Up to the age of 17, my son Chris played for the local village cricket team. He and his pals rose up the age groups year on year, and he would have gone on to the second team, had he been bothered. In 1998 he was in the Under 13’s. They played their league fixtures on Sunday mornings. The other junior sections each had their own evening. Everybody practiced on Tuesdays. They used the all-weather pitch and wearing helmets when batting was compulsory.
Flynn was the coach. In his fifties, he loved the boys and they loved him – local girls hadn’t taken an interest then, in cricket that is. Every night of the week during the season, however inclement things were, he was down at the club to teach, encourage, organise and umpire. In the winter he took us all to the Yorkshire indoor nets – a cathedral like space with hush and respect. Until Yorkshire Ladies arrived, and a Bradford League club with their sardonic coach.
Tall, slim, balding and bespectacled, Flynn had his dark side which few of us ever saw. Though I tell a lie. I did once call unannounced at his home. Leslie, his wife, answered. She worked flexibly from home whilst Flyn was in and out of jobs. No, Flynn wasn’t around, could she deal with it? Course she could, but in the shadows I glimpsed glimmers of light reflected from two small mirrors. They must have been around five foot three off the floor. Unnerving, peering back at me from the gloom.
Flynn was always patient, never mad, except with his own two, Dean and Rick. Leslie said she and Flyn kept them permanently on the move away from the streets, ‘Dean’s the youngest with the attitude. Poor Rick’s feet never touch the ground. Cricket three and four nights a week, and he’s grown five inches this year. Plays havoc with his knees.’
Flynn’s spare frame and simple white sweater and track suit bottoms gave him a monk-like appearance, a brother devoted to moulding the skills and outlooks of young people.
Every year, during the school holidays, Barnsley CC hosted an U13 six-a-side knock-out competition and Flynn had entered the current team. 1998 had been desperate season weather wise. We’d turned out in several torrential downpours. Slipping and sliding like football. The forecast was no better as we set out for the deep south. A three vehicle convoy and a squad of nine, a tenth to join us at the ground. Flynn in front, driving a minicoach. Me second and Leslie third, with a big van, tailgate and skip, borrowed from work.
Flynn was relaxed as he filled up at the petrol station, ‘We’re alright for time lads, no rush. They’ve put us back a bit.’
Shane, Simon and our Chris were with me. Bootful of kit. Spits of rain on the windscreen.
‘Did you see so-and-so? Have you heard this?’ Laughing, shouting and carrying on. About anything: television programmes, the latest films, people they thought looked funny on the street.
Barnsley Cricket Club, Shaw Road, home to Bird and Boycott, Pope and Parkinson. A big green square, a scoreboard and green angular iron frames carrying white wooden sails on rollers behind each bowling arm. There was a working men’s club at midwicket, barred and closed. A sign on the door said members only. Sweet bags, crisp packets and crumpled coloured aluminium litter blew across the outfield. Thick ropes marked the boundary, beyond which redundant spaces betrayed where ‘the nets’ had once been. The pitch covers looked like derelict shed roofs, rusty corrugated iron sheets on wheels. The ground was a past its sell-by-date, and not at its grim best under grey dismal skies.
‘Is this the real Barnsley Cricket Club? Home of Boycott and the others?’ I asked. Flynn listed them. He’d actually played with Parkinson’s son on tour. I remembered the lad from when he started his playing career as a member of the Parkinson back garden cricket team. His exploits were lovingly recorded every week in Punch and The Sunday Times.
Flynn was full of last Saturday’s second-team innings against Slaithwaite. 26 not out. Not enough people available. Four years since he’d played seriously. Nervous at number nine, Rick and Dean going in ten and eleven. ‘Rick stayed with me ten overs. Even Dean stayed for seven overs or so. It goes to show, just getting behind the ball. The fast bowler’s on, five wickets and he wants me as the sixth. I block and he gets frustrated. Not beating the bat any more and has to try something different. Suddenly I’m pushing a few runs. Dean’s got the spin-bowler at the other end. Which do you want to face? I’ll stick he says. Then he sees me getting behind it, and he’s not getting much bat on the off-breaks. Maybe I’ll come down your end. I panic and call for a run, straight to a fielder. “No,” he shouts, “that was a silly run.” Aye, young Dean, just fancy.’
