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I was born with cricket in my blood. My father was an enthusiastic if modest club performer who played for a team that, where once it had consisted largely of doctors from the local hospital from which it derived its name, and had been one of the strongest in the Medway area, had declined by the early sixties into a dad’s army of clerks, TV repair men and shipwrights (not to denigrate those trades but rather to demonstrate the disconnection over time from the medical profession).

My father’s skills were confined to a stubborn resistance to giving his wicket away easily (though, despite himself, he invariably did), and an aptitude for both pocketing slip catches himself, and occasionally by redirecting the ball from his commodious stomach into the hands of more agile teammates in the vicinity.

The team was my extended family – every player was an “uncle”, though not in the biological sense of the word, and I revered them, despite their limitations on the field. At the age of ten I graduated from mascot and scoreboard operator to become its official scorer. I fulfilled this role for the next five years, spending summer afternoons in cramped, rotting wooden sheds, invariably sat alongside grizzled, gap-toothed septuagenarians with a life long chain smoking habit.

But I loved it.

It wasn’t just the game that captured my young heart, but the environment surrounding it – the rickety double decker bus journeys through the Kent countryside, the team being forced to change on the bus if it was behind time, the sing-songs on the journey back (my party piece for some reason was Wouldn’t It Be Loverly from My Fair Lady) and the regular stops at pubs such as the Chequers at Loose and the Five Bells in Snodland. “Home” games at the Civil Service Sports Ground and Langton Playing Fields in Gillingham did not generate the same romance but were, nonetheless, events to be savoured. And then there was Tuesday night net practice, when I spent two hours building up a fearful sweat scurrying to retrieve balls that had been clubbed hither and thither (funny how they never managed it at weekends), was bliss.

At fifteen I made my own “first class” debut at Blue House Marden, a short walk from the Stile Bridge Inn and, “batting” at number eleven, notched a magisterial 0 not out in the customary crushing defeat. My other memory of that game was landing in a jungle of nettles, vainly chasing an edge down to third man. I could not sit down at school for the next three days.

And then there was the county side, on the cusp of its glory years of the seventies. Club commitments limited our outings to the Nevill, Garrison, Mote, Crabble, St Lawrence and Bat and Ball grounds, but my father and I managed a handful of days each season, courtesy of his Association of Kent Cricket Clubs pass.

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My greatest thrill came when our annual holiday to Folkestone in August coincided with the traditional Cricket Week. My parents would deposit me at the Cheriton Ground around ten o’clock in the morning and went off for a day of beach, bingo and Bobby’s shopping, allowing me to indulge in my busman’s holiday of scoring every ball of both matches and haring after Cowdrey, Knott and Underwood for their autographs as they left the field at lunch, tea and close. It was an era when, aside from newspaper photographs and occasionally black and white television coverage, we only saw our sporting idols “in the flesh” – yet they were more accessible for that.

Of course, I was playing cricket too at school, on both playground concrete and playing field grass. At Glencoe Road primary school I was the proud custodian of the chalk required to repaint the wicket on the wall at each break, lunchtime and long after the bell sounded to send us home. The only spectator sport that could compare were the regular fights outside the school gates at home time.

Although, unlike football, we did not play against other schools, I opened the batting in games at the Maidstone Road recreation ground in Chatham. My finest cricketing hour in those pre-eleven plus days was, however, imbued with tragedy when having, like Hutton at the Oval in 1948, carried my bat in a pathetically low team total, I arrived home to be informed by my mother that my pet dog, Patch, had been put down. I suppose the events of that afternoon taught me the value of treating those “twin imposters” of triumph and disaster equally.

Moving to Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School I was converted in my first year from an opening bat into a medium quick (for a twelve year old) bowler with a capacity for late swing – an pubescent Jimmy Anderson if you like. After flirting with the styles of Fred Trueman, Wes Hall and the mercurial Alan Brown, I began to model both my bowling action and fielding demeanour, if not my batting, which suffered in the process, on the mighty John Shepherd (though there was still the occasional Wes Hall whirl of the arms for variety).

My school had always been strong at cricket, competing successfully with teams from the Judd School, Skinner’s, King’s School Rochester and Dartford and Maidstone Grammar Schools to name but a few. At under twelve, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen levels I was a prolific wicket taker, with regular six and seven wicket hauls. My proudest moment, and I suspect my father’s too, was when he slipped away from work early in London one evening to watch me play for the under fourteens against Chatham South Technical School. I took eight wickets for three runs in eight overs and we won by ten wickets. I don’t recall him coming again – perhaps he just wanted to cherish that moment always.

The most publicly acclaimed performance was seven for fifteen against Faversham Grammar School. The school headmaster, a fine club cricketer himself for, I believe, Linton Park, who umpired a number of the age group games, announced at the school assembly on the following Monday morning that my spell had been the finest he had ever witnessed by a schoolboy of my age.

My exploits caught the eye of the Kent under fifteen selectors and I played in a handful of trial games, including the final eliminator for the county team. Playing for East against West Kent, I chose that match, however, to misplace my customary accuracy and spray the ball continually down the leg side of Graham Clinton who, when he managed to reach it, clipped it to fine leg for four. He made the Kent team, and forged a strong county career – I did not.

