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SAM NORTHEAST (410*) ……and a tsunami

I am not at all sure why it has taken Sam Northeast so long – he is 32 – to hit the headlines but you have to admit that he has done it in some style. A few days ago, he scored 410 not out for Glamorgan, the third highest individual score in the county championship’s history. Famously, Brian Lara, with 501* for Warwickshire in 1994, heads the list. Not so well remembered is Archie MacLaren’s 424 for Lancashire in 1895, though Graeme Hick’s 405* for Worcestershire in 1988 is more easily recalled because he aptly named his bat, made by Duncan Fearnley, the ‘405’, with the score garishlyadvertised on the splice. Apparently, there were a few eyebrows raised in Cardiff when Glamorgan’s captain declared at lunch time, thus denying Northeast the opportunity of shooting for Lara’s record but cricket is a team game, forget not, and the decision was vindicated by Glamorgan securing an unlikely win with only five overs left.


Why am I surprised by Northeast’s late flowering as a batsman? I have taken a particular interest in his career ever since he played for Harrow School against my team at Malvern College. He was an all-round sportsman of prodigious talent. I was also in charge of Rackets at Malvern,and I watched in admiration as he comfortably won the Foster Cup at Queen’s Club in 2007, the national trophy for schools. He was also, by all accounts, a fine rugby player, cross-county runner and county squash player. But cricket called. He played for Kent for ten years, before moving to Hampshire briefly, and has now ended up at Glamorgan. Why has he not played for England? Perhaps now, he might get a call-up. He should.


Then something stirred in my memory. Of course. Northeastwas in that Harrow School touring side that was caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami that struck Sri Lanka in 2004. The following summer, Malvern were playing Harrow and I remember clearly sitting down, drink in hand, with my opposite number, Simon Halliday, in his study as he recounted the events of that terrible day. They were practising in front of the pavilion at the Galle Stadium. “The sky was blue, recent rain had cleared and we were eagerly anticipating the match that afternoon,” he said, “Nothing seemed untoward, nothing unusual. You could not picture a more idyllic scene.” They were of course blissfully unaware of a wall of water rushing towards them, following a massive earthquake hundreds of miles out in the Indian Ocean.


“I sensed that some of the boys were distracted from the practice and were staring out to sea,” Simon said, “I turned round and in an instant, I knew what it was.” He was a Geography teacher and straightaway realised that theirexposed position – the cricket ground is fringed on two sides by the ocean – meant that they had little chance of survival. “I honestly thought we were going to die,” he admitted grimly. They were lucky they were just in front of the pavilion and were able to make the steps up to the dressing rooms before the wave struck. Simon knew too that the first wave would swiftly be followed by a second and a third, even bigger, more powerful and more destructive. He ordered the boys to climb from the pavilion balcony onto the roof, just in time as a thirty-foot wave crashed past, followed by another. They looked around in horror. Their bus in the car park had been upended and was now floating in the middle of the pitch. People were being swept past, hysterically crying out for help, but none was possible.


As calmly as he was able, Simon began to separate out the boys, those who were good swimmers and those who were not so good. “But in my heart of hearts, I knew it was a futile plan, for the stronger to help the weaker, he admitted, “Nobody could survive that rushing torrent.” He also knewthat the structure of the pavilion could not long last the pressure of the floodwater. “We had to move, to get out somehow.” He looked around. The fort, so familiar to television viewers of Test cricket at Galle, was built on a rocky promontory by the Portuguese in the 16th century, later expanded and strengthened by the Dutch in the following century. If they could wade across the higher pathway, even as the water swirled about their feet, Simon calculated they could scramble up onto the wall and make their way to higher ground. That is, if the walls would stand.


That is what they did, one by one, with nobody losing his balance and getting swept away. The walls did hold, and Simon gave silent thanks to those Portuguese and Dutch engineers. All 15 boys, together with Simon and his two adult assistants, survived but the hotel where they were staying had been washed away, along with the staff and all their belongings. Of more immediate concern was the fate of a number of parents who were accompanying their sons on the tour. Miraculously, all but one were safe, following some extraordinary hair-raising interventions. Two of the parents were in their hired car when it was swept away. The husband managed to ease his wife out of the window, but he was unable to follow her and was drowned. One of 35,000 deaths on the island, it was later confirmed.


It was now late, and Simon and I had to supervise a game the following day. He drained his glass. “As a schoolmaster in charge of adolescent boys,” he smiled, “you can expect the unexpected and we all know that tricky situations arise all the time. But nothing can prepare you for something like that.” I puffed out my cheeks and agreed. Getting bowled out for under one hundred by a rampant Harrow attack certainly paled in comparison.


As Sam Northeast raised his bat to accept the acclamation of his quadruple hundred, I hope he gave up a grateful thought to Harrow School, not for his sports scholarship and his first-class education, but to his level-headed, resourceful and, dare I say it, courageous Master i/c Cricket.


So, Geography teachers do have a point after all.

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