Once a Bear, always a Bear

Here’s a handy tip. If you are planning to break down on the M5 in the middle of an almighty rainstorm on a Bank Holiday Monday, try not to do it when there’s a vomiting pregnant lady in your passenger seat. It really takes the gloss off that winning feeling.

Let me start at the beginning. It’s September 4th, 1993. An eight-year-old boy is in the top tier of the Warner Stand at Lord’s, peering through the gloom to make out the figure of Roger Twose spooning the ball over cover point. Minutes later Dermot Reeve lifts the NatWest trophy, sparking a lifelong obsession with Warwickshire County Cricket Club.

Fast forward to August 2014. The little lad looks on as another piece of silverware, sponsored by that very same bank, is raised aloft by Varun Chopra on a soaking plastic podium in a soggy corner of a freezing Edgbaston. The time is approaching 10pm. The crowd have been waiting for this moment for more than 12 hours. For the little lad, it is more like 21 years.

IMG_3701People talk about memories fading over time, growing blurred and out of focus. But back when my love for cricket was taking shape, long before HD TV, everything was happening in technicolour and surround-sound. I would pore over programmes, scorecards and autographs, absorbing every detail, feeling every crack of willow, every bead of sweat. In the 1993 semi-final, Reeve collided head-on with Somerset keeper Piran Holloway, leaving them both flat out on the square. I wasn’t there and I’m not sure I even watched it on TV, but I can still hear the ringing in my ears.

The glory years are well documented. Woolmer the mastermind, Reeve the talisman; Donald the enforcer, Lara the genius. Loyal journeymen like Small, Munton, Moles, Ostler, Penney and Piper. The champagne kept flowing and the trophies kept coming. As the team song went, wailed out of tune to ‘Perfect’ by Fairground Attraction, “It has to be…Warwick!”

The descent was quick and painful. Nick Knight dragged us through the turn of the century on willpower alone. In 2000, as we lost a rain-affected Lord’s final to Gloucestershire, we roared Donald on as he cupped his ears provocatively to the Edrich stand. It felt like the noise would make Old Father Time fall off his plinth. Watching it back on TV we could barely be heard.

I lost interest as I moved away to become a student, frowning wearily at online scorecards as a succession of captains tried and failed to establish a new identity for the club. There were moments of light – Championships in 2004 and 2012, a one-day trophy in 2010 – but my passion was fading. I had discovered drama and girls and guitars and snakebite, and later work and trains and smart trousers. There was no room for cricket.

IMG_3707I have never cared much for national identity. I don’t revel in England’s green and pleasant land, extol the virtues of a full English breakfast or grow misty-eyed at half-imagined memories of Shakespeare, Churchill or Princess Diana. I’m not familiar with the furthest branches of my family tree, and don’t have much desire to go digging for its roots. Since leaving Birmingham I have moved around a lot, every trip back to the Midlands just a smoggy reminder of awkward pubescence. I was almost embarrassed to call it my home.

I will turn 30 in a few months, and now realise I have measured out more than two-thirds of my life through cricket. On Saturday morning I drove my wife and unborn child to Edgbaston and parked in the very same spot my dad used when he took me to my first Test Match in 1991. It was a thumping victory for West Indies over an England team featuring Ramprakash, Lewis, DeFreitas, Hick and Atherton. The programme is available on Ebay, but I don’t need it. It was all ingrained into my six-year-old head.

IMG_3705I don’t remember much about what happened on Saturday evening. I watched most of the final through my fingers, squinting anxiously at the required run rate more often than the action itself. Flintoff hit two sixes and everyone around us went nuts. They saw the headlines. The journalist in me admitted what a story it would be. I sank in my seat. But he couldn’t finish it off, and then it was over.

Fireworks exploded at the city end. We elbowed our way round to the blue spaceship where the crumbling old pavilion used to be. Back in the day we would run on to the pitch and look up as a sweat-drenched Reeve – he always looked exhausted, whatever his role in the match – celebrated another triumph. They don’t do balconies anymore. Now they do selfies. I got one with William Porterfield. I wanted to grab the trophy and run away. Instead I patted him on the shoulder and muttered “Well played”.

I left empty-handed but for a bundle of programmes, a memory card full of fuzzy photographs and a sore head. On the journey home to Cornwall we came to a juddering halt somewhere between Bridgewater and Taunton, a pair of old plastic Lidl bags bearing the full brunt of my wife’s morning sickness. “Don’t worry,” she gasped between heaves, shivering on the hard shoulder. “At least the Bears won.”

IMG_3715This was about more than just another game of cricket. This was my childhood, my heritage, the little lad rediscovering a lost treasure. People love to disparage my home city, and there was a time when I would have joined in with them. Now I want to puff out my chest and defend its honour. Whatever name they attach to the team, it doesn’t matter. I want to wrap that bear and ragged staff in my arms and protect him from the world. You don’t have to be a trained psychologist to work out the hidden meaning. Witnessing your team winning a trophy as an eight-year-old is impressive. Not many people can claim to have done so at the age of minus six months. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many. Come on you Bears.

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