Cricket: Oddball bounces back to Lord's: The all-round skills of John Carr have played a central role in the march of Middlesex. Rob Steen reports

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CLOSE of play at Lord's. 'Quick, catch him,' one zealous father instructs his son as Mike Gatting bustles off towards his car. The Middlesex captain swivels round as if someone has just advised him that Shakoor Rana is on the premises.

As the bashful boy is shoved unceremoniously towards The Star, autograph book almost slipping from his grasp, a besuited John Carr emerges from the pavilion looking for all the world like Something in the City. Gatting having obliged, the boy scurries over to obtain the imprimatur of Gatting's heir apparent. Now it is Carr's turn to blush.

For any other player it would have been a particularly wearisome day. 12.25, Desmond Haynes had gone leg- before, prompting Carr, No 5 in the order, to strap on a thigh pad; upon Gatting's dismissal four and a half hours later, pads were buckled on, needlessly as it transpired. Despite a stance that would delight Babe Ruth, Carr's unorthodox input at the crease - two centuries, including a match- winning, career-best 192 not out against Warwickshire, average bordering on 50 - has been an integral cog in Middlesex's seemingly remorseless march towards a seventh Championship pennant in 18 seasons. Today, though, for the first time this season, maximum batting points have been gleaned.

Yet Carr sounds anything but frustrated. Two summers ago he was indeed Something In The City, or at least on the way to becoming one. 'I had one good year opening the Middlesex innings when it was all too wonderful, all too easy, but I didn't want to be scraping a living and when I began to struggle in 1989 I started to wonder what else there was. Grass is greener and all that jazz.

'So I joined a Barclays Bank graduate training scheme in 1991. I suppose it was like John Major running away from his circus background to be an accountant. People were amazed I could contemplate such a swap.'

It took Carr a few weeks to realise his error, and 18 months to inform his employers. 'If you've made a mistake you should be able to admit it, but I had to give it a proper shot,' he said. 'I'd been keeping my hand in playing for Hertfordshire and Radlett and although the standard of minor counties bowling is obviously a fair way below first-class bowling, I felt in good nick.

'I had a quick word in Gatt's ear to test the ground but I didn't know whether I would fit in. Middlesex were really seeking someone for the one-dayers to bowl a bit and bat in the middle order, but some of the younger batsmen hadn't established themselves.'

Those all-round virtues duly helped Middlesex win their first Sunday title last summer when Carr returned to Lord's, not so much a second home as a favourite play-room. His father, Donald, a former England captain, and one-time secretary of the Test and County Cricket Board - uncle Douglas, Major Douglas to his men, was once secretary of Derbyshire - lived in Elm Tree Road and John recalls scampering the hundred or so yards to HQ from the age of four.

He is adamant, nonetheless, that he was never pressured to take up the game. 'My mother always insisted my father kept clear and, anyway, he was aware that he could be as much a hindrance as a help. I didn't need a pushy father and he realised that.'

Carr was very much the Corinthian type at Repton and cricket had to take its place in the queue. 'I played for the firsts for three years, but I think I was the only Reptonian ever to be put forward for the Public Schools trials and turned down. Then again, I probably deserved it. I grew late and only when I went to Oxford did my confidence improve.'

In 1984, midway through a philosophy, politics and economics degree at Worcester College, Carr scored 66 and claimed 3 for 22 with his off-breaks to give the Combined Varsity XI victory over Gloucestershire, their first Benson and Hedges Cup win over senior opposition for eight years. He is, however, the only member of that side still playing first-class cricket.

'Not many from that era carried on at all,' he reflects. 'Andy Miller joined Middlesex for a spell but he's now doing very well in the City. Robin Boyd-Moss, who broke all those records for Cambridge, went to Kenya. Perhaps we have more options so if we do something we need to it more successfully.'

Carr is certainly doing so now. When John Emburey volunteered to relinquish the Middlesex vice-captaincy last winter in order to allow Gatting's long-term successor to be properly groomed, our Renaissance man was given the first bite of the apple. Championship victories over Sussex and Derbyshire in Gatting's absence constituted an encouraging start, yet there are no illusions as to the task of filling those six-league boots.

'It'll be a hard act to follow whoever does it,' he mused, 'although I'm not too sure that Gatt knows what to make of me.' In an age of conformity, the oddballs must be cherished.

(Photograph omitted)