‘Move your feet!’ shouted our coach, Mr. Whitby.
Wingy was laying down his oppressive regime of orthodox left arm spin during practice, and I was on the retreat yet again. Terrified of catching an edge, I waited until the last moment to play the ball, content to square up and clumsily push it away.
‘Feet, feet, feet!’
‘Yes sir, feet’, I nodded.
‘Get to the ball!’ Mr. Whitby mimed a bold stride forward, his face full of a confidence and aggression I had never felt at the crease.
David Gower didn’t use his feet much, but that didn’t stop him being world class. He could look lost for a while, his brain seemingly operating on trial and error while he scratched his way to the twenties. But when his brain finished calibrating, and until his inevitable demise at gully or backward point, he was like a being from a higher plane. I didn’t so much admire him as exist in a state of awe.
Words like ‘delicious’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘exquisite’, which ought really to be used sparingly, would tumble from the commentator’s mouth during an innings. Gower didn’t so much play shots as direct traffic. A ball would approach with speed and movement, only to be waved on its way, accelerating obediently towards the boundary.
Robin Smith’s ability to move his feet quickly into a launch position, made him my idea of superman. His was not the Gowerian gift of timing, but he was born to rescue us from a decade of bullying by the absurdly great Garner, Marshall, Holding and Ambrose. To grant us visions of dominance. He met aggression with more aggression, greeted assault with a viciousness of counter-assault I had never seen. And when he was hit by the red missiles, ricocheting off broken, arid wickets, he set his face and came again. I wanted to be him.
Smith’s late-career slide at the hands of the dark and ignoble forces of spin, did nothing to dampen my impressions. He had not let me down, I merely grieved. And turned that grief against what I thought to be the fickle selectors who had cast aside our greatest knight.
Wingy smiled at me before starting his three-step runup. Get to the pitch, I said to myself, for once in your life, just get to the pitch. He’ll pitch short – he always does against you because you never challenge him. Get there.
As soon as he released the ball, I danced down the wicket to meet the bounce. My bat came through fast and straight from high and behind me, met the ball and followed through, elbow high and proud, until the end of my bat pointed directly at a stunned Wingy.
The ball had gone, high and very far, sailing over the straight long-on boundary for the only six I ever hit in twenty years of playing.
‘Sorry Wingy,’ I said, ‘I don’t know what happened there.’