A Tribute To The Truly Great

By Richard Heller - March 12, 2020

I am now in the twilight of a long cricket career which never really had a dawn. But I have been extraordinarily lucky to have played many matches with famous cricketers.

In previous issues of Score Line I told some of my adventures with the British Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons. But I also had some great moments as a journalist in media-related teams, at home and abroad.

I worked for many years on The Mail On Sunday newspaper, whose editor, Stewart Steven, was an ebullient cricket enthusiast. Each summer he organized the Editor’s Cricket Match at some pleasant country spot with as many famous players as the Sports Department could recruit.

In my first year in the team in 1987, the match took place at the country house ground which had been purchased by the recently retired Middlesex and England cricketer, Phil Edmonds, as part of a business career which had been launched in his playing days. (I have heard many stories of him feeding endless coins into telephones at cricket grounds in the pursuit of complex business deals.) 

The house and ground had previously belonged to the daring (for the times) Playboy nightclub and there were still traces of the former owners, including the largest jacuzzi in Europe. Anyway, Phil Edmonds had converted it into a centre for corporate cricket, and he captained a host team packed with former Test match players of his generation.

The sides were always mixed to give a semblance of equality, and the rules were slightly similar to those in force for princes and potentates in British India (and, I understand, for certain high-ups in club cricket in Pakistan): that is, no appeals against the Visiting Captain.

Unfortunately, a freelance reporter seeking a permanent job on our newspaper was thoughtless enough to clean bowl the Editor with a superb in-swinging yorker.

 I believe that he is now scrabbling for work with the Rabbit Fanciers Gazette. 

Anyway, with a few loanees from the opposition, we took the field against the Edmonds XI whose number three was David Steele, of Northamptonshire and England. During the 1970s, late in his county career, with greying hair and spectacles, he had become a national hero in successive Test series against Australia and the West Indies, facing Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson and then Andy Roberts and Michael Holding (before the era of helmets).

After an early wicket, David Steele came in to face our opening bowlers and made about 20 or 30 without much difficulty.

 I was then (just about) a slow-medium right-arm seamer, who moved the ball both ways off the bat. My sole advantage was a weird action, involving two whirls of the arm. My first delivery was too much for David Steele, who had defied the fastest bowlers in the world. He played for the first whirl of the arm and his bat was in the wrong position for the second. 

He edged it and was well caught low down to his right by our wicketkeeper. He was sick as mud, as many could hear from his exchange with the next man in without the aid of stump microphones. However, he was very polite about it in the after-match.

The following year at the same venue the sides were mixed again and I found myself coming on as first change to an opening attack of Dennis Lillee and Imran Khan, then recovering from the terrible injury which had forced his retirement from Pakistan cricket. 

I like to boast that I assisted his comeback. Both Lillee and Imran throttled down, and actually went wicketless after bowling a series of superlative but untouched out-swingers. 

Our Editor set a field for me, with Imran in the covers and Lillee at mid-on. After my first delivery (with the same action) I heard a mighty cry of “Strewth!” to my right, and then “I’ve never seen anything like that.” After a dramatic pause he added meditatively “There was a bloke in Victoria Grade 3 who was a little bit like that… but… no… not really…”

When he got over the shock he coached and encouraged me with a great deal of insight, helping me to two wickets. I heard nothing from Imran: I think he was too stunned. However, he too was very polite to me and everybody in the post-match proceedings.

I know that playing matches like these is a chore for Great Players, and I have huge respect for all those who really engage in them, who realize that however meaningless for them, these matches represent a summit for sad drudges like me, to be narrated to family and friends and sometimes unlucky strangers for the rest of our lives.

My greatest thrill came a few years ago on the Wounded Tiger tour of Pakistan, when our captain, Peter Oborne, recruited Abdul Qadir for three matches in or near Lahore. Just to be on the same team, on the same field, as the magician who had enchanted us in the 70s and 80s, still whirling obliquely into action, still with at least three different ways of bowling any delivery, still appealing as eagerly as in his heyday… The one difference was that he was much calmer towards fielding errors. The Great Man encouraged friend and foe, gave good advice, demonstrated a few of his tricks, signed countless autographs, and shared some of the highlights of his career.

Abdul Qadir was one of the Pakistan cricketers who earned admirers all over the world, who gave people a lasting perception of the artistry which cricket can release. May he rest in peace who never let batsmen rest in peace.

By Richard Heller

Related Articles