Thursday, 1 August 2013

All back to Alf's

A few weeks ago, I took a journey that I have made many times before, but not for many years. It always used to be by car, but this time it was on foot, at least the last part of it was - around the Wandsworth one-way system, past Zodiac Records (still strange and unwelcoming, still forbiddingly shuttered and with its little sign 'open Saturdays 10-6pm') and then halfway up East Hill, on the left, next to Wandsworth House...

It's just a side turning now, blink and you'd miss it, the street sign the only clue to what it was. 'Cricketers Mews' it reads, and it leads to a block of apartments that say all there is to be said about early '90s architecture. They are as unremarkable in their way as the building that stood there before them, beyond the vanished garage forecourt: a whitewashed frontage with a slender side door, and behind it a creaking and gas-lit hall of indeterminate vintage.

Nothing lasts forever, and Alf Gover's cricket school was demolished in 1989, shortly after Alf and his son John sold up upon the grand old man's retirement from coaching at the age of 82 (well, sort of - Alf was born on leap year's day, so technically he was a quarter of that). But Gover's is going to live again for half an hour on Saturday, when Charlie Connelly's documentary is broadcast on Radio 4 (I blogged here on my time there, and got to write a little more about Alf for the Nightwatchman).

There are contributions from Mike Selvey, Sir Trevor McDonald, Mickey Stewart, family members (it was great to hear that John  is alive and well and living the high life in Monaco) and even Nicholas Parsons. Alf's was open to anyone with the fee for a net, as well as to the young pros sent to pass under the eye of the master: thus Viv Richards, Andy Roberts, Barry Richards, Mike Procter, Sunil Gavaskar, Garry Sobers and Brian Lara are joined on the list of alumni by John Major, who used to save his pocket money for lessons, and Harold Pinter, who had a portrait of himself batting there above his writing desk.

But everyone who went has their own cast list, and as I stood outside Cricketers Mews with Charlie mine came back to me with a great and melancholic force: Noble, lovely Alf of course, and John downstairs in the shop; Terry the barman, who'd once delivered a fridge to Dave Vanian of the Damned and who could bowl rapid, skidding bouncers when the mood seized him; my coach Jim Cameron, a wise, hard-living and Biblically-bearded Australian; my good friend Simon, who ended up as one of Alf's coaches himself, and with whom I shared mad, high-speed car-rides back down the A3; old Joe, who started drinking brown ale in the bar at lunchtime and had the last net of the day; Monty Lynch, Surrey's middle-order thumper, battering ball after ball through the long winter afternoons...

More than that, I felt the sounds and smells and look of the place. To me, it still lives, in its way.

I was lucky to meet Charlie again through cricket, and to be asked to take part. It's a particular kind of luck, one we owe to Alf. His over-arching philosophy was not to impose technical perfection (although he could do it, if required) but to offer to everyone a way to love the game for life. That is Alf's greatest legacy.

NB: There are some terrific pictures here. Alf's leaning against the legendary snooker table in the first; in the second he's in his office, just off the snooker room, with his wife Marjorie; the third is up in the nets, which no-one who saw them will forget in a hurry...


Dave Robinson said...

I was invited to attend this school for bowling coaching due to some good performances for the club that I played for at that time.
Unfortunately I was unable to attend because of lack of money and the distance from my home.
This was one of my young life's deepest regrets

Jim Cremr said...

Being coached and then coaching here for many years was a dream come true ! The photo shows Alf explaining to Hill House school boys and their coach, New Zealander, Rob Paige, the virtues of a high front elbow. So many wonderful memories !