Fantasy becomes reality for memorabilia maniacs: Keith Elliott at Large

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THE stuffed hippo started my love affair with memorabilia. This enormous beast, dominating a job lot of museum redundancies, was in a London auction. Despite the cracked skin and sad eyes, it was just what I needed. I resolved to re-plan the dining-room round this unique piece of furniture. What a talking point at dinner parties]

As it happened, I didn't buy Harry. It wasn't the price (he sold for about pounds 200). But with my car out of action, I could see problems getting on a bus (he was far too large for a taxi). There was a further consideration. I wasn't totally convinced my girlfriend would be so enthusiastic about sharing a small London flat with a 10ft-long hippo. So I bid for a squirrel instead.

It's not easy being a collector. Just ask Keith Hayhurst. He has more than 2,000 cricket books alone. Then there are the autographs, stumps, pads, postcards, balls, programmes, photographs and caps (did you know that there are more than 50 styles?). But Mrs H is not a cricketer. In fact, she's left totally cold by the game. So poor old Keith and his collections, accumulated since he was a lad more than 40 years ago, are relegated to the loft.

'My wife understands my passion. And she knew I was a cricket nut before we were married,' he says as if admitting to being a transvestite. 'I respect her values, but she is just not into cricket. Anyway, cricket is only a small part of my life.'

Ah, there's the true enthusiast speaking. For Keith Hayhurst is not just a hoarder. He's on the committee of Lancashire Cricket Club; he is the curator of the county's cricket museum; he watches matches all over the country; he gives talks on cricket and he is the chairman of the Cricket Memorabilia Society.

The society has more than 600 equally addicted members from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. They include Sir Donald Bradman, Sir Colin Cowdrey, Bob Wyatt, Peter Parfitt, Tom Graveney and Brian Johnston. John Arlott was its first president. 'We want to encourage people to have an interest in our cricketing heritage,' says Hayhurst, who lives in Cheadle Hulme.

For some members, this may mean researching in great detail the arcane differences in ball- stitching over the past 150 years. If you want to know what Billy Bates got from admirers for his hat-trick in the second Test v Australia in 1882, CMS members can probably even tell you how high the silver hat was, and how the pounds 31 was paid.

But most of all, the club is for those like Hayhurst, who thinks the ultimate living-room decoration is a collection of cricket boxes worn by renowned batsmen. At meetings, everything from cigarette cards to W G Grace autographs are sold or even given away. 'Collecting is an aesthetic thing,' Hayhurst, a schools inspector, says. 'There is an artistic, a romantic quality to it.'

It's easy to be deceived by prices such as Arlott's set of Wisdens, sold last month at Christie's for pounds 24,376, or the single cigarette card of a baseball player sold in New York last year for pounds 251,000. 'We try to keep our prices down so that even teenagers with 50p can buy something,' Hayhurst says.

So the society will probably approve of a sporting memorabilia auction on 3 and 4 November at Trent Bridge, where most of the 1,400 lots are likely to sell for pounds 15- pounds 30. 'The idea is that someone with pounds 20 in his pocket will be able to buy something,' Trevor Vennett-Smith, the auctioneer, says.

Although a cricket fan, Vennett-Smith, who looks like an early W G Grace, will not buy any items himself. 'Once you start, it's hard to stop,' he said. But cricket is only one of the sports covered. Others include tennis, speedway, football, wrestling, boxing and baseball. It is a funfair with endless rides for those who have sporting links or sporting heroes.

Boxing enthusiast? Then how about a glove signed by Jersey Joe Walcott, a pair of shorts won by Muhammad Ali or a signed portrait of Joe Louis? For football- lovers, there are cigarette cards of the 1935 Huddersfield Town squad, a pair of Peter Shilton's gloves or a signed newspaper photo of the 1954 Manchester United team (such clean-looking lads then).

You can bid for a signed picture of Joe DiMaggio or a baseball signed by Mickey Mantle; Bjorn Borg's wooden racket; a Christmas card from Malcolm Campbell; a medal from the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games with the back showing an eagle on a Nazi swastika; or even Seb Coe's running shirt.

For cricketers, the auction will be like Santa's grotto, with everything from signed postcards of Jack Hobbs and Harold Larwood to a table-lamp of cricket stumps signed by 1960s Sussex players. The auction also includes items for Bruce French's and Tim Robinson's benefits.

You may find the idea of buying someone else's used clothes at auction (Tim is offering the very shirt he wore in the 1985 Headingley Test) a bit like shopping at Oxfam. If, however, you see it as a unique opportunity; if, indeed, such a garment will actually enhance your existing collection, then you'll understand why I wanted a hippo.

Auction catalogues from T Vennett-Smith, 11 Nottingham Rd, Gotham, Nottinghamshire NG11 0HE, pounds 5.95. Details of the Cricket Memorabilia Society from Steve Cashmore, 21 Beechurst Avenue, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL52 6TY.