I have arrived a little late to the conversation. “Sorry, who are we talking about?”
They say it’s never wise to meet your heroes. Put anyone on a pedestal and you are only setting yourself up to be disappointed when confronted with a more prosaic, human reality.
And the higher the plinth, they might warn, the further the potential fall. I am still scarred from hearing my university lecturer describe his unfortunate encounter with the most iconic band member in musical history. Still, as he then went on to tell us with certainty the whereabouts of Lord Lucan, perhaps we had got to that stage of the evening where beer was beginning to play a more significant role in the conversation.
Going back a little further I recall my teacher at school telling us as how, as a schoolboy, he had approached the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams for an autograph only to be brushed off with a flick of the hand and a dismissive “I don’t do that sort of thing.” He might count himself fortunate it wasn’t Bob Willis, however, who told Jonathan Agnew where to go in no uncertain terms when met with the same question.
But, thankfully there are exceptions.
The young Agnew’s experience notwithstanding, I can think of no other group of sportsmen more accessible and yet more patient, friendly and willing to oblige their supporters than professional cricketers. It may be a cliché, but in more years of following cricket than I care to remember, I genuinely cannot recall an impatient word to a fan, an autograph refused or, in more recent times, a selfie left untaken.
And that extends to some of the biggest names in the game. When Kumar Sangakkara turned out for Durham a few seasons ago, for example; before, during and after each match he signed autographs, posed and shook hands with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of admirers, each wanting their moment with the great man, their own special memory to take away. It must have been wearing for him, but none were left disappointed.
I have a special memory too. In 2013, Ricky Ponting signed to play a few games for Surrey before jetting off to play in the inaugural Caribbean Premier League. A last chance to witness one of the all-time greats playing on British soil, I told my son, and we duly got our tickets for a Friday night T20 encounter with Sussex.
Also playing at the Oval that night was Glenn Maxwell, fresh from his million-dollar, title-winning stint in the Indian Premier League with the Mumbai Indians.
“Mumbai fan?” he asked my son as he offered up his mini-bat for a signature.
“Yes,” said Douglas.
“Hold on then, I have something you might like.”
With that, he disappeared up the steps to the dressing room only to re-emerge with his IPL match shirt, fully signed by the championship winning squad. Sachin, Ponting, Malinga, a veritable Who’s Who of international cricket.
“Just one more to go,” he said as he added his signature to the bottom. “And there you go. Look after it!”
That shirt now hangs on Douglas’s bedroom wall, and Glenn Maxwell – and every team he plays for – has gained a fan for life. And so, if it hadn’t before, has cricket.
Last weekend I attended a presentation on the ECB’s new All Stars programme for five to eight-year olds, a scheme that will also run in Scotland under the auspices of Cricket Scotland (CS). It promises to be high-energy, all-action stuff, big on fun whilst teaching the essentials of the game with bright, innovative gear to grab the kids’ attention. It is a winner, and I left feeling genuinely excited over where cricket could go over the next few years in this country.
But what also caught my eye was the way that both the ECB and CS see this scheme as being part of their overarching strategy, of the continuous line from the youngest tots to the elite, and are backing it with their biggest names. There will be All Star participant events at Lord’s, kids press conferences, ‘money-can’t-buy’ experiences, with both men’s and women’s elite teams in the front line of the programme, giving unprecedented access to big-name players to a new generation of youngsters ready to be inspired by them.
As the lack of free-to-air cricket in the UK continues to bite, grabbing and keeping the attention of a new, young audience is ever more vital in the face of unremittingly stiff competition from elsewhere.
How cricket continues to be presented in our schools is crucial, as is the role of clubs and the place they occupy in their communities. The All Stars programme promises to play a vital role in creating the player and fan base so needed for the future.
But just as much as the joy of playing the game itself, it is the excitement of meeting heroes that really clears the pathway to a young cricket fan’s heart. It is a vital part of the strategy and one that promises to pay rich dividends.
Heroes can inspire like nothing else. Especially when – like Glenn, Kumar and all the others – they truly justify their place on that pedestal.
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