Thursday 26 March 2009

Harold, Alf and me

Harold Pinter called cricket 'God's greatest creation'. The Nobel laureate had no problem denouncing governments and rubbishing prime ministers and presidents with a few well-placed f-words, but he was too shy to meet Len Hutton, his all-time hero. Above his writing desk he had a portrait of himself batting in the nets, given to him by the cricket club he formed, the Gaieties. 

I didn't recognise Pinter in the painting, but I knew the net he was batting in instantly; it's as familiar to me as any house I've ever lived in. It's Gover's Cricket School, Wandsworth, and what's more, the stumps in the portrait are the wrong colour - they were grey not brown.

Seeing that thick canvas net again brought everything about the place back. The stairs were so narrow you had to take your bag up longways. They opened out onto a snooker room and a small bar, both dimly, effortfully lit by yellowing bulbs, the changing rooms tucked behind, smelling of leather and Deep Heat. Entry to the nets was up another thin, dark corridor, a walk you'd make for the first time with plenty of butterflies in the stomach, for the four narrow lanes behind the canvas doorway had hosted - and still did - some of the greatest players in the game, from Andy Sandham and Alf Gover, who'd founded the school, to Viv Richards, Andy Roberts, Barry Richards, Garry Sobers, Frank Tyson, Ian Bishop; even, way after I'd last left the place, Brian Lara.

The nets themselves were no more than 18 yards long. Bowlers might get five strides in if they were lucky. The building was an old garage with no electricity supply, lit with gas lamps that smelled damp and eggy, especially first thing in the morning. There was no heating. The temperature lifted only incrementally. The mats were made of some indeterminate kind of vinyl of the sort I've not seen before or since, but they were quick and true. The ball could thud into the canvas behind with the sound of a carpet being beaten. The place was steeped in cricket, it surrounded you, almost holy. 

Amongst it all was Alf himself, in his seventies by then. I must have seen him hundreds of times and he was always dressed identically: immaculate cream flannels, a white cravat under his stiff collar, hair swept nobly back and, most impressively, his England sweater, three lions in its centre, now so long it almost reached his knees. Sometimes, in his office, which was behind the snooker room, he would wear a blue England blazer, too. 

It was tradition that anyone's first lesson at the school would be with Alf, and occasionally after that too. Being young and full of piss and vinegar, I didn't really like 'getting Alf' as it was known. He bowled little round-arm dobbers, and often called the ball he was going to bowl: 'one to drive...' It all seemed so... gentle. 

What I know now of course is that the arm was round from an epic career of 1,555 first class wickets at 23.63. I wish I'd relished it more, enjoyed the moment more, but I didn't. I didn't like 'getting Alf'. 

My coach for several years was, in complete contrast, an Australian named Jim Cameron. Jim was a buccaneering, quixotic figure, red-headed and bearded, fiery and wise. He'd spent so many hours bowling, he could do almost anything from peppering you with a new ball to all kinds of weird, wristy spins. He was usually in the company of impossibly glamorous women who seemed to be in his thrall and he often looked like he'd been up all night, which he probably had. Jim taught me how to bat, properly bat, and he toughened me up. There were no helmets then, and no health and safety either, not that Jim would have taken much notice of either. 

Jim was often behind the bar serving drinks too. All kinds of people met in that bar. I never saw Harold Pinter, but Timothy West, the actor, took his son along; Monty Lynch used the nets in the winter, pounding ball after ball; Jim and the other Australian coaches brought in all sorts, most of whom engaged in long snooker matches on Alf's pay-as-you-go table; Alf would, very occasionally and if the bar was quiet, tell some stories, too. I remember one about the time he was night-watchman at the Oval for Surrey, and somehow - he was a proper number eleven - survived long into the next morning, until his partner walked down the wicket and told him it was about time he got out. His partner was Percy Fender. His captain was Douglas Jardine. Alf once opened the bowling for MCC in India, and, in the grip of the dreaded belly, simply ran past the stumps without delivering the ball, straight up the pavilion steps and into the toilet. 'Lost by a few yards,' he used to say.

I went for probably five or six winters. Everyone could - there was no hierarchy, just the need to go into Alf's office and pay the bill. He'd let anyone he knew hang around and bowl, or just hang around. Every saturday, a guy called Joe would come in for a net. It was usually booked for the end of the day, and I'd often bowl to him, as Jim's arm would be losing its edge. Joe didn't mind. He'd have been drinking brown ale in the bar since lunchtime, so he wasn't that bothered about what came down at him. I used to wonder what Joe was doing at Gover's, why he came; it wasn't until some years later that I realised he was alone and just needed somewhere to go. Gover's was his place.

One winter, my mate Simon, who was one of the coaches by then, discovered it was Joe's birthday, and organised a whip-round. We got him a little trophy of a batsman and had it inscribed, and a silver tankard for his brown ale. After his net, all of the coaches, Alf's son John who ran the shop downstairs, even Alf, fresh from the office, crept into the bar and gave them to him. It was the first time I'd ever seen a man cry. 

It was a magical place, one that I miss very much, along with the people. It's an upmarket housing development now. I don't know what happened to Jim Cameron, but I bet it was good, and I'd love to find out. Jim, if you ever see this, buddy...

Alf himself died in 2001, aged 93. Sleep well, and thank you.


Anonymous said...

“You are old, Old Batsman,” the pert reader said.
“Older than Gower - that’s right?
And yet you incessantly blog up a storm.
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” the Old Batsman replied to the snip.
“I netted with Alf when I could.
The Spartan conditions I’m willing to bet,
Would do present-day England some good!”

Forgive the cheek OB - absolutely loved that piece!

Brit said...

"You are old," said the youth, "as I mentioned before,
And you have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you wield a blog with the skill -- perhaps more --
Than Tendulkar can wield with a bat."

Great post.

The Old Batsman said...

Gentlemen, two of the best - the cap is doffed to you...

Damith S. said...

@Brit, Uncommonly fat and with the majesty of Jesse Ryder it would seem.

Brilliant OB. Just Brilliant.

You should put these in a book I tell you. It would sell.

I'd buy it.

Nige said...

Quite agree. A lovely post, OB...

pay per head service said...

I gotta say that you did it one more time buddy, I liked this post a lot too and this is why I do not stop coming to your blog, way to go!