The Magic Box

By The Way - Weekly Columns


By Chris Clark “Just make the ball land in that box. You’ll be the next Paul Allott.” My Dad didn’t have high hopes for me in 1984, but he was just beginning to create a bowling machine that was the talk of South East Essex between 1987-1992. Why am I beginning to tell you this story? Well there’s not many positives to take from England’s Ashes Tour, but the sight of Tom Curran playing for England took me back to my own cricketing childhood. Now let me explain why…see one of the first matches my Dad took me to watch was when Essex played Gloucestershire in the John Player Trophy and Kevin Curran was starring for Gloucestershire. So when Tom Curran appeared for England in Australia, my mind flooded back to my own cricketing childhood, and I wondered if Kevin inspired Tom along the same lines as my Dad did me. A sidenote of that day in the Summer of 85, I was a keen autograph hunter as a 9 year old, and used to pester the players at inopportune times for their signature. This led to Graham Gooch telling me to “piss off, I’m just going out for the toss” and also asking Courtney Walsh if he could sign my book, thinking that it was “Syd’ Lawrence. This added credence to my Grandad’s opinion that “they all look the same”. Anyways back to that box. It was actually a physical box, but a painted grid on our drive way. We had some spring-back wickets and they were placed so this box was on a good length just outside the right-handers off stump. I know what you’re thinking what about left-handed batsmen. Well the mid 80’s was a different time. I was only one of three left handers in my school year, and I went to a big school. Big in size, not in teaching, as one teacher made me write right-handed…I’m going off topic here, back to cricket. Now we were in luck as our driveway was long. Certainly long enough for a 22 yard make believe cricket strip. So from the age of 8 my Dad made me bowl consistently into this box. For the first few years I struggled, but by the age of 11 I was metronomic. I could do it without thinking. My Dad had achieved his goal, he had built his very own bowling machine. Now my Dad could play cricket as well. His works team used to play every Saturday, and too quite a high level. Now I’m not just saying this but my Dad was the best player on the team. It’s not childhood admiration, but everyone used to say it to me when I used to go to watch, and I was no mug as a child, I could tell with my own eyes. I spent my afternoon’s at the cricket bowling to the team’s batsman as they waited to bat. I was giving them a net before they went out to bat. I’m not sure being bowled by a 10 year old gives you confidence, but the players never seemed to mind. My Dad’s teammates always used to say to me “We can’t wait till you play for us, your Dad says your way better than he ever was.” Rather sadly my Dad would never say anything like that to me, it was more of “you can bowl better than that” and despite receiving praise from school teachers, teammates and people watching I never got any encouragement until I retired. I say retired, I gave up playing. So back to the story, I’d practiced for three years on the driveway, and when cricket trials were announced in the 1st year at Senior School (Year 7 for our younger readers) I was primed and ready to go. So 22 young lads sprinted out to the matted wicket out in the middle of a school field littered with dog turd and we were split into two sides. Now 21 one of us were wearing regulation summer school P.E. kit. White t-shirt and the skimpiest white shorts your Mum could buy you. However one lad was wearing cricket whites. He was on the opposing side. I thought I’m so having you…I can still vividly remember my first delivery. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. Old cricket white boy took his guard, as I went back to my mark. “Getting your mark exact is the most important part of your bowling” was reverberating around my head, my Dad wasn’t watching but his words were a constant. I turn to face the batsman. I start running gently, and then gain my optimum speed at the time of delivery. The ball is perfect, it lands in the middle of where the painted box would be and “Cricket White boy” has no answer. His off stump is clattered and he is on his way. The P.E. teacher Mr Lee looks at me and he wants to say “fucking hell Clark we’ve won the jackpot here” but he just said “well bowled boy”. I was a shoe-in for the cricket team. I was the ace bowler. I demonised the batsman at all the local schools. I strode South East Essex like an 11 year old Curtley Ambrose. I was making opposition batsman cry. I’ll admit it, it was a great feeling. We raced to the area final, and I was the spearhead. Then the first sign of things to come happened. In the final, I bowled terribly. Ok I got a few wickets, but I knew I bowled badly. In my mind the box had disappeared. The next year I made my eagerly anticipated debut for my Dad’s team. Father and Son in the same side but I only played two matches that year, that much I can remember. The batting side of things is a bit hazy, but I do remember playing a cut shot against the opposition’s fastest bowler and body was still shaking about two weeks after the shot, I had never faced anything so fast. My own bowling however that’s what my Dad’s team were so keen on and excited to see. The opposition batsmen well were set