Pring – From Zero to HeroMartin Chandler |
He is a quite outstanding talent. The sooner we get him involved in Test cricket the better. The year was 1982, and those words came from the mouth of the Chairman of the England selectors, Peter May, and the man he was talking about was Derek Pringle. It had been more than 30 years since England had selected an undergraduate to play Test cricket when, in 1951, May himself had been thrown in against the South Africans, and made a century on debut.
Pringle had made his Essex debut in 1978 whilst still only 19, and in the following three summers he was the mainstay of Cambridge University’s side. In 1982 he became captain, and averaged 74 with the bat as well as leading the side to their first victory over a First Class county for more than a decade, sweeping aside the top of Lancashire’s second innings and then posting an unbeaten 61 in order to set up a seven wicket victory.
In those days England still had the original Ian Botham, and the prospect of another top class all-rounder playing alongside him was an exciting one to say the least. So when England began their summer of Test cricket in 1982 against India, for once not all eyes were on the Somerset man, as England expected much from Pringle’s somewhat ungainly looking frame – all 6 feet 5 inches and 16 stone of it.
There was however disappointment, with only seven wickets in the three Tests against India, albeit at a lesser cost than Botham played for his nine. But with the bat Pringle shaped like a tailender, and when he missed the first Test against Pakistan with the back trouble that was to trouble him throughout his career, he might have been relieved. He came back for the second Test but innings of 5 and 14, and 26 wicketless overs saw him left out for the final game of the series, May’s early enthusiasm appearing distinctly misplaced.
Over the next eleven years Pringle, between bouts of injury and selectorial disenchantment, played in 26 more Tests. With the bat he only ever passed fifty once, and his best bowling was a moderate 5-95, but despite averaging just 15 with the willow and almost 36 with the leather he did eventually manage to win over the doubters, and became a genuinely popular player amongst England supporters.
Pringle is one of the not inconsiderable number of England players not to have been born in the UK, although he was most definitely of English stock. His father was a Lancastrian who trained at Kew Gardens as a horticulturalist. He met Mrs Pringle there, a botanist, and then took up a position with the Nairobi City Council Parks Department and emigrated to Kenya. Don Pringle was a decent sportsman himself. He bowled brisk inswingers and had plenty to say to opposing batsmen. Don was 43 by the time he finally got to play International cricket, and went wicketless in East Africa’s disappointing outing in the first World Cup in 1975. It was a shame that he hadn’t had the chance to Test himself against the best earlier in his life. In 1963 he had been a good enough player to on one occasion castle Ted Dexter, then in his pomp, first ball.
Tragically Don Pringle never got to see his son play the game at the highest level, as he was killed in a road accident soon after getting back to Kenya after the World Cup, but the father and son had played together a number of times, once taking 19 wickets between them. Derek was around fifteen at the time and took ten of them, despite having a raging hangover. Perhaps therefore it was his mother who was the prime mover in sending him to England in 1973 to pursue his education at Felsted.
The first XI beckoned straight away, and in that first summer of 1974 his coach wrote that he had a lovely action and the ability to swing the ball both ways and predicted he will be a fine bowler when he has more control. With the bat the enthusiasm was rather more guarded; he can be a good clean hitter of the ball, but tends to flop into his shots like an overgrown amoeba and fails to make proper use of his long reach.
The unconvential comparisons were still in evidence two years later; We have owed much to Pringle’s all round ability. His potential is tremendous if he can overcome casual moments of laziness, the worst feature of which is his running between the wickets. He ‘runs’ like an elephant on holiday.
Pringle must have listened though, as the following year, 1977, his coach purred Pringle’s batting was majestic and awesome in its power. As for his bowling he could move the ball either way with his lovely high action, and he seldom erred in line or direction. Fulsome praise from a man who had two other future Test players, Nick Knight and John Stephenson, amongst his charges.
Returning to 1982 Pringle was perhaps fortunate, in a display of sticking by a promising youngster that was all too rare in those days, to go to Australia for the 1982/83 Ashes series. It proved to be too soon for him. His three Tests, in which he was picked to back up England’s frontline seam attack, brought him just four wickets at more than 53. Wisden did however strike a constructive note, making the observation that at times he made the ball lift more than the other England bowlers. With the bat he did rather better, scoring an unbeaten 47 in the first Test, and a vital 42 in England’s famous three run victory in the fourth Test.
