Retro Sport: Whatever the temptation, the sanctity of cricket is paramount

Torbay Weekly

Although cricket has always been an important part of my life, during my 20s it had to take second place behind the demands of a new family and a growing business.

I needed to be at work on Saturday, and Sunday mornings until lunchtime, so joined cricket clubs like Wellswood and Chelston, which would tolerate players who arrived just before the captains tossed up!

When I reached my mid-30s, life became less demanding, and, in 1976, I joined Paignton Cricket Club to test myself against the best players in the county before it was too late.

As soon as I set foot into Queen’s Park, I loved the place!

The cricket was keen, the players were friendly, and, amazingly, I got a first-team spot from day one.

Within weeks, we were progressing in the Devon Senior Knock-out Cup, and thanks to a fine innings from our captain, Terry Friend, we had beaten Torquay in the area final.

We beat South Devon in the county quarter-final, and, then, our two spinners, Stuart Lott and 15-year-old Keith Benton, steered us past Plymouth and into the Devon county final, which, by chance, was due to be staged at Paignton!

Although I couldn’t claim much of the credit for this achievement, I was now looking forward to playing in Devon cricket’s most important match of the year!

Our opponents, on August 22, would be the mighty Exeter team who were the reigning champions, and who had only lost one match in two years!

The bookmakers were offering 8-11 on an Exeter victory but we knew the pitch better than they did, and we had some special players too!

In early August, I got a phone call from Brian Pearce, who was a long-term friend of mine from North Devon, and who was in the early stages of writing a book about the later years of W.G. Grace’s life, spent playing for London County.

We met in a hotel in Exeter, and he had brought a list of photographs which he needed for his book.

Luckily, I was able to provide most of those which he wanted, but was not keen to risk sending originals by post.

Brian, who was a county umpire, would have to come down and collect them!

“OK! I know,” he said “I’m umpiring the County Knock-out final, in Paignton, on August 26, and can pick them up then. I’m really grateful to you!”

I was stunned!  “Well! I’m playing in that match too!” I said, and watched his surprise!

It was not a good look for an umpire to be seen in the house of one of the players, especially on the morning of a huge match like this!

After an awkward silence, Brian looked at me and said: “We both know that favours off the field don’t relate to favours on it, and we are both gentlemen - we have nothing to fear!”

We didn’t give it another thought, and when the match day arrived, Brian was on my doorstep early to collect the pictures.

Later that day, the 40-over match began in front of a big crowd, and Exeter batted first.

I opened the bowling with Graham Hull, and, although we didn’t take early wickets, Exeter struggled to score on a difficult Queen’s Park pitch.

With just 80-odd on the board, after 31 overs, John Harris and Eddie Picton realised that it was now or never, and Harris hit a ball from Keith Benton high towards the square-leg boundary.

Graham Hull caught it inside the rope but did one foot step back over the line? No-one seemed to know!

Graham wasn’t sure, and the decision was left to Brian Pearce, umpiring at square leg.

The whole Paignton team begged for the decision, and I ran up to Brian with my arms wide open.

Our eyes met, and after what seemed an age, he turned to the other umpire and said: “Benefit of the doubt to the batsman.”

That decision proved crucial, and Exeter made 150, and we fell 29 runs short.

It took a few days for me to get over that disappointment but Brian and I remained close friends until he passed away last year.

Although W.G. Grace might have winked, and seen things differently, I knew in my heart that, however disappointing, the sanctity of cricket must always be paramount.