Headlong plunge secures moment in cricketing sun

It is an interesting sensation, pulling off a sporting feat at odds with one's usual prowess
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The Independent Online

Ashley Giles' five-wicket haul at Lord's, pah! Andrew Flintoff's 167 at Edgbaston, big deal! From where I was standing, not to mention fumbling, tripping and panting, there was only one memorable performance on the cricket field last week, and it was mine.

Lest it seem immodest to devote a column to my own sporting exploits, let me swiftly add that I was never much of a cricketer. I captained my university second XI, and swelled with pride when the first XI captain said in a committee meeting that he thought I was ideally qualified for the job, only to deflate when he expanded upon the reason why. Because I was a natural leader of men? No. Because I had an agile cricket brain? No. Because I was the best of the players unable to command a regular place in the first team? No. Because I had a telephone? Yes.

As for my few, happy summers playing club cricket for Southport Trinity in the South-West Lancashire League, I did not exactly drain the scorer's pen of ink, although, to be fair, my 62 at Billinge in the heady June of 1983 was talked about for almost three-quarters of an hour afterwards. As a sometime wicketkeeper, I was hampered by a complete inability to dive to my right, a limitation which also hindered my goalkeeping career. Elsewhere in the field I was less Graham Thorpe than Jeremy Thorpe. And my occasional off-spin was notable mainly for extracting turn on the second bounce.

All that, moreover, was in the days when I played a couple of times a week. In recent years I have played only once every summer, for the Padre's XI at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (coincidentally, the padre is the same chap who at university 20 years ago commended my suitability to lead the second XI - I like to tell him that he landed the padre's job at Sandhurst only because he had a Bible).

This year, however, I had to decline the padre's invitation, owing to a fixture clash. I have started to play cricket for the Lord's Taverners, a fine charity which not only does wonderful things for underprivileged children, but also wonderful things for undertalented cricketers, enabling them to share a field with Mike Gatting.

At Cheltenham College last Tuesday, as part of the Cheltenham Cricket Festival and with Nicholas Parsons commentating in a voice like a liquidised cravat, I played in an 80-over match for the Chris Tarrant XI against the Gatting XI. Tarrant's side included ITV's Formula One presenter Jim Rosenthal, ITV rugby commentator John Taylor, former Ipswich Town and England defender Russell Osman, and me. Gatting had Chris Broad, Bill Athey, Derek Randall, Bruce French, Dean Headley, Neil Smith and Gladstone Small, former cricket internationals all. To redress the balance, we had some former pros too: David Steele, Ross Edwards, Andy Stovold, David "Syd" Lawrence and Graham Rose. But we were not, on paper, exactly a match for our opponents.

On grass, though, strange things can happen. And undoubtedly the strangest was the breaking of Broad and Athey's opening partnership. Syd Lawrence bowled, Athey pulled, and I, finding an agility in my 43rd year that I don't remember having in any previous year, plunged headlong and caught the ball an inch off the turf.

It is an interesting sensation, pulling off a sporting feat that is entirely at odds with one's usual prowess. The momentum rolled me over a couple of times and I realised, when my flailing limbs finally came to rest, that the ball was still in my hands and Athey was on his way back to the pavilion, while my team-mates were scurrying over to congratulate me. That nice Jim Rosenthal said it was one of the most spectacular things he had seen for some time, but from a man who makes his living watching Michael Schumacher repeatedly processing to victory, maybe that wasn't the acclamation it might have been.

In the absence of anyone who had ever played cricket with me before, I was able to affect a kind of nonchalance, as though catches like that were second nature. And I subsequently noticed that Gatting, who had replaced Athey at the crease, sent Broad back after entertaining the notion of a quick single only to spot that I was the man swooping at mid-wicket. But maybe I was fantasising by then. I don't think Gatting does quick singles in charity matches.

I later took two wickets and scored 18 runs. One of my wickets was that of Lloyd Scott, a former fireman who has raised £3.5m for Children with Leukaemia, having walked to the North Pole, the South Pole, abseiled down Blackpool Tower, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and run several marathons in a deep-sea diving suit. This he has done as a former leukaemia sufferer himself, and with a replacement hip. In October he plans to cycle across Australia on a penny- farthing.

I know this because when the cricket was over I read his c.v. and reflected on how frustrating it was to end one of the finest days of my modest sporting career feeling inadequate.