I never once saw Tom Graveney play – but in my imagination I watched his every stroke

Why does one player rather than another of equal achievement lodge indelibly in the memory?

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Tom Graveney, who scored 122 first-class hundreds for Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and England, died early this month aged 88. I met him a few times, not enough to justify first-name terms. But Graveney was always Tom; the informal and the affectionate fitted his personality. He was one of the most loved players of his generation, though not always the most revered. Colin Cowdrey became the game’s elder statesman, Denis Compton was the raffish film star. Graveney, often on the wrong side of the establishment, was just Tom.

He was an unforgettable batsman. I will always remember his famous cover drive, so elegant that everyone said he should have worn a black tie and dinner jacket. Too short to drive? Tom would rock back, front foot still forward, and pull dismissively, almost disdainful of the bowler’s bad manners for pitching short. His aura was open and friendly, as though fun mattered as much as winning. Opponents could – should – be friends as well as adversaries.

Tom held the bat high on the handle, his top hand pointing down the splice rather than the back of the bat: the style of the classical tradition, not the modern power game. The grip was light rather than choked. The bat was a pendulum, the swing in sync with the delivery. You batted with the ball, not against it. Batting was both felt and learned, craft taken to the brink of genius.

Yet the thing is, I never saw Tom bat, not once. As for television, I’ve seen only a few seconds of him at the crease, grainy footage, no more than a few balls all added up. So is my “knowledge” a fraud? No. I do know about Tom, but only because he was my father’s boyhood hero.

Tom was the beginning of a family obsession. I learned about cricket – the bloodline of English technicians, the differing aspects of competitiveness and self-expression, the texture of county cricket and English life – through hearing about Tom.

So, I did see Tom play. Only I watched him in my imagination rather than with my eyes. And because Tom’s batting was described to me so often and so well, my knowledge, though second-hand, is not second-rate. Sport is about memory as well as experience – not just our own, but also memories described by people we love. This is real sport, too. The layering of reminiscence and adoration, stories passed on and absorbed, is part of the game’s depth and hinterland.

I learned about sport by talking with my father. I am still learning now. He usually speaks as a fan and critic (in the best sense) but with hints of the teacher never far away. The wonder of the supporter coexists with the analytical rationality of the educator.

Listening to Dad revealed not only sketches of players, but also maps of ideas. What is timing? What is rhythm? Why do some players have more time, how do they create space? When it was my turn to try for myself, I had a long-standing vocabulary of ideas.

And it started with Tom. In the 1950s, Dad would go to Nevil Road in Bristol – Gloucestershire’s unflashy county ground, tucked away in a quiet row of terraced streets – and watch Tom play. He fell in love with cricket by watching Tom bat.

When I mentioned Graveney on Test Match Special the day after he died, I found myself getting irrationally emotional. The same thing happens when I watch footage of the Welsh fly-half Barry John, another hero in our family. How can distant figures, who belong firmly to another generation, exert such a disproportionate emotional pull? Because we love the things they did to the people we love.

There is another question about heroes. Why does one player rather than another of equal achievement lodge indelibly in the memory? It is, I think, partly about the charisma of the player, partly about our own receptivity. Absorbing sport is like reading a novel. The depth of the response is a question of luck and timing. Had I read The Go-Between aged 12 or 20 (instead of at 14) or The Great Gatsby aged 15 or 30 (instead of at 17), I am certain these novels would not have touched me so deeply. I was especially susceptible to their themes at the moment when I read them.

It is the same in sport. There are phases when our followership is unusually acute, when we are open to heroes, perhaps in need of them. The nature of that yearning is always changing. As an eight-year-old in 1985, watching David Gower’s golden batsmanship against Australia, I imagined his life to be perfect – heroic but nonchalant. (Incidentally, the mellow West Country voice describing Gower’s cover drives belonged to Tom Graveney – part of that summer’s elegant ambience.) As a teenager, suddenly getting serious, Graham Gooch’s defiance against the West Indies got into my blood.

We find different things in sport at different moments. The wondrous Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in 2008 – the year of my retirement from cricket – turned me into a serious tennis fan. If I had tuned in to tennis earlier, when I unavoidably watched sport with half an eye on playing it better myself, I might have seen the rivalry through Rafael Nadal’s spartan quest for relentless self-improvement. Instead, just released from the introspection of my own playing days, Roger Federer came to represent the joy of watching sport just for the indulgent pleasure – lessons and examples be damned.

So it was in the 1950s. At a cricket ground at the end of a Victorian terrace, well off Bristol’s beaten track, a beautiful batsman gave a young boy – who would play and teach and talk cricket – a glimpse of glamour and craft, style and substance, warmth and wonder. Much later, I would be a beneficiary. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article appears in the 12 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain

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