Saturday, 9 June 2012


Play hard, have a drink – the time-honoured ethos of club cricket the length and breadth of the land, and one that, it seems, is slowly and almost imperceptibly vanishing from the game as a result of, in no particular order: sexual equality and the insistence that blokes are, you know, around the house occasionally; (adherence to) drink-driving laws; the time-consuming bureaucratic demands placed on skippers and umpires; and the general aggression that permeates our society, perhaps under the effect of a media that needs to be increasingly sensationalist to get your attention (YOU MASSIVE ***TS!!).

This waning of cordiality and general heat-under-the-collar is not necessarily replicated at the top end of the sport, however, even though it might not always be particularly visible to the TV viewer. No, the ever-diminishing time and energy given over to socialising with opponents (yes, getting along with people, howsoever lubricated, is entropic) is largely a matter of the grass roots and a creeping belligerence that, if not caused by cricket, is certainly vented through the game. For all the on-field machismo and histrionics, elite players still traditionally get together at the end of a game or series to have a few beers and/or tell a few stories in ‘the rooms’, an agora of shared ideas and lo-tech information exchange.  


Now, I’m fairly sure that, under the down-to-earth regime of Ottis Gibson, the current crop of West Indians will seek out their English counterparts at the end of this week’s Edgbaston Test. Ottis may not have played a great deal of international cricket himself (2 Tests, 15 ODIs), but he was always a cerebral sort of cricketer – completing his ECB Level 3 coaching badge during a three-year stint at Leek CC in the North Staffordshire and South Cheshire League – and will undoubtedly encourage this kind of absorption of their more illustrious opponents’ knowledge, know-how and nous.

While at Leek, from 1999 to 2001, he was invariably available for a word for his amateur opponents – not so much on the pitch, where he clearly meant business (albeit in a controlled way), but certainly in the bar afterward. And it was the memory of this grinning amiability that led me to request an interview with OG in advance of the current tour, and then, when the tête-à-tête wasn’t forthcoming, to badger their Press Officer, Adriel Richards, over four days at the Trent Bridge Test. I even accosted ‘Oti’ in the pavilion on the last practice day, and despite a flicker of a smile as we briefly reminisced about the NSSCL, he looked stressed, fatigued, and more than a little besieged by the hugger-mugger coming from legendary Windies players of yore, with men such as Michael Holding vocally critical of his man-management of the likes of Ramnaresh Sarwan (in self-imposed exile 25 miles down the road in Leicester), while not exactly slow to conjure the spectral brilliance of T20 superstar Chris Gayle (spectral in the sense of Nasser Hussain’s pet theory that players get better when they are out of the side). 

Ottis with his former skipper

Anyway, thus it was that my efforts to secure the interview came to naught, and this despite me being utterly genuine in conveying to Adriel not only that the questions would steer clear of the Gayle issue or the ongoing political struggles between the West Indies Cricket Board and the players’ union, a dispute that must be every bit as tiresome as the absence of key players on IPL duty is frustrating, but also that the interview would be published after the tour had finished. Ottis was evidently disinclined to take the opportunity to utilise a friendly platform to discuss the overall cricket culture in the Caribbean, its infrastructural and logistical issues, the way talent is identified and funnelled up through the system to the top, his role in that, and the intrinsic problems of being a region of sovereign states. Given the backstage pressures and offstage grumbles, I understood his reticence. And I must acknowledge, too, that there’s an obvious degree of self-interest in all this, all the more so when I learned that he had decided he was doing no more one-on-ones. There would have been kudos, no doubt; a coup, if not a scoop. Even so, I thought that having played against him a few times might have stood me in good stead, even though we didn’t really get off on the right foot…

* * *

The first time I played against OG was late in the summer of 1999, the year of Moddershall’s quadruple (and we did party like it was 1999). We had heard of him, of course – he had played in the 1995 Test at Lord’s in which Staffordshire’s own Dominic Cork debuted with 7 for 44 – but the truth is that he is far more famous now, as a coach, than he probably ever was as a player. And there are folk in Barbados who, if you were ever brave or foolish enough to engage them on the subject, would gladly tell you that was but one of many a selectorial scandal visited on their island’s cricketers – perhaps not in the “No Cummins, No Goings” class, but a serious oversight all the same. 

Ottis plays his second Test, at Cape Town, January 1999

As it always is when a club cricketer comes up against an international of whatever stature or calibre, it was an honour to play against Ottis, although it seemed odd to us that, only just turned 30, he couldn’t find a county that wanted him. It was only my second game back after seven-week lay-off brought about by a fractured fibula (at the elbow), which I’d managed to do by falling off an empty wheelie bin while trying to break into my parents’ house after the first night of the two-night Stone Charity Cup Final when, my hand forced by back spasms, I’d made 73 off 44 balls (and had 5 or 6 pints of Grolsch to celebrate), probably as well as I ever struck the ball.

