Infiltrating the Autograph Alberts

Between 2005-2010 ‘Challenge Kemp’ was a regular feature of SPIN cricket magazine. Where – for some reason, always dressed as Sherlock Holmes – I would report on various challenges set for me in the cricket world.

This article was from the September 2006 issue.

43. With the Autograph Alberts

Now I know to the legion of Kemp fans out there I cut a rather debonair figure – someone all women want and all men want to be. So it’ll come as quite a shock when I tell you I was once a social casualty. A misfit. An anorak. Yes, once upon a time, I was an autograph collector.

Let me take you back into the murkiness that was the Kemp adolescence…

It’s 1991 and Viv Richards is playing his last Test at The Oval. I don’t have a ticket, but I do have a bus pass. So I find myself spending most of the day travelling up the Harleyford Road on the top deck of a Routemaster bus. I’m able to see about 30 seconds of the cricket as the bus passes the ground, so long as the traffic snarls up a bit. At the stop past the Oval, I get off, cross the road and catch a bus going the other way for another 30-second glimpse of the game. Most people would tire of this fairly quickly. I carry on till sometime after tea.

That’s when I spy a discarded ticket on the floor. My route into Viv’s final game! Taken aback by a ray of fortune actually falling over Kemp, I take my seat right next to the player’s balcony. Now, as I said, at this point in my life – Kemp: the Wilderness Years – I’m a dedicated autograph-hunter and, of course, I’ve remembered to bring a pen.

At the close of play I queue up behind a rather cheery, rotund West Indian lady and wait my turn for the Masterblaster’s signature. I notice she gets a nice message from Vivian and a kiss on the cheek, so, on my turn, I chance my arm to get something a bit more personal.

“Make it out to Alex will you?” I ask the Windies legend, hopefully.

“You’ll get what you’re given,” he returns in a deep, booming voice that shakes my very innards. The signed scorecard is handed back and I look to see what message of hope and encouragement King Viv had left me. There seems to be a straight line on the page which may or may not have read, simply, ‘Richards’.

This was the point I decided to hang up the autograph book.

And so it stays until the editor hauls me into the SPIN office once more and tells me to pull on the deerstalker and infultrate the world of the serious autograph collector.

How can I say no?

England v Pakistan at the Oval, 15 years later. The average autograph hunter doesn’t seem to have changed much. Embarrassed looking men in their 50s who know they should really have something better to do; eager young lads who want to collect simply everyones’ autograph. How do I get started with my collection though? Maybe I should get some advice.

Ken Mills from the ‘’ has been collecting cricketer’s autographs for 40 years. Before Zimbabwe joined the Test arena, he had every living Test cricketer’s autograph bar one. He must know what’s what in Autograph Albert land.

“There’s a real bond between the collectors,” Ken tells me. “We’re united by a joint cause… and we’re very suspicious of newcomers,” he adds with what I feel is a rather pointed tone in his voice. When I assure him I’m not here to collect autographs for some professional company (the scourge of the autograph hunter) he mellows and even starts to reminisce about some of the autograph collector’s conventions and weekends away he’s been to. “I bet they were rowdy affairs!” I chortle. “No, not really” he replies.

Does he have any tips for me, I wonder?

“Well purists like me only like to collect autographs from the Golden Age really: 1930s, 40s, 50s… That’s when the players really bothered and you got some beautiful signatures. Nowadays, the players take the mickey. They know there’s money to be made so they only really bother to sign nicely for the sponsors. Take Michael Atherton for example: before he became an England player, he had a lovely signature. Then, when he became England captain, it became an absolute disgrace. It’s sad really from an intelligent guy…”

Ken’s voice trails off at the memory of Atherton’s decline.

At the Oval though, I’m still to get my first moniker down on my specially bought bat. I notice both Alec Stewart and Mike Gatting have been lined up by sponsors to sign during the tea break. It seems quite an easy way to get going.

I take my place in Gatting’s queue. Once at the front I tell Gatt that I had his autograph 20 years ago. But lost it. There’s pause as Gatt stares at me, eyebrow raised. A long pause. “That’s an interesting story,” he says. “Thanks for that.”

I make a mental note not to try any more chit-chat with the talent.

In the Stewart queue I ask a lady with an empty book in front of me if she’s just starting an autograph collection project. “Yes,” she nods, enthusiastically. “So you’re going to start it with an Alec Stewart then?” I deduce. “No, I’m going to ask for Ian Botham’s,” she replies, bizarrely.

I make a mental note not to try any chit-chat with the autograph hunters, either.

Back in the stands, I spot the non-playing players are often asked for their signatures as the make their way round the outfield. I spot erratic Pakistani paceman Mo Sami prowling round the boundary but decide not to ask him to sign my little bat. I fear that he might miss and end up graffiti-ing my ‘stalker.

Sami’s also pursued by a diehard Pakistani fan who, on Sami’s refusal, jokingly rips off his Pakistan shirt in disgust, to guffaws from the crowd. It gets me thinking about rejection. To be actually told “no” by a player is the ultimate knock-back in the world of the autograph obsessive. It’s like asking a girl out and her laughing at you in front of all your friends. Except, somehow, slightly worse. So it’s with great apprehensions that I wait by the gate after the game to get some of the England players.

A huge flank of security guards lock arms and form a barrier to prevent the players having to actually see or speak to…the three schoolboys and me who’ve gathered there. It seems a bit much.

“I need this area sterilised!!” shouts one of the head security chaps. Me and the fellas in their school caps all look blankly at each other.

And then come the players. None of the Pakistan team will stop to sign (except for Akmal, who gets a cheer) but I manage to get a scrawl from Monty, a squiggle from Hoggard and a withering look from Pietersen as I ask him just to sign “KP” as I’m running out of space on my bat. Not bad. THEN I spot ex-Prime Minister John Major squeezing between the security guards, trying to leave the ground. Well, why not? I get him too.

Later, I ask Ken Mills what he thought of my collection.

“Oh, not bad. Well done,” he says, as you would when a child shows you a painting they’ve done with their fingers. My skills clearly aren’t going to make waves in the world of the Autograph Albert. Still, maybe I could make some money. Which signature would get me the most money on eBay? “John Major’s the only one worth bothering with there,” he replies. I’m stunned.

Which players DO make money? “Oh Bradman, WG Grace…” And have you got all of these? “Oh yes. Though I don’t have the best collection. That must be Roger Mann or David Frith.” Are they revered in the autograph world, then? “No,” Ken chuckles “Hated.”

He’s joking, I think. But he does offer me some encouragement. “You did well to get any autographs really. The players just aren’t that approachable. Even I’ve had trouble.” And who’s been the hardest to get an autograph from? “Oh, Viv Richards, definitely!” says Ken at once. “He had a stare that could kill when you asked him for an autograph.”

Well, I think but don’t say, the 15 year-old Kemp could have told you that.


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