Andy Roberts -The Silent Assassin
A recent article by Steve James, The Times cricket correspondent, about the Dinky Doos, the Stiffs, the Second XIs of county cricket, stirred an old memory.
The whole point of Second XI cricket is not to be there. Nobody wants to languish in the Dinky Doos, playing in front of the proverbial old man and his dog. The youngsters are thrusting their way into the First XI. The embittered old pros, seeing out the season before being sent on their way, don’t want to be there either; they usually reckon they shouldn’t have been dropped in the first place and are good for another season or two at the least. It can make for a spiteful environment. The triallists and the odd club player who make up the XI must sometimes wonder whether professional cricket is all that it is cracked up to be.
Occasionally, the ranks of the Stiffs were augmented by the presence of an overseas player who is serving his year’s qualification. Most of them were seriously good players and invariably you learnt a lot about how they went about their business. In 1973, we at Hampshire – which never had a spiteful atmosphere; not for nothing were we known as the Happy Hants – were able to watch at first-hand how a certain raw Antiguan fast bowler went about his business. It seemed to us, his team-mates, that Andy Roberts’ business was solely knocking batsmen’s heads off.
His reputation swiftly spread around the country like an uncontrollable bush fire. I shall always remember David Nicholls, the understudy of Alan Knott as Kent wicket-keeperwhen Knott was on Test match duty. It was at Dover and Kent had won the toss and elected to bat. Nick, as was his custom, had settled himself down on a bench, coffee and two cheese rolls to hand, in order to watch the opening overs. Roberts had the ball, hurtled in and delivered the first ball. From the pavilion came the unmistakeable sound of a mixture of cheese roll and coffee being discharged from his mouth together with the loud exclamation, “Fuck me!”
It is important to separate fact from fiction here. Yes, Andy was fast, very fast. We knew that because we played with him every day. Yes, he did practise bowling bouncers at us in the nets until we managed to persuade him it was far better to conserve his energy and bowl gentle off-spinners instead. Yes, it was true that his off-spinners were rubbish and yes, it was true that we would run down the wicket and deliberately miss them, accompanied by enthusiastic congratulations on his flight and guile. And yes, it was true that he started to hit inexperienced batsmen some sickening blows with alarming regularity.
But it was not true that in a Second XI game against Gloucestershire at Bournemouth – and this memory is what that article in The Times had jogged – that Gloucestershire were 60-odd for 2, with Numbers 7 and 8 at the crease, the rest of the order having been rushed off to Accident and Emergency at the local hospital. But it is true that Andy had frightened them out of their wits and bowled them out for 69 and it is true that two had retired hurt, one hit on the head and another with his arm broken. I remember their opener, Jim Foat, a good player and a popular opponent, losing his presence of mind and giving Roberts the charge. I was fielding at short leg, one of many, and I sidled up to Jim and quietly brought into question his tactics. “Well, if I’m going to die,” he replied, “I may as well die on the front foot!”
If there was an element of gallows humour in his remark, the danger of getting seriously hurt was real enough. Later that season, playing against his own country, West Indies, for Hampshire, Roberts broke Steve Camacho’s jaw, thus effectively ending his career. He famously broke Colin Cowdrey’s jaw the following season at Basingstoke, so memorably caught by the lens of that peerless cricket photographer, Patrick Eagar. He hit Peter Toohey, the Australian batsman, a sickening blow on the bridge of the nose. And probably the most significant of all was David Hookes, the pin-up boy of Australian cricket, who had his jaw smashed by Roberts in a World Series match during the Packer Revolution. “Look, Hookesey,” said Kerry Packer to the stricken batsman, “If I put you in a crash helmet, will you go out there for me?” Of course, the request was preposterous,but the helmet was born. Mike Taylor, a colleague of mine at Hampshire, was moved to remark once, “Andy hit more batsmen than anybody I knew.” And in his long career, Mike certainly knew a few.
So sometimes, Second XI cricket can meander along inconsequentially. But not that summer of 1973.