Thursday, September 1, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Paul Allott, by Jonathon Howcroft

In our continuing series "My Favourite Cricketer", Jonathon Howcroft of The Back Page Lead explains why his favourite cricketer is ... err ... Bryan Robson?

I have an admission to make. I don’t have a favourite cricketer. Not really anyway. Let me explain why.

I used to have a favourite cricketer. He was called Bryan Robson. As a six-year-old I didn’t realise the captain of Manchester United Football Club was only a footballer. I’m sure I had seen him strapped into a pair of pads in a newspaper but as far as my United-obsessed mind was concerned Bryan Robson was captain of my football team, cricket team, prime minister of England and the One True God.

As you’ve probably gathered, I was I born in England – the cricketing nirvana of Yorkshire actually – but to a Lancastrian father. And yes, I do have a chip on both shoulders.

If you know your Robsons, you might also have realised I was born around 1980. These two factors, my age and nationality, are probably the most salient in determining why I do not have a favourite cricketer.

My interest in and understanding of cricket didn’t really kick in until England were pretty shit. As a hybrid-rose my domestic allegiances were also compromised so as to never allow me to fully get behind either. Not that there was much success to cheer from the houses of York or Lancaster during my youth, save for Lancashire’s early-90s one-day exploits.

Consequently, of the cohort of most likely favourites, mine were either rubbish or unlikely to have my unqualified support.

At primary school I had a vague idea of who I know are other people’s favourite cricketers; Ian Botham and David Gower, for example, but I would be lying if I said I really understood their status. Perhaps the first cricketer to leave an indelible impression was Graham Gooch. His replica bat, the Stuart Surridge Turbo 333, became the must-have accessory when I joined my first club, Old Hymerians U13. Even then, something prevented me from finding space in my United-wallpapered bedroom for the Colossus of Chelmsford. (I later realised it probably had something to do with him being a batsman. Deep down, I hate batsmen.)

Until my twenties, cricket was predominately a local game for me. I played a lot, and with some success, as a junior. As an adolescent it was a means to bond with my dad, who still plays veterans, and be part of the local community. I enjoyed the sense of tradition – playing with my dad, who played with his dad, etc etc. Which leads me to another nearly contender for the cherished title of my favourite cricketer. My great-grandad: John Howcroft.

He fails to win the title because I never saw him play. I know that isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite, but where the likes of Bradman, Larwood and Jardine have newsreel and independent reports of their greatness on their sides, I have only my dad’s stories. And like most dads, mine is prone to embellishment.

I do know that John Howcroft was a professional in the Lancashire League well into his forties. The Lancashire League is historically a strong competition, producing numerous internationals and acting as a finishing school for the best overseas talent, in parallel with the county circuit. John was a bowler, fast off-cutters apparently, the likes of which have rarely been seen since Derek Underwood and uncovered pitches.

Born near Manchester, in 1907, John’s career peaked during the depression and was effectively curtailed because of the war in which he fought. He was offered a county contract by Lancashire but turned it down because it was not a living wage.

My favourite story involving my great-grandad came during the West Indies tour of 1950. It may be bullshit, but I am inclined to believe the gist if not the details. During the tour a West Indian XI competed against a Lancashire League select XI. So the story goes, 43-yer-old John skittled the tourists out so quickly they restarted the game so as to allow the sizeable crowd a proper day’s entertainment. According to those in attendance, translated through my dad’s intergenerational narrative, John received more favourable reviews than the stars of that summer, Alf Valentine and Sonny Ramadhin.

Ever since I was first told that story I have amended the calypso song that used to accompany the West Indian spin twins that crops up occasionally on archive programmes. “Those little pals of mine, Ramadhin and Valentine,” is how Lord Beginner scripted the original. “…were not as good as my great-grandad,” is how I appended it.

My dad also told me once that John won a prize for being the only man to throw a cricket-ball over a bridge in Cheshire. The olden-days sound great.

