Michael Simkins on the only man who could drag him from the sweetshop
I already knew. I grew up in a sweetshop on the south coast, a short bus ride from the home of Sussex County Cricket Club, and from the first time I saw them, as a 10-year-old boy in 1967, I was hooked. The team I had stumbled on was like my favourite chocolate bar (which at the time was Macintosh's Caramac): packed with good things but likely to raise your blood pressure if you indulged yourself for too long. And the batsman who could most quickly send my sugar level soaring was Jim Parks.
Crinkly-haired, sun-tanned, his face permanently creased into a broad smile, he seemed the embodiment of Sussex. He was already a star of the side. He had played for the county for 18 years and was just finishing a Test career as England's wicketkeeper-batsman.
As it happened my first glimpse of him in that summer of '67 coincided with a particularly unhappy stint as Sussex captain. But the nation's loss was my gain: after giving up the international gloves to Alan Knott and the domestic captaincy to Mike Griffith his form returned. He barely missed a county match for the next five years and I was there to witness most of them.
Parks was, of course, a fine keeper but it was his wonderful batting that attracted me. In a fragile post-Dexter batting order the accepted wisdom among the stripy deckchairs and wheeling seagulls at Hove was that as long as Parks was still at the crease hope sprung eternal. It is a motto I still believe in today.
A batsman of stinging drives and jaunty footwork, he seemed to play the game as it should be played, with total commitment yet without a hint of malice or pretension. Although a destructive one-day player, he always seemed to be enjoying himself whatever the occasion. I always imagined he was the sort of bloke who carried a bag of Fox's Glacier Mints in his pocket.
For the next five years Jim Parks was my hero. I collected his autograph so many times that he must have thought I was learning to forge his signature, and his autobiography, the unfortunately titled Runs in the Sun (my mum always said it sounded like something you'd pick up on holiday), was the most cherished of my burgeoning collection of second-hand cricket books, especially when I discovered a letter sent from the author to the previous owner of the tome nestling among its pages.
In 1970 I watched in mute supplication as he stood alone against the might of Lancashire in the Gillette Cup final (my first trip up to the home of cricket and one which provided my first pre-pubescent experience of heartbreak). At Eastbourne the same year I saw him strike a sublime and effortless 150 against Essex, bringing up his hundred by driving the ball straight into my sandwiches on the boundary edge at deep extra cover. But mostly my memories are a patchwork of wonderful 40s or 50s, usually seen after tea when I could escape from school, often with Sussex up against it and always in even time.
|I tried copying this talismanic ceremony for myself in school cricket until told to "bloody well stop arseing about" by my games master|
It took the sharp eyes of my dad, accompanying me to a John Player League match while on a rare break from sweetshop duties, to spot that Parks, while batting, performed an intricate and involved ritual of bat-twirling and box-tugging before each ball, finishing always with him transferring the bat from right to left hand and sweeping it momentarily across the return crease before settling down for the next delivery. I tried copying this talismanic ceremony for myself in school cricket until told to "bloody well stop arseing about" by my games master.
When Parks was summarily dispensed with at the end of 1972, much of the sparkle went out of cricket at Hove and when, the following season, I saw him keeping wicket for Somerset it was a surreal and disturbing image, a bit like discovering your dad dressed in women's clothing. It was typical of Parks that he forgot and forgave, eventually returning to the club as marketing manager and later president.
Nowadays the feisty, up-and- at-'em team spawned by the Moores-Adams dynasty seems a far cry from the sunny unpredictability of four decades ago. Nonetheless I was at Hove along with 3,500 other disbelieving souls to watch their first Championship pennant unfurled in 2003. As Murray Goodwin pulled the ball to the boundary to bring up the bonus point that sealed the club's first Championship, I glimpsed Parks sitting quietly on the railing of a staircase at the side of the pavilion enjoying the celebrations. Alone, unnoticed, his smile was as broad as ever.
And then, earlier this season, while strolling round the boundary at Arundel I finally met the man. I was too dazzled and tongue-tied to ask him about his batting ritual or whether he had indeed a penchant for Glacier Mints: but it was something special. As an actor of nearly 30 years standing I've met and chatted with some of the greats: Tom Courtenay, of course, Ian McKellen, Anthony Perkins, Lauren Bacall, even Benny and Bjorn from Abba. But I tell you: none of them comes close.
This article was first published in the September issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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Michael Simkins is an actor and author, usually seen on TV playing experts or unsuspecting husbands. His latest book - Fatty Batter: or how cricket saved my life, then ruined it - is published by Ebury