14 May 1981 was a big night in English sport. Tottenham Hotspur played and defeated Manchester City in the FA Cup Final replay. Ricky Villa scored twice, his winner that celebrated mazy, slow-motion dribble into the penalty area and shot past Joe Corrigan.
I wasn’t at Wembley that night, but another notable English sporting venue: Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre. I was taking part in Buckinghamshire schools under 13 cricket trials.
I related the story of that evening to no.1 son on our way to his first session of county advanced nets this week. It’s not much of a story as so little of it has stuck with me.
We netted indoors in one corner of a sports hall able to accommodate a full size football pitch or several tennis courts. I was asked to pad up early. I was bowled first ball (just as I had been at District trials the previous summer), but must have middled a few as at the end of the evening when the team for the first match of the season was read out and my schoolmate Dave apologised that he couldn’t play, I was drafted in as his replacement. That match, against Northants, was the scene of the missing socks incident and cause of many cold sweats since. The other memory of that night that has, oddly, remained live is of the master reading out the fixture list, which included the adventurously sounding, ‘Stowe Away’.
My son is also taking part in some form of trial, but an extended one – eight weeks – and the onus is on coaching and improvement. He was very nervous beforehand but emerged from the hall, of which I had only been able to glimpse snippets of activity, and declared the evening “good fun”.
I told my Dad about no.1 son’s pending involvement in the county nets on a visit last month. The next day, driving into Oxford, he said that he had lain awake in bed piecing together his own schoolboy experience of county nets. “You know the story, don’t you?” is the familiar formula for getting permission to roll out a family anecdote. I did know it, but inspired by his grandson’s progress the story was much richer in detail than the versions I had heard before.
My Dad’s story, he now recalled, began with a man who lived in the same block of flats in Stockwell, South London. This man was a steward at the Oval and asked my Dad if he would like to help sell centenary brochures at a Surrey match. This places the story in 1946 and my Dad 15 years old. He turned up at the Oval, completed his assignment and by way of thanks was asked if he would like to come along to a net session one morning.
So Dad returned to the Oval the following week on a non-match day, carrying his cricket gear. He made his way to the nets at the Vauxhall End, where he was spotted by the Surrey Coach, Andy Sandham, and told to get himself a ball and get bowling. In the nets were Laurie Fishlock, Alf Gover, the Bedser twins and the rest of the county squad. Dad bowled – quite well, he thought, without really troubling the batsmen – until Sandham told him to get padded up. He took strike against the Bedsers, both of whom were decent enough to keep the ball pitched up.
Dad was the only schoolboy there until, with the practice in full swing, another youngster arrived. Coach Sandham gave the lad a voluble telling off for being late, in full view of the players, then ordered him to get booted up and bowl. Dad remembers being beaten time and again by the flight and turn of this left-arm spinner. It was Tony Lock, who made his first-class debut aged 17 that summer.
Dad went back the following week and perhaps, he thinks, one more after that before this schoolboy dream-come-true ended.
There may be a greater narrative to these three stories of the increasing professionalisation of talent spotting and junior development in English county cricket. My son, one of over 100 boys having eight weeks of coaching before a much reduced playing squad is selected; me, recommended by school for a trial net alongside a couple of dozen other boys; my Dad, given the nod for a try out by a neighbour who was a ground steward.
But, on the other hand, as I said to my Dad the other day,
“Are you sure you weren’t invited just to watch the nets?”
“No, I’m not sure,” he conceded. But my word, didn’t he do the right thing, taking his kit with him and doing just as Mr Sandham told him to.