Tag Archives: Flintoff

Facing up to a dangerous obsession

By Sam Blackledge

 

I need help. I think cricket is taking over my life.

It has become so bad that I’m seeing everything that happens to me through the prism of the game.

I wake up ready to face a new day and peer through the curtains. Ominous clouds suggest a patchy session; bright sunshine could mean a chance to make hay.

I commute from dressing room to crease. Deep breaths, getting my head right, picturing the first delivery from my boss, angled across my desk and shaping in a fraction.

In the office, I am Nasser Hussain at Lord’s in 2004. A self-centred, driven senior player, too wrapped up in his own career crisis to enjoy being part of a young and exciting team.

I keep my head down, focus on grinding out another ugly win and occasionally let slip a grumpy expletive when something – or someone – malfunctions.

Sometimes I know it’s not my day before I even take guard. My confidence is shot, my technique is in tatters. I can’t get moving. Maybe I want it too much. Think late period Ramprakash, or poor old James Vince and his recurring cover drive.

The phone rings. I leave it alone and hope I can get off strike.

Occasionally it clicks. I’m invincible Vaughan in ’02, fearless Freddie in ’05. Pitching ideas to management, zinging one-liners to colleagues and hitting my deadlines right between the eyes. Everything is coming off the middle of the bat – I never realised the game could be this easy.

Back home I am Graeme Hick. A real trier, essentially a good guy, but prone to silly mistakes which provoke howls of exasperation in those around me.

I can almost hear the commentators now. “He’s put the washing machine on the wrong setting again.” “What a waste. So much talent.”

See what I mean? It’s getting worse.

When I was a kid I would spend hours in the back garden bowling to imaginary opponents. Walking down the street, I would turn my arm over with a Warne-esque cock of the wrist, follow through and glare at the lamppost which wasn’t good enough to edge my invisible zooter.

I thought it was just a childhood phase. I would grow out if it. Real life is more important than silly old cricket.

Anyway, must dash. My wife wants me to mow the lawn, take out the bins and hoover the staircase.

I wonder if I can claim the extra half hour?

This piece was first published at The Full Toss.

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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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The Ashes: First Test day 5 – Out of range

SOMETIMES it’s the things we don’t witness, rather than the things we do, which stick in the memory. On the final day of the second Test at Edgbaston in 2005, I was standing outside a small theatre in Edinburgh waiting to take part in a dress rehearsal for a play. Glued to my portable radio, I was beckoned inside as Australia got within 12 runs of victory with one wicket remaining. That’s that, I thought. While the greatest Test finish of the modern age was playing out in my home town, I was prancing around a dark Scottish studio pretending to be Franz Kafka.

A week later, I missed the entire final day of the Old Trafford Test. Having avoided the score, I sought out an Edinburgh sports bar for the soundless highlights as the Aussies scraped a draw. I still see Ricky Ponting’s giant plasma face looming over me in my dreams.

I heard the end of that year’s Trent Bridge Test perching on a steep cliff in deepest Cornwall, before actually managing to find a screen – this time back at university in Hull – for the last rites.

At the start of the ill-fated return series in 2006-07, my main memory is wandering around East Yorkshire trying desperately, and unsuccessfully, to find a pub showing the cricket in a town of football and rugby league. The rest of that series has been erased from my mind. Can’t think why.

In 2009, I thought my bad luck had ended when I made it to a couple of days of the Edgbaston Test. I even had a ticket to the fifth day at The Oval, which was shaping up to be a victory parade for the home team. But they were too good. Swann, Harmison and Andrew Flintoff’s famous run-out of Ricky Ponting ensured a fourth-day win – and I missed it all, again, stuck on a slow train from Cornwall to London.

This year I vowed it would never happen again. I invested in Sky Sports, and was all set for a thrilling summer stuck to the sofa while all the other children played outside. But having closely followed the opening four days of the first Test, I was dragged away at the crucial period.

With Australia eight down and needing 100 to win, I set off on the road to a family barbecue. No matter, I thought, TMS will keep me informed. The ninth wicket fell and we lost signal. Out of range for the best part of an hour, I was fearing the worst. We arrived at our destination and immediately asked our host how the cricket was going. “Abysmal”. 20 to win.

We sat in the garden, the faint sounds of Aggers and co drifting out from the kitchen. When the final wicket fell, a confusion of DRS, hot spot, snicko and an overturned decision, I didn’t know what to do. For the last four days I had been yelling, screaming and punching the air at the fall of every wicket. At one point my neighbour was heard to remark “It sounds like you’ve got the Barmy Army in there.” And now, at the most crucial time, I was surrounded by in-laws who have at best a passing interest in the game.

I stuck another sausage in a bun, reached for the ketchup and allowed myself a smile. It’s going to be a long summer.

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