Swinging high at Lord's

Mike Rowbottom watches England's disabled team triumph against Wales at the home of cricket yesterday
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The Independent Online
England's victory anthem - "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" - was given full voice at Lord's yesterday afternoon. But the cricketing triumph it marked was of a rare kind - the first by the home country's disabled teams in their sequence of internationals against Wales.

That sequence, admittedly, extends only to three. Established in 1989, organised disabled cricket is still in its infancy, but it is growing sturdily.

Yesterday's staging of what is now an annual fixture at the Lord's indoor school was attended by Alistair Burt, Minister for Social Services and Disabled People, who took part in a one-wicket challenge with the assistance - as runner - of a famously large pair of feet belonging to the former England Test cricketer Derek Randall.

Those feet were a cause of some embarrassment to two of England's wheelchair- bound players, Keith Hance and Andy Butterworth. "We've just run over them a couple of times," Andy confessed.

He and Keith, both of whom have spina bifida, took up cricket three years ago after being coached at Egham Sports Centre by Fred Wildgoose, chairman of the Cricket Federation for People with Disabilities.

Scoring in the 25-over matches played yesterday was on traditional lines, but other figures come into play for the disabled game. Drawing from around 1,000 active players, teams are required to include a minimum of two wheelchair players and two women.

And in order to allow more severely disabled competitors to take part, matches are in two categories - Zodiac and Zenith - for those of greater and lesser disability.

Playing in teams of mixed physical and mental handicap can entail problems in communication. Keith, a 27-year-old computer engineer from Staines, recalled playing recently opposite a batsman with Downs Syndrome. "He was a man on a mission. He ran for everything, and in the end I got run out," he said ruefully.

There are also physical problems for wheelchair cricketers. There are no concessions for them other than two swivel levers on which to lay their bat while moving between the wickets, and a sudden call to go back from the other end often results in falls.

The enjoyment of the competitors, however, is patent. And none enjoyed themselves more yesterday than Linda Lane, one of the two women in the England Zenith side, where she batted at No 9.

After collecting her first runs, she continued past the wicket as if tugged by her runaway bat before raising both arms to the spectators' gallery.

Run out for eight, she sank her head on the waiting shoulder of a team member, momentarily overcome. "You were brilliant," she was told. "Now do yourself a favour and get yourself a cold drink."

At which point Elaine Dodd, England's other female player, clapped her on the back and shepherded her to the refreshment table. "Well partnered, mate," she said.

But there was competitiveness amidst the camaraderie. Lane's innings was watched by the England captain, Frederick Dove, a highly capable player who has turned out for able-bodied league sides in south-east London for many years.

Under the rules, Dove and two of his fellow batsmen had had to vacate the wicket upon reaching 25 runs, and were only permitted to return if the rest of the side was dismissed inside the allotted time.

Thus, as Lane walked off, Dove's feelings were ambivalent, and the competitive sportsman within him uttered a quiet "yes!'' as he stepped forward to resume his innings. As it turned out, Dove, who presents the Radio Four programme for the disabled, Does He Take Sugar? was made man of the match. After playing a major part in England Zenith's total of 181, he helped restrict Wales to 102 all out, taking the final catch.

"No cricketer could ever turn down being captain of England at Lord's," he said. "The standard of disabled cricket is going up all the time."

Dove, a thalidomide victim, was watched by his younger brother, Philip, a British international triathlete. Also looking on, almost wistfully, was Randall, who at 46 still plays Minor Counties cricket for Suffolk. "I still love playing," he said. "I'd like to be out there now playing with these lads."

You didn't doubt he meant it.