Cricket: Big Bird finds a welcome new nest: Joel Garner may possess 259 Test wickets but he now faces a different challenge. Ian Ridley reports on Garner's nostalgic return to his adopted county

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The Independent Online
IT WAS 9.04pm, the sun was sinking over the scrapyard, and Joel Garner was coming at them from the far end, no sightscreen to conceal the kids kicking a football around beyond the poplar trees. Three wickets in four balls later it was all but over.

They never really stood a chance, especially after what had happened in the recent league match. In the first round proper of the Somerset Senior Knock-Out Cup, Purnell's of Midsomer Norton had replied to Glastonbury's 111 for 4 in 20 overs (J Garner 57 not out) with 91 for 9 (Garner 4 for 3).

It was Glastonbury's revenge. A few weeks ago at Norton on a damp wicket that drew Garner's sting - 'There must have been some rain down there we never had,' Dave Burden, the Glastonbury secretary, said with a wry smile - they were shot out for 98 and lost by seven wickets. On a bouncier wicket now, Purnell's were made to pay.

The Big Bird of Barbados, possessor of 259 wickets in 58 Tests for the West Indies, is back playing for the first time in the English county which loved, then lost, him in what he calls the 'shinding' of 1986. Then, in a palace coup, Somerset sacked Garner and Viv Richards and Ian Botham quit in protest.

Garner's start to his new job was inauspicious. A minority of Glastonbury members wondered about the wisdom of paying a 40-year-old an unprecedented pounds 6,000 for the summer, a sum raised in sponsorship from a host of local businesses including a pub called the Who'd Have Thought It.

Early performances also had the local papers writing some quizzical remarks around the scoreboards that were sent in to them. It all changed last Saturday, though, when Garner made 63 not out and took 7 for 23 at Watchet.

Then came the match against Purnell's, even if the start was again slow. Having come in at 33 for 3 in the 10th over, he missed his first ball, which kept low, although everything keeps low to a man of 6ft 8in.

His next act was to run out a teammate, which provoked a reaction showing a commitment to the cause resembling Mike Gatting to England's at Old Trafford. Soon he was in that elongated full stride. On a field with a ridiculously long boundary, he hit straight two huge sixes and four fours.

Now the crowd had swelled to the point where it was worth starting the raffle. People even emerged from front doors on the nearby Knot's Landing housing estate, one looking to protect the conservatory built pre-Garner.

In reply, Purnell's hit 23 from one over of spin that didn't, but Garner, now fancying himself as a cover-point, was always in reserve. With the yorker that was once the best in world cricket, he dismissed the brave if fortuitous man who dared to make 50 and three more soon followed.

'They are working me too hard. I'm too old for this,' he said afterwards, toothy grin piercing the balmy dusk. Actually, he is working less hard than in the Lancashire League with Oldham, where he played for the previous few summers. 'A lot colder up there,' is his reason for his migration south.

In the north, professionals are de rigueur, but in the Avco Somerset League, save for the odd Australian, he is a rarity. Opinion is divided; some relish the chance to make runs against him to tell the grandchildren about, others resent that he might be taking candy off the kids. 'They wouldn't have a team without him,' muttered the Purnell's scorer. 'Oh come on, sour grapes,' retorted the Glastonbury counterpart.

The captain, Richard Burt, puts the early shortcomings down to players being wary of him and he of them. 'Now Joel's superb. He spends a lot of time in the bar,' he says, meaning, of course, that he is sociable. Garner has a simple explanation for the turnaround: 'The sun has started shining.'

Time is healing the wounds of the 'shinding' and this week Garner has had a letter from Somerset requesting his presence to accept the life membership offered recently to him, Botham and Richards.

'I never really had any problems about what happened,' says Garner. 'A professional expects sometime not to have his contract renewed. But there was some character assassination which was strange after living in the place, never really getting in trouble, never really saying a lot.'

He is also obliquely diplomatic about the current failings of the English game, a Dickie Davies blob of grey hair lending him a statesmanlike quality. 'If I was coaching a senior team I would coach them about being mentally tough,' he says. 'At Test level you should be a good enough player. Most problems there are mental more than technical.' Over-coaching of natural talent is occurring, he says. His legacy at Glastonbury, he believes, will be his coaching of youngsters.

In the new age festival town of Glastonbury, life seems to be beginning anew at 40 for Joel Garner, as he completes a diploma in management studies and plans to join a proposed 'masters' series for old Test players.

In the shorter term, there beckons a second-round Somerset KO Cup meeting against Frome and a possible match with his former county colleague, Colin Dredge: the Demon of Frome against Glastonbury's new Prince of Darkness.

(Photograph omitted)