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'Twas a bond that brooked neither stats nor sense
December 16, 2010
If love is blind, then my relationship with Allan Lamb was more of a myopic obsession. He never knew about it, of course, and the one time I met him I had to fight hard not to blub pathetically and admit all. I was 23 by then, but the two of us had already been through a lot together.
It had not always been easy. Lamb finished with a Test average of 36.09, which pained me. His highest Test score was 142, which was frankly careless. And, well, he wasn't exactly English, was he? "Limmie", my mates would snigger in a mock-South African accent, as if that settled the argument. But none of this mattered. Lambie and I had a bond that transcended trivialities like statistics and passports.
Everyone remembers the first Test series that captivated them. For me it was England's trip to the West Indies in 1989-90, which I followed on the radio in my bedroom, insulated and isolated from the world. There was something magical about that faint crackle, and when Lambie made 132 in England's shock win in the first Test at Sabina Park, I was under his spell. He later made 119 in Barbados, and I can still remember the words of the BBC commentator Trevor Bailey as another bottom-handed cover-drive - feet in concrete - was slain to the boundary: "Allan Lamb is a fine player!" The emphasis was on "is" and "fine", as if Bailey was simply reminding us of one of life's truisms. At least, that's how this impressionable 14-year-old heard it.
With Lamb came his adopted county, Northamptonshire - another deeply unfashionable choice. (Graham Gooch and Essex would have been so much simpler.) In 1995, with the help of Anil Kumble, he almost captained us to our first-ever championship. He was brassy, aggressive, irritating - and I loved him for it. Against Nottinghamshire we conceded over 500 in the first innings, but Lambie insisted on building a lead rather than declaring behind. He was one of four centurions as Northants rattled up 780 and won by an innings and plenty. I swelled with pride as journalists began to refer to us as "the people's choice" (never mind that the people largely ignored county cricket), and nearly wept with frustration when our 12 wins out of 17 were not enough to topple either Warwickshire or Middlesex. We have never come so close since.
By this stage Lambie was long gone as an England cricketer. He had retired from the international game in 1992, which meant that I only enjoyed at first-hand the final two and a half years of his imperfect career. Only research could complete the picture. I lapped up tales of his four centuries in the summer of 1984 - three of them against the all-conquering West Indians (he would make six Test hundreds against them in all, my favourite Lambie stat). I rejoiced in the time he hit 18 off Bruce Reid's final over to beat the Aussies in a one-dayer in Sydney. I took vicarious pride in the fact that he had scored a century in only his third Test, against India at The Oval. And I could usually recite his batting average to within two decimal places. Didn't he need a personal statistician?
His career post-1990 was, to be honest, a bit of a struggle. But we pulled through. I remember spending a summer holiday in 1990 on a French campsite, and waiting anxiously as my brother did the newspaper-and-croissants run. Back he came with the news: Lambie had scored 109 in the second Test against India at Old Trafford! Surely this would silence the carpers, especially after his 139 in the first Test at Lord's (but why did Gooch have to steal the show with that 333?). It was pure solipsism: Lambie existed only to thrill or disappoint me, and I regarded it as a personal triumph when his 142 saved the Wellington Test early in 1992. A few months later I was there at Lord's when Lambie faced what turned out to be his final ball in Test cricket: a grubber from Mushtaq Ahmed that struck him plumb in front. He made 12.
There were three more seasons with Northants, and then, just like that, he was gone. There were wranglings over some controversial content in his autobiography - retirement was the only option. But did it have to be so clean and brutal? There was no farewell. Nothing. Those were hard days.
It's virtually impossible to put my finger on why I worshipped Lambie so zealously. He was a hopeless starter, and failed far too often for someone who played 79 Tests. He made 14 Test hundreds but only 18 fifties. He could look appalling against spin and tended to push at the ball with those stiff South African wrists. But he had this swagger. He loved to hook and cut, and he was a short man, which is why he scored runs against West Indies. And he had this nerveless, tireless way about him.
When I got the chance to meet him, I was doing my finals at university. My girlfriend at the time and her family had been invited to a day of golf and socialising and - was I dreaming? - the Lambs would be there too. We shook hands, and chatted about Northamptonshire and scoring hundreds at Lord's as Lambie organised the barbecue. The rest of the day was subsumed in booze, and I wondered whether I should have preserved Lambie in the realm of idolatry, rather than risked the warts-and-all reality. Did I regret meeting him? A bit. He would never quite be the same again. But we would always have Sabina.
Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Daily Mail. His fourth book, What Are The Butchers For? And Other Splendid Cricket Quotations, is published in October 2009 by A&C Black. This article was first published in the July 2005 issue of Wisden Asia CricketFeeds: Lawrence Booth
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