Despite a good season for Essex in 1983 Pringle did not figure again for England until 1984, the summer of the first ‘blackwash’. He had wintered in Australian club cricket rather than with England and had overhauled his action, lengthening his run up by five yards to smooth it out and help eradicate a long-standing problem with over-stepping.
A refreshed and revitalised Pringle had a fine start to the summer with Essex and forced his way into the England squad for the three ODIs which in those days preceded the Tests. Viv Richards’ men won the series 2-1 but at Trent Bridge England took their first ODI win against the men from the Caribbean since 1980 and Pringle, with 3-21 in ten controlled overs and vital catches to dismiss Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd, was man of the match. In the first Test, best remembered for the sickening injury to Andy Lloyd that ended his Test career before it properly began Pringle also performed creditably. Christopher Martin-Jenkins wrote that he bowled consistently the best line and length of England’s bowlers, and he took 5-108, albeit the context was an innings of 606, and of his victims only Larry Gomes was a specialist batsman. As England slipped to an innings defeat he also batted defiantly and was unbeaten on 46 when the end came.
For those that hoped that the real Derek Pringle might now stand up to be counted there was disappointment as by the fourth Test he was out again. There were no more wickets and only 31 runs in his four innings, and another two year exile from the Test side followed. That he got back in the side then was largely due to the nation’s premier all-rounder being banned following some shenanigans with illicit substances in the Caribbean the previous winter and, in a summer when England lost to both india and New Zealand, Pringle’s was a thankless task.
The summer started badly as the first Test went to India by five wickets, although as in 1984 Pringle himself did well. In England’s first innings he scored his only Test half-century, 63, and with county colleague Graham Gooch put on 147 to pull England back from 98-4. He took four wickets as well, but to no avail. There were seven wickets in the second Test, and an innings of 44 in the third. He missed the first New Zealand Test with an injury but Pringle was back for the defeat at Trent Bridge. His performance there was no worse than several of his teammates, but with Sir Beefy back and raring to go for the final Test he was dropped and, yet again, given a two year break from Test duty.
In the English winter of 1987/88 the World Cup was played on the sub-continent for the first time. England had some cause for satisfaction in finishing as losing finalists to Australia. Pringle was in the party, but had a torrid time, playing in three matches in which he scored a mere 20 runs but, more significantly given his role, taking just one wicket whilst going for more than six runs an over.
1988 was the summer of four England captains and, had it not been for the weather helping the home side to a draw in the first Test, it would have been a third consecutive ‘blackwash’. Yet at one time it had all looked so different. A squad was chosen for the ODIs that was ridiculed by the press and dubbed May’s Follies, the selection once more of Pringle after his World Cup travails being the most heavily criticised of a number of unpopular choices. In the event May and his committee could afford themselves the rare luxury of a smile of smug satisfaction as England confounded their critics by winning all three matches. For Pringle there were runs in both the games in which he was called upon to bat, and six wickets to go with an economy rate of less than three.
In the Tests however it was a different England. Pringle scored 39 amongst the carnage of England’s first innings in the first Test, and later in the series he managed 5-95 to record his best ever Test figures, but he was dropped for the third Test, before a rapid recall as the selectors made nine changes for the fourth. His bowling was always steady, but after the first Test he barely troubled the scorers. Whilst Gooch was off the field on the Monday of the Oval Test Pringle also became, albeit briefly, the fifth man to lead England during the series.
England expected a rather easier time in 1989 when Alan Border’s Australians visited. It was a rude awakening however as the summer’s Ashes series was every bit as horrible as the previous year with only the weather preventing a ‘baggy greenwash’. Chosen for the first Test Pringle scored 6 and 0, and took 1-183, so he was out again until, after a summer of ringing the changes, the selectors brought him back for the final Test. A few runs and the last four wickets in the Australian innings meant that Pringle performed markedly better than he had in the first Test, but he never looked like changing the course of the series. It must have been a frustrating summer for Pringle, as he was noted for accepting the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with equanimity, so the provocation that resulted in his receiving a GBP150 fine for making a Churchillian gesture towards a section of the crowd at Taunton one Sunday afternoon must have been considerable.
