“The older I grow, the harder I find it to write about anything but memory. I picture it as a cloudy golden fluid, in which once solid, living, things, rather than being preserved like flies in amber, dissolve and fragment.” – Nicholas Faxton.
So, time for some memory work. Who was the Milburn I remember? Memory speaks :
“He was the first player I remember well, the first to really capture my imagination. Although I lived in Lancashire as a child, my family spent most of the Summer holidays staying with my Grandparents in Northamptonshire, and we spent a lot of time at Wantage Road, watching the cricket. I can picture my Mother’s Father driving my Dad (who didn’t drive) and I to the ground, and I particularly remember my Dad being anxious that we should arrive in time for the start of play, in case Northamptonshire batted first. He didn’t want to miss Milburn bat, you see, who I had been told was capable of doing extraordinary things – he might hit boundaries – even a six! – in the first over, or score a Century before lunch, which was considered a great achievement in those days.
Sometimes, of course, we would be unlucky. Northants would bowl first, and I would have to be content with watching Milburn fielding at short leg (his rear view was a source of great amusement), or bowling his underestimated medium-pacers. The best you could hope for would be that he would field in the outfield and have to pursue a ball to the boundary, urged on by the crowd as it accelerated away from him. But if were lucky, Northants would bat, and Milburn would open.
Milburn’s opening partner was always Roger Prideaux. I can see them now, walking down the steps of the old pavilion, Prideaux immaculately turned out in his Cambridge Blue cap and knotted silk ‘kerchief, Milburn, bare-headed, his belly already straining to remove his shirt tails from his trousers. My strongest memory of him is of sitting in the old West Stand and readying ourselves to take evasive action as Milburn pulled ball after ball to the boundary, often low and hard and straight into the stand itself, crashing into the wall and rebounding down the tiers of seats, scattering the spectators and upsetting our thermos flasks. By this stage, he would be sweating profusely and his belly would have freed itself from his shirt and his shirt tails from his trousers.
Of course, we all thought he should have played for England more often than he did. Another clear memory is of the announcement of the touring side to Pakistan in the Winter of 1968/9. In those days the composition of the party was announced over the radio at the end of the 2 o’clock news on the Sunday of the last Test of the Summer. I can picture us sitting in the dining room of my Grandparents’ house, dinner cleared away (and, I suspect, my Mother and Grandmother already doing the washing up), with the old Roberts radio already tuned in. We listened as the names were announced, the Captain first, then in alphabetical order – J, K (Knott?), then straight on to P for … Prideaux! The surprise that Prideaux had been chosen, and Milburn left out (which we probably blamed on some kind of class prejudice) quite obscured the fact that D’Oliveira had not been selected either.
Then, of course, came his accident …”
But let us stop for a moment, and ask how much of this is true. That is, how much of it is an accurate account of what I can remember, as opposed to simply writing, and how much of what I think I can remember might be true?
To begin with, Milburn’s accident occurred in May 1969, when I was eight years old, and I can remember very little of my earliest childhood. It is true that, in the mid-1960s, we used to stay with my Grandparents during the Summer holidays (there are photographs and even cine-films as proof), but I don’t think it would have been for all, or even most, of them (that belongs to a slightly later period), and I’m not sure that we spent all that much time watching cricket together at Northampton (if anything, we would have watched the games at Kettering, which I don’t remember at all).
Even if we had spent the whole of July and August in Kettering between 1966 and 1968 (I don’t think I would be capable of remembering anything before that), we could, according to Cricket Archive, have watched 21 home games (4 of those at Wellingborough or Kettering) : Milburn played in 11 of them, making 4 fifties (3 in 1967, 1 in 1968), with a highest score of 58 (in fact, Prideaux seems to have been the more prolific of the two). Looking at the scorecards, I can’t say any of them rings a particular bell : if I had to pick one out that might have lodged in my mind, it is quite likely that we would have watched the match against Nottinghamshire on 31st July 1968 (to see Gary Sobers), in which Milburn made 49, batting at no. 3, but that is pure conjecture.
In fact most of what I remember, or what I have claimed to remember, is conjecture, embellishment, or outright invention. Milburn often did open with Prideaux, though not always. I cannot, though, picture them walking down the steps of the old pavilion (in fact, looking at photographs of the pavilion at that time, I had quite forgotten what it looked like). I do not remember Prideaux wearing his Cambridge cap or a ‘kerchief round his neck (it’s the kind of thing he ought to have done, but if he did, it is something I have imported into my memory from photographs or books). I must have seen Milburn field, but the humorous aspect of his rear view is probably something I remember from the work of Roy Ullyett, the old Daily Express cartoonist, rather than life.
The vignette of being driven to the ground, which I can picture with suspicious clarity in my mind’s eye, is probably true, if only because I don’t think I can have borrowed it from anywhere else, and seems characteristic of both generations of parents. As for my most vivid memory, of being bombarded in the West Stand, it is very likely that something of the sort happened : if Milburn had been batting at the Pavilion End, his trademark pull would, indeed, have landed in or over that Stand. The only problem with this is that the stand is still there, and I often still sit in it (remembering, as I think, Milburn), and some of the details (the ball rebounding off the back wall, the upset Thermos flask) may date from as recently as last Summer, and a more modern batsman entirely.
Most of the third vignette, which again I can visualise quite clearly, must be pure invention. Touring parties were indeed given out in this way, and it is more than likely that I would have heard one being announced in those circumstances, but whether it was this particular one I have no idea (and, having looked the tour party up, Murray and Pocock would have intervened between the absent Milburn and Prideaux). As for the old Roberts radio (which I think might actually have been a Bush) and my washing up Grandmother, these, like Prideaux’s cap, are the kinds of concrete detail that help to make an untruthful narrative, or a fiction, convincing.
But back to the accident, which I cannot remember, though it must have occurred when I was back at school in Blackpool, and its aftermath.
I can remember pictures of Milburn, sitting up in bed, with his eye bandaged (like Pudsey the Bear), “joking with the nurses” and, I think, drinking a glass of champagne (though I may be confusing these with similar pictures of George Best). At this point, I don’t think it occurred to me that he might not play again. My Grandparents used to send us a copy of a now defunct local newspaper called “The Leader”, so that we could keep in touch with events in Northamptonshire, and this carried regular bulletins on his progress, his good spirits, his plans to return to the nets, his optimism that he would be returning to cricket soon, perhaps next season, perhaps the one after, a process that must have continued for all of four years. In the meantime he had a strange afterlife, inhabiting a limbo in which he was never quite absent, though his physical return was always postponed.
The same “Leader” had published a centrefold of Milburn, which I had pinned up on my bedroom wall (and would have been the last thing I saw before I fell asleep at night). It showed an artist’s impression of him, playing a pull shot (in the direction, perhaps, of the old West Stand), his shirt unbuttoned and his shirt tails flapping, perhaps his trousers split (and, no doubt, when I close my eyes and picture myself back in that stand, that is the image I see).
I was, at that time, a devotee of pencil cricket, in which England sides of my own devising played out various shadow series (often against Rest of the World XIs, which were then fashionable). My selections were rooted in the real world, but soon diverged from it, as players who were favoured by the roll of the pencil, or (to be frank) whom I liked (such as, puzzlingly, Dudley Owen-Thomas of Surrey) prospered and others (such as Geoffrey Boycott) failed. In this shadow world (which, at times, seemed more real to me than the real one), Milburn retained his eye, and his England place, and he continued to bombard the old West Stand, as the pencil, repeatedly and mysteriously, awarded him six after six.
As the years passed (four of them, a long time at that age), and Milburn’s bodily return seemed to be indefinitely postponed, the visions faded. I grew tired of pencil cricket, and the ikon on my wall was replaced by a poster of the Carillon at Bruges, or possibly Alice Cooper. By the time he did return (playing 16 first-class games in 1973, and 12 in 1974), I had almost forgotten him. He was, as everyone said, a shadow of his former self, not the player he had been, not what he was. I must have seen him play then, and this shadow-self should be the Milburn I remember well, but I find I can remember nothing. The truth is, the Milburn I remember was always already a memory, a golden absence, beyond recall.