There was a tea-bar next to the working men’s club with a warning sign on the door. Do not enter Saturdays mornings between 9.30am and midday – Archery Club practice. We went in gingerly. A long narrow room with multi-coloured targets at the far end. Grey walls, grey formica-topped tables, grey chairs, cricket and archery notice boards, and a wet floor. Three ladies served bags of sweets and crisps, cans of pop, grey mugs of hot brown water and bacon sandwiches. No bows and arrows.
Flynn had checked the order of play, ‘We’re even later now, twenty past one. There’s an extra team. Penistone have come on the wrong day. Where are the lads?’
‘Using the back of the van as a changing room.’ said Leslie.
‘We’ll have to keep them occupied. I’ll do a few routines with them. Lets have something to eat first.’
Tom was the late arrival, from Sheffield. We sat on the boundary, watching, cans and sandwiches at the ready. The crowd was small, most noise from the pitch. Little Joe was slightly to one side, sandwich bag as big as him. Mike hadn’t any food. Leslie had loads but he said he wasn’t bothered. Rick, Reg and Shane were the senior players – tall, seasoned 13 year olds. They will shoulder the responsibility of the last overs. Mike, Simon, Kit and Dean were somewhere in the middle – firey and gobby. Gareth, Tom and Joe, the youngsters, eight and nine year olds, just about taller than a full-size bat.
‘Pick up your rubbish lads, suggested Flynn. I went round with a plastic bag as they sauntered off to practice behind the tea-bar. By the time I’d caught up, Shane had lost my cricket ball. I’d had it years, since my days playing country house cricket at Thorpe Perrow, near Bedale in North Yorkshire. Another small loss. Flynn supervised some of his coaching routines as I searched the neglected hedgerow in vain.
June, Mike’s mum arrived, ‘Has he had anything to eat? Its the only problem I have with him, that and eating sweets. Don’t forget we have to go about five o’clock.’ Mike was due at a soccer trial for The Town Boys.
Flynn and the squad moved into the distance. June, Leslie and I sat on the boundary edge. Small talk of this and that, parents and supporting youth cricket and soccer, work, retirement.
And then we were on, batting first.
‘Come on lads, get your pads on,’ said Flyn.
Everyone bats and bowls. 10 overs, start with 200, 2 for a wide except in the last over, 8 knocked off for a wicket. Short cover and midwicket boundaries. They gave us thirty odd in extras and we only had two down, one a run out. Our Chris got some time in the middle. I paced the boundary, shouting ‘two’ when they look as though they are settling for one, ‘shot’ for a Rick special, ‘unlucky’ for a mistake. Gareth told me off when I was a bit reckless, ‘Don’t shout for ‘em to run, we’ve ‘ad a runout already.’ We finished with 268. Strange we did’t turn straight round, just when we were feeling good. Another two teams batted and fielded before we tried to bowl our lot out.
The grey overcast cloud turned into steady rain, and stayed. Our turn to field. Reg’s over was expensive. So was Kit’s. No wides from us but their first two batters do well. And suddenly our lads were all having a go at each other, gone the mutual support and encouragement. They wanted to win badly. Flyn got them in a huddle at the end of the third over. Gave them a talking to. Then it was back to normal. Kit was at deep square leg and performed well, though with more work than was comfortable. Simon bowled all his six down the leg side. Gareth dropped them too short, but he was only three foot something. Good line and length from Rick and Shane, a couple of stalwarts. Two dropped catches, one a difficult small skier toward short point. Dean, keeping wicket, ran forward, got it and spilt it. Rick missed an easier chance off his own bowling. Then Mike clean bowled one. Last 2 overs and they needed 24 to win. Tight. Last over and 14 to win. Reg had the reponsibility. He made up for his first and they were 4 short at the finish, good fielding, no overthrows and no wides. A man with a microphone sat behind a window at the tea bar. He had a Barnsley accent and summarised the scores after each over. ‘Most exciting match yet,’ he said. The small crowd clapped, and the boys, red faced and smiling, walked back to the van.
