By John Sherress
During the long hot summers in the 1960s there were no treatments for hay fever and if it was a particularly dry spell my only relief came from staying indoors. It was here that I started to watch Test matches on our newly acquired television. My father always preferred to listen to Test Match Special on the radio with the television sound turned down. I soon picked up this habit that infuriated my mother and still annoys my wife today. It must be a female thing. My love of cricket grew nonetheless.
Once the grass pollen season had relented, during the school holidays, I would play cricket with two school mates on the edge of the old Gravesend Aerodrome. It had been taken over as a base for fighter aircraft during the Battle of Britain; today it is Southern Valley Golf Course.
One of the cricketers was Michael Cutbush, who liked to bowl fast. Fortunately, we only had a tennis ball so injuries were kept to a minimum, but you could still get a stinging blow if it hit you hard. I liked to bat and would approach every innings as if it was a test match. Then there was Peter Smith, who liked to play football and had little enthusiasm for cricket but would come along anyway.
We used an upturned milk bottle crate as a wicket, and another for the bowler’s crease, if one could be found. We tried to find the flattest piece of ground for a wicket that we could; once an area had been found and used for a few days, it started to go bald and looked very realistic.
Around this time, my Father and Mother were regulars at the Golden Lion pub in Luddesdowne. My Dad was a shift electrician at the local cement factory – it was a dry hot dirty job and, when shifts allowed, he used to enjoy a drive out in the country for a few drinks, to “wet his whistle”. The pub was owned by Bert and Dolly Farrow, who would allow me to sit quietly in the corner of the saloon bar. Their son-in-law, Ken Milner, helped out in the pub some evenings. Ken had two loves in life after his family – cricket and smoking his pipe. He would often talk to me about cricket and suggested that I go along to the local club, Luddesdowne. My father said that he was a little concerned about me playing alongside men, as I was only 11 at the time.
Back then everything was very basic, a vast grazing meadow with a cricket field partitioned off with a electric fence to keep livestock away. An old school building at the top of the field was used as changing rooms, there were few pegs to hang clothes on in the narrow home dressing room and even fewer seats to sit on, there were no showers, and only one basin with one tap working – the cold one. Tea was taken in the cramp central area between the dressing rooms.
Ken asked me if I would like to play for Luddesdowne. Of course, I leapt at the chance. Ken went on to to explain that I would not be allowed to play in games until I had served an “apprenticeship”, which involved going along for a season to work on the wicket, complete the scorecard at games, and act as twelfth man. This all sounded fine and my father could see how keen I was and knew that Ken would look after me, so he agreed.
I looked forward to my first evening working on the cricket ground in the same way as a few years earlier I had looked forward to Christmas. We lived six miles from Luddesdowne and on the appointed Thursday evening, I cycled out to the ground to meet Ken who introduced me to the members who had turned up to work on the wicket – many of them worked in London, so there were only three or four who could get there. One who was ever-present was the club captain, Gerry Paternoster. He was tall and slim and in his mid-40s with swept back thinning brown hair, a good cricketer who could bat and bowl well. He also had hands like buckets and seldom squandered a chance to complete a catch. Beyond his cricketing skills, Gerry was also a great captain, a good reader of the game, and a clever strategist who often saw an opportunity to win a game that others missed.
Work on the wicket mostly involved cutting the grass, then rolling it and marking out the wicket for the following weekend. At about nine o’clock, or earlier if dusk fell, we would retire to the Golden Lion for the team to be selected. This process was not necessarily an assessment of the merits of players, but more of their availability. After this I would cycle home but as most of the journey was uphill, it would take much longer than the journey out. It involved walking up three steep hills to Cobham, but after that the route was reasonably flat or downhill and usually took about an hour. I sped up on one section of the route after someone told me that “devil worshippers” used the area next to the A2 at the Inn on the Lake. I never saw anything approaching a black mass but Sir Bradley Wiggins would not have beaten me over that section of the route.
From an early stage, I was a standing order as the twelfth man/scorer for every game, home and away, if transport could be arranged for me. I was as keen as mustard and would turn up before every game and change into my whites, and then wait anxiously to see if someone selected was not going to arrive. There were no mobile telephones in those days so no way anyone could alert the team that they would not be turning up. I always joined in with the team for catching practice before taking up my scoring duties. As the scorer I got a free tea.
My chances of a game lessened as the season wore on and holiday commitments were completed, meaning more players were available for selection. I did not mind, though, it was great to be part of the team, albeit a non-playing part. I took the view that I was serving my apprenticeship and had acquired a lot more knowledge about preparing a cricket wicket than I had ever got from listening to Test Match Special.
The winter brought a new challenge, indoor nets at Chatham. We had a slot every week from March until the start of the season. There were usually four full-length wickets with decaying coconut matting down the middle of each, resulting in an enormous crashing noise every time a ball was bowled and pitched on the surface. The nets were separated by vast heavy hanging nets that bulged with the impact of cricket balls as they were hit against them. It was not a place I particularly enjoyed. We had the nets for an hour or so and the time you got to bat depended on how many people turned up. Sometimes it was 15 minutes and sometimes five.
In any event you could guarantee a headache at the end of the session because of the noise. I had pondered all winter how I would cope with the bowling of the players in the team after seeing them perform the previous summer. I looked forward to pitting myself against the speed and the guile of the bowlers I had seen tease and torment batsmen before dismissing them following a fatal mistake to a well disguised ball. In the event, I found that mostly balls were tossed up for the batsman to hit and no real effort was made to make it difficult.
Next season arrived, and for the first game I was in my regular position of scorer/twelfth man. As was my custom, I was the first changed and out of the dressing room surveying the car park in case there was a no-show. I felt a tap on the shoulder and turned around to see it was Peter Gladdish, one of the opening bowlers. Experience would teach me that most clubs have a Peter Gladdish in them, the one who knows all the best jokes and is ever present around any pretty girl. A lovable rogue. At this time I was yet to have gained that experience. He asked me if I fancied facing a few as he wanted to warm up his arm. With the enthusiasm of youth I did not take a second to say yes.
There was no practice net, so Peter decided we would go on the bumpy meadow outside the cricket ground. Little alarm bells started to ring in my head, I was not wearing any pads or gloves and certainly was not wearing any abdominal protector. I turned the alarm bells off, this was just the chance I had been looking for to show my prowess. Peter handed me a bat and picked up a cricket ball and started to walk away from me. He kept walking, and walking, my mind started to panic. I placated it by thinking that he was going so far back that I would have a better chance to see the ball … in any event, I calculated that by the time it got to me it would have no force.
This strategy was blown out of the water as Peter turned and broke into a gallop. He was hurtling towards me. I assumed the batting position more for protection than anything else. Peter bowled from about 20 yards. The ball pitched a couple of yards away and climbed. He had unleashed a bouncer at me. I went into the hook shot position and felt the ball hit the bat. I was safe but shaken up. I looked at Peter, he had a great grin on his face, and put a thumb up in the air. Neither of us said anything and I started to realise Peter had just put me through an initiation ceremony. Gerry Paternoster was not quite as sanguine. He had seen everything and dashed across to Peter and made it very clear he was not impressed with what Peter had just done. After the way Gerry spoke to him that day, I doubt whether Peter ever used that welcome-to-the-team trick again.
My eventual début for Luddesdowne came along a few weeks later. It was the custom that young players started by batting at 11 and, by gaining experience, climbed the batting order. Above me in the batting order was a perennial number 10, Ken Milner. His love of cricket was unquestionable but was not matched by ability. Ken was worth his weight in gold as a club man, the most hard-working, sociable man, bar none. However, despite all his many virtues it was frustrating to have wait behind him for my chance. If I got a bat at all it was usually terminated quickly because Ken and I were the last partnership and Ken was inevitably bowled by the first straight ball bowled to him, or caught off any ball he managed to come into contact with. But deep down I was grateful to be getting a game now.
At this stage, I would like to make a confession. It was the case that everyone took a turn at umpiring, and it was usually the case that Ken and I took the first shift because we were the last two batsman – others took their turn following their dismissals. On a couple of occasions,
I have to admit that a couple of dubious hopeful LBW appeals did get answered in the affirmative by me, as I calculated what my chances were of getting a bat that day if the appeal was rejected. However, I should hastily add that on every occasion when I may have been generous with a decision in favour of the bowler, the cricketing gods ensured that I either did not get a bat or have a very long innings if I did get in.
I lost my No 11 batsman status one late August afternoon when we played Ifield Court away. They were strong team who used to play at a very pleasant ground near the A2 at Gravesend which is now under the tracks of the Eurostar. Because of unavailability of some of our better players, we fielded a very weak team. Ifield Court batted first and made well over 200. As was the custom, they declared at tea. We started our innings and in no time were very few runs for very many wickets. There was still well over an hour left to play out when I joined Ken at the wicket, in the partnership for the last wicket. I had given myself a talking to as I walked out to the wicket. There were plenty of time left to bat so let’s use it, victory was unlikely but we could still earn the draw.
I took my guard and looked up to see where the fielders were. I did not have to look far. Every one of them was within 10 yards of me and the wicket keeper was standing very close behind the stumps. They were baying for blood. The umpire said that there were four balls to face. I decided that whatever the bowler sent down, I was going to get right behind it and play it down onto the pitch. I remembered Geoff Boycott’s mantra of how to eliminate every way of getting out: Don’t hit the ball in the air – you cannot be caught then. Hit every ball – you cannot be given out leg before wicket, or bowled, in those circumstances. Always stay in your crease, they cannot run you out or stump you. And my personal favourite – don’t pick the bloody ball up and toss it back to the bowler – then they cannot give you out for touching the ball. Geoffrey’s advice would see me through, I decided.
The bowler came in and bowled, I played my shot early, the ball hit the bat and spun back to him. Again he ran in and again the ball was hit straight back, then once more for a third time. He tried something different with the last ball of the over and banged it in short; it reared up and I decided to let it hit me a midriff. It was like a sharp punch in the solar plexus, the ball ballooned away and was caught by one of the fielders. But I knew that I could not be given out and in the morning, I would have a badge of courage bruise to show my dad.
At the end of the over I walked down to see Ken. He looked nervous and asked how I was. I told him I was fine and determined to hang on for as long as we could manage. Ken nodded in agreement and went back to his end to face the next over. It turned out to be one of the most amazing I had ever seen. The bowler could have had Ken out with every ball. Ken missed three of them completely and they went over the stumps; he hit two; one went near a fielder, who should have caught it; another straight to a fielder, but was dropped; and the final ball of the over hit Ken’s pads. He was plum in front, but the ball had pitched outside of his leg stump so he could not be given out.
This time I went to see if Ken was all right. He look relieved but completely drained. I knew that I was going to have to farm the bowling. So for the next five or six overs I played a straight bat to every ball until the fifth one of the over, then looked for a single off it or the next one. As the fielders were still close there were plenty of spaces where a single could be pushed. The opposing captain had worked out what I was doing, and started to retreat his fielders towards the end of each over.
Over the next few overs, the Ifield Court captain changed his bowlers every over to try to shake things up. He was playing into my hands, because every time he did, I took a fresh guard and precious time was used up. We were already retying boot laces every few overs and asking for changes in bats and gloves to maximise delays. After a while I had got to that rare level that batsmen get to in long innings, where I could see the ball like a football and confidence grew. In an odd way it came as a slight disappointment when the umpire called last over. The fielders were now in touching distance but I was not going to lose the fight now. We saw out the last over and stumps were drawn. I felt ten feet tall and Ken and I hugged each other like two blokes whose team had just won the Ashes.
That success led to me being raised up the batting order, and come the next season I was opening the batting. But then life kicked in. Full-time work came along and soon I was not available for every game. Then I discovered girls and I was not available for even more games. My job took me away from Luddesdowne. A few years later, I started playing cricket again and played for the next 25 years for one team or another but I have never forgotten my cricketing apprenticeship at Luddesdowne and will never forget the values that Ken Milner and Gerry Paternoster taught me.