As Richard H Thomas doffs his cap and raises his bat for his half-century, he looks back at the five cricketers who have given him more pleasure than any others over his 50 years.
Indian writer Suresh Menon was once recuperating in hospital and forced to “travel inwards”. In a dreamy haze he imagined Bishen Bedi bowling. Fortunately I’ve never found myself laid up like Menon, but in a similar situation I too may have pictured the smooth trundle, the high arm, and that mesmerising loop – surely the best for generations. Aside from his artistry, his depth of character appealed to me. As Indian captain he declared twice in one Test in protest at the brutal fast bowling he felt was killing the game. It was that lack of compromise, suggests Menon, which characterised “the player, the man, the administrator, coach and columnist”. But despite that conviction of character, Bedi retained a charming modesty and it is very much to my regret that I once found myself sitting next to him at Lord’s and sat numbly starstruck by his side, too stupid to make a sound.
My second spinner. Of his many achievements, the Blond managed two seemingly impossible tasks: he made spin bowling sexy, and showed sportsman who weren’t naturally svelte that they could make a telling contribution. “We never imagined this fat, podgy kid would end up as one of the world’s best bowlers,” mused former Australian skipper Bill Lawry. The numbers, of course, speak for themselves, but can’t capture his character, his force of personality. Every time Warne was tossed the ball, we just knew something was going to happen. He too had his brushes with authority and was withering in his assessment of former coach John Buchanan (“He’ll bring something to the table. Cluedo, perhaps…”) Even as an England fan I looked forward to him being handed the ball, and I suspect I’m not alone in this.
An Aussie who defies the adage that they only walk when they’re out of petrol, described by ESPNCricinfo as “a cheerful throwback to more innocent times, a flap-eared country boy who walked when given not out in a World Cup semi-final, and swatted his second ball for six while sitting on a Test pair.” What is there not to like about the keeper-batsman who changed the definition of the role? A champion with moral fibre – even though Kiwi Mark Richardson suggested that behind the stumps he still tried to burgle “anyone and everyone”. In all internationals he made 15,189 runs, with 33 tons. The second-fastest Test hundred belongs to him (as if English fans could forget). And behind the stumps his 416 Test dismissals is second only to Mark Boucher (who played 50 more Tests), with many taken in tandem with Warne, whose hissing, spitting venom fooled many a batsman and obscured his view. Bowlers everywhere would have punched the air when he retired, but I didn’t.
The third twirler in my spin triumvirate. Described as “all art and craft” by The Independent in 1999, and the Glamorgan stalwart has learned plenty since then. The Prince, as he’s know at the Welsh county, has made my list as a link with the golden age – a time when if you looked after yourself, you could have a 20-year career. Those days are gone, but Croft has not and the Welsh-speaking spinner is the only current cricketer with over 10,000 runs and 1,000 wickets in first class matches. I think I’m safe in saying that he may well be the last. His Test stats are unremarkable, but he never got carted, and there aren’t many better one-day bowlers in the country even now. Perhaps versatility is the key – he can pinch-hit or block with the bat, and go through them on the last day or close up an end on a green top. Nobody takes 1,645 wickets and scores 19,974 runs in all formats without developing a survival instinct and Croft is preparing for his 24th season in Glamorgan colours. As usual, few will relish facing him – whether it’s the arm ball, the one that dips late, or the one that loops from about 25 yards like a hand grenade. Dal ati Crofty!
A member of Geoffrey Boycott’s greatest-ever XI and described by Graham Gooch as “the most brilliant bowler of my time”. For Mike Selvey, “unquestionably one of the greatest fast bowlers of them all, and, quite arguably, the very best“. Martin Crowe called him “the finest opponent of them all – furious but fair and fantastic value in the bar”. Mark Nicholas, his skipper at Hampshire, eulogised that “he maintained excellence without arrogance and displayed confidence and self-assurance within his immense humility”. That confidence, it would seem, was well placed. His ghost-writer Pat Symes suggests that when facing Glamorgan at Pontypridd – with the match indeterminately positioned and Glamorgan 13 runs ahead with seven second-innings wickets left – in full sight of his colleagues, Marshall rang his golf club in Southampton and booked a 4pm tee-off. He demolished the tail, left a paltry target for his batsmen, and was only five minutes late at the first tee. I guess he is my desert island cricketer – the most exciting, terrifying, genial, interesting and charismatic of my first fifty. He was, as Mike Selvey wrote in his touching obituary, “awesome”.