First published December 2010
(This isn’t a story as such; just a few thoughts)
Photographs of my dad as a teenager show a dapper slim smiler. A bit like our Chris. Except Chris has red hair, like me. Something must have happened to dad during the war, because, by the time I arrived in 1947, he’d stopped smiling. He rarely watched me play school sports, though he did contribute loads to my youthful cricket skills. He put his angry dark side away and would bowl forever in the back garden or on the beach. And he introduced me to the boundary. We walked to Almondbury or Dalton cricket clubs on a Saturday afternoon and he took me on the train to see Yorkshire or England at Old Trafford, Bradford and Sheffield during the school holidays.
I was never sure why Dad didn’t come to my school matches. Did he not want to put me off? He worked every other Saturday morning, so maybe time was an issue. He took more than a passing interest in my school work, so perhaps the kindest thing is to say competitive sport was not his idea of a job. His perceptions of injustice suffered by the post-war English working class didn’t help.
Dad was hard to please. But there were other men to try and impress. One of the teachers at school taught me how to learn, and it stuck. Another tried to get me to behave but the skill faded quickly. No one at university was influential. One or two bosses and colleagues have inspired, but, moving around the country, you soon lose touch. So whilst there were good pieces of advice here and there, I mostly made my own mistakes. Others would say I neither asked for nor welcomed advice. A tad inept really. In other words, a young fool, as opposed to the old fool I’ve become. Maybe I learned it from dad. Along with not expecting something for nothing.
Our Chris was born on armistice day 1985. Dad was a mellow middle class retired person by then. Gardening and wood carving were his things and watching Chris play soccer. Sadly he died when Chris was nine, so he missed Chris’s talented short cricket career.
When Chris was at his peak
I was the cricket transport and I went nearly everywhere with him and his pals. I even went to watch his school team and here I have a confession to make. We sent him to private school. It didn’t make a difference to his local pals, or if it did, I never spotted it. He eventually came back to New College for ‘A’ levels, the same spot I’d been to. He studied engineering before going to university. At the private school, he was first on the team sheet for all the sports. His end of season First XI cricket team photo is one of my proud possessions. It didn’t matter that the First XI cricket team was the only team and was a bit of a ragbag. The boys enjoyed it hugely and put up with the jibes from the opposition for being stuck up. We played at Royds Hall and Salendine Nook Schools on very dubious tracks and one evening down at Paddock CC next to the railway cutting. The most notable thing that night, in addition to the cricket, was the master that umpired. He was completely useless. A doctorate in physics teaching geography. He gave one of the lads out LBW from square leg. Plonker.
Actually, the boys weren’t stuck up, but some of the parents? Every morning and evening the school car park was awash with chelsea tractors, mercs and beamers driven by painted ladies trying to impress each other. The fathers were probably all golf club members. Another confession. Yes, I was one of those who created morning traffic jams doing the school run.
When Chris first went to the school, the headmistress was a ‘Barbie Doll’, not unlike the ladies in the car park. She left in a hurry after her husband got in a little over his head trying to buy Manchester United. They were replaced by two sensible experienced ladies. We met the staff every year at parents’ evening. A lovely french teacher who took them abroad and threatened to tuck them in at night with a kiss. The tall bearded careers master who Chris said knew absolutely everything. Even the physics doctor was human. I played in the dads’ cricket match. In front of a pleasing two storey double fronted stone building, apparently once lived in and eventually donated by a Huddersfield worthy. A Crowther, or a Ramsden maybe. Some of the dads took it seriously and wore whites. I wore a livid blue tracksuit which the sports master found amusing. Chris had two overs at me, but I coped. I batted left-handed with a bloke who was in his work clothes, just took his jacket off. He owned an electrical shop in town and a year or so later, I bought a microphone off him. He didn’t recognise me. I nearly said, ‘Do you remember that partnership we had in the dad’s match?’ But I didn’t. We had one spectator who arrived half way through the game, ‘I’m on the riding school run, thought I’d drop in,’ he said. Why? Another plonker.
We also had a dad’s match at the local cricket club. An altogether more serious affair which nearly ended in a brawl. I don’t think they’ve arranged another one. Flynn umpired. I skippered. The boys had had a good run in the cup and the dads all knew each other pretty well. Just one real cricketer who played for Cartworth Moor and sold expensive blinds. His son was barely taller than a full-size bat. Used to wear his kit in the front room and practice his shots, so his dad said. Apparently the lad was really a tennis player and went to clinics in Spain. I did say they were expensive blinds. The other dads were not cricketers, but they were keen as mustard to win.
The boys batted first. We’d two overs apiece, a question of getting it on the wickets and hoping. I fielded at short mid off and started the aggravation by taking a catch. It wasn’t that I caught it, but the way I caught it. I was minding my own business, seemingly not taking a lot of notice. One of the lads played a bit early and lofted one at arms length above my left shoulder. My arm shot out and plucked the ball out of the air. Bit like a frog catching a fly with its tongue. Then I nonchalantly tossed the ball over my shoulder and walked away. No one moved for a couple of seconds. There were a couple of mild expletives and mutterings from the pavilion, but the lad had to go.