June, Leslie, Flyn and myself returned to brave the absent archers and hot brown water. Next thing we knew little Joe was weeping. Flynn had promised them all a game. But Joe must bowl and he hadn’t the strength to get it the full length of the pitch. Flynn had tried him out over on the all weather strip.
‘Come and have drink. We’ll get some sweets,’ said Leslie.
A shake of the head. Sniffs and tears. Staring at the wet floor. Face like a crumpled dish cloth.
Some of the team looked across.
‘You’ll be just right for next season. Our Dean had to wait until he got a bit bigger,’ said Flynn.
Joe was inconsolable and started to wail, ‘I wanted to play with a “corky” and wear pads and gloves.’
‘Have you never played with a hard ball before?’ I asked.
Somewhere another small child was listening, ‘Shall we put some kit on and play round the back?’
His face lifted and nodded and he scampered after me to the car boot. My left pad drowned him. My batting gloves too but he had his own bat. I had to borrow a ball, because someone’d lost mine! I drew a line in the grass behind the tea bar.
‘You’re bowling overarm?’ he asked.
He missed straight half volleys to dream about. I got a bit closer and he began to connect. I did a running commentary, ‘That’s good. Move your feet a bit. What happened there? Caught behind. Middle stump. Through the gate.’ It was chucking it down. A waif and a giant, playing cricket in the soaking wet.
‘Can I bowl a bit?’
He bowled off a short run, arm cocked, one eye shut. Mostly on target. Easier to praise and mean it. But it was a very short pitch.
‘Last three balls, and then we can watch the lads,’ I said.
We walked back via the toilets. The boys were already well into their second match. Joe sat with June. Leslie was scoring. Flynn was out on the square, umpiring. I paced the boundary. Somehow it was an anti-climax. We were up against Barnsley and they were all Rick sized, even the girl with the pony tail. They batted first. We kept the wides down, fielded and backed up well, but they still scored 280. Again a break for two other teams to play. Little Joe was chirpy, always at the back of Flyn or Leslie. I found the keeper’s gloves. He was good and keen with varied and difficult short throws, until the lads took the field again.
Mike left with June.
‘Flynn has done well today, Leslie.’
‘You should see him when he’s not on view. It took me ages to get them going last Sunday morning after the second team match. They’re not used to thirty overs. I had to unstiffen them all in the bath.’
Our batting could not keep the score going against good length bowling. They all bowled off long runs, even the girl with the pony tail. We didn’t lose wickets, but we didn’t get runs either. Until our hero Rick stepped to the wicket, supported by younger brother Dean. Square drives and hearty pulls. Flynn had told them to play shots. A spectacular finale and the right result. Home team winners and the crowd slightly more animated. Kit hit two nice cover drives. No complaints from our lads.
We gathered in the car park, sorted whose kit went where and who was taking who home. I couldn’t see Flynn, until I looked over to the minibus. He sat immobile, staring through the windscreen.
‘Thanks Dave, that was really helpful,’ said Leslie.
‘He’ll be into Flynn’s ribs to play on Sunday,’ I replied. Little Joe was stubborn and he’d get his way eventually.
It was still throwing it down as we said goodbye. We’d won one and lost one, got wet and had a small human tragedy, and we’d visited a famous Yorkshire cricketing venue.
That was ten years ago, almost to the month. After Chris gave up cricket I was grumpy for a long time. With some application he could have been a decent left hand batter. Four years later he graduated from Leeds University and is now in full time commercial pilot training. Shows you what I know about application.
Several years ago, we moved three miles to the next village and I haven’t seen Flynn since. Like the rest of us, he’s a flawed diamond. Sparkling with dull moments or the other way about. Paid work isn’t everything. Flynn expressed himself in ways that made sense to him and gave incalculable service to the community. If self esteem comes from meaningful activity, making a contribution and belonging, then Flynn should have had it carat loads. I think I’d heard he’d given up coaching, but cricket will be somewhere. It was his life and his therapy.
First written December 29, 2010