But I didn’t fade into cricketing obscurity – yet. In the second of three years in the First XI at “the Math” I took forty nine wickets, falling just three short of the all-time record. I followed this with a couple of highly successful seasons at university, and subsequently – albeit briefly – played at a decent level in both Yorkshire club cricket and around south east London in the late seventies and early eighties, where, oddly, I reverted to being a middle order batsman who bowled a little.

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My playing is now limited to fielding the occasional ball on the boundary at the St Lawrence or Nevill Ground, and the beach (I recommend Sunny Sands in Folkestone and Viking Bay at Broadstairs). I wonder too if I’m alone in strolling around the ground in the breaks between innings or along the seashore in the hope of being called upon to pouch a skier or pounce on a straight drive from one of the ever diminishing number of impromptu games.

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It is now four months since my father passed away.

With the initial practical issues now largely dealt with, apart from the small matter of selling his house, my thoughts turn more to him as a man and parent. And with Christmas approaching, a time of year when he was in his element, I feel his absence more acutely.

Dad was born on Valentine’s Day eighty eight years ago, the eldest of four brothers, and a sister who died in childhood. After attending the local primary school, he gained a place at the most prestigious secondary school in the area. He proudly recalled that he also spent a term at the neighbouring girls’ school due to his buildings being requisitioned for the war effort.

He joined the Army in 1945, claiming that his arrival precipitated Hitler’s departure, a theory at least corroborated by the calendar, and was based in the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar for four years. His duties included recording the births and deaths of the island apes! One of the happiest moments of his later years was revisiting the “Rock” on his eightieth birthday with my wife and I, though he was mortified to discover that his barracks was now a particularly dowdy branch of Marks and Spencer!

Returning home, he met the love of his life, Betty, and they were married in August 1950. I joined the party two years later. Most of his working life was spent in the administration of education in the London area, including County Hall which sits beneath the iconic London Eye. It is one of my regrets that he didn’t get to take a “flight” on it before he died. He took early retirement in 1986, giving him the opportunity to play golf and tend his garden more often, as well as travel around the country with my mother.

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His life was turned upside down in 2004 when Mum died of cancer. In fifty four years of marriage, they had only spent one night apart. I had always thought that my mother would survive her husband’s death more successfully than the other way round.

But he surprised me.

Though her passing left him bereft and desperately lonely most of the time, he returned within months to his former social life, including playing bingo and dancing, which they had so enjoyed together. He even took his first flight in visiting his surviving brothers in Spain. For nearly four years, he continued to maintain an active social life, looking forward in particular to Thursday evenings when he kept up a tradition of nearly sixty years by meeting up with his closest friends to play snooker at a local working men’s club. There may not have been many breaks of 147, or even 14 for that matter, made on those occasions, but they were filled with laughter and much non-politically correct ranting but, above all, affection.

But then in August 2008, he suffered a stroke which was followed quickly by a heart attack and kidney failure. Though he recovered after several days in critical care, his mobility was progressively restricted thereafter and his self-confidence was shattered virtually overnight.

He was never the same man afterwards.

Although he remained in his home, he was no longer capable of carrying out everyday chores such as cleaning, shopping (other than at the corner store) and clothes washing/ironing  all of which fell to my wife and I. Carers visited him two or three times a days to cook the meals I had bought for him and check on his wellbeing.

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While Janet and I took him out for meals and to the theatre from time to time, he became increasingly disinclined to leave his home, content to watch Sky Sports from dawn to dusk on his new flat screen television. Living close by I was able to visit him two or three times a week and speak to him on the telephone every day.

He became increasingly negative about life in his last few years. For all that I and the health professionals did for him to make life comfortable, we could not do the one thing that he craved above every other thing.

Bring my mother back.

Comments like “throw me in a corner and leave me to die”, supplemented by ” you won’t have to worry about me anymore and can get on with your own life” became more frequent. His trips to hospital were a relief for him because he wasn’t surrounded by memories, and was attended to constantly rather than for half an hour a couple of times a day.

A particularly nasty fall in early 2013 led him to become virtually housebound. Intermittent falls in the home and a succession of infections meant periodic stays in hospital or respite care for the remainder of his life. The “final straw” came when he choked on a drink at the nursing home in March 2015, leading to an aspiration pneumonia diagnosis, a condition that just could not be beaten and which ultimately led to heart failure and death five months later.

During that period, and on previous occasions, he was deprived of the one real, enduring pleasure he still had – food. Nil by mouth or mashed up potatoes and carrots were no substitute for a hearty roast dinner or fish and chips. The last time I saw him genuinely enjoying himself was when he was tucking into the mountainous Christmas dinner Janet had prepared for him at his home last year. The turkey, roast potatoes, brussel sprouts, carrots, parsnips and stuffing, followed by Christmas pudding and custard, must have weighed three or four times that of the microwaved meals he was accustomed, yet he cleared every scrap. And then had cheese board and biscuits a few hours later!