Unfortunately John died in 1985, one of at least 215 victims of Britain’s most destructive serial killer, Harold Shipman. He outlived his son, my grandad Arnold, leaving my dad, Peter, the keeper of the family cricketing history. I therefore have only his word, and a few dusty cricket balls with plaques nailed to them, to verify John’s achievements. I am rightly proud of my great-grandad but he is not my favourite cricketer.

As I got older, and England continued to get worse, a few individuals flitted in and out of my affections.

I emulated Robin Smith by acquiring a yellow bat-grip. I enjoyed his muscular square cut and similarity to Allan Lamb. His stature in my mind is probably heightened through misappropriation of runs. I have since interviewed Robin, and he is ace.

I deeply respected Mike Atherton. He made cricket look bloody hard. He captained a crap side and opened the batting in a golden-age of fast bowling. Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh, Donald, Akram, Younis and his nemesis, McGrath, tormented the poor bloke into dirty-pocket distraction. I have since met Athers, and he has a bad back.

As a player, I developed into the quintessential England stereotype, the medium-fast seam bowler. That drew me towards the likes of Angus Fraser and Peter Martin, workhorses of the English game who had the misfortune to be born in a fallow period for English cricket. I met both Gus and Digger as a teenager at a bar in the Old Trafford cricket ground, rarely have I felt so short.

Because I played the game myself and lived some distance from a first class ground, I seldom had access to live county or international cricket. When I did it was usually lousy. Here is an example.

My first day of Test cricket was the second day of the fourth Test between England and Australia at Headingley in 1993. Australia scored 306/1 during the day to reach 613/4 at the close. England’s six bowlers that day: McCague, Ilott, Caddick, Bicknell, Gooch and Thorpe.

England threatened to improve on occasion prior to the Strauss-led resurgence. In those moments I was drawn to Darren Gough, Dominic Cork and Phil Tufnell, but at the same time my deepest sporting affection was for far more charismatic and successful heroes. Against Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and Peter Schmeichel, some pretty ordinary cricketers never stood a chance.

Once I hit my twenties I found it difficult to do much more than grudgingly respect anyone’s achievements. I began to see cricketers as contemporaries, not some remote constituency of fantasy, but guys I played against, my age and younger. There’s something that doesn’t sit quite right about idolising my contemporaries, but you’ve probably picked up on my misanthropic tendencies already.

If I wasn’t saddled with being English, my favourite cricketers would include Shane Warne, Wasim Akram and most West Indians between 1960 and about 1998 – particularly Viv, the one batsman I cannot fail to admire.

Of cricketers I have met, Boycott has provided me the most value. As the tech-savvy youngster able to stream highlights of Man Utd games to Boycs during the 2010-11 Ashes, I earned a place in the England opener’s affections. At least I think so. He used to grin at me from under his brim and say, “I bet you’re in the Russian mafia, you, aren’t ya? There’s no way this is legal.” Before going on to chastise the flickering images for being soft in the tackle and lacking the gumption of the great United of his youth. Plus ca change…

If I had to force myself into choosing a favourite cricketer, my thought process would work as follows.

Nationality – my favourite cricketer would have to be English to make it more than posturing.

Discipline – my favourite cricketer would have to be a bowler, probably a medium-fast seam bowler in the classic mediocre English tradition.

Ability – my favourite cricketer would have to be talented but overlooked for serious recognition because of the bias against northerners that usually dominates England selection.

The conclusion? My favourite cricketer should be Paul Allott. A decision I am not unhappy about, especially when factoring in his biography on Wikipedia.

Paul Allott: “He was a powerfully built, skilful right-arm medium-fast swing bowler who could also bat adequately at number 9. A consistent county performer, he was at his best in English conditions, but lacked that extra zip to enjoy more than a respectable Test career.”


Compared to that, who wouldn’t want to stick with Bryan Robson?

You can read more of Jonathon's work at The Back Page Lead, or follow him on Twitter @jphowcroft

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