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Wearing a watermelon against Dilley

Graham Dilley: first came the sound, then came the ball PA Photos

In my final year at school I was chosen to open the batting for the Transvaal Under-19 side with a big-hearted kid called Craig Norris from a neighbouring school. We had one mid-week warm-up game against a Transvaal Invitation XI at Morningside before flying down to Stellenbosch for the 1982 Nuffield Week, a tournament for South African high schools.

I can't remember exactly what we thought but I'm sure we assumed that the Invitation XI would be made up of ringers and sundry club unemployables of good standard. We'd negotiate past the fixture with the minimum of fuss and be on that plane down to the Cape in a jiffy.

In those days, club cricket in Johannesburg was properly competitive. Several Premier League clubs employed English professionals like Richard Lumb or Ashley Harvey-Walker, sometimes called Ashley Harvey-Wallbanger by the wits of the local scene. Every so often you would encounter a Transvaal player on a soft club weekend, or a Transvaal B player trying to play their way back into form or fitness.

Schoolboy cricket was hard-fought but genteel. You played on good wickets in front of gently appreciative fathers and mothers sitting in deck chairs; you wore your blazer to tea, didn't argue with the umpire, and didn't appeal unless you had a good chance of getting it right. Mostly they were heavenly days.

"When Dilley and Radford came off, Page replaced them. He was slippery, darting it off the seam, thudding a couple into Craig's midriff and hurting him on the juicy inner part of the thigh. Alvin Kallicharran watched it good-naturedly from the slips"

As a younger boy, clutching my precious 12th-birthday bat and standing timidly knock-kneed in my recently scrubbed takkies, I remember listening to Lumb and Harvey-Walker in a daze of wonder. If you were lucky enough, your headmaster might select you to attend one of their precious net sessions on Friday afternoons at Balfour Park. I didn't learn many cricket lessons at these sessions, spending the afternoons in a funk of thwarted desire. Lumb, I noticed, was kitted out with St Peter equipment, down to batting mitts that shaped over his hands like boxing gloves. Only boys with rich parents could afford St Peter gear. The rest of us had to be content with sanding the edges out of our Gray-Nicolls bat ("sand with the grain," urged my dad), lovingly applying linseed oil in the long months before summer with a lappie (rag) from the kitchen.

Sometimes Lumb spoke about Geoff Boycott - or "Geoffrey" - his Yorkshire opening partner. It was usually in tones of mild derision, but he always managed to find space in his tales for a sort of reluctant admiration. Then he laughed and shook his big head of hair and went back to the far less perplexing business of leading the fielding drills.

Harvey-Walker was a different proposition. He was clipped, speaking in a language I identified as English but only partially understood. We must have seemed retarded because we never quite understood what he was saying but didn't have the courage to ask him to repeat himself. Sessions were conducted in a busy miasma of mutual incomprehension as he clucked at us in his Derbyshire accent, and we did the best we could to act on what we thought he'd said. Net sessions didn't run particularly smoothly.

It was only when Hugh Page came into the schoolboys' dressing room as Craig and I were padding up after we "lost" the toss against the Invitation XI that we began to realise what we were in for. "You might want to wear this," Page said to me kindly as he passed me his helmet, an outsized maroon number with a protruding visor that stretched all the way to the Zimbabwe border. I had never worn a helmet before. Mostly we just wore our caps. If you came upon anyone really quick in schoolboy cricket, you reeled in your shot-making and waited for him to blow himself out. This helmet was large and ungainly, with fiddly straps. It was like batting inside a hollowed-out watermelon.

Craig, who was better than me and had played more regularly at a higher level - he was playing in the Transvaal "Mean Machine" side a year or two later - probably took first ball, but before long I was facing Graham Dilley, then opening the bowling for England.

Dilley hammered his front foot down like some storybook Gulliver but also had a back-foot drag, so the two sounds arrived fractionally before his deliveries cannoned into the splice of my much-used old County bat. I hopped about the crease like a scalded rabbit, and didn't score anything in front of square for the first hour as I flicked and glided and nudged.

Neal Radford opened the bowling with Dilley, and when he realised he couldn't get me to nick off, proceeded to cheerfully bounce me. The forward short leg probably got in on the action but I was too busy trying to survive to listen very carefully. When Dilley and Radford came off, Page replaced them. He was slippery, darting it off the seam, thudding a couple into Craig's midriff and hurting him on the juicy inner part of the thigh. Alvin Kallicharran watched it good-naturedly from the slips. The wickets would come, his indulgent smile seemed to be saying, it was just a matter of time.

After a while their pity hardened. Radford bounced us some more. A Warwickshire professional whose name I've forgotten started to get lippy. We couldn't have been far from a hundred partnership - Alfred 40-odd - when I spooned an inelegant mistimed drive to mid-off. The Warwickshire pro went off, swearing like a sewer.

As I walked back to the pavilion, struggling with my helmet, our coach caught my eye. "That wasn't so bad," he said breezily, and I could see the relief in his eyes.