as a gangling 12 year old came into the attack. Fuck me, I was nervous. The batsmen’s eyes lit up as they thought “some easy runs on offer here”. First ball was hopeless, a wide down the leg side, I don’t even think it pitched. When playing for the school, I only had my Dad’s voice in my head. Now he was fielding at square leg giving me daggers. I daren’t look at him. Second delivery was better, not great, but at least it resembled a decent delivery. Then it happened…the box appeared. Third delivery was bang on the money. Bowled him!!! I can still remember the batsmen face it was one of “how has this beanpole kid got me out!?” My team-mates were ecstatic. It’s quite hard to take praise from your elders when you’re twelve. I just felt a bit awkward. Even my Dad strolled up from the outfield and grunted well done. The next batsman arrived at the crease, and my next delivery was perfect. In fact it rattled him on the pads. Shall I appeal? Is that what kids do in a men’s match? I’m appealing, balls to it. The Umpire’s finger goes up. I’m on a bloody hat-trick in my first adult game!! Imagine as a grown adult getting a golden duck against a kid. I can imagine now that fella was ribbed senseless for years! You all want to know about the hat-trick ball now don’t you? Well this anecdote has no amazing ending. In fact, I think I had a stitch even before I bowled the ball. I couldn’t control myself and the delivery was hopeless. After the game, in the clubhouse afterwards I was bought all the shandy’s I could drink. I think it was about three. I was the star of the show and to be honest I fucking loved it. I could get used to this. Adulation I like this. If this is where cricket can get me, I want more of it. In hindsight this match took place in about the 9th tier of English cricket. That same summer our school now under my Captainship got to the final again. Looking back, I was getting very cocky at cricket. I knew I was good, and I lapped it up. I used to get lippy to the opposition batsmen and used to sledge them when fielding. I must have been a nightmare and to be frank fucking irritating. Well this final was as much as a washout as the first one. We batted first and were all out for 36. There’s not much my miracle arm could do with that. That final was the last our school year ever made. When you live in Canvey Island and most the school live on rough council estates and you’re around 13/14 life’s distractions start getting in the way. If you they did a “where are they now” of that cricket team 1987-1992, I would guess that around three of them have served under Her Majesty’s Pleasure. In 1990 it happened, I was still bowling well and I was invited to trials at Essex. This was the moment I and probably more so my Dad had dreamed off. I was a wreck. I was riddled with nerves. I knew chances like this didn’t come around too often. The trial took place in the nets at Essex’s County ground. We were bowling at 18/19 year old’s. Good player’s. I bowled like a drain. I bet you’re wondering where that box was. I couldn’t visualise it. I couldn’t find it. I was wracked with nerves and self-doubt. I trudged off after the evening’s trial. The coach said I bowled well. He was lying. As I got into the car my Dad said “How did you get on?” I replied “terrible.” “Oh well you gave it your best, that’s all you can do” he said, but I knew I hadn’t. Or more pertinently couldn’t. Essex confirmed the inevitable a week later, I wasn’t to be invited back. That evening ruined my cricketing career. I decided to change my approach, and thought I needed to get more pace if I was going to make it. The real reason was I needed to control my nerves better, but that was admitting the truth, so pace it was. Bob Willis against Australia bowling down the hill is visually amazing. That’s the style I wanted. So gone was my solid and methodical approach and now I was more loose. My Dad told me not remodel myself, but I was 15 now. I didn’t listen to my parents. It was a nightmare, I lost all my control, and my last year at school cricket was a disaster. I didn’t bowl at all well, I lost interest. My hopes had been dashed, I couldn’t handle that rejection from Essex. I had been on an upward curve all my cricketing life and one set-back had hit me for six. I sporadically played for a variety of teams from the age of sixteen to thirty, the odd game here and there when my friend’s sides were short of players. However my heart wasn’t in it anymore, I had fallen out of love in playing the game. My Dad didn’t pester me to continue playing, he knew. In fact he had something similar as a child when he didn’t get past the trial at his beloved Chelsea. So there you have it, I wonder if Kevin Curran taught Tom with the aid of a painted box on a good length just outside off stump. With a bit more intestinal fortitude that could have been me being flogged to all corners of the Gabba by Steve Smith this winter!

Mel - @MissMelanie_H

That was a great read. It's always interesting how people get into cricket - either watching or playing. It was so different for me growing up a country where cricket isn't really a thing and going to an international school where we played US sports (I'm quite good at baseball for example!). I only got in to it because I had an Indian friend at uni and as they were showing an England/India series in the uni bar, we got talking about it. I was hooked from then on!