Exciting, always competitive, and he even wrote verse © Getty Images

It started in the back garden, as all good cricket idolatry used to do. Innocent days, the early 1960s, and there was no need for sophisticated computer games to transport a boy into the body of his hero - just a tennis ball, a strip of patio and a dustbin for stumps. Then the solitary dreamer could wheel away for hours, mimicking every bowler he had studied on TV, until the repeated thumping of ball against bin brought either a parent or neighbour to boiling point.

I would have been ten when I began shaping my run-up and delivery in hopeful, but no doubt hopeless, imitation of John Snow. And this was odd. Snow, at the time, was no more than a young tyro, uncapped by England. But two events had promoted him in my mind. One was the start of limited-overs cricket, the other a first visit to the ground I still love as no other.

Sussex won the first two Gillette Cups, largely because Ted Dexter, as captain, cottoned on quicker than most that tactics needed to be adjusted from the three-day norm. For me, still at junior school, it was a treat - an entire cricket match on TV in a day. And as that first final, against Worcestershire in 1963, came to a thrilling climax, it was Snow and that lithe, flowing action, that caught my imagination.

A year later it took on sharper reality. We had family friends in Sussex, and unlike my own dear parents these were sporting types. They took me to Hove, and the intimacy of the place - virtually undimmed today - enchanted me. I sat on the boundary beneath the big scoreboard and the famous Sussex egg. When bad light intervened I spotted Snow on the seats outside the pavilion. Summoning courage I sprinted across the ground, up the steps, and wordlessly thrust my virgin autograph book at him. Thankfully he did not refuse.

Sussex were my team from that moment on. Dexter and Jim Parks were heroes too, and I bowed to no one in my admiration for the wiles of Ian Thomson. But the vicar's son from Worcestershire was just that bit more exciting - too exciting, as it turned out, for some of those who ran cricket at the time.

They took a while to pick Snow for England, maybe sensing the untamed side of his nature, which he even conceded with the title of his autobiography, Cricket Rebel. The selectors overlooked him for the Lord's Test against West Indies in 1966, when I sat in the masses on the Grandstand balcony, relishing my first taste of Caribbean banter. A week earlier, charging down the hill in Hove in righteous fury, Snow had taken 7 for 29 for Sussex against the touring side, and then his Test career was properly launched.

"Snowie" would have been a godsend to 21st-century cricket. Unlike some current comparables, his charisma was not manufactured nor imported; it was just part of him. He even wrote poetry, for heaven's sake!

He would have had agents and commercial outlets bickering to acquire his services. And he would have loved it all. Well, apart from the modern training maybe. He never did like to overdo the training, and I'm not sure all that sliding around the boundary would have appealed either.

The closest he came to the cricket hotbed we now accept was by playing for Kerry Packer in the late 1970s. It was a no-brainer for Snow, whose Test career was virtually over as he entered his late 30s. Those trips in World Series Cricket also helped him into a post-playing career as a travel agent, in which one of his faithful clients was yours truly.

An "untamed side to his nature": this collision with Gavaskar cost Snow a place in the provisional squad for the next match © The Cricketer International

It can rarely happen in life that a boyhood idol becomes an adult friend, but it did to me. John not only fixed my flights and hotels when I covered England tours, he willingly presented his creaking limbs in media teams I organised each year. He loved the game, you see, loved it profoundly.

Snow turned up ten Septembers in succession to play for me against a racing team at Findon, and in the mid-1990s he turned out on the lovely riverside ground at Henley-on-Thames. He was 55, but when a local batsman hit him for four the glint returned to the eye and the next ball fizzed past the poor chap's nose. That competitive streak never left him.

There were bad times, of course - the brush with Sunil Gavaskar, various run-ins with the Sussex committee that made it all the more ironic that he later became a member - but the good times outweighed them. Snow should have played many more than 49 Tests, and finished with far more than 202 Test wickets, but there were those in power to whom he was never a hero.

At least he went out at Lord's as I would have planned he should back in those childhood days. Against the 1975 Australians he dismissed Alan Turner and both Ian and Greg Chappell in a withering opening spell. The ground was in ferment as he retired to fine leg. "I bloody nearly cried," he later said. Up in the press box, I felt just the same.

Alan Lee is racing correspondent of the Times. He was the newspaper's cricket correspondent from 1988 to 1999. This article was first published in the October 2008 edition of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here