Sunday 17 February 2013


I remember clearly the first time I was ever run out in proper game. It was on a ground called Castle Field, which had a slope from one end to the other and an outfield that never seemed to be cut low enough. I must have been about 13 or so, playing in a Fourth XI sunday match. I'd thick-edged one past gully and the ball was meandering up the hill towards the boundary. It was an easy two, but the guy I was batting with, the skipper no less, wanted the strike. He was old - well, so's everyone when you're 13 - and slow too, but he was the one running to the keeper's end so once he'd come a few strides down the wicket, the tops of his old cane pads flapping around his knees, I ran too.

The fielder hurled the ball high up into the air, and by the time I heard the call of 'your end' I still had half the pitch to go. Even so, the only way I wasn't going to make was if the throw was a direct hit, and what were the chances of that, in a fourth XI game on big old Castle Field on a sunday afternoon?

It sailed down the curve of the slope, bounced twice and hit off and middle about halfway up. Even now I recall my disappointed indignation. I might have even blanched at the whoops and cheers from the other fielders (oh, but not now... precious 13 year old, obviously coached, all his own gear, strike rate of approx. 0.001, run out by a fluke throw from a distant boundary - farewell, little shit).

But what brought it to mind the other morning, early, as what passed for daylight struggled through the clouds, were memories of the player at the other end, Derek. He was an extraordinary figure, ever-present for several summers, yet when you're a kid you don't really question why someone like Derek is there, doing what he does in the way that he does it.

Along with captaining the fourths, Derek ran the entire colts section and sat on all sorts of committees and selection panels. There never seemed to be a match or a nets session or a quiz night that he wasn't at in one capacity or another, and he was not the kind of figure you'd forget. He was 50 or thereabouts (no-one knew his age, or his birthday or anything like that) with the air of a different generation about him, a man untouched by the 60s or 70s let alone the Thatcher years that we were living through, his hair rigidly side-parted, shapeless tweed jacket, brogues; when he played, tradional creams that came halfway up his stomach, big buckled pads encrusted with whitener, button-up shirts and an old Gray-Nicolls, thin as an after-eight mint and with no apparent middle. He kept wicket, too, in ancient gloves and ancient pads, a moth-eaten blue cap on his head.

Derek played the game with a kind of grim determination, his lips often pursed, the physical effort of it all taking an apparently instant toll in his rickety body. He never seemed to enjoy it much. Instead he appeared to be concentrating very hard on everything. He didn't have a nickname, he wasn't involved in the dressing room jokes, and yet cricket was his life. He had a large house near the ground, where he lived alone except for a large, unkempt dog, and seemingly enough money not to have to work. Even on the quietest days, he'd be at the club finding something to concentrate on.

He neglected himself in more ways than one. These days he might be thought of as in need of help, but then he was simply another oddball character, eccentric and closed-off in a very English way. That same Englishness perhaps stopped anyone asking if he was okay. Neither party could have overcome the embarrassment. But still, he had the club and he made it his life; the two were symbiotic.

It was Derek who'd invited me to nets the first time I ever went there. The main ground was beautiful that early summer's night, green and sun-dappled, the practice wickets cut in one corner near the old school wall and the groundsman's hut. It felt magical. That feeling is one we all continue to seek from the game.

I heard that Derek passed away only recently, and I was surprised and pleased to see in some lines about him that he'd played 19 times for the Firsts, way back when. He'd been pretty useful once, even though he'd never mentioned it.

A couple of people from the club were with him when he died, which was fitting. Like Pete, whose dream was to hit the first ball of a game for six, and Cyril the keeper and his extraordinary box, he remains an indelible childhood figure. Rest well Derek and no, there wasn't a third run, was there...


tejanpandya said...

How wonderfully you write. I've followed your blog for a couple of years and how often and how well you communicate loss. Very sad and very funny.

Paul Fearnley said...

My father is 71. He's stopped playing matches but still attends the nets at Old Trafford for an hour once a week every week during the winters along with a handful of other senile delinquents. He's missed once in eight years. His kit – my old stuff basically - lies, neatly pressed and laid out, in the middle of his hall and is surrounded by a dozen or more bats, once broken (by others) but which he has since repaired. He's as skinny as he was when he left school – that third run would have been on with him, OB, of that I can assure you – and his name is: Derek.

Pencil Cricket said...

I can just imagine that in 30 years or so I'll still be playing and some little kid will look on me as another Derek...