The other morning, I'm not really sure why, I googled an old friend and team-mate. His name had come into my head, and it made me smile. I knew he'd have been playing somewhere because he always was. The first result was a notice of his death at 50 years old, just a few months ago.
I don't suppose I had seen Simon for ten years and it had been far longer since we'd played together, but the time didn't feel like distance. Sitting in front of that screen with its unwanted message, the memories became almost overwhelming. Bloody sad, too.
His early hero was Tony Greig. A while back I was going through some old boxes in the loft and I found a magazine that he'd made himself and photocopied. It had a pencil drawing he'd done of Greigy on the cover, playing a drive in those SP gloves he used to wear. Simon looked the complete opposite to Greig, he was short and powerfully built even as an U17 player, but he approached the game in the same fearless way. The first time I saw him bat he hit seven or eight sixes when puny kids like us, a few years younger, could only dream of doing something like it.
He always wore a sunhat when he batted, and in an act of hero worship of my own, I drove my dad mad to get me one. He came home one day with an odd acrylic sort of thing that I took down to the club. 'What's that?' Simon asked, 'a bloody hairnet?' He did it kindly, though; he was always good at dressing room banter. He could do it effortlessly, with his stream of terrible jokes, and he never went too far with them.
We started going to nets together and because he was older and better, I got better too. He could bowl as well as bat. He was bloody quick, with a very sharp bouncer and he could bowl really extravagant inswingers. One summer soon afterwards, when there were stories that Hampshire were interested in him, the county side came down to our club for a benefit game. He must have been around 18. He went in, and all I remember was that he got hold of a really powerful pull-shot off of Nigel Cowley, and Richard Gilliatt, who was Hampshire captain then, caught him on the boundary on the Pavilion side of the ground, the kind of catch that professionals take easily but club players drop.
He got on the staff though, and I remember being amazed to discover that he'd been employed mainly as an off-spinner, even though I'd hardly ever seen him bowl it. This was back in the days when contracts were only really for the summer, so in the winter he started coming down to Alf Gover's school with me and my dad. After lessons, we'd stay all afternoon, bowling at anyone and using a net for ourselves if there was one spare. He eventually got a job there coaching, too.
We had some mad drives home down the A3, Simon at the wheel in the outside lane, the car strewn with gear and rubbish and him telling funny, mostly unprintable stories about the other players at Hampshire. When I think about it now, what I remember most is laughing: the time he turned up with an ill-considered perm, his impressions of various team-mates, the nights he made me go to the gym with him, where he could bench-press god knows what and I had to re-set it on the lowest weight, this weird make-it-yourself-by-adding-water orange cake he used to buy at the supermarket...
He stayed at Hampshire for two or three years, I think, and life slowly took us in different directions (especially after my realisation that I was nowhere near good enough to play the game for a living on The Day Of The Pig, a trial at Northlands Road that Simon organised), but I always felt like I would run into him again, and the few times I did, we picked up exactly where we left off.
He didn't make it as a first-team pro. I always thought he was unlucky. His off-spin, which I faced a lot, wasn't even the best part of his game to me. He was a tremendously powerful batsman before that kind of hitting was really in vogue, and he could bowl all kinds of seam and swing, and field brilliantly too. Most of all though, he was wrapped up in it. I don't know how he felt when he had to let it go, but I can imagine, and I know he gave it everything.
Looking back at some of the online messages from the teams he played for, it's obvious that no-one could have loved the game more. He left an impression everywhere he went, for his fearless cricket and off field jokes. I'd sometimes see the notices he put up around town for the summer coaching courses he ran, with 'ex Hampshire player' on them, and a picture of him. That was typical of Simon too.
Not that long ago, I saw a story on cricinfo about Henry Allingham, then the last man alive to have seen Grace play. In the picture, there were a couple of guys holding onto Henry's arm, and one of them was Simon. I don't know how he did it, but he deserved that, being one degree of separation from the great Doctor. They were both cricket men.
In his obituary, I was so glad to see that his coaching had been recognised, and that he'd been working at the Oval at the indoor school, because the best thing a coach can pass on to anyone is enthusiasm and love and that was what he had. He was a playing member of MCC too, and the Berkshire Gentlemen.
As the years went by, I sometimes thought of looking him up, seeing if there was a net on somewhere. I never did, and now I can't. Simon, I am so very sorry, and so sad that you're gone. You were too full of life for that, and bloody brave, and if it's not trite to say so I hope you're looking out on a good green field, and padded up. The game is richer for having had you in it. Thank you, old friend.
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