With the back bedroom dormer window open in the July heat, I was convinced – post-Bacchanalia, euphoria still to ebb entirely – that a skip from car bumper to wheelie bin to garage roof and over was a sound idea, certainly better than waking your father at half-two in the morning (how quickly the 26-year-old became a teenager again!). However, the sound of the virtually weightless wheelie bin (upon which I had failed to land square as I bounded from the bumper) smashing into the garage door soon put paid to that notion – not only waking my father, but every cat and dog in the neighbourhood. I lay groaning on the tarmac drive for a while. Dad came down for a brief reccy and, assuming I was just sozzled, returned to bed. I clambered to my feet and, after a few minutes’ pacing up and down in an effort to walk off the pain, went inside, making it halfway up the stairs before fainting and tumbling back down, this new commotion again causing padre to stir. He wasn’t amused; neither was I. By the time the booze-anaesthetic had subsided, the pain was excruciating, although somehow my consciousness had yet to accept entirely that I was going to struggle to bat on the second night of the final…

Anyway, after several weeks out, watching us keep our noses in front in the race for the title, I came back for the last four league games of our run-in, starting with a win over Elworth (near Sandbach) before we took on Leek. My turn to face Ottis would have to wait until the game’s second innings, after we had skittled them for around 170. I was in early, first drop, and took guard realizing that it was a quickish pitch and that the cordon, which I’d walked past on the way out, were a fair way back (an old pro for my club, Jon Addison, once advised that, when facing quick bowling – the definition of which is always relative to your reflexes and courage – the worst mistake to make is to look back at how far away the ‘keeper is). And not only for Ottis. His new-ball partner, Richard Harris (who finished with 6 for 70 off about 12 overs), was also rushing it through.

'Pasty' Harris: Ottis's new-ball partner

‘Oti’ was bowling in the style that later became famous on the county circuit during his Indian summer: hitting the crease without any huge momentum from an inimitable side-to-side rocking approach, before a slow lean-back, slightly closed-off delivery stride, and clueless action (in the sense of giving no signals, no clues), generally looking to swing it away.

My first scoring shot was a tuck off the hips to wideish long-leg. I scampered the first hard and, just as I was touching the bat down, glanced over my shoulder to see if the second was on. However, at that precise moment, my studs – slowly flattened on the county’s cricket clubs’ concrete, and, due to my general slovenliness, left unchecked and unchanged – failed to penetrate the firm, shiny surface and started to skid. In an effort to keep my balance and stop myself doing the splits, my bat swung violently a-starboard, a reflex action. Only, future coach Ottis was already marching diligently back to the bowler’s end stumps and thus caught the full force of my blade just below his kneecap – where you would tap him with a doctor’s hammer if testing his reflex actions – duly going down like a sack of the brown stuff while I completed the second run, feeling like the teenager who had sneaked a wee drink in his Dad’s best engraved crystal brandy glass only to drop it on the tiled kitchen floor. “Sorry, bowler”, I said in a quivering voice. Three times. He didn’t respond, other than to flex his left leg at the knee. I, too, felt like genuflecting. 

OG removes KP,  LB'
A storm was brewing and I readied myself to duck the bumper…only, the bowler, displaying some of the nous that would later see him employed as England’s fast bowling coach, gave me a slower ball, an inversion of the thinking in the final of the 2007 Friend’s Provident Trophy that led him – brilliantly, ingeniously – to bounce KP when on hat-trick ball, having memorably nicked off Lumb and Ervine with the first two deliveries of Hampshire’s pursuit of 312. Despite the scoreboard reading 0 for 2, KP obviously took up the challenge, clothing a pull slightly wide of mid-on then falling lbw to Gibson a few overs later, securing the latter’s MoM award. 

Aside from a hooked six from Harris that landed on a stony road, damaging the ball, and a square cut, from the only bad ball Ottis bowled, that almost went both for six and straight down third man’s gullet, I remember little of the rest of my 40-ball innings of 52. I know that we won and that Ottis, while sharp and clearly skilful, didn’t feel express. Maybe it was because my reflexes were good back then; maybe it was because the deck was so good you could get in position early, not fearing late seam movement. Either way, it was a shock to see the speedgun registering him at 89 mph in that Lord’s final, especially as a 38-year-old.

* * *

Next time we encountered Ottis, up at Leek the following season, I opened the batting and, with some confidence from the previous match, drilled the very first ball of the game – overpitched in the search for swing and colliding with my bat’s sweet spot – fractionally to the legside of the stumps, only for mid-on (fielding far too straight but his position not corrected) to fall on the ball and stop a certain boundary, a major statement left ‘unspoken’. No matter, I went on to make 47, getting through Ottis’ opening spell with some watchful defence, a constant internally-chanted mantra not to whip across the line against his swing, and a couple of square-driven fours. Unfortunately, as is often the case, I pulled a long-hop from an off-spinner to mid-wicket having done the hard work against the pro. 

Leek CC

Despite ultimately giving it away, I took a huge amount from this innings. Indeed, the fielder who made the stop from the first ball, Steve Bailey, a board-stiff 38-year-old veteran and former Minor Counties player, told me that I’d played Ottis better than any amateur in the league that summer (I was in decent nick that year, making 630 Premier League runs, only 6 of which came in the return Leek fixture), while Ottis himself later bought me a drink and we chatted away about technical and tactical issues (OK, and I badgered him like the 27-year-old kidult I was, about who was the best this, and fastest that…).