When we batted the chap from Cartworth Moor got us close and it was all about whether the non-cricketing dads could get bat on ball. The boys were excited by every wicket they took and cross at a good shot or a misfield. We coached from the boundary edge, ‘Hit it here.’ ‘There’s a run there.’ ‘Two, keep running.’ The closer we got the louder it all became. Three to win off the final over and the whole ground was bedlam. One of the dads got a streaky four and that was it. Uproar. Tears and protests on one side, smiles and backslaps on the other. The boys wouldn’t speak to us. I think we overdid in a bit.
During the regular season, Chris had represented the town at U13. Bradford, Craven, Calderdale and Heavy Woollen leagues, all in the same week. A festival and Flyn was assistant coach. The sun shone every day. Won three, lost one. Heavy Woollen were too classy. Opening bat played and missed like a pro. Didn’t worry him at all and on and on he went. Our top order had a bad day. We travelled around a good bit. Denby Dale, Blackley, Harrogate, somewhere outside Halifax on a hillside. They rotated off-spinners so Chris didn’t play every game. Nevertheless he caught the eye of the U15 town coach and was invited to indoor nets the year after.
That following year, Chris was at his peak. New coach who wasn’t Flyn, but the banter was reasonable and all the arrangements worked. Chris was man of the tournament at Armitage Bridge six-a-sides. Belted Holmfirth off the park. Last match of the season, not out and going well. Needed four to be the league’s highest scoring batsman. The coach shouted down from the pavilion balcony, ‘Stay in Chris, don’t get out.’ No need to guess what happened next. He finished up team player of the year.
I took him to Headingley on the Friday of the 2000 West Indies test. We beat them that day, two days in total. Caddick and Gough were magnificent. Chris spent the time playing a game on his mobile phone, standing up and shouting with the rest when wickets fell.
Chris did well when he was inspired by someone like Flynn. The private school gave individual attention and the impression they cared. He got distracted otherwise. The U15 town coach was harsh and if you didn’t bother, neither did he. I took him to the nets twice and wild horses couldn’t have dragged him there a third time.
Huddersfield New College was great for him and ‘A’ levels. His fellow students were hardly committed to the course and the teaching was often one-to-one. Great bloke, Cambridge graduate and just the right balance of discipline and banter. I met him when Chris enrolled. He started talking about key skills. Chris and I nodded sagely, and then he threw a bunch of keys in the air and caught them behind his back. Chris was away. Top marks and the engineering prize.
No need to go into what happened then and much of it I don’t know, but three years later he got a Leeds degree. I think he was distracted a little. He did get his private pilot’s licence though. Chris deserves praise because it was another awful summer and many of his trips over to the training airport at Sandtoft proved flightless. But he stuck at it. His flying tutor, who I never met, was, according to Chris, a smooth Greek playboy. Relaxed and cool, which when you think about it is no bad thing in a pilot. He also introduced Chris to the more upmarket of Leeds’s nightspots. My role in those days was to drive over Friday nights and some Sundays to watch The Rhinos. Buy him a dinner and few beers. The Arc or The Taps depending if we felt flush or not. I get all the awful jobs.
There is a story in here, around the time of the 2005 home Ashes series. During the summer vacation, I took Chris up to Crossland Moor airstrip to see if he could do a holiday job or maybe just hang out with planes and flyers. When we turned into what looked like a bridle path a car blocked our entry, driven by a scruffy looking bloke in tight fitting knitted cap. He wound his window down, ‘What do you want?’ Chris and I explained the idea, ‘I’m the owner. There’s nobody about, but you can go up and have a look.’
A new gravel car park, freshly fenced. The airstrip was a long rolled and rolled sloping cricket pitch. A battered caravan did for air traffic control. Sundry buildings, everything surrounded by fields and horses. Not a great deal to look at. We turned to the sound of a motor and the owner was back. He spoke to Chris and then started to open the tall wide doors of what must have been a barn before it was a hanger. He pulled out an aeroplane, just like that, and attached a tube from a tank next to the hanger, ‘I’ll just fill ’er up. I could do with a trip to Sandtoft. You can come too dad if you want.’ Sandtoft was an airport over by the east coast which just happened to be the training ground for Leeds Uni Flying School.
I’d no time to think, no time to say no. The owner’s mobile went off, ‘I’ve just got a few things to do, love, see you later.’ He dived into the caravan, ‘Just telling ‘em what we’re doing.’ He took the left seat, Chris the right, me in the back and we were off. It was a real aeroplane in that it had wings and flew, but I’ve always had a porthole, a stewardess and toilets before. I clutched the plastic seating for grim death, especially when we turned on our side and I looked straight down onto Castle Hill. What was I hanging on to? Plastic seats weren’t going to stop me from falling out. When he got it flying level again and I’d rediscovered my stomach, I tried to relax and enjoy. I could just about hear them chatting, looking at maps and spotting other aeroplanes. I even opened my eyes and dared to look out the window. There wasn’t much option, the plane was all window. The M62, past Wakefield and all the cooling towers. Fifteen minutes later he was on the radio and we slipped sideways, lost height and landed.
