Last week, in part one, I told how, while at Montpelier School in Paignton, I had learned the basics of cricket from the sports master Richard Jordain. He taught me that this game was SPECIAL, and how right he turned out to be!
In 1954, I was 12 years old, playing in the school 1st X1, and falling madly in love with cricket.
My dad soon recognised the symptoms and, at Richard Jordain’s suggestion, arranged to send me to Ted Dickinson’s winter cricket coaching school, which had recently opened above a garage in St Marychurch.
At 10am on one cold October morning, I got off the bus with my cricket bag, climbed the wooden stairs, and peeped around the door before daring to enter.
There, in front of me, was a long, narrow, room that seemed almost entirely filled by green cricket netting.
As I pushed open the door, I realised that I had been spotted by a short, slim, sandy haired, man who was walking towards me, smiling.
Stan Cray was a 33-year-old professional who, now, towards the end of his career, was being employed in the summer by Paignton Cricket Club.
Stan had made his first-class debut for Essex, in 1938, just a week after his 17th birthday! He had become a regular in the Essex team in 1939, and, then, just as his career was taking off, the war interrupted it.
During World War Two, he served in India, and re-joined the Essex team again in 1946.
He scored over 1,000 runs in 1947 and in 1949, before recording his highest score of 163 against Nottinghamshire in 1950.
Then, during the winter of 1950, while coaching in South Africa, Stan received an unexpected phone call telling him that his services were no longer required by Essex. It broke his heart.
It was Stan Cray who now came towards me, and shook my hand.
My first lesson passed by in a flash, and I liked my new coach instantly. He was quite shy, never made much eye contact, but had an Essex accent like most of my relatives.
I remember him now, saying: “Throw your bat into the off drive, Mr Mann, and let her go!”
As my bat went flying into the net, he would say: “Perfect! Now this time just hold on at the last moment!” And it worked like a dream!
He taught me to bowl leg breaks which really turned off the matting, and then, at the end of the session, he would ask me to sit me down, and make notes of all I had learned that morning.
“Wow! I can see Don Bradman in the way you play that shot, Mr Mann,” he would say.
Coming from a man who HAD played against Bradman, it meant so much, of course!
At the end of each session, he would wrap an arm around my shoulder and say: “You would be in my team EVERY week, Mr Mann!”
As a 12 year old, his kindly, gentle manner put me at ease, and, for two years, he taught me skills which I had never dreamed that I could master.
Sadly, in 1961, Stan had a car accident and was never able to coach again.
Soon after that, when I was driving a lorry in Paignton, I saw him, waved, and stopped to talk... but he just smiled and then almost ran away.
Stan never married, and looked after his mother, in Paignton, for many years.
His shy nature led him to taking menial jobs, and this former top-class cricketer was reduced to washing dishes in local hotels to earn his living.
Gradually, with just his beloved classical records for company, he became more and more reclusive until, one day in 2008, I read that he had passed away.
Just four people attended his funeral, and two were from his care home.
I lay awake that night, remembering his soft voice, and what he had done for me, just wishing that I had given him something back in return.
In the end I had to content myself by contributing a small wreath with the words: “RIP Stan. You would be in my team EVERY week!”
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