Retro Sport with Roger Mann: Send for Syd - part one

David 'Syd' Lawrence

David 'Syd' Lawrence - Credit: Archant

Early in July 1994, those of us who spent our Saturday afternoons at Torquay Cricket Club, were feeling despondent.

We had been Devon League champions in 1982, but now, 12 years later, we were struggling! This year, for the first time, two teams would be relegated, and, today, we were just one place off the bottom.

After tea, the club chairman, Vaughan Hosking, pulled up his deckchair next to mine, and, leaning over towards me, said: “I know it won’t make us popular, but could you find us a pro. to get us out of this mess?”

He explained that he had the support of the committee, and the players, and that the club could finance it.

“But, it’s July, and any half-decent professional will be engaged with a club now!” I replied. “But I’ll have a think, and try to come up with a name or two.”

That night, bereft of ideas, I phoned a friend who said: “Have you thought about Syd Lawrence? He might be fit again now, and lives not too far from you.”

David ‘Syd’ Lawrence was the first, English-born, black cricketer to play for England. Despite being a fitness fanatic, he had suffered a horrendous injury two years earlier while opening the bowling for England in New Zealand.

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In completing his delivery stride, he had shattered his left patella (knee cap), and, despite two attempts at a come-back with Gloucestershire, had now retired.

It was worth a try, so I found his phone number, and left a message for him.

The following morning, I received a recorded answer: “Come and chat with me!”

We were to meet in a wine bar, in Whiteladies Road, Bristol, and I arrived early. Although I had never met him, there was no mistaking the huge man who strode up to me, ten minutes later!

Syd was a massive, Frank Bruno-type figure with a broad smile, huge hands, and a close-shaven head.

He offered me a glass of wine, and I explained my mission. I told him that we had a useful team, and a fine captain in Ian Coulton, but had lost confidence after early results had gone against us.

We needed some inspiration, in our last six matches, to avoid relegation.

He, then, told me that he had played a couple of games in May, and that his knee had survived them. “I have a bit of a limp in my run-up, I’ve put on weight, and lost a bit of pace” he said, and then added, with a wink and a smile: “But I still made them hop about a bit!”

Just in case his knee played up, I suggested a match-by-match fee, and he accepted it straightaway.

“Tell your lads that you’ve just signed an opening bowler,” he said, and then added, as an after-thought “And he doesn’t like playing with losers!”

He came to the door to wave me off, and shouted “See you on Saturday week!”

That night, I phoned Vaughan Hosking and broke the news.

On the following day, every phone call posed a question. “Is he fit enough?” “THE Syd Lawrence, are you kidding?” and “How quick is he now?”

Already, the Syd Lawrence factor was raising confidence.

For the first time for a long while, the groundsman would be asked to prepare a ‘quick and bouncy one!’

In 1992, the club had hired Fanie de Villiers. Fanie was quick, but he relied on swing for his wickets. Syd, on the other hand, was a battering ram!

Fanie played with a smile, while Syd was much more menacing and mean.

While he would be welcomed at Torquay, other whispers of disapproval grew louder!

The cricket columnist of the Herald Express thought it ‘disappointing’. “He has no place amongst the butchers, bakers, and candle-stick makers of the Devon League!” he wrote.

Despite the fact that every club in the Premier Division paid at least one professional, many of them joined the chorus of dissent.

Torquay Cricket Club had no intention of being relegated without a fight, so the stage was set.

On his first day of Test cricket, Syd had terrorised the Sri Lankan batsmen. Would he repeat that achievement, six years later against Seaton next Saturday? Make sure you get next week’s Torbay Weekly to find out!