Run-outs, break-ups and well-meaning cluelessness. All Out Cricket editor Phil Walker recalls the riotous summer of ’93.
My folks split up for good in 1993. It had been coming, and then it came. And truthfully it was a relief. We could all start playing shots again.
Cricket didn’t save me that year, because I didn’t need saving. But it sure kept me occupied. I was 13, old enough to recognise something of love but not so old that it had yet come to dominate – that’d be 15 – and my love back then was for cricket, and cricket alone. I played it, talked it, dressed it, endorsed it, watched it and dreamt it, and because I’d gotten quite good – little wonder, Malcolm Gladwell would say – that spring I’d joined a good club, one that would make itself limitless in light of love’s postponement down Rothesay Avenue.
There were two pitches, a spanking clubhouse and an endless run of conifers separating us from the devil’s crossroads at Gallows Corner. There were legions of daft men and giggles of stoic women. There were Essex youth team players in all the age groups. There were Derek ‘n’ Clive tapes for away games, liberal barmen in the clubhouse, and confused glances at girls everywhere.
The club I joined that summer grafted me to a unit that, through nobody’s fault, had been shaken back home. Maybe that’s mawkish – if I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. One thing I can be sure of: both provided early, salty tastes of adulthood, embedding in me a fascination with the shambolic, well-meaning cluelessness of grown-ups which endures all the more now I am one.
Cluelessness was all the rage in ’93. This was England, doing cricket, in Waugh time. The game on telly was evolving fast, with Sky Sports revealing just how inept England’s winter tours were, and it was in the slipstream of a particularly grim effort to survive India – which, despite knowing the one-sided score, I’d caught large retrospective chunks of on a bunch of videotapes done by my uncle – that the Aussies rocked up for my first proper Ashes series.
It’s a magically unspoilt time, being on the cusp of adolescence but not quite there yet. Like running at speed, through a dense, illuminating forest… before a gap in the trees propels you across a dual carriageway.
Of that series I remember the lot. The early tour scrap for the opener’s spot between two unknowns called Hayden and Slater, and instinctively rooting for Slater; Robin Smith’s back-foot straight six off a Paul Reiffel yorker during his 167 in the second ODI at Edgbaston. My first coach at Essex, Peter Such, getting a Test cap and six wickets on day one at Old Trafford, binding me personally to what I was seeing. Being in my dad’s car listening to the radio when Warne bowled his first ball and hearing Trevor Bailey exclaim it “An ab-sol-ute CORKER!”
David Boon’s adidas batting trainers. Mark Waugh’s multi-coloured bat grip. Nasser’s pull shots at Trent Bridge. Thorpe’s debut hundred, lobbing a top-edged hook over Slater’s head.
Michael Atherton’s run out.
Michael Atherton’s run out. I’ve seen a lot of cricket since that Sunday in July in 1993. This is still the worst.
It’s Lord’s, second Test. England 0 Australia 1. Second innings, England following on. I didn’t yet know about futile rearguards; I just believed in things. Michael Atherton is on 97. He’d made 80 in the first. Border bowls, left-arm over. Michael Atherton clips it into the outfield. Merv Hughes runs around. They run one. They run a second. Hughes gathers. Michael Atherton, 25, turns for a third, but his partner, a barrel of thirtysomething called Mike Gatting, can’t see it. Michael Atherton is sent back. He turns. Wrong shoes. He’s got the wrong shoes on. He slips. Slips over. He tries to get up, slips again. He’s got the wrong shoes on. Hateful Healy, the one with the arse, gathers the half volley, and Michael Atherton is run out.
It didn’t change my life, Michael Atherton’s run out. It just made me understand it a bit more.
We would all survive that summer. By September Michael Atherton was captain, steering a victory at The Oval to usher in a new period of shimmering English dominance, while back in the real world, my club teams – under 15s, under 16s, and the now legendary Fourth XI – won everything in sight.
I’d found my place. I’d got a nickname – ‘Siggers’ – after Sigmund Freud because, you know, I was dead clever. I’d got runs and wickets, and made my first hundred for Essex under 13s, in the rain at Buckinghamshire, wafting one through the covers to bring it up. There would be no last-ditch slip in the wrong shoes for me. I guess some of us just have what it takes.
My mum, no great fan of balls, had this knack of being around when I did well at sport, and that day in High Wycombe was one of them. The very next day, we all drove to Devon – me, my little sister, my mate Irf, and my mum and dad. I remember it being the next day because I’d planned to be cool and not tell Irf about the runs, and blurting it out as soon as he got in the car.
This was the last time we would go anywhere as a family. It was one of those ‘last shot’ trips. Me and my mate did our best to keep out of it. We’d loaded up with a few taped tennis balls and an old yet beautifully weighted Warsop Stebbing.
Outside this sad, rented cottage we played and we played. I concentrated on developing my Nasser backflift: the stiffly cocked wrist, the angled pick-up out to gully, the exaggerated crouch, the floating front foot with toes pointing up. While Irf just ran in hard all day, as he would, as he did.