right and you'll get a sandwich and a cup of tea with the other drivers." Colin never batted an eyelid and when we told the Queen, she absolutely loved the story. She thought it was the funniest thing that one of her coppers should think Colin Cowdrey was my chauffeur. And that is why he always addressed me as "Dear Boss".'
Then a sudden change of direction from John, and an unexpected view on the physical dimensions of the game as he ponders the length of the cricket pitch. 'It was an arbitrary length, to do with the measurement of a chain, which was 22 yards. It was easy to measure because every ground apparently had a chain. Whether or not it was right for underarm bowling or any other type of bowling in 1780, I don't know, but that's what it was. It's remained 22 yards – but these guys are now bowling at 150kph! So it's not 22 yards any more, really – it's 20 yards, because the bowlers' front foot is on the popping crease and the batter is on the other popping crease. That's 10 per cent less, facing 100 per cent faster. So I think maybe somebody has to take a fresh look at the actual dimensions of the bat, the ball and the wicket. Should there be changes to get the balance right? It has still got magic, all the history, and if you change it, of course, the record books will need to be rewritten. In the old days, the wicket was two stumps with one bail and if the ball went between them, it was not out. And there wasn't a popping crease – there was a hole. The way you stumped people, or ran them out, was not to take the bails off but to get the ball in the hole before the batsman put his bat there. So wicketkeepers had their fingers ground to pulp by the ends of bats. Going back a long way, there was no such thing as a cylinder mower at Lord's. All you had was shears – or sheep! Whenever they had a match – Gentlemen v Players, or whoever against somebody else – it was all timed according to when the sheep came through St John's Wood. They put them in the ground overnight to take the grass off. But there was no way of getting it really short. The pitch was marked up anywhere the opposition's bowler wanted, and his choice would be where, just on a length, there was a load of crappy grass or a sod of earth, or something equally bad. If anyone made 10 runs, that was terrific!
Excerpted from Cricket Wonderful Cricket by John Duncan. Copyright © 2011 John Duncan. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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Table of Contents
SIR VICTOR BLANK,
H. R. H THE DUKE OF EDINBURGH KG, KT,
DAVID ENGLISH MBE, CBE,
LORD MACLAURIN OF KNEBWORTH,
THE RT HON SIR JOHN MAJOR KG, CH,
CHRISTOPHER MARTIN-JENKINS MBE,
BARRY NORMAN CBE,
SIR MICHAEL PARKINSON CBE,
NICHOLAS PARSONS OBE,
SIR TIM RICE,
SIR MARTIN SORRELL,
RICHARD STILGOE OBE,
CHRIS TARRANT OBE,
GRAHAM TAYLOR OBE,
GLOSSARY OF PLAYERS,
BY THE SAME AUTHOR,