Cricket: Sadness to put the game in perspective

SOMEWHERE IN the memorabilia at home - a pile which one day will be placed into pristine order - is a photograph of Malcolm Marshall, Bobby Parks and me. It is there because one summer's day back in 1990 when I thought I knew something about how to bat I went in at the United Services ground in Portsmouth.

Derbyshire had been going along in an untroubled way against Hampshire. Marshall had bowled at us in a pretty innocuous fashion and we had reached 200 or so for the loss of a couple of wickets. I had never faced him before and he was one of the best quick bowlers in the world and everything was hunky dory. He then produced a spell of quite devastating fast bowling.

From 200 and something for two and doing very nicely thank you we were 200 and not many more all out and Marshall had seven for spit. Me, I was undone by pace, swing and bounce, but apart from that I had it covered. Parks took the catch. It was his 1,000th. The photo of the three of us was taken afterwards.

It all came tumbling back to me here in Cape Town on Friday when the news came through that Malcolm Marshall had died. Since he got me out that first time - did I forget to mention it was for a duck? - I had talked to him about cricket and how to play fast bowling. He was a fascinating and lovely man. The effect of his death on the England party was profound. I can compare it only to hearing of the death of Ayrton Senna, the great motor racing driver. It was shocking, disturbing and, I have to say, put much else into perspective.

All my days, I have wanted to play cricket for England. This is a big tour for me, for us. Everywhere we go here in South Africa we are receiving an enormous amount of attention. The England cricket team are in town.

And when we do badly, as sometimes we have done lately, it is grim reading. But there is, as Malcolm Marshall's death reminded me pertinently, a little bit more to it all than going out to represent your country. Life is extremely fragile. It is to be treasured.

What we are here for in the next four months is important. These are significant times for myself and for many others here. But it's a game of cricket, no more, no less.

Last week I batted (and I should say, lest anyone forget in the fullness of time, bowled first change) for an England touring team for the first time. It was not an auspicious beginning, not the one I had longed for all these years. In the first match against Nicky Oppenheimer's team, a warm-up to get accustomed to playing the game in the middle again, I was feeling good. The ball that got me out popped out to short leg. The catch was claimed and given.

Now I know I didn't hit it. The ball came off my arm. It was frustrating. This was not the way it was meant to turn out. But it was not an awful umpiring decision. Michael Atherton, who was batting at the other end, asked me later if I had hit it. It had, he said, hit something. It was difficult to tell. It might have been the bat. Whereas Pat Symcox, fielding at slip, told the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, that it had certainly not come off the bat. Different views from in front and from behind the wicket.

And then came the limited overs match the following day and the slight difference of interpretation between me and my England captain, Nasser Hussain, about what constituted a run. I had played one ball down and the next, a full toss, I hit to cover. It was travelling hard enough for me to think that the fielder might not gather it cleanly.

My initial call was "wait" and when the ball spilled five or so yards to the fielder's right I amended this to "yes". Nasser, who had made a few yards down the pitch, stopped and began to retreat. Apparently, when I was saying yea he was saying nay. I heard nothing, went for the run and although I ran past him and made my ground before him I knew it was better for the team that I should walk, not him. He was in, established with 20-odd; I had just come to the crease.

Yes, the captain and I are still talking. These things happen. I will admit to being really disappointed. But these are formative days. It is best that they happen now, not in the First Test three weeks hence. That is the time to start making telling judgements.

Between now and then, as always, the batsmen have to try to spend some time at the crease, the bowlers must bowl in the middle. But throughout it all we shall remember the great Malcolm Denzil Marshall.