Some years the Somerset committee met as early as mid-August in the Weston-super-Mare pavilion. "They came out of a pretty bibulous lunch," opening batsman Eric Hill recalls. "A lot of them didn't know a cricketer from a wombat. We had to keep our eyes open when we went in the bar. Make sure they didn't see us overdoing it."
At Southampton the meeting was held upstairs, and in 1962 fast bowler Malcolm Heath, struggling with injury, spent the day trying to prove his fitness. "I can see him now," says team-mate Alan Castell. "He was pounding round and round in his dark tracksuit, knowing that the committee was looking down on him." "Next thing I was in the Secretary's office," Heath says. "To me it felt like the end of the world."
Mostly the bad news was delivered in person by the Secretary. Lancashire's Geoffrey Howard recalled how in 1955 he had to tell the seasoned professional Winston Place that his time was up. At the end of his first summer with the club, when asked where he would be going for his holiday, Place had replied, `This is the last day of my holiday.' Now, after 13 summers of county cricket, he was in tears.
Some like Glamorgan's Louis Devereux read the bad news in the local paper, while Essex's Stan Cray heard by letter while coaching in South Africa. So shocked was he that he wrote to his MP, club chairman Hubert Ashton, comparing his figures with those of the team-mates who had been retained. "He sympathised," Cray remembers, "but he didn't go any further."
`Dear Sir,' the Yorkshire Secretary wrote to Bob Appleyard when he was first invited to play, `Dear Bob' when he was laid up with tuberculosis. But at the end it was, `Dear Appleyard, I am asked by the Committee to inform you that your services will not be required after the present season.' "You'd think they could have written `Dear Bob'," he reflects. "I was a bit upset. The fact that it had come like that."
With hindsight most of them know that the decisions were right: "I was really struggling," Appleyard admits. "I knew I'd had it," says Heath. "I'd been doing a bit of writing in the press box," Hill says. "I was ready to make the switch."
Sussex's Alan Oakman retired voluntarily, becoming a first-class umpire, and he knows how hard it was for those who went out of the game. "When you play cricket, it's the best years of your life. You won't find a job to compare with it. You're travelling round as a group; you have a few laughs. Then you find yourself working in an office, and you miss the camaraderie. You look out of the window, and the sun is shining. And you know that Sussex are at Bournemouth. And you remember what happened at Bournemouth last year. It's difficult readjusting."
Sometimes even the longest-serving could not choose their moment of parting, as Glamorgan's Don Shepherd discovered in 1972. Two years on from coming second in the national bowling averages, he was taken aside and told his time was up. "It's difficult to know when you should pack up," he says. "You feel in your heart that you've passed your best, but there's always a lurking feeling that you'd like to have another season, and you could spend the winter getting back to the sort of fitness that you had when you were younger. But it's probably a pipe dream."
Their moment on the stage had passed, as Somerset's Ken Biddulph quickly realised when his contract was not renewed in 1961. "The sports shop in Taunton had a cut-out of me in the window, bowling. And the next time I walked past, it had gone."
Kent's Alan Dixon was only 23 when he called it a day at the end of 1957. A talented allrounder, he was not in the first team, and he took up an offer to be a travelling salesman. "But it came round to the spring, and I stopped the car by a cricket field where they were mowing the grass. And the smell of that new-mown grass meant so much. I got out of my car, and I rang Leslie Ames the Secretary. `Leslie,' I said, `it looks as if I've made a mistake.'" When Kent won the championship in 1970, he was still playing.
"You miss it all so much after you retire," John Clay says, more than 40 years on from his last game for Nottinghamshire. "In fact, I still miss it."
This article was first published in the October issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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