He stood there… helmet on, sponsored bat in hand, and a smirk on his face. You could tell that deep down this English international player, who represented his country in 133 Test Matches and 170 One Day Internationals, scoring a combined total of 13 140 runs at International level, had plans to ‘spank’ the lanky 13-year-old bowler as he stood at the top of his mark ready to charge in.
The year was 1997 and the England international cricket side were on tour of New Zealand, the country I would leave for their cross-Tasman brother in November of that year, two days earlier the England and New Zealand cricket sides had played out a draw in Auckland.
Stephen Fleming, a future New Zealand skipper, had scored 129 in the home sides first innings of 390 – but the massive feat looked measly compared to the 173 notched in Englands first and only innings of the match by Man of the Match wicket keeper Alec Stewart as the visitors were finally dismissed for 521.
Fast forward to two-days later, as England were preparing for the second of third Test Matches against New Zealand – this one scheduled to be held in Wellington at the Basin Reserve – the touring side however, had made a stop along the way – to a small city named Wanganui and to the heart of the North Island cities cricket precinct Victoria Park – for a tour match against a New Zealand A squad.
With school holidays in full swing, and my parents the owners of a nearby Fish ‘n’ Chip shop it was no surprise that even as a 13-year old I’d be tagging along with my parents only to desert them and walk the block or two to watch cricket – returning to the shop only for the luncheon break or at the end of the days play.
A year earlier I had spent the weekend with my oldest sister watching as a touring Sri Lankan team, which included future legends of the game such as Aravinda de Silva, HP Tillakaratne, and one of the greatest batsmen to play the game Sanath Jayasuriya taking on a New Zealand XI that had included the likes of Craig Spearman, Roger Twose, Chris Harris, current NSW Cricket CEO Lee Germon, and Matthew Hart.
I spent much of that particular drawn four day match sitting just outside where the players were roped off.
But this my friends is where cricket for me truly became more than just a game. For me this is where I learned even just the simplest of gestures has the power to change a persons complete outlook.
During that four day match, a year prior to where this story began, I spent time with everyone of the players they were asking me questions and I was even allowed to run drinks out – it was a tour game it wasn’t overly popular and there were not thousands of people lining the hills cheering on the sides.
I took the advice, and new found confidence in speaking to players who were – and would become – idols in the game of cricket, and as a young kid, as the lone boy in my family, this changed me forever as I tried to do everything and learn every piece of advice that had been given to me.
So now lets fast-forward a year… to where this story started. You have England on tour of New Zealand, back in the days where tours were actual tours and not fly-in, fly-out matches.
On the back of the drawn first test and you have the two sides now playing a four-day warm-up match, England versus a New Zealand XI at Victoria Park in Wanganui – and as usual this lanky 13-year-old who was the fastest bowler in his local competition was sitting there to soak in the cricket all day, every day.
There weren’t the big name players for New Zealand as had been there a year earlier, at that point a lot had changed in the New Zealand Cricket set up, and just days prior to this warm-up game was the Semi Final for Cricket Max and therefore some players had been ruled out of this tour game and ordered by their cricketing boards to focus on the Cricket Max domestic competition.
Despite the change of talent, albeit with the likes of Craig Spearman (0 & 47), Chris Harris (16 & 71) and New Zealand pace bowlers such as Heath Davis (4/22 & 2/63) and Geoff Allott (4/44 & 4/76), the fact that these New Zealand players once again welcomed me into their section – Chris Harris, who would forever be a legend of the game in New Zealand, even remembered my name.
Once again four long days talking shop. How to hold the ball, how to face up when batting, how to do something different with the ball and so forth – I was in my element talking cricket with players I admired both at domestic and international level.
So we fast forward to the end of the second day of the match. The England side had just been dismissed for a measly 107 in reply to the home sides 181. You could tell the English coaching team was not impressed with the batting display that had been on offer as 40-minutes before the scheduled end of play on one of the other wickets located at Victoria Park the portable batting nets were erected, and players who weren’t involved in the match had begun walking their kit bags to the nets and began warming up.
Knowing the days play wasn’t far from ending I made my way over to the nets, just to watch and see if there were any tips or tricks I could pick up from watching these international players practising in the nets.
In the nets was Man of the Match for England from the drawn first test – Alec Stewart. The attacking-styled wicket keeper, before attacking-styled wicket keepers were a thing. A man who’d go on to represent England in 133 Test Matches – scoring 8 463 runs at an average of 39.54, and 170 One Day Internationals – scoring 4 677 runs at an average of 31.60.
David Lloyd, better known as ‘Bumbles’ to cricket fans due to his long and ever stellar career in cricket commentating on the BBC, was the coach of the English side and to this day I still don’t remember as to whether they had enough net bowlers, or saw me hanging around the cricket nets, because the next thing I remember are a bunch of English guys inviting me to bowl in the nets at some of their batsmen.
Here I was 13 years of age, being tossed a cricket ball from the England coaching staff sharing a bowling net with a young Darren Gough – who would go on to play 58-Test Matches (229 wickets) and 159 One Day Internationals (235 wickets) – and would later be joined by Andrew Caddick – 62 Test Matches (234 wickets) and 54 One Day Internationals (69 wickets).
Alec Stewart was the batsmen in the nets and I came charging in. The first ball he played with ‘respect’ – it was pretty ordinary and instead on smashing me out of the ground, as someone of his calibre could, he simply blocked the ball and threw it back to me.
Returning to my bowling mark, buzzing at the excitement, a young Darren Gough – who had made his Test debut for England not even two years earlier – turned from his mark and walked up to me, cricket ball in hand and suggested I held the ball a slightly different way – it wasn’t much of a change but he suggested it would invite more swing into my bowling.
It came to my turn to bowl again. Darren Gough had just delivered a ball on a good length that had swung in and only just missed taking the off stump of Alec Stewart. After retrieving his ball he began walking back to his mark – our eyes made contact and he smirked holding the ball in his bowling hand exactly the same way he had suggested I tried and gave a little nod.
Alec Stewart, helmet on, no doubt sponsored bat in his hand and with a smirk on his face was ready for me. I stood at the top of my mark, looked down at the ball in my hand and slightly changed it to how Darren Gough had suggested. I took a deep breath and charged in to deliver my ball.
Alec Stewart took a swing at my ball, this time there was no respect he was trying to hit me out of the park. Trying to send me back to my Mum and Dad’s Fish ‘n’ Chip shop. He swung, the ball moved in the air and this aggressive batsmen missed the ball completely… all we saw were the training wickets fall down behind him.
A smile broadened across my face, ‘Top Nut’ Stewart would say in his English-accent, his tone while gruff as it filled with disappointment that he had been dismissed by a young net bowler, also filled with sincerity.
Walking back to my mark a smiling Darren Gough walked towards me and patted me on the back…
This for me took cricket from a regular sport that I played to get out of the house and away from my sisters, into a sport I love, I adored and I wanted to represent my country playing – I spent much of the next decade heading towards that moment only for neck, back and knee injuries ruling out my chances of playing at the sports elite level.
However, my passion for the game remained at an optimum level. And while tours have dramatically changed since that time, with players now being wrapped in cotton-wool due to the amount of sponsorship dollars on the line, and tours now changed to fly-in, fly-out, all to maximise revenue.
This does remain a moment that inspires me, that took my love and passion for the game to a whole new level. How many net bowlers around the world can say they bowled an international cricketer out at the age of 13 while they were in the peak of their career…? We will never know but it’s a moment that will forever be in my memories.
And to me that is what cricket is about. Sure it is a fun game that we can all play, that we can all enjoy, and the cricketing landscape continues to change to encourage more people to take up the game, shorter formats, altered formats, and the rise of the development of Women’s Cricket.
We will never be able to replicate the story outlined above, that is just part of my journey to get to where we are. But as President of the Yarrabilba Cricket Association, I, and everyone in and around the Yarrabilba community, have the opportunity to come together, to pitch in and launch our cricket association with focus, with a purpose.
You never know what type of scenario may arise that will give a youngster in our community that light bulb moment, the moment they decide cricket is the game for them, and it could simply be – as it was with me – one simple act, one simple moment of what we put together that could harness the next ‘Backyard to Baggy Green’ legend from right here in Yarrabilba.