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Rob Steen

Cricketer sons: is it in their blood?

Choosing to stand in the long shadow of a famous parent takes courage. Emerging out of it takes something even more special

Rob Steen
Rob Steen
The turning point of Nick Compton's career came when he read a reference to himself that was not followed by the words "grandson of the legendary Denis"  •  PA Photos

The turning point of Nick Compton's career came when he read a reference to himself that was not followed by the words "grandson of the legendary Denis"  •  PA Photos

If Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" can find a new generation of admirers on county terraces - and not because first-class cricket has acquired its first player thus named - who knows which pop/rock legend will enjoy a revival next. My money's on Chuck Berry.
As they tuck into the game's cheapest and best thrills in Sri Lanka, the Barmy Army should certainly have a few opportunities to dust off Uncle Chuck's repertoire: a blast of "My Ding-a-Ling" whenever Steven Finn celebrates a wicket with a wagging finger; a sneering "No Particular Place To Go" whenever an opposing batsman falls; "Reelin' and Rockin'" amid a collapse, and, of course, "Johnny B Goode" whenever Jonny Bairstow strides out to the middle, takes guard, swats a boundary or adjusts his box.
Bairstow is one of a relatively new breed - a cricketing son outdoing a famous dad. For the Bairstows read the Joneses and Sidebottoms, the Butchers, Stewarts and Broads - though it helps, granted, when dad has only a handful of caps. Nor is this reversal of traditional fortune confined to Poms. Doug Bracewell has already surpassed Brendon, and while Austin Waugh has a vastly more forbidding mountain to scale - father Steve was dutifully purring at the SCG in March while his boy was starring in the Under-12 Weet-Bix Cup final - it is not unfeasible to imagine Shaun Marsh, or even Mitchell, outranking Geoff. That hitting or projecting lumps of leather has never been a more profitable activity for so many must do wonders for the motivation.
Going into the family trade? North London Jews have an acronym for the upside: IDB - In Dad's Business, shorthand for "unfairly lucky bastard". The downside is far more apparent. Sure, in the more public professions, some have overcome the considerable odds: Jakob Dylan, Julian Lennon, Ziggy Marley and Dweezil Zappa have all carved themselves decent musical careers; Kirk Douglas' son and Judy Garland's daughter both achieved every bit as much as their starry parent onscreen. The victims, though, flow far more readily to mind.
Think of Marlon Brando's children: son Christian, convicted for fatally shooting the boyfriend of his half-sister Cheyenne, who later committed suicide; of Bryan Ferry's boy invading the House of Commons to promote fox-hunting, and Dave Gilmour's boy defacing a war memorial; of the discovery by Let It Be film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, in his 70s, that the rumour was apparently true - he really was the sole son of Orson Welles, his mother having kept it from him in order to protect him.
Sporting families are far from unusual, of course: when something is as accessible and enjoyable as sport, selling it to your children as a worthwhile expenditure of time and a means of self-advancement is far easier than encouraging them to pursue a proper job. Yet Marvis Frazier, hard-punching son of "Smokin' Joe", is one of the comparatively few sporting champions to have emulated an iconic parent. To him, there was a "responsibility to carry on the legacy". Most sons and daughters of legendary parentage are more inclined to be intimidated, to seek another avenue and hence avoid comparison. Asaad Ali, Muhammad's boy, had a pair of boxing gloves tattooed on his arm, but his likeliest source of sporting success lies in baseball - the LA Angels drafted him in 2009.
Andrew Stewart, son of Alec and grandson of Micky, knew at an early age that flannels and pads were not for him. "He's at uni now and he gave up as soon as he could," Stewart Sr told me the other day without any obvious pangs of regret. "There were 'Are you going to be like dad?' questions everywhere. That wasn't a problem for me - being the son of a famous cricketer was a huge help for me because dad was my best mate, a father and a cricket coach. But I was never pushed. I said the same to Andrew as my dad said to me: do what you want and do it to the best of your ability.
"Andrew bowled a bit of legspin. In his second-last game for the Under-13s I couldn't go, so I rang my wife afterwards and asked how it went. 'They lost,' she told me. 'He took 4 for 12 but he wants to talk to you.' Turns out he was upset because the cricket master said he had to play in the next game." What turned him off? "I was always away. He thought I lived in the TV."
Perhaps the most determined refusenik in this respect has been John Bradman, son of the Don, who endured 32 years in his father's impossibly long shadow then changed his name to Bradsen. "I'm tired of people 'discovering' who I am. I'm me," he was reported as saying at the time
Perhaps the most determined refusenik in this respect has been John Bradman, son of the Don, who endured 32 years in his father's impossibly long shadow then changed his name to Bradsen. "I'm tired of people 'discovering' who I am. I'm me," he was reported as saying at the time. "And I am no longer prepared to accept being seriously introduced as simply someone's son. I'm an individual, not a social souvenir. I was popped into a metaphorical glass cage to be peered at and discussed like the other exhibits." By the time he reverted to Bradman 36 years later, he had long established his own identity, latterly as a law lecturer.
Then again, cricket is hardly short of dynasties: the Hearnes, the Headleys and the Mohammads, the Hadlees, Khans and Bracewells, all of whom boast at least three Test players spanning upwards of two generations. The game, though, is far bigger on brothers than fathers and sons. In fact, when Shaun Marsh followed his father into the Australian five-day XI last year, the Marshes became just the second Australian father-son Test act, nearly a century after the Gregorys. Still, Alister McDermott might soon make it three.
The last time I checked, there had been 40 such cross-generational firms, a chart headed by England (14), followed by India (eight), New Zealand (seven) and Pakistan (four). Yet statistically, given that there have been around 2700 Test players, you've actually got a better chance of emulating dad if he's been elected to the ICC Hall of Fame: as of last year's intake there were 70 members, four of whose sons had played Tests: Chris Cowdrey, Ron Headley, Richard Hutton and Shoaib Mohammad, though only the last engendered more than a small ripple. Rohan Gavaskar, moreover, won some ODI caps and, who knows, Mali Richards may yet attain more rarefied climes than Antigua and Middlesex. Genes stretch.
Which brings us, inevitably, to the n-word: nepotism. It's hard to think of a word guaranteed to heap more dispiriting shame on a young heart: the idea that your progress owes nothing to quality or ability. In 2003, to take one episode, former India captain Nari Contractor was jettisoned as Talent Resources Development Officer for West Zone after suggesting that nepotism lay behind Gavaskar Jr's inclusion in the India A team to tour England and the nomination of Brijesh Patel's son Udit for the Border-Gavaskar Scholarship. "As far as Udit Patel is concerned," wondered Contractor, "how can his father, who is the chairman of the Indian selection committee, pick his own son for a scholarship abroad?"
Given that his own father happened to be the England coach when he first won selection, Alec Stewart is not short of reasons to look back in rancour, especially at the media, but has always insisted such allegations never bothered him in the slightest. "Nepotism? It was an easy line for the media, but I knew the truth - you don't get ahead because of your dad. I've yet to come across any player who had an issue with my dad being the coach."
Bairstow, tragically, can distance himself from the n-word for all the worst reasons: his father David, the ebullient former Yorkshire and England wicketkeeper, took his own life when Jonny was eight. He may have felt an obligation to go into the family business but it might have been easier, in the circumstances, to turn his hand to a career where reminders of "Bluey" are not inescapable. Should they meet over the coming months, Bairstow Jr may find himself bonding instantly with Javier Ballesteros. Conjecture has mounted since the Spaniard won a prestigious amateur golf tournament at the weekend, having tied for 12th in his first professional event earlier in the year. Will he stick to law when he graduates from university or will he dare pursue the same trade as his incomparable father Seve, who made a nation fall in love with the planet's staidest sport - and actually made it sexy - but died horribly early when cancer claimed him at 54? It takes a very special kind of courage to meet challenges of that ilk.
The same can be said of Nick Compton for deciding to follow in the intimidating footsteps of his grandfather, Denis. After accepting the inaugural County Cricketer of the Year award at London's palatial Plaisterers' Hall on Monday, he revealed that the turning point in his own career came earlier this year, when he finally read a reference to himself that was not followed by the words "grandson of the legendary Denis". Only then did he know he'd cracked it. Only then did he know he hadn't made a horrendous mistake.
At bottom, though, it takes an unusual kind of sensibility to tolerate spending months on end with the same bunch of blokes in a room full of sweat, Brut and machismo, knowing every day that you are being judged in public. Maybe, to some extent, it has to be in the blood.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton