On Sunday afternoon, at Mill Hill School's idyllic cricket ground in north London, on the kind of summer's day that P G Wodehouse had in mind when he wrote about even butterflies loafing languidly in the sunshine, I played my first game of cricket for four years, for the Lord's Taverners against a Saracens All-Stars XI containing assorted ex-professional cricketers as well as former rugby union great Richard Hill.
The last time I'd played for the Taverners I'd had a fleeting moment of glory, swooping like a dying elephant at shortish midwicket to catch Bill Athey, once England's Test opener, for one. This time my contribution was limited to three overs of off-spin that didn't spin and quite often didn't pitch, but my day was made long before that, when I arrived to find that I would be sharing a changing room with Colin Croft, maybe not the fastest but probably the fiercest of the thunderous West Indian pace attack that roughed up the world's finest batsmen in the 1970s and 1980s.
There is nothing fierce any more about Croft, who walked around at his great height in a kind of cloud of bonhomie, cheerfully dispensing homilies about the way we should all lead our lives, including the advice that everyone should have a complete change of direction every 10 years. In his case he gave up cricket to become a commercial airline pilot, although even in his playing pomp he spent the off-seasons as an air-traffic controller, doubtless directing incoming aircraft around Joel Garner. "You had to do something just to get by," he told me. "For a five-Test series in 1977, and three one-dayers, I earned $3,000 [Trinidad & Tobago]. That was about £500. I needed a proper job."
I spent a captivating hour or so sprawled on the grass with Croft, watching our star batsmen Mike Gatting and Neil Smith (the latter ex-Warwickshire, the former needing no introduction, least of all to the women in the tea tent) win the match with some exhilarating hitting that yielded a win off the final ball of the day. I asked him what his own highest Test score was, and he beamed and said 43, against Australia in Antigua, despite having his ribs broken by Jeff Thomson.
I have a theory that great bowlers invariably have a more vivid memory of their batting exploits, likewise great batsmen of their bowling figures. Later I asked Gatting how many Test wickets he took, and he described all four of them in loving detail. Three were scalps to be proud of, too; Martin Crowe twice, and Zaheer Abbas, captaining Pakistan in Faisalabad, lbw b Gatting 50.
As for Croft, with a huge chortle that startled a little girl walking by, he also recalled scoring 33 against England in Barbados in 1981. Clive Lloyd sent him in as nightwatchman after Gordon Greenidge had been dismissed without scoring (lbw b Dilley), and he batted until shortly before tea the following day. Applause accompanied Croft all the way back to the pavilion, but he knew it was less for his obdurate batting than an expression of relief that he had finally done the decent thing, enabling Viv Richards to swagger to the crease. And Richards gave the crowd what they wanted, reaching his century before the close of play on his way to 182 not out. West Indies duly won by 298 runs. Of course, those were the days when they had a team who knew the value of Test cricket.
Pressure? You don't know the half of it, Andy
Let's look on the bright side. Maybe, by losing so emphatically in the French Open quarter-final on Tuesday, Andy Murray boosted his chances at Wimbledon. With such a recent reminder that the repository of all our hopes has feet of clay, the pressure to succeed on grass might be less intense. That said, I recently spent several hours in the charming company of Britain's former Davis Cup captain John Feaver, who suggested to me that the real pressure in tennis has nothing to do with winning Wimbledon, but scraping enough prize-money from tournaments in Kazakhstan to pay the hotel bill. He's right, and I was reminded of something Lee Trevino once said, that he'd never experienced any pressure to compare with his days as a shoeshine boy in Texas, playing golf against tough local businessmen for a $10 stake, with only a dollar in his pocket. So really, all things considered, Murray doesn't know pressure from a plate of haggis, neeps and tatties.
Straight from horse's mouth in the heyday of O'Brien
There have been many tributes paid this week to the great Vincent O'Brien, but Derby day seems the perfect occasion to quote my favourite assessment, from Brough Scott's splendid book Of Horses and Heroes. Once Lester Piggott joined O'Brien's team, wrote Scott, "we had one of the most exciting, if least communicative, partnerships in racing history. The aura they generated was unique and the fact that in public Lester said virtually nothing and Vincent very little, only added to their attraction. For it meant that the horses had to do the talking and often, as in the zenith of Sir Ivor and Nijinsky, that didn't leave many superlatives left unsaid." Beautifully put.Reuse content