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Just prior to the choking attack that triggered his ultimate demise, I had sneaked in a bar of Cadbury’s Whole Nut chocolate to the nursing home. Despite the fact that, but an hour before, he had eaten a three course lunch, he devoured most of it within minutes!  He did have the good grace, however, to offer me a couple of squares!

He had been an enthusiastic sportsman, playing tennis in his early married days before becoming a reliable and popular member of a local cricket team. An average batsman and occasional bowler, it was in fielding that he excelled. It wasn’t just that he was a “safe pair of hands”, but he was able to use another part of his anatomy to great effect. Being amply proportioned, he perfected the art of bouncing the ball off his stomach to waiting team mates who would then catch it!

Though he rarely reached double figures, he played the occasional memorable innings, no more so than at a game in Faversham on a Bank Holiday Monday when, having been knockrd momentarily unconscious during the first innings by the home team’s fearsome West Indian fast bowler, and having his glasses shattered in the process, he returned in the second innings to win the match almost single-handed in the fading ligh with a score of 36, his second highest ever score.

It was through cricket that he taught me not only my love of the game but my affection for my home county of Kent. Summer weekends between the age of eight and sixteen were spent visiting delightful Wealden villages such as Goudhurst, Nursed, Hadlow and Addington, invariably on a bone-shaking double decker bus or in the back of a team member’s Morris Minor. And during the week in the school holidays we would take long rambling walks to exotic places such as Pig’s Hole Bottom.

Dad was afflicted, as, of course, was I, at an early age with the family curse of supporting Gillingham Football Club, always claiming, even when the club had risen to the second tier of English football in 2000, that the team of the late nineteen forties, which plied its trade in non-league, was the best.

He loved to tell the story of the game when, shortly after they were married, he and my mother were sat in the old Gordon Road Stand, and one of the crowd repeatedly yelled at an opposition player, calling him a “sod”. When the local vicar, sat a few rows behind, protested, Dad jumped to the man’s defence by exclaiming “it’s in the Bible you know”!

He would have been so thrilled to learn that “the Gills” were top of the league at the time of his death, though he would have added that “it won’t last”!

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Above all, he was a highly sociable man, the veritable “life and soul of the party”. One story that epitomised this occurred on the family’s first holiday abroad to Ireland in 1968.

On the first Saturday evening a timid group of six adults and three teenagers made its way to the local bar where they were forced to endure two hours of Irish rebel songs, bellowed out passionately by the local menfolk.

Eventually, one of the men turned to their “guests” and proclaimed it was now their turn to sing. Undeterred, and fuelled by several libations from the well of Arthur Guinness, Dad leapt to his feet and delivered to a bewildered but ecstatic audience his party piece of The Winkle Song with its immortal chorus, of “my old woman and ‘er seven kids were a-pickin’ all the big ones out”!

The English family holidaying in the former jailhouse were local celebrities overnight, so much so that we were given the keys to another local bar for our exclusive use any time, and told to close up when we’d finished!

He could deliver word perfect renditions of the famous monologues, Gunga Din and There’s a Green Eyed Yellow Idol to the North of Kathmandu. And, at this time of year, he and his eldest brother would bring the house down at social events with their heartfelt singing of See Amid the Winter’s Snow.

He was never a “dad dancer” (indeed, he and Mum were extremely competent ballroom dancers), but he could embarrass my teenage self by  being the loudest, and admittedly, the most tuneful voice in church or other venue where communal singing was required.

It was all this which made his last years in which he was almost afraid to mix with people all the more heartbreaking. Every health professional – nurse, doctor, carer, health visitor –  remarked that he was a “lovely man”,  always smiling and grateful for whatever service they provided. Whilst I often saw the other side when we quarrelled about his negativity – when I often reminded him that his wife would not have stood for any self-pity had she been alive – there is no question that he was all of those things.

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As father and son, we shared few genuinely intimate moments – for example, I don’t ever recall anything approaching the “birds and bees” conversation – but we did share hundreds of occasions together of elation and despair, mostly the latter, on the football terraces.

According to my mother, his first words on seeing his son and heir were “if he doesn’t like sport, I’ll have nothing to do with him”. I’m sure it was meant in jest, but there was real feeling in it. He needn’t have worried. In fact, my obsession with cricket and football in particular drove him to distraction during my childhood, especially when I returned home from school at the end of each term with a report that referred to my preference for Gillingham Football Club over my studies.

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I know he was proud of me, even though there were times when I tested his loyalty.  We had fallen out periodically over my life choices, and we would argue constantly but good-naturedly about politics and sport. But there was mutual respect, admiration and, yes, love, in those exchanges.

He did enjoy introducing me to friends and acquaintances as his daughter during the years when my hair was exceedingly long, but it was done with a characteristic twinkle in his eye.

Until the last few months when he was incapable of doing so, we had spoken almost every day. There have been few days  since he died when I haven’t gone to pick up the telephone to call him to discuss the previous night’s live televised football game or give him some juicy sporting gossip that he would not have otherwise been aware of.

Or just to check that he was Ok.

Which he is now, of course.

Though I’m not sure I can say the same.

 

 

 

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