A proper airport with lots of planes and flyers. A proper air traffic box sat on a waiting room and a canteen. I didn’t realise how much I loved walking on solid ground. The owner met his pal, Sandroft’s owner, and Chris talked to his fellow students. I had a soft drink and tried to look as if I belonged as well.
I really did enjoy the return journey. I even talked, though the engine noise got in the way. We banked as we took off which was scary. By the time the airstrip approach at Crossland Moor came into view I was more or less taking things in my stride. Over Castle Hill and Woodfield Park, we lined up to land on what seemed to be a cliff face, and then I realised it was Beaumont Park. A very different perspective, almost like a relief map. Which was what I felt a lot of a minute later.
‘Come again any time,’ said the owner.
Back at the car park. Where are the keys? Was there smoke coming out the exhaust? The door was shut but not locked, keys still in the ignition, the engine still running.
We got the welcome we expected at home, ‘Where have you two been all this time. And wipe those grins off your faces.’
We did go again, once. One of the flyers showed us around the hanger and even offered us a ride. No way I was going up in a microlite.
Not the end, it just felt like it
Chris didn’t turn up for his player of the year award and hasn’t picked up a cricket ball or bat in anger since. I was ashamed and angry in equal measure. A slow bowler of promise and an attacking left hand bat. Fifteen years old with a lifetime of cricket ahead him. Its a bit like an arthritic joint. I can still feel the pain of it on a bad day.
So I wasn’t going to grow old watching him score hundreds for Yorkshire. There was another consequence of Chris giving up. I stopped net practice. We were fortunate to have half an acre and when Chris started playing, I built a cricket net up on our top field. A worn out gazebo frame draped with used tennis and football nets, stitched together into a cricket tunnel. The track was more or less twenty-two yards, uphill with a slight dip in the bowler’s run up. It was pretty flat apart from a sporting exposed fir tree root on a full length. Our house was at long on, the neighbour’s garden was in the covers and the farmer’s fields were at midwicket and long stop.
I always knew when it was time for a net by the sound of the motor mower starting up. When Chris was keen on something, he didn’t wait for me. This was not fun back-garden cricket. We had full protection and it was competitive. I had to dig in and remember my long lost forward press. The shoulders lose it with age, so my bowling was a struggle and Chris got plenty of opportunities to play shots. It was a father and son rite of passage thing, but it also kept me in some sort of batting nick. It was a lonely sad day when I packed away the netting for the last time and took it to the tip.
But it would be unfair to blame it all on Chris. There was also Mr Moult. The summer following Chris’s peak, Mr Moult played for Elvaston, a beautiful cricket club in Derbyshire and I played against them, for Almondbury Casuals. We fielded first and Mr Moult came in at five down, a first teamer returning from injury. Medium height, heavily built, a young muscular Colin Milburn. He repeatedly belted the ball in my direction with no intention of running. If and when I got a hand to the ball all I could do was deflect it. For twenty embarrassing minutes I was reduced to retrieving the ball from the boundary. Later, when I went in at seven, Mr Moult was brought on to bowl. Just for a fitness test they said. When not on his days off, he opened the first team bowling. He started his run up just in front of the sight screen and thankfully kept it pitched up. The sound of breaking wickets was not long delayed, followed by an extremely sad and long car drive home.
Its time to go gracefully when the number of embarrassments and mistakes exceed the number of successes. When the guffaws of team-mates begin to matter.
Chris I have not fully discussed the reasons why he didn’t turn up for his prize or why he gave up cricket. We have talked a lot about games, winning, losing and motivation to succeed. I’ve told him I gave up cricket at the same age as him. I was too promising too young, selected for a team of fifth form tearaways two years older than me. They were never going to coach and support someone who was keeping one of their pals out. I kept missing straight ones and then simply lost it. In retrospect, I wonder if the master who selected the team ever understood the sulky precocious talent. And, as dad watched my exam results rather than my forward press, he was happy for me to walk away. And I’d let it happen again, albeit not without a bit of kicking and screaming.
Triple grief. For two fifteen year olds who would never play cricket to their full potential, and for a hopeless old romantic.
Today, Chris, 24 years old, is in Southern Spain, learning to fly commercial aeroplanes. His instructors are all grizzly ex-air force guys with more stories than Bradman’s test average. We chat on the phone about The Rhinos, Manchester United, KP, Freddy and the rest of the England team and when we meet he talks fondly of his time in junior league cricket.
Flyn, two headmistresses in a private school, a Cambridge engineer, a Greek playboy and a few World War Two aces. A sports nut, several legends, story tellers all. People to admire, listen to and most of all cut Chris some slack. I tried to do the same, though I couldn’t stop myself from nudging him from time to time. He knows I’ve walked away from a few things, but he’s also seen me stick things out.
He’s his own man now.