Chris Balderstone in action for Carlisle United and England
The Last Corinthians
for Ann and Peter Sansom
A cricket bat slumped at the back of my father’s shed preserves the faintest whiff of linseed oil. Faded GM on its splice denotes the makers: Gunn and Moore, co-founded by Billy Gunn, Golden Age professional: free-scoring batsman and underarm lobber for Notts, plus fleet-footed outside-right for Forest and County, double England international. Quick-witted throw-in taker, he could hurl the lumpen leather one-handed toward a burly striker’s forehead, better than a corner. * The era’s long gone of the last footballer–cricketers; swapping jerseys and shorts for whites come May; foremost among them: Ted Hemsley, Graham Cross, Chris Balderstone, Jim Cumbes, Arnie Sidebottom; and, for a short while, Ian Botham. Criss-crossing the country, by August and September they juggled fixtures like clowns. Hemsley even played a match for Worcestershire at his football club’s ground— Bramall Lane—which must’ve befuddled his brain. * Nowadays, nostalgia-mongers gripe, understandably, that kids with all-round potential are bribed to plump for football, of course, by the age of eight, pledging allegiance to their agents, who negotiate humungous signing-on fees, while the youngsters’ mates aren’t yet receiving pocket-money. No more rush-goalies, or two-a-side week-long test matches down the rec, stumps chalked upon the bowls club pavilion wall. No possibility of fame and fortune at both sports. * The perks for Seventies journeymen were sponsored Vauxhall Vivas and gratis mixed grills at Little Chefs, where cheerily encouraging autograph-hunters became an unlikely pleasure. At Queen’s Park, Chesterfield, in September ’75, Balderstone reached fifty by the close, unbuckled his pads, and within the hour was bossing midfield for Doncaster Rovers. Next day, a hundred in the bag, he snapped up three quick wickets to clinch Leicestershire’s first County Championship pennant. * We all had friends in our childhood who were naturally gifted at every game. At secondary school, I sat behind ‘Widger’ Morley Brown, classy opening bat, deceptive seamer and Brearley-like captain. He died a passenger in a car-crash. The one time I played in a football team beside him, he curled a thirty-five-yard free-kick smack into the top left corner, as if any old idiot could do that. But I would’ve shanked it over the bar, the ball spinning to a stop on a well-dug hole, in a waterlogged allotment.
Meeting the Prince
Jolted from a snooze on the Tube, Prince Monolulu adjusts his ostrich-feather headdress and focuses on redhead Dora, opposite. ‘I got a horse, just for you. You got beautiful hair, princess, so I’ll give you two.’ He stage-whispers on, ‘Redcar, 2.15: Peacock Prancer. You heard it here. Haydock, 3.10: Reckless. Tell ’em the Black Prince gave you luck.’ Dora exits, laughing, for sharpening at Pitman’s of her words-per-minute. Parade-ring celebrity, Monolulu heads to Sandown, for the Coronation Stakes: Northern line to Waterloo, then overground out to Esher, proffering random tips with the boundless generosity of a leaflet distributor. At lunch, Dora dashes between City traders and silks, to push through a fly-screen into side-street fug. Talk stops—bar radio pundits. She bowls up to the grille to place her bets, and dallies back for shorthand tests. Come teatime, she gleans from her dad’s Evening News that Peacock Prancer didn’t prance; but Reckless, bless him, got the trip, chancing it along the stands-side rail on good-to-soft going, to win by a furlong, at 33 to 1.