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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

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Good at dropping catches much better at dropping a few names — a lousy cricketer writes …

I woke this morning with an overwhelming sense of deflation. It was not the dreadful weather (though better than the alternative in Southern Europe), it was the realisation that it is only August 1 and the best Ashes series since 2005 was over almost before it should have begun. And but for that bloody weather wrecking the Old Trafford Test we would probably have won 3-1 instead of the 2-2 draw that climaxed with almost ridiculous theatricality at the Oval yesterday.


Cricket, and certainly the way England now play in this Bazball era, has the power to excite and thrill as rarely before. It is also played by supremely fit and, in the main, demonstrably decent guys who clearly like each other. None more so than Stuart Broad who, at 37, bowed out of a cricket career while still at the peak of his game and scripted his exit in a manner which would have been seen as too fanciful for any comic book hero.


You may have gathered from the above that I love the game and I particularly like the company of my fellow devotees and of cricketers themselves, men (and these days some very talented women) who make poor saps like me wonder where it all went wrong despite the finest coaching and facilities at school. The fact is I was no bloody good (the same went for rugby and rowing, the other main sports at school.)


That’s why, at an age when I should be half a century (not out) past hero-worship, I’m not. I’ve had some of my happiest moments with cricket and cricketers. And here’s a warning: name-dropping ahead.


For 35 years my friend Victor Blank has staged an annual cricket match at his home in Oxfordshire with all proceeds going to the charity Wellbeing of Women. Money, and I mean millions, is raised from 11 very well-heeled chaps paying to play with and against international Test stars of the immediate past, some even current players if schedules permit, and from spectators pledging very large sums at a tea interval auction.


I’ve been to most of the matches over the years and umpired some. Before the first in 1990 I sent my lovely secretary Helene Costas to the Express library for a tome on the rules of umpiring and the signals required. I thought I knew them but I was not going to be exposed as the interloper I was by the icons of the game whose fate was soon to be in my hands.


From memory they included in that first match two great former batsmen; Colin Cowdrey, who farted every time he ran, potentially unlawful wind assistance you might say, and the former Aussie captain Bobby Simpson (who moved unaided by turbocharging.)


Others through the years are a Wisden-full of stars; Brian Close, Phil Edmonds, Mike Brearley, Brian Lara, Imran Khan, Mike Procter and Shane Warne. Ah yes, about the late and very great Mr Warne. I was introduced to him immediately after the Express had run a delightful two parter by a girlfriend he had met when first he came to England and played for Accrington in the Lancashire League. It was not a kiss-and-tell in the usual salacious sense, merely about one woman’s rather sweet memories of a young man who was soon to be the greatest spinner of all time.


Victor had informed Shane that I was executive editor of the Express. ‘Ah you’re the bastard who put that crap in the paper.’ My off stump went flying and it was difficult to offer any appeal. But he did cool off and turned out to be a delight, giving kids at the match freebie net sessions and generally being charm itself, signing autographs while lolling in a deckchair with Liz Hurley, his squeeze at the time.


More recently my life was saved by the lovely Georgina Liley, 16-year-old daughter of my chum Will. I had my back turned to the play, unloading a tray of drinks I had carried from the marquee, totally oblivious that a six skied by Curtly Ambrose was homing in on the back of my head with great force. The watchful and sporting Georgina put one manicured hand out  and caught the missile. Mike Atherton, fielding nearby on the boundary, was so impressed he ran over to shake the hand that saved me.


It’s a dangerous game of course as Mary, wife of Michael Parkinson (my fellow umpire on more than one occasion) will testify. She was sitting on the boundary in a deckchair idly chatting with a friend when a fierce straight drive hit her ankle and broke it. Off to the Radcliffe for poor Lady P and no further cricket for her.


Had it not been for Miss Liley, now a fine young actress, my fate might have been very similar.


Footnote: On one occasion on the eve of the Wellbeing match Victor and Sylvia Blank invited us to dinner at their home. There were 12 of us and when we arrived on a glorious summer’s evening met for drinks in the walled rose garden. No sooner had I been handed a glass of Moët than Richard Branson bounded over like an excited puppy to say: ‘Have you heard the news, I’ve bought the Express!’ He did not mean a copy of that morning’s edition.


Of course it turned out that it was a Branson wind-up but it certainly had me fooled for a moment because it could so easily have been true. Little Lord Stevens ruled the roost at the time so anything and anyone seemed preferable. Branson? Well at least it might have been fun…


2nd August 2023