January 28, 2011

Andy Zaltzman’s World Cup Memories ‒ Part One of a New One-Part Series

Part one of a one-part series of World Cup memories

Man versus rhododendron

Of all the World Cup matches I have attended, my favourite remains the first. Admittedly, my first World Cup match also remains my only World Cup match. But, equally admittedly, even if I had been to every single World Cup match since, it would still be high up the list. Tunbridge Wells, 1983, India v Zimbabwe. Kapil Dev’s unmatched masterclass in How To Rescue Your Team From A Perilous 17 for 5.

The first top-level cricket I ever saw was the cream of Indian batsmanship being obliterated. Followed by one of the greatest innings in the history of the game. My cricket-watching career may have peaked too soon. Kapil came to the crease at 9 for 4, eight runs later watched Yashpal Sharma trudge back to the pavilion, looked at the scoreboard, and thought to himself, “1, 7 and 5. That’s a nice collection of numbers. I wonder if I can make them appear together on the scoreboard again. Hmm, let me think about that. Yes, I’ve worked it out, I can. I’ll take 1 for 75. No, no, scratch that, I’ve got an even better idea.” A couple of hours later, Kapil left the field to thunderous and ecstatic applause – as thunderous and ecstatic as people are legally allowed to be in Kent, at any rate - with 175 not out to his name, and a place in the World Cup pantheon his for all time.

A small Andy Zaltzman was there to see it, a boy already captured by cricket, entranced by its heroes and numerical intricacies, attending his first game of professional cricket. Few of my school contemporaries at the time were as well-versed in Derek Randall’s Test batting average as I was. Fewer still had a reasonable working knowledge of Mansoor Akhtar’s performances for Pakistan. When ace 17th-century philosopher Francis Bacon wrote that “knowledge is power”, he clearly did not have the same type of knowledge that I possessed as a small boy. Knowledge that proved of little heft in the school playground. (But then again, Bacon himself ultimately died as a result of trying to stuff snow up a dead chicken’s posterior, so his “knowledge” was clearly vulnerable to the onset of over-excited but poorly planned experimentation.)

Somehow, and to this day it has never been satisfactorily explained, my father had managed to acquire a pair of tickets to sit in the pavilion, just a few feet from the players’ dressing rooms. This was an unmissable autograph-hunting opportunity. The only autographs I had successfully hunted up to that point in my life were that of Geoff Capes, the British strongman and beard enthusiast, who had been a guest at a prize-giving at my school, and the opening batsman from the local village cricket team. I nervously approached this titan of a man, as he slumped into a deckchair with a cigarette after a brief and unsuccessful innings, and politely requested him to sign my notebook. He looked at me with a mixture of surprise, confusion and nervousness, as if he suspected I might be trying to trick him into buying something that he didn’t want, as if the last time he had signed an autograph he had returned home to find a few set of automatic remote-controlled curtains and a bill for £3000. Little did I know at the time that village cricketers are unused to fielding autograph requests.

So, as World Cup history unfolded, I gradually filled the India and Zimbabwe pages of my World Cup magazine with the scrawls of some cricketing legends – India’s Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohinder Amarnath, Syed Kirmani, as well as young Zimbabwean squad player Graeme Hick, never-dropped-from-a-Test-match-in-23-years spinner John Traicos, and future Ashes-winning coach Duncan Fletcher. Plus Gerald Peckover, the non-bowling No. 9 batsman who scored a vain 14 in the second of his three one-day internationals, a footnote in cricketing history, but an eternal demi-god in my small eyes as he signed my magazine. Not enough of a demi-god for my father not to whisk me home in time for dinner before he made those 14 runs, as Zimbabwe’s brave chase fell 31 runs short, but a demi-god nonetheless.

Missing from my autograph collection are the two biggest stars playing that day – Gavaskar, who, having been dismissed for nought to the second ball of the match, bore an expression of such extreme grumpiness that the eight-year-old Zaltzman was too scared to look into his eyes, let alone waggle a pen in his face and ask for an autograph; and Kapil, who was busy trying to knock down the Nevill Ground’s renowned rhododendrons. Quite why the great allrounder felt so hostile towards brightly flowering plants remains a mystery, but he seemed on a mission to obliterate the pink abominations, blasting ball after ball towards the quivering shrubs. Kapil scored 175 for 0 off 23 overs. The rest of India managed 79 for 8 off 37. Even the most indecisive of waverers could have made a decent stab at the Man-of-the-Match adjudication that day.

