Lord's the quieter after de Mesquita passing
For a young journalist, the press box is a scary place. Even discounting the pressures of live blogging and match reports, it is full of potential faux pas that, as Lawrence Booth wrote in the latest issue of the Nightwatchman, can get you a reputation very quickly. Inside my first month covering county cricket for ESPNcricinfo, it seemed I already had mine.
"You do love a sneeze, don't you?" noticed the voice from over my left shoulder. I turned around, apologising. "It's hayfever," I explained, worried he may have me quarantined in one of Lord's many underground nooks. "Never mind that, it's just too bloody cold in here - even I'm not used to it after all these years." This was my first exchange with Norman de Mesquita.
Before then, our interactions had been limited to a daily "good morning" quickly followed by a "thank you" as he passed me a scorecard, occasionally with some vocal amends. From that moment on, we chatted every morning as I passed him in his regular seat on the back row, just right of centre. And I was all the richer for it.
Last week, Norman passed away in his home in north-west London at the age of 81. His voice and way with words saw him excel as a broadcaster. Initially commentating on Sunday John Player League matches for BBC Radio London, before moving into print, covering Test cricket and his beloved Middlesex, reporting for them on behalf of Wisden.
Before cricket, Norman's time was spent championing his first love, ice hockey - commentating on British finals in Wembley (along with the odd game of tennis). He was also a qualified referee and would take annual trips to America with his good friend and fellow ice hockey aficionado Peter Byrne, the former Middlesex statistician who sadly passed away in December of last year.
"He used to be known as the voice of Wembley," remembers Pat Gibson, chairman of the Cricket Writers' Club, who worked alongside Norman for 40 years. "He was as natural as they come - an articulate man with lovely tones, but he was a very hard working man who constantly strived for the highest standards in himself and colleagues. I remember when I referred to the ice hockey puck as a 'ball'. He wasn't impressed."
"We've lost Christopher Martin Jenkins and Dicky Rutnagur so soon, and now Norman. Great losses to the press box and the game."
Despite several strokes in the last decade or so, which left him with a speech impediment, Norman remained wonderfully affable, with an ability to faultlessly read the game unfolding in front of him. It was his wicked sense of humour that stripped away the pomp and circumstance of the media centre, putting newcomers like myself at ease with their historical surroundings.
His imitation of the Lord's announcer always raised chuckle, as did his parallels with life and Middlesex's occasional malaise; a standout example coming during a top-order batting collapse, in which Dawid Malan offered classy resistance before falling cheaply. "It's like talking to a beautiful married woman," Norman began, "pretty to look at but it doesn't go anywhere." He started packing his bag after the sixth wicket, turning back to me as I scribbled down the mode of dismissal: "Don't be too mean - they'll find you!"
When he was not entertaining, he was informing - every milestone announced proudly, as if it were his own, complete with the number of balls faced and minutes. At 12.45pm, he would wander to the dining area, before returning to broadcast the soup of the day. A critique would soon follow; from what I recall, he was a carrot and coriander fan and didn't care much for leeks.
The last time I spoke to Norman was during Middlesex's defeat to Yorkshire in June. My pollen tolerance was at an all-time low as I ploughed through tissues, filling the silences with my best distressed elephant impressions. Norman was worried.
"Young man, I really think you should see a doctor. You sound very poorly and it has been going on for so long that I'm genuinely starting to think something is wrong with you."
I ended up taking Norman's advice and it turns out something was wrong - a deviated septum and severely swollen turbinates had all-but blocked both of my nostrils. Nothing life-threatening, but certainly something that would only worsen if I had not had an operation, which now leaves me in much better shape.
I was looking forward to sharing the news with Norman this Friday on my return to Lord's to cover Middlesex's Division One clash with Durham. Sadly, I will never get to thank him for his concern.
The media centre will be a much quieter place - it's just a shame it will be because it has lost one of its most revered devotees.