William Donaldson's Week: Would Gower edit the 'Oldie'?

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The Independent Online
WHEN I was engaged to write this column it was pointed out to me that there must be one page in any newspaper that no one reads ('Ah, 'Life-Style' - won't bother with that').

I put on a red nose and performed pertly, as I saw it, for a year and then I complained here that I hadn't received a single irritated letter from a reader, whereas if my colleague Christopher Booker was to be believed, he only had to write in the Sunday Telegraph that August, not September, was the month for picking blackberries and 792 readers maintained the opposite by post.

But any fears that this page might be the Independent's duff one have been dispelled. After I argued last week (apropos of my friend Peter Morgan's insistence that Cathy, his beloved, should watch him playing cricket) that football, since any fool can play it, would be the less embarrassing choice - indeed that Morgan would do better to make Cathy pack

a hamper, spread a picnic in his study and watch him write, which, unlike cricket, he does excellently - I have received letters by the sackful from outraged soccer buffs.

Perhaps I should clarify the point by using an anecdote.

After Derby County stuffed Leeds United 0-2 at Elland Road in 1978, Norman 'Bite Your Legs' Hunter, the home team's clogger and donkey, approached my friend Colin Todd - the most cultured central defender ever to pull on the No 6 shirt for England - and said: 'You were magic, Toddy. What would you do if you couldn't play football?'

'I suppose I'd do what you do, Norman,' Toddy said.

Football, you see, is such an idiotic game that it can be played to a professional standard even by those who, like Norman Hunter, have no more aptitude for it than my Aunt Fanny had, whereas the same story, told as an exchange between the portly soprano Gooch, say, and David Gower would make no sense at all.

Gower and Gooch are caviare and jellied eels, of course - one an artist able to break grown men's hearts, the other a persevering carthorse - but they are playing the same game, more or less, and one that bears no resemblance to anything my friend Morgan and his pals get up to on a Saturday in Wiltshire. That girls in hats should be made to watch the latter carry-on is quite unreasonable.

At a distance, however, and as I said last week, Terence Blacker puffing after a one- legged striker in a midweek football match against the porcelain experts of the V & A is indistinguishable from the memory of Norman Hunter scything at the ankles of a little Continental winger and landing on his arse.

In a nutshell, the ability to play cricket is an extraordinary gift - like perfect pitch - possessed at any one time by scarcely more than one in half a million people. Nor do those who have it care to participate, by way of recreation, in activities which, compared to cricket, require no skill at all: publishing, editing your own magazine or becoming a producer of television programmes.

David Gower didn't suddenly announce, when I dined with him at the Academy Club last week, that he intended, by way of relaxation, to spend Saturday editing the Oldie; still less that he was taking his girlfriend along to watch.

Be that as it may, I wasn't in the least disconcerted by Morgan's request, mentioned here last week, that I appear as him in a cricket match on Saturday.

It so happens that during my time at Winchester only two boys could play the game at all. The Nawab of Pataudi, who later captained India with some success, was one, I was the other. No bowler from another school ever got Pataudi out, so his average must have been infinity. My own was a respectable 46.17, but I discovered when I was 16 or so that I was unlikely to reach international standard, or even play for Kent.

One summer my friend Rex Chester, whose father manufactured paint, invited me to turn out for his private team against Hampshire. Chester's father had donated a lot of money to the county club so they did as he asked.

I scored 22 against Derek Shackleton and then the slow bowlers - Charlie Knott and Jim Bailey - came on and I never made contact with another ball. I retired from cricket on the spot - until, that is, I turned out on Saturday as Morgan at a manor house in Wiltshire.

This was a doddle, not least because the other chaps - most of them called Hugo - weren't there to play cricket but to improve their contacts. When the opposition's best batsman skied one of my cunningly flighted leg-breaks and it fell harmlessly between Fred Ingrams (Richard's boy) at mid-off and deep extra-cover, a gallery owner with whom young Ingrams was trying to make a deal, I left the pitch and returned to London, where I found Morgan and Cathy, his beloved, on my doorstep.

'You can have him,' said Cathy. 'I concede.'

'He still wants you to watch him playing cricket?'

'No, he wants me to make a picnic and watch him write.'

We're off to Broadstairs, Morgan and I, but I can see problems ahead.