In every way John Emburey was a bigger a man than me: the perils of playing with your hero

Tom Hicks has had a life in cricket’s margins. No household name, he did however rub shoulders with cricketing royalty in a career that took in periods with Oxford University, Dorset, and the MCC as well as top-class league cricket in Surrey. In the first of three extracts from his book: Bowler’s Name: The Life of a Cricketing Also-Ran, he tells of the hammer blow dished out to him when he appeared at Lord’s with his boyhood idol

John Emburey would not be everyone’s idea of a heroic cricket idol, but from the moment I made the fatal decision to become an off-spinner, the stolid, frowning Middlesex man was the guy for me. I sometimes wish I had switched to leg-spin when the Shane Warne effect took hold and every young leggie was suddenly regarded as a potential world-beater, but I was probably a good enough offie to make it to regional or national level, and so why gamble on a change? On the other hand, off spinners are two-a-penny and so the chances of reaching the top are diluted. In the end, I chose the road more travelled, and so it was Embers who was the natural No 1.

To be fair to the man, he did win the Ashes in 1986/87, featured in the amazing Bunbury books as ‘Ember-bunny’ and wore a pretty stand-out crash helmet. He also had a bit of a weird slingy-type action and tended to do well in my games of pencil cricket. I have also seen him credited with the probably apocryphal diagnosis of a finger injury – ‘the f***ing f***er’s f***ing f***ed’. Hell, with that CV, how was he not more popular?

I had some weird heroes – Tim Curtis of Worcestershire was another, as was – inexplicably – David Leatherdale – whom I also met during my short stint with Worcestershire. I’m not sure my temporary team-mates understood why I had suddenly become tongue-tied when DL pitched up at Kidderminster for a net. I was also keen on Neal Radford (more so than Phil Newport, oddly) and I was also rendered slightly weak at the knees when I came up against Steve O’Shaughnessy in that Minor Counties final against Cumberland – quite why I didn’t pick Botham, Hick or Dilley from that famous Worcestershire side of the late 1980s I’m not too sure. Probably my love of the underdog. Aside from the Pears, I had a bizarre ritual of saying goodnight to my poster of Wayne Larkins after saying my prayers – not that I thought he was the Lord himself, despite sharing similar epic facial hair. As far as off-spinners were concerned, Lancashire’s Gary Yates got a brief look-in, and I did rate Tim May, but you can’t really go for an Aussie, can you? So J E Emburey it was.

I didn’t get to meet my idol properly until late in his career. I’m not even sure I saw him play live until he signed for Berkshire after retiring from Middlesex and joined them for a three-dayer down at Dean Park, which I am sure he remembers not one jot. I only remember two things about his part in the game. One was his being deposited for one of the biggest sixes even Cowley had hit at the ground (and he hit a fair few) and secondly was a comment he made to my dad on the boundary, about my bowling too slowly. This was a bit of a hammer blow to me. I had secretly harboured the outlandish dream that somehow Embers would take one look at my offering, realise he’d unearthed a gem and drop everything to tell Middlesex I needed to be signed on the spot and to send a taxi to take me directly to Lord’s, not passing Go. This did not happen – clearly – and yet I was a bit gutted that he did not pull me aside himself to have that chat. I mean, I was never going to listen to the old man, was I?

Putting that disappointment to one side, a second opportunity presented itself when I was selected to play at HQ for MCC against a Minor Counties side in 2009. My spinning partner for the day would be none other than my hero, who announced that it was his birthday and would be his final appearance on the hallowed turf – a moment of planetary significance if ever there was one. And so it was that I found myself bowling end-to-end with the great man on the Nursery Ground in warm-up, and sharing the home dressing room. Dreamland.

If ever I had wanted a confirmation of my own lowly place in the cricketing pantheon, today was the day. Bowling on an absurdly short boundary at the Grand Stand side of the ground, I had been given the end which would offer me most assistance, and I was keen to impress – imagine the firm handshake and even perhaps the arm round the shoulder in the Tavern later, the ‘I’m surprised you never had more of a go at the pro game, Hicksy’ (for by now we would be three pints in and probably planning where to go and continue discussing the difference between an undercutter and slider). Imagine the regaling each other of chucking it just that bit wider to induce a creeping back foot and a stumping to remove Dean Jones in his pomp, imagine … I digress.

Sometimes the figures don’t lie. My analysis for the innings was 4-0-39-0, including a six straight into the Tavern Stand – a country mile, and then some, from where we were. The old master relieved me at the Pavilion End and proceeded to land it on a sixpence, returning 4-40 from ten to the appropriate adulation. I don’t think we swapped notes after the game, which was kind of him. And in my embarrassment, I clean forgot to check out whether the rumour about his being longest in the shower was true or not. I suspect in every way, John Emburey is a bigger man than me.

The moral of this story is to leave gods where they belong and don’t go getting ideas above your station. Leaving the Grace Gates that day, I felt like Frankenstein or Faust. A humbling performance, but a huge privilege, nonetheless.

Tomorrow: Wrists like iron and as flexible as wilting celery: what it’s like to bowl to Jos Buttler

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