Old Ealing hands keep game in rude health

Bob Fisher, John Lindley and Alan Price are three very wise men playing on in their 70s. They tell Brian Viner how the camaraderie of club cricket has kept them at the crease

In global cricketing terms, "caught Fisher bowled Lindley" is not quite on a par with "caught Marsh bowled Lillee". But in the lengthy annals of Ealing Cricket Club there is no scorebook entry more familiar, except for lots and lots of runs after the name of AL Price. And this is not an entirely parochial story, for there is surely no other cricket club in the country, maybe even the world, that can boast three men who have been playing together for 57 seasons. Yet when Bob Fisher, John Lindley and Alan Price turn out for Ealing fourths or fifths this year, they will be continuing an on-field camaraderie that began in 1955 in the club's first-ever colts game, against Finchley.

Fisher was 16, Lindley 14 and Price 13. Today they are 73, 71 and 70, and inevitably a little creakier, but still as fit as septuagenarians have any right to be. Fisher, a wicketkeeper with 1,219 catches and 510 stumpings to his name (to put that latter figure in perspective, the aforementioned Rod Marsh made 88 career stumpings, Alan Knott 207 and Bob Taylor a mighty 264), insists that he has no more trouble bending his knees than he ever did. More perspective is required: Lindley's exact contemporary Geoffrey Boycott hung up his boots in 1986.

Manifestly, we are not comparing like with like. But these three were no slouches with leather and willow. Fisher and Price were capped by Middlesex 2nd XI and in their first-team days in the fiercely-competitive Middlesex League they came up against Mike Brearley, Mike Gatting and Mark Ramprakash, playing respectively for Brentham, Brondesbury and Stanmore. When in May 2004 a match was held to mark their 50th season of playing together, Gatting made a guest appearance. It takes an icon of Middlesex cricket to recognise one – or rather, three.

Gatting was some way from being a twinkle in his father's eye when Fisher and Price opened the batting in that inaugural colts match in 1955. It was the younger of the cricket-mad teenagers who stole the show, Price's half-century helping to seal victory by eight wickets. Those were the first 50 runs of a tally that now stands at 36,996. A batting all-rounder, he has also taken 3,575 wickets. Lindley, a quickish bowler in his pomp who these days bowls off three or four paces and puts it "where they don't like it", has 4,081 wickets to his name and, not insignificantly, 18,395 runs.

I spent a convivial hour chatting with all three men in Ealing CC's handsome old pavilion last week. They are an instantly likeable trio, quietly proud of their remarkable record and, for all that they still pull on their whites as enthusiastically as ever, somehow representative of a vanished age. They have watched with sadness the decline of the post-match social scene that used to be integral to club cricket, and which helped to cement a bond that extends to their wives and families.

"We made countless friends from other cricket clubs, too, because after the match you were expected to socialise with the opposition as well as your own team," said Fisher. "That doesn't happen now." Even the once-hallowed tradition of a player celebrating a fifty or five wickets by buying a jug of beer for his team-mates has fizzled out.

But not everything has changed for the worse. In 1958, when the first non-white player joined Ealing CC – an Indian called Hari Ali – there was not just huffiness on the part of some members, but actual resignations. It was not the venerable club's finest hour, but at least the door had been nudged ajar. Now, Ealing CC's teams are at least as multi-ethnic as the shoppers on the nearby Broadway.

As for other positive developments, the trio also acknowledge a marked general improvement in the ability of youngsters, who benefit from coaching that in some cases they themselves have facilitated. In that jubilee season of 2004 a fund was set up in their names, intended to sponsor youngsters unable to afford the cost of coaching. "Each season, Alan, John and I get requests from colts managers for deserving causes," Fisher told me. "We have not refused a request yet."

Whether the present crop of youngsters are quite as devoted to the game as they were at the same age is doubtful. Price recalled going to see Denis Compton in his golden season of 1947, when the Brylcreem Boy averaged more than 90 and scored 18 centuries. "But the day I went, to watch Middlesex against Northants at Lord's, he got his only nought of the summer. As soon as he was out, that was the end of my day."

An even more momentous nought followed the next summer, in the England v Australia Test at The Oval. Fisher went to the match, but wasn't there to see Bradman's famous second-ball duck. However, he did encounter the great man.

"I asked him if he would sign my autograph book and he said no, but that if I wrote to him at the Waldorf Hotel, he would. So I sent a picture of him from the Evening News, which he signed and sent back." It remains the most cherished item in Fisher's impressive collection of sporting memorabilia, although not quite the most valuable, for he also has the autographs of all the Busby Babes.

It is his own playing experiences, though, that he cherishes most, and in particular the rapport with his two old friends, who like him are minded to make a pact: that when one of them feels the need to retire, they all will. There's no imminent sign of it, though, and nor do they have to trawl back to their youth to find all their greatest moments. Price's finest innings, a Compton-esque 200 not out at Beaconsfield, dates only from 1998, when he was 56.

Maybe it is distance that most threatens their cricketing longevity, rather than loss of health or form. Ten years ago, Lindley and his wife moved to Dorset – not that the 113-mile drive, each way, has prevented him from turning out for Ealing every weekend. Now they are planning to move to Lincolnshire, to be closer to their daughters, which will present a somewhat trickier journey. "But still only 117 miles," he added, cheerfully.

He was a financial administrator in his working life, while Fisher ran an office-cleaning company and Price was an engineer. "I did have an offer to join the Lord's groundstaff," said Price, "but my dad told me no way. There was no money in the game." What the game has offered him and the others is boundless pleasure, special friendships, and a claim to genuinely unique status.

They haven't always played in the same Ealing team: astonishingly, Price was a first XI player from 1958 to 1996, longer than the others, though Fisher did captain the first team for a record nine years, and in 1971 led them to the final of the National Knockout Cup at Lord's. But they started together and one day they will finish together and that surely, at the very least, will merit the revival of a lamented ritual: three amazing achievements, marked by three jugs.

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