Retro Sport: Be careful what you wish for!

South African cricketer Fanie de Villiers came to Torquay to rehabilitate, and to try to rebuild his

South African cricketer Fanie de Villiers came to Torquay to rehabilitate, and to try to rebuild his career - and ended up in playing a village team on the moors - Credit: Archant

Last month, my column told the story of how a broken down South African cricketer, Fanie de Villiers, came to Torquay to rehabilitate, and to try to rebuild his career.

Those who met him during the summer of 1992 may enjoy this story!

Fanie was the son of a school teacher, and had inherited his father’s thirst for knowledge. Within days of arriving in Torquay, he was asking me: “How often do they empty the harbour to clean it?”, “Did there used to be a wood in Torwood Street?” and “Who was Ella Combe?”

Although, sometimes, it got on my nerves, I was pleased that a young man should show such an interest in his new environment.

Every Sunday, after his morning workout, my wife and I would take him to visit one of Devon’s historic landmarks, and it became a highlight of his week.

Towards the end of that summer, we took him to the 17th century pub, on the lower slopes of Dartmoor, where you still poured your own beer.

Fanie loved the old place, and studied the beams, and the fireplaces closely.

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“How did they hang doors before the 17th century?” he asked,

“Lord knows!” I replied, as he disappeared into the next room.

Suddenly, moments later, he rushed back in saying “Come in here, Rog, look at this!”

He took me to the pub notice board where a photo of the local cricket team hung from a drawing pin.

“Our Sunday team needs you! Add your name below! No age limits!”

His eyes had lit up, and I feared the worst!

“This is not your sort of cricket,” I pleaded. But I was too late! He had already added ‘de Villiers’ to the vacant space below!

The landlady had told him that next Sunday’s match was in a nearby village, and that he should meet the team here, in the pub, at 2pm.

When we sat down to finish our beers, he tried to explain why I should spend next Sunday driving 25 miles, through country lanes, on this soppy adventure!

“My Dad always taught me that cricket began in the English countryside. Ever since I was a little boy, I have wanted to watch an English village cricket match, and now I have the chance to play in one!”

His eyes were gooey with a sort of rural saintliness.

“Tea and cakes under the oak trees! Every overseas cricketer longs for this! It will be like a dream come true for me! Please try to understand!”

Resistance was pointless. All the way home, the questioning was relentless. “What number should I ask to bat?”, “Where should I ask to field?”, “Is this a strong village team?” and “Do you think we’ll win?”

From experience, I knew that it was impossible to explain the values of village cricket to a South African, or an Australian.

“The true answer to each of those questions is that no-one cares!” I said.

Fanie, like others before him, could not comprehend that a cricket match could be just a social occasion, and that winning was less important than enjoying the afternoon.

At lunchtime, on the following Sunday, we set off on the road towards the moor.

We had both agreed that I would spend the afternoon with my brother in Chagford, to allow Fanie to ‘feel the real atmosphere of the occasion!’

He had put on a tie, and wanted to mix with the local lads, and to understand what ‘made them tick’.

I left him outside the pub, and made my way to Chagford.

Around 7.30 that evening, I arrived back in the pub to await Fanie’s return.

Soon afterwards, a group of rowdy lads burst into the bar, with a tall South African in their midst.

“Great match today!” one of them shouted, “So unlucky to lose!” and slapped Fanie on the back as he pushed past. I had saved Fanie a seat, and beckoned him over.

“Are they mental?” he whispered, as he sat down. “What happened?” I asked.

I listened as he told me that his team had just eight players and the other village had nine.

“They just slogged, and were all out for 59, by four o’clock. After tea, we batted, if you can call it that, and finished with just 38. I was 14 not out! The rest of the time, they just drank in the bar!”

“No-one told me that I had to bring my own tea, but a lady found me a cheese sandwich.”

He, then, fell silent and I felt so sorry for him!

On the way home he stared out of the window in a swamp of broken dreams.

As we were driving through Newton Abbot, he looked round at me, and said: “And I didn’t tell you in the pub, but someone’s nicked my bat!”