Wednesday 10 February 2016

The man who roughed up Richards

Our skipper sent me an email the other day... 'Have you heard of this guy?' it said, alongside a link to a video. 'He makes Simon Jones and Shane Bond seem blessed...'

I clicked the link. The clip was captioned: 'Kent v Glamorgan 1993: Duncan Spencer roughs up Viv Richards'.

'Yes, I've heard of Viv Richards,' I thought snarkily. And then unthought it, because I didn't want to spend all of next season fielding at gully.*

But... Duncan Spencer... that did seem familiar. But maybe because it sounded a bit like Duncan Fletcher. And Frank Spencer. In fact, if Duncan Spencer wasn't nicknamed 'Frank' for at least part of his career then the space-time continuum may have fallen apart.

In the video, Spencer appears with Glamorgan at 81-1 after 24 overs in pursuit of Kent's 201. Although it's a sunny day, it's mid-September and shadows are stretching across the St Lawrence ground. Spencer is bowling fourth change and he's wearing an undershirt, shirt and sleeveless sweater. His name is stencilled on the back, but, like a local shop about to go out of business, the 'N' in 'SPENCER' is peeling off. The TV caption is unequivocal though: 'Duncan Spencer, right arm fast, Nackington Road End' - none of your fast-medium here.

His first ball, to Adrian Dale, is pitched halfway down and still on the rise as it passes the batsman. 'He ducked, but he ducked almost posthumously,' says a wry Victor Marks. Its speed immediately commands a slip. The next delivery is a wide Yorker that Dale is again half a day late on. The replay shows Kent keeper Steve Marsh crocodile his gloves together just in time to avoid serious damage to his future prospects.

As the spell goes on, it's clear that Duncan Spencer is bowling very rapidly indeed. Marsh ends up thirty yards behind the stumps and the ball is still rising as he takes it. While the laws of physics dictate that the ball cannot gain speed after it pitches, Spencer's pace is such that it is certainly decelerating less than most.

Soon Matt Maynard is hammered on the knee roll in front of the stumps, and King Viv comes out in unfamiliar navy blue, his bearing as regal as it's ever been, for what would be his final List A appearance. He's 41 years old, a living legend. He gets a standing ovation on his way to the crease, which must move him in ways we can't know. He raises a hand of acknowledgement and shouts 'centre please' at the umpire.

Spencer has a slow-ish, short-ish run, but he's bull-chested like Goughie and powerful like Martin McCague and maybe after the ovation Viv's mind is somewhere else because he almost gets run out second ball when he wanders out of his crease after knocking a sharp lifter half onto his chest and towards Steve Marsh, who rushes in and fires it at the stumps.

He walks into a throat ball and gets his hands up quickly enough to keep it out - the same sort of ball that Dale ducked 'posthumously' and Maynard couldn't a bat down on. Even at 41, he's still that good. He trots a single. Hugh Morris takes strike and laughs after he swings way too late to cut a wide, short one.

Spencer bowls another short one to Viv, who hooks, and knows in the fraction of a second of impact that the ball is on him too soon. It takes the top edge of the bat and instead of screaming low and flat into the crowd at square leg, it loops gently in the air and Spencer runs over and catches it. Richards is halfway off before someone tells him it's a no-ball.

The next is a searing, inswinging yorker to which Viv proffers his trusty, dismissive flick off the pads, but again it's too quick. It's also missing the stumps. They run a leg bye, and Richards has to scamper around Spencer to make his ground. In a classic alpha male move, Viv goes to give Spencer a high five but instead pats him on the head.


Richards made 46 not out and Glamorgan won by six wickets. Spencer's figures were 8.4-1-43-1. Had he really 'roughed up' King Viv? Perhaps... he certainly hurried him. Did I remember him? I thought so. Something to do with Australia and something bad happening...

Cricket loves the myth of the great, lost fast bowler. Duncan Spencer's Cricinfo profile runs in part, 'few players in contemporary memory had been able to produce deliveries of such blistering pace'. Recalling the match against Glamorgan, it continues, 'no less an authority than Sir Vivian Richards... rank[ed] him as possibly the quickest bowler he had ever faced'.

So what happened to Duncan Spencer? Why was he simply a barely-remembered name from a match one September's afternoon in Kent, when the era's greatest player thought he bowled faster than anyone else he'd faced?

By the end of 1994, Spencer had completed 14 of the 16 first-class matches he was destined for. Although he'd been born in England he grew up in Australia, and had a winter with WA and then one more summer with Kent. Then came the injuries, stress fractures mostly, no surprise given his slow-ish run and forceful action, and the descent from first XI to second XI and then grade cricket, sometimes playing only as a batsman.

After six years of chronic pain he was prescribed injections of nandrolone, an anabolic steroid commonly used by doctors to stabilise such chronic conditions as it promotes bone density, and also on the banned list in almost every sport because under its better-known trade name of Deca-Durabolin it had been one of the most popular steroids amongst strength athletes since it was first synthesised in the 1950s, mainly because it worked, and also because it could be used in conjunction with other, more powerful muscle-building steroids - usually dianabol - without further damaging the liver.

Duncan Spencer wasn't doing that, but was still charged with violating the ACB's anti-doping policy and after a seven-hour hearing he was banned for 18 months. He later told ESPN Cricinfo: 'These injections were prescribed to me to improve my everyday life as I had been suffering from chronic pain for the last six years. The medication was not prescribed for sport. At the time I did not believe I would be able to bowl again, let alone to do so at the First-Class level,' which sounds entirely credible.

It seems like one of sport's grey areas, where steroids can legitimately be prescribed for a chronic medical condition but then are taken to have been 'performance enhancing' once they have done what they are supposed to do. Duncan Spencer did play again, and even got an out-of-the-blue call up for Sussex in 2006, where he got Kumar Sangakkara out, but his moment was gone. 

He was rare enough to be among the very few human beings that could propel a cricket ball at maximum velocity, but the body and the action that enabled him to do it militated against him from doing it for very long. Then came his Catch-22 with nandrolone. What he was left with was one September afternoon when he bowled like the wind at the greatest batsman in the game. 

I'm glad the skipper sent me that clip.

* Fielding at gully at our level is, I think, essentially impossible. You must stand close enough to dive forward at the dribbled edge, but are then in the firing line for every wide long-hop that's carved merrily towards you. No thanks.

NB: There's a nice piece on Duncan Spencer by Abhishek Mukherjee at CricketCountry here. The Kent v Glamorgan video is here.


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Anonymous said...

I remember that spell of bowling vividly. I was in my parents’ house watching on a small television (the kind of size that no longer seems to exist) and I was transfixed. I had never heard of Spencer, but I had rarely seen an English bowler generate such pace and bounce. When Richards came to the crease, I was genuinely worried that he might be badly hurt and his great career might end in the worst way. That was not a thought that had ever occurred to me when watching him bat in test matches. It was simultaneously magnificent and unnerving.

Watching it again now, one additional thing stands out. Spencer looks to have a beautiful bowling action.

Thanks for stirring the memories!


The Old Batsman said...

thanks Keith, apparently the Nightwatchman will be running a big Spencer piece quite soon... the full story!

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