Another rest from the selectors meant that it was not until 1991 that Pringle played another Test. He was brought back to face the 1991 West Indians. The visitors’ bowling attack was as strong as ever, consisting as it did of Malcom Marshall, Curtley Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Patrick Patterson, but the batting was distinctly more brittle than their fearsome predecessors. And they didn’t like facing Pringle. This was not through any fear of his modest pace, or the bounce that his height usually enabled him to extract from even a docile pitch but because, as Viv Richards put it He was never quite there for the drive. It all started as it had in 1988 with a clean sweep for England in the ODIs, but there was a difference, in that Pringle contributed little, and he would have missed out on the historic victory at Headingley in the first Test had Botham not pulled a muscle in the final ODI. As it was Pringle scored 27 in the second innings, sharing in a partnership of 98 with Graham Gooch whilst the latter played the greatest Test innings of them all*. Pringle took four important wickets as well in what was only the fourth time he had finished on the winning side in his 22 Tests.
The Headingley crowd, the harshest critics in the country, took Pringle to their hearts after that win, and the rest of the nation followed suit. When Fred Trueman made the post match presentation the crowd sang God save our gracious Pring, long live our noble Pring, and the big man enjoyed every moment of it. It was a great shame that tonsilitis prevented him from appearing in the fifth Test and playing in England’s second, series levelling, victory. He played well throughout the four games he did play, and was fully deserving of the respect he was finally accorded.
That winter Pringle played in his second World Cup, and England got through to the final again, this time losing to Pakistan. At his second attempt Pringle the bowler was at his niggardly and parsimonious best, going for just 3.04 runs per over and taking some important wickets. He came very close to immortality in the final as he quickly removed openers Aamer Sohail and Rameez Raja to leave Pakistan wobbling on 24-2. Javed Miandad was then hit twice on the pads by Pringle, to English eyes plumb in front, but he survived the appeals and went on to score 72, and Pakistan won by 22.
After the World Cup England had a comfortable work out in New Zealand, Pringle playing his first overseas Tests since the Ashes almost a decade earlier. The following summer he rounded off his Test career with three matches against Pakistan. He contributed five wickets to England’s win in the fourth Test, but little else in what was his benefit season back in Essex.
In 1993 England were thumped again by Australia, but after two underwhelming ODI performances Pringle did not take any part in the season, at the end of which he called it a day, having played on for just a single season by way of thanks to those who swelled the coffers of his benefit fund to an impressive GBP127,044. That is not however intended as a criticism of the essentially amiable giant, whose frame had been creaking for a while, and whose fitness, particularly a shoulder problem, could never be guaranteed. There was a story, apocryphal as it turned out, that his back once seized up whilst he was writing a letter. In fact he had fallen off his chair, but enough people took England physio Bernard Thomas’s quip at a face value for the tale to become part of the game’s folklore for a number of years.
His playing career over Pringle looked to the press box for the next phase of his life. He had already started writing on the game and quickly secured a position with the Independent on Sunday that had been earmarked for Simon Hughes. There continued to be some cricket at a less rarefied level and in 1996, whilst in Pakistan covering an England ‘A’ tour he achieved the rare feat of hitting six sixes in an over whilst batting for an English press side against their local counterparts.
In 2014 Pring is the cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, a position he has held since 2002. Writing was always likely to be where Pringle ended up given that, in Nasser Hussain’s view anyway, he considered himself an expert on just about everything. Hussain was caused much amusement as a young pro when he had to change between Pringle and Don Topley, a man with a similar view of his own state of knowledge as Pringle, but without the Cambridge education.
A degree of eccentricity was an important part of the Pringle persona. He was the first England player to sport an earring, something which contributed to the mistrust of him in his early days, and in his own words his dress sense is one of good bad taste. A fan of traditional jazz music, which he played in his car at such a volume that only the half deaf Essex scorer would travel with him, he also enjoyed a pint of real ale, and more than once annoyed a brewery sponsor by quaffing a rival’s product.
Despite the quirks in his habits and personality, and however long he writes about the game it will be as a cricketer that Derek Pringle will be remembered in years to come – was he a good player in a poor side or a man who wasn’t quite good enough to shine at international level? I think it was probably the former, but a comment in the 1994 edition of Wisden best sums him up; His relaxed demeanour belied the fact that he was a better bowler than many people thought. He was probably a better batsman than he himself thought, and with more self-belief might have been a great all-rounder.
*Pringle’s account of Gooch’s magnificent innings appears in Masterly Batting, published in 2012 by Von Krumm Publishing