Soon enough, those autographs had mutated into the autographs of World Cup winners. The Indian side who I had seen disintegrate in the face of the unstoppable Kevin Curran and Peter Rawson (who dismissed Gavaskar, Amarnath and Yashpal in his opening spell – 25% of all the wickets he took in his international career) went on to conquer the seemingly unconquerable West Indies. And the match and Kapil’s innings had passed into legend, unrecorded by television, eternalised only in startling numbers on a scorecard, and burned into the brains of a few thousand people in tents and deckchairs, including one giddy boy who dreamt of one day playing on the same holy turf of Tunbridge Wells.

That dream came true. About 15 years later, I played on the Nevill Ground for my village team, the mighty Penshurst Park, against Tunbridge Wells Cricket Club 2nd XI. I was thinking of Kapil Dev as I walked out to bat. I batted like a sickly left-handed Chris Tavare, before being bowled middle stump. Playing no stroke. An error of judgement, in hindsight, I thought, as I returned to the pavilion, grumpy as a Gavaskar and similarly reluctant to sign autographs (in the face of limited demand). Those rhododendrons seemed to be an extremely long way away when I was batting.

Little did I think that it would be: (a) the last time Peter Rawson dismissed Gavaskar, Amarnath and Yashpal Sharma in a single innings – I assumed it was the kind of thing he did all the time; (b) the last time a World Cup match would be played at Tunbridge Wells (Kolkata rearrangement permitting) - World Cups at that stage were Always In England, and Tunbridge Wells, as far as I was concerned, was second only to Lord’s in the great cricket stadiums of the world stakes; (c) the last time I would see a live World Cup match for 28 years – in 1999, the only England-hosted World Cup since, I was a novice stand-up comedian with as much disposable income as legendary New Zealand rabbit Chris Martin has run-scoring options.

I will rectify that in Bangladesh next month, as the Confectionery Stall embarks on its 2011 World Cup Tour. I will be writing or podcasting daily from the great cricketing centres of the subcontinent and/or wherever the organisers can find a finished stadium for a quick knockabout. I cannot realistically complete this paragraph without using the words, “Dream Gig”, so I will not attempt to do so. It is a Dream Gig.

It is unlikely, though, that anyone will play an innings that leapfrogs Kapil’s in the Greatest World Cup Innings Andy Zaltzman Has Seen In The Flesh list - the innings that jet-propelled India’s stuttering campaign towards their momentous final victory, uncorking an unending Jeroboam of one-day international cricket in India and around the world, paving the way for the Twenty20 revolution and utterly transforming the sport. None of which seemed likely as Kapil marched out of the Tunbridge Wells pavilion, past a disconsolate Sandeep Patil (c Houghton b Curran 1) and an awestruck Andy Zaltzman (DNB), with the scoreboard shuddering at 9 for 4 and the course of cricket history about to be clouted decisively on the head, lifted back on its feet, and ushered off in a new direction.

A quick footnote: although that hazily-remembered day in 1983 remains my most prolific day of autograph-hunting, my biggest autograph coup came some years later, also in Tunbridge Wells, and completely inadvertently. Whilst most teenage boys spent the majority of their time and money in pursuit of love, or at least a fumbling approximation thereof, I devoted mine to the acquisition of cricket books from second-hand shops. (The two pursuits are not mutually compatible – there are too few women in the world who are likely to be seduced by an offer to have a look at Bill Bowes’ autobiography. As my miniscule list of ex-girlfriends can testify.)

In one of my regular trips to Hall’s in Tunbridge Wells, I found a pictorial history of the Ashes. It had a picture of Victor Trumper in it. It cost £3. Deal. No haggling. I handed over my £3, and hurried home for a more detailed perusal. Perhaps there would be a nice action shot of Archie MacLaren in it as well, I thought to myself excitedly, as I scuttled past my mother, who looked on with resigned acknowledgement that her son was more interested in dead cricketers than alive family members.

I opened the front cover. Inside was a small piece of white card, stuck down by the previous owner with some blu-tac. On it was an autograph. Clearly written, and unmistakeable. Don Bradman. I exploded with excitement. “That’s nice, dear,” said my mother, trying half-heartedly to look like she knew or cared who Don Bradman was, and wondering what she had done wrong in my formative early years. “Foolish mother,” I retorted internally. “You should be proud. How many mothers have spawned a son who can claim to have both Don Bradman and Gerald Peckover in their autograph collections? Not many. Not many at all.”

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer