A week ago last Monday, as the confetti and champagne-covered Tim Bresnan romped around the Oval celebrating his chunky contribution (16 wickets at 16.3 and 154 runs at 77) to England’s annihilation of India and ascent to the world number one Test ranking, his England under-19s captain from nine years earlier, Paul McMahon, could have been forgiven for casting a rueful eye over events and wondering what might have been. In that summer of 2002, when the best young players of England met their Indian counterparts (the maker of the painstaking Oval pair, Suresh Raina, included), off-spinner McMahon was on the verge of signing a four-year contract extension with home county Nottinghamshire. Today, when not busy in the North London office of international law firm Bird & Bird, he can be found barrelling up the A1 to Cambridgeshire, either to play club cricket for Peterborough (who last weekend fell at the final hurdle before the televised Cockspur National T20 finals), or to skipper the side that he has just led to a home Minor Counties Championship final against Devon at the picturesque March CC, starting today.
Of course, the story of a youthful prodigy drifting away from the first-class game is far from unique – one of McMahon’s predecessors as skipper of England under-19s, former Durham batsman Michael Gough, quit the sport aged just 23, citing a lack of enjoyment – but it is always tempting to wonder why it happened; or implicitly: what went wrong?
For the first three of his five years with Notts, while McMahon was up at Oxford reading Law (incidentally, he has the curious distinction of being the bowler who has dismissed Adrian Shankar most often in first-class cricket), the county employed Stuart MacGill to bowl on their famously swing-and-seam-friendly Trent Bridge pitches. Then, in 2005, a certain Graeme Swann joined the Outlaws, the moment McMahon now realizes he ought to have seen the writing on the wall: “I had hoped that when MacGill moved on I would be in a position to play regularly as the front line spinner. But that signing [Swann] has obviously worked out fantastically well for all concerned.” However, he now believes that “with hindsight, I should have left a couple of years earlier,” perhaps making the opposite journey to Swann, heading for the turning pitches at Wantage Road at the time when a strong Second XI record (175 Championship wickets at 20.8) would have outweighed the lack of first-team cricket in his final two years at Notts.
Perhaps there was an element of loyalty that kept him there, a difficult itch to scratch. Having learnt the game over twenty years at Wollaton CC in Nottingham’s western suburbs – the last three of which were played alongside recent England supersub, Scott Elstone; all in the company of his left-arm spinner father, Gerry, once good enough to take a hundred from Joel Garner in the Central Lancashire League – it was only natural that McMahon should want to accompany colleagues such as Bilal Shafayat, Nadeem Malik and Samit Patel from that England under-19 group into the first team at Trent Bridge. Ultimately, however, it wasn’t to be; not that there’s any trace of resentment: “I have never been a fan of hard luck stories,” affirms McMahon, magnanimously. “Professional sport is, in general, a fairly transparent and meritocratic environment; the cream will generally rise to the top and the players who win games and affect situations positively for their team are generally recognised and rewarded.”
So, having trialled unsuccessfully with Warwickshire 2nd XI in 2008 (largely due to reservations over his batting when compared with Ant Botha), he called time on his full-time aspirations and threw himself into a legal career, also immersing himself in the Minor Counties cricket he considers comparable in standard and intensity to Sydney and Melbourne first grade, and just as important to the respective system’s upward flow of talent. Following a couple of seasons with Oxfordshire, he switched to Cambridgeshire in 2010 and this year took on the captaincy with not inconsiderable success. Not that it has all been plain sailing, mind…
Squeezing through what was to all intents and purposes a straight shootout for the title with Staffordshire in the final round of group matches, Cambridgeshire were crowned Eastern Division champions despite accruing the lowest haul of batting bonus points since the three-day competition began in 2001: a paltry 10 in six games from a possible 24. Such have been the batting woes – four of their first innings have subsided to 62-5, 81 all out, 46-7 and 77 all out – that no one has managed to record three figures for them all summer (only Northumberland fared as badly), while none of their seamers has taken more than eight championship wickets. However, in McMahon and fellow Peterborough Town offie, Lewis Bruce, Cambridgeshire perhaps hold the trump card – indeed, in amongst their combined aggregate of 68 Championship scalps, both have already bagged 10-wicket match hauls at the March ground this season, McMahon’s match analysis of 45.2-15-90-13 against Northumberland the best in this year’s Championship.
Devon’s stand-in skipper, Chris Bradley, also an off-spinner, should therefore himself be relishing a bowl on the March track, but is wary of underestimating opponents who, despite their batting tribulations, have already this season overturned first-innings deficits of 117 (only that few thanks to a 101-run tenth-wicket partnership) and 156 to win, the latter, nervelessly, in that crunch game against Staffs. That said, Devon are just as battle-hardened, having coming through what was also effectively their own all-or-nothing eliminator against the eventual runners-up in the Western Division, convincingly seeing off Shaun Udal’s Berkshire (winners of the MCCA knockout) by 10 wickets.
Having dominated Minor Counties cricket for much of the 1990s, winning four straight championships under the erudite captaincy of Peter Roebuck (1994-1997) and two since, Devon are perhaps a little more relaxed going into what is a repeat of the 1994 final. Even so, club secretary Neil Gamble is certain that the current squad is hugely motivated to forge its own identity: “apart from [former Gloucestershire all-rounder] Bobby Dawson, it’s a completely different team to our glory years. The majority of the team are under 26 years old and weren’t involved then, so are desperate to write a new chapter in the county’s winning tradition.”
With Cambridgeshire already having felt the disappointment of semi-final elimination in the 50-over competition, and not having won the Championship outright since their sole success in 1963, McMahon is acutely aware of how much it means to the Fenlanders and their support. As for himself, “winning the play-off final and contributing in a way that suggests I’ve continued to improve as a cricketer through my twenties would probably be one of the most meaningful things I’ve achieved in cricket.”
* An earlier version of this article appeared on the website of SPIN magazine.