Tuesday 21 August 2018

How I fell out of love with cricket (Part 1)

Growing up in the South Manchester suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, on the face of it, I had a fairly unexceptional upbringing. There are doubtless many more exciting places on the planet to spend one’s youth, but the truth of the matter is, none of them had an Old Trafford.

I was a child of the 1960s at a time when Best, Law and Charlton – we called them the ‘Holy Trinity’ – were sweeping all before them on the hallowed turf of Old Trafford football ground. On Saturday afternoons, chaperoned by my eldest brother, we would walk the 2 miles to Manchester United’s stadium where we would click-clack through the turnstiles and, along with 60,000 other devotees, cheer our heroes on from the Scoreboard End terraces. 

In the summers however, I would trade in the Red Devils for my other heroes who played at the other, older ‘Old Trafford’. Lancashire County Cricket Club didn’t have the same star status as their footballing counterparts down the road, who were winning European trophies under the astute guidance of Matt Busby. Lancashire was a strong county side in the 1960s, never quite good enough to walk off with the main prize, the County Championship, but the team was a leading exponent of the one-day game, then still in its infancy. The Gillette Cup, a 60-over-a-side knock-out tournament was cricket’s early equivalent of football’s FA Cup and by the end of the decade, the Lancashire side had an almost vice-like grip on the trophy with the wily Jack Bond, the team captain, at the helm. On one memorable occasion, amongst many others, crowds at Old Trafford witnessed David Hughes hit a superb 25 in a single over to steer Lancashire home in the twilight against Gloucestershire in the 1971 semi-final.

Old Trafford has been Lancashire’s home since 1864, predating football’s younger version by almost 50 years. As well as county cricket, between 1884 and 2018 it hosted no fewer than 75 Test Matches, in addition to countless other one-day internationals featuring England and the other major cricket-playing nations.

The allure of visiting teams from Australia or the West Indies and the spectacle of the one-day game caught the imagination of an impressionable child like myself growing up in 1960s Manchester. When I was in my early teens I took out a junior membership with Lancashire. This entitled you to free admission to all games, including 5-day Test Matches which Old Trafford hosted almost every summer. On weekdays when Lancashire were at home playing one of their 3-day county games, after school, it was our custom - my like-minded friends and I - to walk the 2 miles and watch the final session of the day. During rain breaks in less well-attended county games, we would huddle at the back of gaping stands and listen to our voices reverberate off the roofing whilst we waited impatiently for play to restart. Buit it was on Gillette Cup and Test Match days that Old Trafford came to life. The crowds were drawn in by the big occasions, such as when Ian Chappell’s Aussies came to town in 1972, with upcoming stars like Dennis Lillee, Rodney Marsh and Greg Chappell, who would become household names in the following decade. The England selection too had a sprinkling of ‘Lancastrians’ at the time, including Peter Lever, Barry Wood, David Lloyd and Frank Hayes. If cricket wasn’t being played at Old Trafford, you could invariably watch regular live cricket broadcasts on BBC TV, fronted by Peter West and Jim Laker, or tune in to Test Match Special on the radio with such legendary commentators as John Arlott and Brian Johnston at the microphone. With their team of expert summarisers, including Trevor Bailey and Fred Trueman, they reported on the latest state of play from Lord’s, The Oval or Headingley. Lancashire’s continuing success in the 1970s, particularly in the one-day format, took me to grounds further afield, such as Edgbaston (Birmingham) and Trent Bridge (Nottingham), culminating in Gillette finals at Lord’s, the home of cricket, in 1975 and 1976.

When I wasn’t watching football or cricket, I was at school. Chorlton High was a comprehensive which didn’t have a great tradition for sport, never mind cricket. Nevertheless, our academic year had a fair smattering of cricket enthusiasts and we cobbled together a school team which played its home games at the upper school’s Nell Lane sports facilities. When our school days came to an end, a few of us took the initiative to establish a pub-based team (by now we had moved on to more adult pastimes) and called ourselves the Chorlton Wayfarers. We were a motley bunch, glued together by an enthusiasm for the game and by regular Friday evening sessions at the Trevor Arms on Beech Road. As the name suggests, we were a team of all-comers with no membership requirements, just a love of cricket and beer. Apart from our Friday-night watering hole, we had no home venue, instead arranging weekend and evening fixtures against teams playing in the local leagues in South Manchester and Cheshire. Two years running we took the Wayfarers on tours to Worcestershire and Herefordshire. It didn’t matter whether we won or lost, our passion for cricket was sustained by the camaraderie and, it must be said, our predilection for the amber stuff. I can happily report that friendships which germinated on the cricket field 40 years ago are still intact today and on regular visits ‘home’, I still find myself reminiscing with friends about our ‘Wayfaring’ over a pint or two of beer in a Manchester pub.

In September 1976 I went to study at Newcastle University, marking a new chapter in my hitherto short life. Making new friends and developing new interests, it became inevitable that the sporting ties with my home-town would loosen somewhat. However, the cricketing world didn’t stop revolving and summers would still be spent in Manchester where Old Trafford and Wayfarers’ games were never far away. In 1977, a few of us organised a trip to the Trent Bridge Test Match featuring England and Australia, most notable for Geoff Boycott running out local Nottinghamshire hero Derek Randall. When the Aussies came again in 1981, the whole nation was gripped by the Test Match series, remembered chiefly for the feats of Ian Botham whose extraordinary performances with bat and ball that summer were the stuff of legend.

[To be continued - see Part 2