I think my first ever brush with a cricketer was Graham Gooch.
I was taking part in winter nets with my local cricket side (a ragbag of fat old fellas, a bloke who smoked at the crease and even in the shower afterwards and more than a few players who had less than a rudimentary knowledge of what to do with a cricket bat. I was lucky to get a game) and Gooch was there giving a cricket lesson to some toddlers. Dollying up return catches with the little red tennis balls they were bowling to him. He was in the standard off-duty professional cricketer garb of chinos and hush puppies.
Not wanting to miss my chance to bowl at the man who had only recently scored 333 at Lords, I sneaked into Gooch’s net, shoved a few of the kids out the way and tore in to bowl my fastest with a full sized Kookaburra.
Instinctively Gooch smashed the over-pitched ball back over my head, scattering the under-8s who ran, screaming, behind open mouthed fathers. Knee-jerk reaction, I s’pose, when you’re a trained cricketer. I shouldn’t have done it. Like running up behind a trained killer and give him a tickle.
Gooch’s face went purple. “Get this idiot out of here” he yelled in that peculiarly high voice of his.
As I was manhandled out of the sports hall, I wondered if all my encounters with cricketers were going to end this way.
Autograph hunting always seemed a good way I could kill time in an otherwise tedious youth.
Not a bit of it. In my experience it was fraught with pain and disappointement.
I had blood drawn by David Bairstow’s spiked boots; had my book defaced by the New Zealand team and approached Ian Botham as he walked out to bat, distracted him and watched as he toppled over the walking cane of a little old man sticking out from under his seat in the Oval pavilion. And then there was the time I met Sir Vivian- Smokey- Richards.
It was his last Test, 1992. He was suffering with piles. I was suffering with not having a ticket.
I had worked out a good rouse were I could see about 30 seconds of play if I sat on the top deck of the bus going down the Harlyford Road outside the Oval. I would do, this cross over the road, catch the bus going the other way and watch another 30 second glimpse of the bowler marking out his run out or something. I did this till 4pm.
Then incredibly, inexplicably, I found a ticket on the floor. I was in!
I caught the last few overs of the great man’s last Test and then waited around afterwards for the chance to grab his autograph. Eventually he walked gingerly out of the pavilion. A very excited West Indian rushed over to him. “Oh King Viv,” she screamed. “Can I have your autograph? Make it out to Rosie will you?”
There were smiles and kisses and photographs. I was up next. “‘ello there Smokey,” I beamed, “can you sign my scorecard for me?” The smiles and good cheer disappeared like mist on a summer morning.”Er… make it out to Alex will you?” “You’ll get what you’re given” growled Sir Viv in a voice so booming and low only mushrooms could hear it.
On the way home I looked at the scrawl that may or may not have said “Richards” on my scorecard with some disappointment.
My life as a cricket ‘journalist’ hasn’t seen things get much better. One of my first interviews was over the phone with legendary old England spinner ‘Deadly’ Derek Underwood. Things were going so badly in this interview that, on the other end of the line, I could hear him rap his own knuckles on the telephone table and pretend it was someone at his front door.
His parting words to me: “oh, there’s someone here. Can you go now?”
Phil Tufnell, Alec Stewart, Kevin Pietersen, I’ve had spectacularly bad interviews with all of them. Nasser Hussain didn’t fancy it so much he even ran away from me at one cricket bash we were both at. I tried following him, only for him to run away again. It was like something out of Benny Hill. Except I was the little bald man and he didn’t pat me rapidly on the head. Sadly.
One cricketer who would have run from me if he could was Shane Warne. We were staying at the same hotel in Leicester, where the Australians were playing a warm-up game before the Ashes 2005. It was also here that I ran into Michael Kasprowicz and was told by him that my Challenge Kemp articles in Spin made me the “Jackass of cricket”.
Taking this as flattery I began to think of Kasper as my new found friend and even once tried to get on the Australian tour bus with him back to the hotel. David Boon- the Aussie tour manager- took exception to this and once again I found myself shouting and cursing as I was wrestled away in front of several world class cricketers.
Back at the hotel, the Australian players were getting ready for a night out. Brett Lee had changed from his white cricket shirt into a white polo shirt, collars turned up, of course. Warne, bafflingly, told the lads that he was opting for a quiet night in and turned to the lift to go up to his room. Siezing the opportunity to grab the Melbourne Wizard for a quick chat I jumped into the lift with him.
It was only as we started to climb the floors that I noticed there was a fearful smell in the lift with us. It wasn’t me. I hadn’t done anything, I was certain of that, but Warne began edging to the corner with a horrified look on his face. Oh the indignation!
A cricketer I would have liked to get away from myself was Zaheer Abbas. A magazine I was working for years ago had run an interview with the great, imperious Pakistan batsman, but hadn’t paid him yet. One lunchtime, when everyone was out at the office, there was a ring at reception.
Kemp, being the only one around, had to go and see what all the fuss was about. It was Abbas. After his hundred quid. “The accounts people aren’t here” I explained. “Well, YOU’RE here”, he countered. “You can pay me!”
So I was ushered into Abbas’s HUGE waiting car outside to take me to cash point. It was such a vast car that we didn’t drive, I just got out of the front door and we were in town. Abbas, expensively dressed and elegantly turned out, duly waited next to a urine stained wall as I fumbled over my PIN number and explained to him that I really wasn’t sure that I had enough in my overdraft to cover this.
As I started explaining the concept of an overdraft to him, Abbas had the look of a child being shown a seal for the first time.
But at least these occasions weren’t as bad as when I was sent to face Freddie Flintoff in the Lord’s nets. At least I wasn’t risking life and limb. And at least I’ve only ever once had to sit down, heavy with shock at the sight of a famous cricketer.
That being Mr Ravi Shashtri of course. I was at the Oval, watching the groundsmen tidy up the wicket at the end of play, when I got a nudge from my friend. Alerting me to something with mad, jerking movements with his head, I followed his startled eyes upwards to see the great Indian allrounder standing proudly on the balcony in the alltogether.
Nude as the day he was born. Shashtir stood, hands on hips, taking in the scenery, moustache fluttering in the light wind…meat and two veg hanging over the balcony rail.
Oh my. So there you are. Never meet your heroes I s’pose. Or ask them to at least put on some clothes first. That’s my advice.