Features Icon 1 FEATURES

Team Mates

Cricket is a game of the most terrifying stresses with more luck about it than any other game. They call it a team game but in fact it is the loneliest game of all – John Arlott

Other games have moments when the individual is on their own, carrying the hopes of the team: the footballer stepping forward in the penalty shoot-out, the Ryder Cup golfer standing over the match-winning putt, the rugby player poised to kick the crucial conversion. But no other team game is constructed so relentlessly out of individual performances. At every moment of action the great majority of the 22 participants are merely spectators.

Take poor Fred Tate in his only Test for England – against Australia at Old Trafford in 1902, a match that would settle the destination of that summer’s Ashes series. The captain, Archie MacLaren, made clear that he had not wanted him in the side. At a crucial moment in the Australian second innings Tate was sent out of the slips to field on the boundary, where he was never at ease, and immediately he found himself under a swirling catch that he dropped. Then on the last afternoon, under a dark sky, he walked out to bat, last man in with eight runs required for victory. And, as if the tension of that moment were not enough, it started to rain, and the umpires took them off. For forty minutes he sat in the dressing room, waiting to play his part in victory or defeat. Whatever they may have said to him – “Play straight … Leave it to Wilfred” – he was on his own.

There are few better experiences in sport than that moment when as an individual you win a game for your team and come off to the warm applause of your team-mates. Everybody loves you. And there are few worse moments than when you mess it up, when you drop the vital catch or play the wrong shot, and that mistake results in the narrowest of defeats. Then the team-mates turn away and mutter. I know, I have been there, been to both places. Triumph or disaster, the line is so thin – and it is so much harder that you are doing it not just for yourself but for the team.

Fred Tate dabbed his first ball for four, blocked the next two, then found himself unable to keep out the quicker fourth ball. His leg stump somersaulted out of the ground, and England had lost – by three runs.

In the railway station buffet, waiting for his train home, the crowds pointed at him and muttered. He was the man who had lost the Ashes; that was for ever to be his cricketing fate. More than a century has passed, and still the game is known as Fred Tate’s Match.

So what are the elements of team work that can help us as individual cricketers to cope with such moments? Or are there none?

The germ of this book was sown in the aftermath of the Great Debate about Kevin Pietersen. He was arguably England’s best player, yet it was decided that the team would do better without his talent. How could that be in a game where so much of success depends on individual contributions? What was the nature of his disruption that it took more away from the team than were added by the runs he scored?

It struck me that such questions only get asked when there are problems. Why not come at this from the other end? Why not ask some cricketers to write about team-mates with whom they enjoyed playing, and to reflect on what those team-mates gave to their fellow cricketers that was positive? And, better still, why not do the whole thing for charity, to support a cause that is all about team work, about giving the most vulnerable and disadvantaged a sense of belonging?

John Barclay and I set to work, compiling a list of people to ask. Some were chosen because we knew them to be good writers, some because they would offer something distinctive, some were friends. Some had played cricket at the highest level of the men’s or women’s game; others had got no further than the village green. Thus five England captains nestle alongside captains of the Stage Cricket Club and the Harry Baldwin Occasionals.

We were delighted by the positive response. More than three-quarters of those asked – despite demanding schedules – agreed to write. We were also delighted not only by the quality of their contributions but by the variety. Some wrote about the greats of cricket with whom they had had the pleasure to play; others celebrated lesser lights. Some wrote exclusively about a single character; others broadened out to explore themes. One shone a rare light on the world of second-eleven county cricket, where team work is mingled with the rivalry of ambition. Another chose to observe a team-mate relationship of which he was not a part. And one, interpreting the task with the greatest freedom of all, told the tale of Cricket, a rare musical entertainment.

At one level this book is simply a collection of 27 essays, each one to be enjoyed for itself. You are witness to the extraordinary routine of Alan Knott getting himself ready for a day’s play; then you are running between the wickets with Zaheer Abbas. You are under the spell of that great gentleman of cricket, Rahul Dravid; then you are in the Swan at Swinbrook with the local skip driver.

Yet patterns do emerge.

One is the number of writers who have chosen for their subjects men and women from different backgrounds – and cultures – from their own. Six of those who played county cricket have selected overseas players – so we discover the joys of a young Paul Parker, a Cambridge University undergraduate, breaking into the Sussex team at the same time as an even younger Javed Miandad from the back streets of Karachi; David Gower, a fresh-faced public schoolboy, alongside Brian Davison, a hard-living veteran of the no-holds-barred Rhodesian civil war; Chesterfield-born Geoff Miller having his cricketing horizons widened beyond the time-worn routine of the 1970s county game by the South African Eddie Barlow. Then, among those who have chosen an English subject, there is Rachael Heyhoe Flint, a Tory peer, celebrating her team-mate Enid Bakewell, an unwavering Labour Party member who grew up among the collieries of Nottinghamshire.

A cricket season lasts a long time, especially when you play professionally and you are cooped up every day with the same people. It can help if your team contains characters who are out of the ordinary, whose presence prevents the routine becoming dull. Some are in this book: Alan Knott, Jack Simmons, the young Rodney Marsh. It can also help if you have team-mates who have as positive a spirit on a damp day at Derby as on a sun-drenched one at Lord’s. Here we have John Lever, bowling day in, day out and never giving second best, and we have Eddie Hemmings, on the verge of going out of the professional game, yet finding his way back from the graveyard of second-eleven cricket through his undimmed enthusiasm.

