Christmas Day, 2020, 6.18pm. A text message from the former Northern Transvaal wicketkeeper and presenter-commentator Trevor Quirk:
"Yvonne was not sure about announcing Robin Jackman's passing at 15.30 this afternoon because she didn't want to upset everybody's Xmas but the sad news was spreading like wildfire so we decided it had to be done…needless to say I am devastated but since last night I knew the end was near, he was at home, being nursed by Saint Vonnie. Regards, Trevor"
Yvonne - "Vonnie" - is Jackers' wife; Quirky - or "Wash" - his best mate. On Christmas Day, of all days, Jackman died from lung and heart conditions that were compounded by a positive coronavirus test on 21st December. It was typical of Yvonne to think of others, even at the time of her husband's passing. The calendar waits for no man.
Four of us - that's Jackers, Quirky, yours truly and Andre Bruyns, the former Western Province batsman, had lunch three weeks ago in Cape Town. It was predictable fare and none the worse for being so: a few beers, a piece of fish, and gallons of white wine. We told stories - some old, some new, some borrowed, one or two blue - and reflected on the game we love and its changing ways. Jackers was beside himself at the brilliance of the batting in T20 cricket and wondered how on earth the bowlers coped.
"Everyone says bowl yorkers but they ramp and scoop those for six!" he says, before adding "I'd be hopeless and lose my rag and eff and blind and carry on and curse the people who invented the bloody format in the first place. But I love watching it; love the way the game has found a place for itself throughout the ages."
He arrived at the restaurant carrying a mobile respirator. ("All the fags - if you know any smokers, tell them to pack in, now.") He had put on a bit of weight and bandages hid the cuts and bruises from a recent fall. Later, friends asked me how he was. Full of spirit and bonhomie, I replied, but short of breath. Truth was, he had admitted the respirator was evidence of the inevitable. "My own fault, those cigarettes, old boy." I didn't take it that he saw the inevitable as immediate. In fact, the impression was that he had a few years in him yet. We had lunch in the diary for March next year but instead of sharing it with him in person, we shall share his memory and raise a glass or two in his name.
Bob Willis and Robin Jackman in little more than a year. Very good, if very different, cricketers, and equally the best of men: once at Surrey together until Bob broke ranks for Edgbaston and England; another Surrey man, John Edrich, in the past few days too. These are bad blows.
I first came across Jackers in a Benson and Hedges Cup match at the Oval. Greener than green was I, and he, by no means long in the tooth, was typically off his long run. In this sparrow scampered, little legs working like pistons, to bowl swing and seam from a sideways-on action at medium-fast and dress it up with a bouncer or two and a volley of verbals. From the inside edge of my bat, past square leg, came my first run. "Another one coached by effing Sainsbury!" he exclaimed, in reference to the Hampshire coach and former allrounder whose penchant for the leg side was the stuff of county cricket legend. After which, I made to whip a straight ball through midwicket, only for it to swing away late and fly from the outside edge of my bat over gully for four. "Never, ever play against the spin son, never." Somehow, I scored 10, I think, but was greatly humbled: Jackman one end, Sylvester Clarke the other was no country for young men. Guess who was the first to come and introduce himself in the bar after play, buy a drink and chew the cud. My tormentor, of course.
Jackers was hit in the throat by Malcolm Marshall. He slumped to the ground and for a moment lay still enough to have left us. We rushed to his side. As those bright eyes opened, he waspishly asked if our fast bowler might slow down a bit
A couple of years later, at the denouement of a tight, low-scoring match, again at the Oval, Jackers was hit in the throat by Malcolm Marshall. He slumped, dead weight, to the ground and for a moment lay still enough to have left us. We rushed to his side and as those bright eyes opened, he waspishly asked if our fast bowler might slow down a bit. Up he sprang to soldier on, in vain it transpired, by just three runs.
It was the throat, of course, that was to cause him such grief later in life. After operations to remove malignant tumours eight years ago, he went through radiotherapy and never quite recovered his brilliance in the commentary box. That rasping voice, once a feature, was sadly diminished, and as fatigue set in, it became little more than a whisper.
How he missed life on the road! At home he watched with a keen eye, sent texts with intelligent observations, and occasionally called if something was awry - a rogue graphic, perhaps, or a fact misplaced. He was a fine broadcaster, astute, accurate, and driven by a lifelong love affair with the game. His relaxed style of delivery brought informality to a medium overrun by stilted former players well short of his natural flair for the job. In short, he gave the viewers a sense of friendship both with the man who was talking to them and the game that was his metier.
Last year he suffered a serious heart attack in the Eastern Cape and after a dramatic day trying to secure medical help, was booked into an East London hospital to be fitted with a pacemaker.
There have been three lunches since and any number of laughs. We shared an infatuation with Tottenham Hotspur, and having rejoiced in Mauricio Pochettino, rather grumbled and mumbled of late about José Mourinho. We didn't buy the trophy-winning argument. "Would rather they played with flair and adventure frankly," he said three weeks ago. "Bloody good group of players, why tie them up in defence!" Agreed, Robin, agreed.
Apparently, his death had nothing directly to do with the cancer, though clearly, such shortness of breath from the lungs left him open to Covid. The respirator provided essential relief for pulmonary fibrosis, and the virus, like a bowler examining the opposing batsman's technique, fed from the weakness it found.
Since hearing the news, I have thought about his mother and father, who loved to watch him play and took every opportunity to spend time with him and Yvonne in Cape Town. Jackers was born in the Indian hill town, Shimla, where his father, a colonel in the 2nd Gurkas, was serving the last months of his military life. He had lost a leg during the war and was invalided home and into semi-retirement. His wife, Joyce, was of the acting fraternity and her son's early enthusiasm was for the stage. He sort of achieved that ambition, delighting friend and foe alike with an ability to transform even a pedestrian day of cricket into a little piece of theatre. He turned "pro" at the age of six - sixpence from the colonel if he hit the handkerchief, a penny deducted if he slipped one down the leg side. "Dad lost," said Jackers. At The Oval, on soulless summer days in front of next to no one, he would respond to the echo of hand clap after a tight maiden with "Thanks Mum" or "Bless you Colonel!"
Jackman took 1402 first-class wickets, by the way, and further 439 in one-day matches. Of these, 14 were claimed in four Test matches, all played past the age of 35. He achieved more than what might have been expected from his height of 5ft 9in, but boy, those Test caps made him feel ten feet tall.
Jackers' energy, zest and commitment were an ongoing lesson and inspiration to all, not least in South Africa, where his determination to justify the faith in him shown by both Western Province and Rhodesia was well rewarded. He was to make Cape Town home, a fabulous South African girl his wife, the Proteas his team, and Castle Lager his tipple of choice.
I miss him already. He held little gems beneath that weathered exterior, and from all of them, I leave you with this from his days as coach of Western Province.
"We've got a kid here who's going to be as good as Barry Richards." Yeah, right Jackers. And the kid's name? Jacques Kallis. Good call old friend, good call. Again.
In closing, I defer to a mightier force, a tweet from Lord Botham of Ravensworth, once just plain ol' Beefy:
Sleep easy en route, Jackers. There will never be another like you.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator