The Colin Milburn I Remember

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.

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All the Time in the World

Recently some of those around me have taken to whistling “We have all the time in the world” in what strikes me as a rather pointed fashion. It is certainly true that I will never have as much time again ; quite how much time that will be is hard to predict (though one of the more mind-concentrating aspects of retirement is attempting, for financial reasons, to do precisely that).

At Wantage Road on Monday I found myself thinking a lot about time.  There is a sundial there with an inscription on that subject that has already become half-obscured (by time, already) :

Wantage Road sundial

Whatever it said, if it was at all profound, is unlikely to have been both original and true ; our experience of time is so universal that it would have to be one or the other.

Trivially, I have begun to realise that I am now part of a world – that of County cricket – where time operates on a longer cycle than the strictly diurnal round of work, a fact brought home to me as I caught the bus home and realised that I was not rejoining that world of unwilling nine-to-fivers, but merely temporarily sharing a space with it.

In the past, the fact that much of the afternoon’s play had been called off through bad light and drizzle would have meant half a day’s valuable holiday wasted ; now – well there were two more days to go, no more rain on the horizon and, of course, I have all the time in the world.  Young Ben Duckett, too, must have felt, on 288 not out, that it was only a matter of time before he reached a historic triple-century and could reasonably have expected to go into lunch on the third day with Northamptonshire’s highest individual score under his belt.

[Duckett, by the way, is a batsman of high talent (though, currently, a rotten wicket-keeper) who, I’m told, when younger, made Kevin Pietersen look like Therese of Lisieux in the humility stakes.  When asked how he had felt about being left out of a pre-season tour for being overweight he responded “it made me feel more hungry” and has followed an unfortunate precedent set by Northamptonshire’s star batsmen of earlier epochs by crashing his car into a ditch.  But, no doubt, these youthful indiscretions are behind him now.]

These may have been the particular occasions this week, but the fact is that there is nowhere that makes me more vertiginously conscious of time’s passing (and literally so, as though I were looking over the edge of a cliff) than Wantage Road.  Without boring you with too much  autobiography, it was the first place I watched professional cricket (what must be close to half a century ago now), with, initially, my Father and Grandfather, then my Father alone.

He was associated with Northants in various guises for most of his life : as a child he hunted the autographs of such as Freddie Brown and Vince Broderick, he played a few games for the Second XI in his ‘O’ Level year, became one of the club’s innumerable Vice-Presidents and, having taken early retirement, spent much of his time at the ground before dying, quite unexpectedly, from a heart attack, shortly after his 61st birthday, and the start of the 2001 season.

When I returned to the area from London (I now live about an equal distance from Northampton and Leicester), shortly before the start of the 2002 season, and I decided to resume watching County cricket seriously, I threw in my lot with Leicestershire instead of Northampton, and couldn’t face returning to the ground for some years afterwards.  I would have had to confront too many ghosts, and worse, perhaps, would have felt like something of an unquiet spirit there myself.

One of those ghosts would have been Colin Milburn (a particularly large and spiritous Spirit of Cricket, I imagine).  If you have read “About the Author” at the head of this blog you may have noticed that I say “the first cricketer to capture his imagination was Colin Milburn and the most recent James Taylor“.  There are various links that could be made between those players ; they were both, for one, treated with suspicion by the selectors on the grounds, partly, of their distinctive physiques and were never chosen for England as often as their admirers would have liked.

As a child it was partly Milburn’s size that appealed, appealing to the same childish instincts as silent comedies (his nickname “Ollie” stemmed from his resemblance to Oliver Hardy, and like Hardy he could be impressively light on his feet) and there was a similar aspect to Taylor.  When he took on (as I saw him do at the Oval once) great lummoxes like Andre Nel and Tremlett he might have been Chaplin  outwitting Eric Campbell with a deft swish of his walking cane.  In fact, one of the many things I remain hugely grateful to him for is allowing me to recapture (quite late in life) that childlike pleasure of having a favourite player, one whom I liked more than I could ever quite rationally account for.

As we learned on Tuesday, of course, the two players now have something else in common, and neither of them will now play for England as often as they should have done.  I was intending to write a kind of eulogy for Taylor, until I realised that I was indeed writing as though he were dead (I was using the same tone I had used for the last genuine eulogy I wrote, which was for my Father), when he is very much alive and much more likely to remain so than he was last week.

Having read that he appreciated such messages, I tweeted to Taylor that I had taken more pleasure from his batting for Leicestershire than anything else in cricket recently, and I meant it.  When I was composing the “About the Author” note I originally wrote “and the last was James Taylor“.  I changed that because it sounded too final, but I think it will turn out to be true.

James Taylor began his career at about the same time I began writing the previous incarnation of this blog – the Crimson Rambler – and I wrote about him there more than any other individual, at times passionately, often merely facetiously, always happily.  If you require a monument to his career from my pen, follow the link and look around.

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As a trivial example of how it is best not to assume that you have all the time in the world, both Ben Duckett and I may have assumed that when we turned up at Wantage Road for the final day of the match on Wednesday he would – given that there had been no overnight rain and it was a gloriously sunny day – be completing his triple-hundred and I would be watching a decent day’s cricket.  But not so.  Thanks to our old friend “water under the covers“, there was no play at all (as my Dad, more inured to the ways of Wantage Road than me, might have predicted).

Of course, there will be many other days for Duckett, and for me as well.  Though best not to take anything for granted, I’d say.