T20 cricket may be too fast-moving for such matters to come into play, but the county championship is a long, winding road; it needs commitment on the dull days in April as much as in the key contests of high summer. When Ray Illingworth was signed up to captain Leicestershire, he was quick to pension off the old lags who were at their happiest playing cards in the pavilion – and, with young blood and some well-chosen recruits, he won the county its first championship.

Perhaps that match at Old Trafford would have worked out better for poor Fred Tate if he had had a greater sense that he was wanted by his captain and that he belonged among the England cricketers. So the team-mate who makes the newcomer welcome can play a vital role. Few can have made a more humiliating start to their county careers than the young John Barclay, as he tells so vividly in his piece, but the kindness of John Spencer saw him through to better days.

As a batsman you are not entirely on your own – you have a partner – and there is the potential for team-work in that. Bryan Stott writes poignantly about his Yorkshire opening partner Ken Taylor, how their mutual trust strengthened their cricket and how it has remained with them in a lifelong friendship.

Roy Smith played 96 times for Somerset as a batsman, but his only century came in a game when initially he struggled with the swing and seam of the veteran Reg Perks. His partner Harold Gimblett summoned him at the end of one over: “Come here, son. Are you having a bit of a problem down there? … I’ll tell you what. I’ll look after Perksy for a few overs. You come down this end.” Gimblett duly hit three or four fours, then said, “There you are, son. He might be a bit easier for you now.”

It was a different approach from that of Len Hutton who, only half in jest, responded to praise of a gutsy innings by Lancashire’s Jack Ikin against the fast bowling of South Africa’s Cuan McCarthy by saying, “He could have played him better.” “How’s that, Len?” they asked, to which he replied, “He could have stayed down the other end.”

Or the story, strongly denied by Geoffrey Boycott, that out in Australia he once told his partner Basil D’Oliveira, who had just worked out how to play Johnny Gleeson, the mystery spinner, “Yes, I figured that out an hour ago – but don’t tell the others.” In all probability the story is apochryphal, a misunderstanding of an ill-phrased comment, but it is doubtful if it would ever have gained currency if whatever was said had come from John Edrich or D’Oliveira himself. When you play cricket with somebody, you soon know where they are on the spectrum of playing for themselves or playing for the team. Often, of course, the two are not in conflict – but not always.

There is nobody alive with a better overview of post-war English cricket than Micky Stewart. His early years in the first-class game were as part of the triumphant Surrey side who won seven successive championships in the 1950s so he knew from the start what it was like to play in a team that went into every game expecting to win. Yet he is clear that, outside Yorkshire and Surrey, there was not at that time the same importance attached to the result. There was more emphasis on individual performances.

The game has moved on since then, and among the changes has been a much greater attention to fitness and preparation. Each fielder is trained to give their all throughout the day, diving to save every run on the boundary as if the game depended on it. A good fielding side can create pressure on batsmen, and even one weak link can undermine that. So here is fresh opportunity for coaches and trainers to work with the team as a group.

But, as Mark Wagh asks in his piece, is the modern emphasis on team bonding overdone, the product of coaches desperate to make a difference? In the end, is not the important thing to score runs and take wickets? Would you ever pick a good bloke, a reliable team man, ahead of somebody who would score you an extra five or ten runs each innings?

Perhaps the answer varies according to the cricket you play. At the level I played, the first and most important definition of a good team man is that he is reliable; he makes himself available to play when you need him and he doesn’t drop out at the last minute.

What is a good team-mate? There is no one answer, but – in asking the writers to reflect on people whose presence added to the spirit of the team – there are pointers. Cricket is a long game, and the company you keep while you play is undoubtedly part of the experience.

Winning teams do tend to be happier than losing ones. There is general agreement on that. But are happy teams more likely to win than unhappy ones? This book cannot answer that question, but it does make one thing clear, over and over again. Cricket, at its best, is a game that can bring people together and create friendship. Unlike in, say, golf, the efforts of cricketers are always part of a collective endeavour, and that gives the playing of the game a special quality. You strive for your own moments of success but, if you only play for yourself, if you gain no great joy from the success of your team-mates, it is a long day and a long season. It is a team game.

I will never forget the words of the late Tom Cartwright about the day when he played at the ancient ground on Broadhalfpenny Down in a match to celebrate the 70th birthday of his former Warwickshire and England team-mate Bob Barber. The field was filled with men who forty years earlier had been stars of the game, and they had come from far and wide – Australians, West Indians, Pakistanis – to renew their friendships.

“It was a magical day,” Tom said. “A living evidence of what is really good about playing cricket. When you looked at the different backgrounds of all the people there and the way they’d come together in cricket and played on equal terms, it really brought home what cricket can be in people’s lives.”

It may be true, as John Arlott wrote, that cricket has moments of ‘terrifying stress’ and that it is at times ‘the loneliest game of all’. In its long hours of anticipation and action, it tests and reveals character like no other game.

So much of cricket focuses on individual performances, and they are crucial. Yet, when you play, you are always aware of the team-mates around you, and those team-mates can shape your experience of the game for better or worse.

Here in these pages are a few examples of the ‘better’.

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until they have been approved

More articles by Stephen Chalke