* * *

During Ottis’s third and final season in the self-styled ‘Queen of the Moorlands’ (think Royston Vasey, but with more incest and people dwelling in public toilets), the momentum built over the previous two seasons swept Leek – with Stone and Longton, one of North Staffordshire’s traditional ‘big three’ – to an unprecedented treble of Premier League, Talbot Cup and Staffordshire Cup. They were, it’s fair to say, a tidy outfit. 

view over Leek to the Moorlands

Our first 2001 encounter was a misty early-May afternoon atop the hill at Moddershall. With mizzle in the air and dampness on the ground, it was a far cry from Bridgetown. Once again, I was opening – not the ideal place to be on a day such as this – and, first ball of the game, Ottis bounced me (had he seen something?), a very sharp delivery that I just about managed to jab to square leg from under my armpit. I was awake. Given the temperature and his muscles being accustomed to a tropical climate, it’s fair to say it was a shock. Next ball was pitched up and angling in slightly from his mid-crease delivery. I tried to flick the ball though mid-wicket but had that horrible sensation as a batsman that you’ve ‘lost’ the ball in its trajectory, swiftly followed, a nanosecond or two later, by the clunk of ball on off-pole, which was uprooted and sent spiralling some distance back toward the ‘keeper. Pretty comprehensive.

“Don’t worry about that, Scotty”, proffered the usually taciturn and hulking figure of Dave Cartledge at slip as I shuffled past him to the pavilion, “nothing you could have done”. I’d very much like to confirm he was right, but I honestly couldn’t say, for the same reason that I couldn’t point out a pickpocket in an identity parade. And I had been mugged. Once the demon bottom-hand had decided to involve itself where it had no business being (itself a sign that, unconsciously, I didn’t rate my chances of survival, or was so discombobulated by the first ball and the dank conditions that it became a case of grab what you can), my goose was effectively cooked. A two-card trick, with much legerdemain. On your way, son. 

a lot on his plate

The last game against OG, up at Leek in July, saw me ride my luck to another 52 as I was twice shelled in the slips in the third over, and again at gully a short while after throwing the kitchen sink at a rare half-volley, but also managed to hook Ottis up the bank for four (having correctly guessed he was going to bang it in!). We lost the game and, as I recall, flirted with relegation that season, our first campaign the departure of Addison, who’d been with us as pro since 1994. As for Leek, they signed Albie Morkel the following year and remained a powerful side, if not quite good enough to win the league again, clearly missing Ottis’s extroversion and galvanising effect.
* * *

The only other time that I had seen Ottis in the flesh between that day and last month’s Test match in Nottingham was in the summer of 2006, also at Trent Bridge, when I was with my Wollaton colleague and Notts staffer at the time, Paul McMahon, as we dropped off a vehicle for Charlie Shreck. It just so happened that Ottis was walking round near the Hound Road entrance when we jumped out of the car. “Hello Ottis,” I said, catching his eye. “Hi there,” he replied, struggling at first to place me (and it’s fair to say that, with spread of midriff and desertification of scalp, 2006-me looked more like 2001-me than 2011-me did its 2006 precursor). “I played against you when you were at Leek…” “Oh yeah,” he said, memory suddenly unfreezing. “Moddershall. How are things up there?”

Of course, I’d like to think he remembered me for my batsmanship, but the overwhelming likelihood is that it was for the pestering in the bar (or starfucking, if you were being uncharitable). Either way, it was gratifying – not just for me, but for good quality club cricket – to have him recollect some details of his time in North Staffordshire. Certainly, I’d wager that his hands-on attitude, lack of ego and generosity of spirit would see him ranked pretty much at the top of Leek’s list of favourite pros (certainly above Shahid Afridi and Tino Best). 

Ottis faces the music

It’s a pity he wasn’t quite as relaxed, chatty and chillaxed the next time I saw him at the back of the Trent Bridge pavilion, leaving his end-of-match press conference having fronted up to face whatever deliveries the ‘opposition’ had to throw at him. Of course, there has been a lot of water pass under Ottis’s bridge since that day in 2006, including a golden 2007, a little over two years as England’s fast-bowling coach, and the same in the West Indian hotseat, and suffice to say he looked a good deal more vexed in late May than he ever did at Leek – or for that matter while working with Andy Flower. If not irate, exactly, then certainly not irie.

Right now he is doing a fair job of trying to instil a work ethic in a team lacking match-winners, making them hard to beat, but I sensed that he will not miss the internecine squabbles and political intrigues of Caribbean cricket, issues that he might or might not have wished to talk about but probably couldn’t address explicitly. Even so, he could always have done so in the abstract, under cover, using all the disguise and accuracy of his bouncer those eleven Mays ago. 

You may also enjoy this piece about Imran Tahir, or this one comparing Immys stint with that of Rangana Herath

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