I had a chance encounter last week on the London Underground with an old cricketing hero of mine. I was making my way down the long escalator at Victoria Station, clutching an evening paper in which I had just read of England's latest one-day humiliation in Australia, when I recognised the unmistakable hunch of the smartly dressed man in front of me. It was Gladstone Cleophas Small, the former Warwickshire medium-pacer who, 17 years earlier, had bowled England to victory over Australia in the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, thus enabling the captain, Mike Gatting, to return triumphant with the Ashes.
Delighted to see him, I said: "We need you down there now!"
He turned, and smiled.
"Do you remember knocking over the Aussie top order on the Gatting tour?"
He nodded, and smiled again.
"When was that?" I asked. "Eighty-six or eighty-seven?"
"Eighty-six," he replied, without a flicker of hesitation.
"Sydney or Melbourne?"
"Melbourne," he said. "It was the Test that mattered."
We chatted a little longer - about Australia ("It's a nice spot," he said, with delightful understatement), from where I had just returned and where he had played a couple of seasons as an inexperienced cricketer; and about the 1986-87 tour, the last time England won a series against Australia, home or away. It all seemed so long ago, and yet, at the same time, so near and true.
What we did not mention was that he should not really have been in the side for the Melbourne Test - only an injury to Graham Dilley, on the morning of the match itself, had opened the way for Small. The England cricket team of the mid-1980s was less a happy collective than an assemblage of talented cliques. It was a group of big, dominating personalities - Ian Botham, Allan Lamb, David Gower, Gatting. Young players, it was said, were seldom made to feel at ease.
Small was for much of his early career little more than a peripheral figure, forever striving to establish himself as an international cricketer. But that morning in Melbourne he had his chance - and, bowling brisk away-swingers, he seized it, taking 5-48 as Australia were scuttled out for under 150. England won by an innings and 14 runs, and Small, who took two more important wickets in the second innings, was named man of the match. As Matthew Engel wrote in the Guardian: "England can never have had a more improbable match winner."
Small was an improbable winner, not least because he had had to overcome a physical abnormality (his shoulders were extraordinarily hunched, which led to cruel jibes about his having left the coat hanger inside his suit) and great difficulties with his bowling action and run-up. As a young cricketer, the Barbados-born Small wanted to bowl fast, very fast. But he was seldom fluent and, on one occasion, he bowled, I think, an 18-ball over, his action and approach to the wicket collapsing as he delivered a series of wides and no-balls. He left the field that day a broken cricketer. How could he return from that?
Yet Small was one of the great triers of cricket, which was why I liked him so much and why he was so popular. He never gave up. Slowly, with great patience, he remade himself as a brisk medium-pacer, with a short, agile run-up. When the pitch was hard and the ball was new he could be very dangerous indeed. He played 17 Test matches for England, taking 55 wickets at an unremarkable average of 34. Today, a respected administrator, he works for the Professional Cricketers' Association.
When I left him, seemingly unrecognised on a crowded platform, he had an expression of dreamy distance on his face. Perhaps he was recalling, as was I, that Boxing Day morning in Melbourne all those years ago when he had woken expecting to spend the day watching his team-mates in action, but had finished it as a key participant in one of the greatest sporting occasions of them all. And to think that I could have asked him if he remembered that day: how could he, or we, ever forget it?
Hunter Davies is away