“Alas poor Pete, I knew him well, a fellow of infinite jest and most excellent fancy.” (With apologies to Hamlet)
November 23, 2017
Peter Barrett’s professional cricket career remains a bit of an enigma, all too brief a story of unfulfilled promise. Sometimes, however, cricketers are remembered more for the person they were than for their mixed success in the middle. Some outstanding cricketers are not fondly remembered at all. That cannot be said of Peter Barrett. His Hampshire career was not fruitful but those of us who played with him will never forget him. When news of his untimely death was released, there wasn’t a single former Hampshire team-mate of his who did not feel profoundly dismayed.
The sense of a waste of a young life was manifold. He arrived on the staff in 1973, my first year as a full time professional. We were therefore exact contemporaries, two new kids on the block, eager to fit in but anxious not to step out of line. Yet we came from two different planets. I had finished my degree at university and had already been around the Hampshire dressing room for four years, after term had finished on what was known as a summer contract. I knew my way around. Pete did not and his immaturity and naivete were plain to see. Not long out of school, his raw talent had been spotted whilst playing club cricket for his home town, Lymington in the New Forest, or Lymo as he unfailingly called it. Yet with this callowness went an openness and innocence that everybody quickly warmed to. He was as credulous as can possibly be and as a result he was the recipient of much joshing, as is the way in all dressing rooms, but not the least attractive trait of a generous nature was his utter refusal to take offence. His riposte was to laugh, whether he understood the joke or not, a peculiar, distinctive, machine gun guffaw that disarmed and amused in equal measure.
How good a player was Pete? Ah, here is the conundrum. His record is not impressive. Over a two-year period from 1975-76, he played in six first-class matches, scoring 138 runs at an average of 12.54. There are bowlers in Hampshire’s history who couldn’t hold a bat who have better batting averages than that and Pete was an opening batsman. So what went wrong? The powers-that-be obviously felt that he was worth taking a punt on by offering him a contract, despite his rawness and lack of experience. Commendably, they continued to have faith in him, hoping that he would mature and turn that raw talent into something more substantial, until finally deciding that it would never happen, releasing him at the end of the 1976 season. It was an altogether sad but familiar story of a rough-hewn talent whose edges were never smoothed off.
We his team-mates who saw him every day in the nets and performing in the Second XI were left scratching our heads, perplexed at his inability to harness that potential and push on in his career. I used to say that he had more ability in his little finger than I possessed in the whole of my body. All right, it was a bit of an exaggeration….but not much. He had natural timing, good footwork, an aggressive instinct and undeniable flair. Some of his strokeplay took the breath away. What held him back? Was it lack of confidence? Did he freeze on the larger stage? Was he intimidated by the big name players he was facing? Or did he just not enjoy the limelight, preferring the more anonymous, cosy, undemanding world of club cricket back in the New Forest, playing with his mates for his beloved Lymo?
The truth is I don’t think he knew himself. Not of a naturally introspective disposition, he never really bothered to ask himself questions; he saw what was in front of him, he said what he saw and he was straightforward in what he said. I am not intimating that he was unintelligent but he was remarkably incurious about the world around him and what might be needed for him to succeed. The same mistakes in his batting kept on recurring. He did not seem capable of learning from experience. One of his signature shots was the effortless flick off his legs, beautifully timed when the ball was on leg stump and pitched up but liable to catch the leading edge when it wasn’t quite ‘there.’ Instead of analysing this technical flaw, he would simply curse when he came back into the dressing room – his range of epithets was limited but colourful – take off his pads and quickly, too quickly perhaps, re-join the banter with his team-mates. The world was an uncomplicated place for Pete and that is what made him such an affable and accommodating companion.
Take those pads, for example, the ones he has just torn off in disgust. They were right-handed leg guards….. and he was a left-handed batsman. To the uninitiated, this might not seem significant. But it certainly is. Cricket is a sideways game and if you are a left-handed batsman, the right side of your body is facing the bowler. Accordingly, it makes sense that the outside of the right knee, the one in the firing line, so to speak, is heavily protected, the inside less so. It stands to reason therefore that the right knee is horribly exposed if you’re wearing right-handed pads. For some reason, Pete was oblivious to this and even when it was pointed out to him, he just shrugged his shoulders, grinned and gave it not another thought. Until….
Mid- May 1976. The West Indies were in town. Gordon Greenidge and Andy Roberts were in the touring party and Barry Richards was on gardening leave, sensibly. Thus Hampshire’s three overseas stars were not in the home side XI. Vacancies for Second XI players were in abundance. Peter Barrett found himself opening the batting against one of the most fearsome attacks in the history of the game…in the wrong pads. What happened next was as comical as it was expected. Inevitably, he was hit on the outside of the right knee, by Michael Holding, as it happened, and down went Pete like a collapsing sack of potatoes, clutching his knee and cursing. When he opened his eyes, a circle of concerned black faces was peering down at him. The only one he recognised was the captain, Clive Lloyd, and that only because he was wearing glasses. “Ere, Cloive,” announced our Pete, “Tell your farst bowlers not to bowl so f***in’ farst!” The knot of fielders broke up, wide grins splitting their faces, some doubled up with laughter.
Communication with Pete was frequently prone to confusion. This had less to do with his distinctive Hampshire burr than his mangled syntax, interspersed at regular intervals by the insertion of his favourite swear word in a variety of different grammatical guises. On being asked later that day how was the knee that had been clobbered by Holding, he replied, “It’s warbling.” Some of us were non-plussed. “Warbling? I thought only birds warbled.” “That’s roight,” he agreed, “When Oi’m wiv me bird, she makes moi knees go all warbly too.” It was impossible not to cherish someone like that, who can make you laugh, even if unintentionally. “Ere, Murt,” he came up to me in the field one day whilst I was captaining the Second XI, “When’s it toime for the old new ball?” When Peter Sainsbury, our coach, was giving Pete a lift home back to Lymo – as far as I know, Pete never passed his driving test – the exchange between the two as the elder statesman demanded directions of his young lieutenant was comical. “Which way, Pete?” “Er, not sure, Pete.” “Come on – you live here!” “Yeh, but it looks different, loik, in a car.”” Left or right?” “Oh roight – it’s straight left.” Thereafter, our coach informed us the next day, the exchanges became increasingly surreal.
Pete was gullible. That we ascertained pretty early on in his Hampshire career. We tried not to take advantage of that fact too often but occasionally the temptation was overwhelming. We were playing Glamorgan away in Cardiff…up the A34 to Newbury, down the M4 to Bristol, across the Severn Bridge and into Wales. Pete was in the back of the car, entertaining us with an account of the previous weekend’s disco at the cricket club in Lymo. As we approached the Severn Bridge, we warned Pete that we would soon be entering a foreign country, to wit Wales, and had he remembered to bring his passport. The colour drained from his face and his favourite word, or rather, various adaptations of his favourite word, convinced us that he had not. He had never been to Wales, it would seem. As captain of the team, I felt it was my duty to berate him for letting the side down. “They won’t let you in,” I pointed out, “and as we don’t have a 12th Man, that means we’ll have to play with 10 men.” He fell silent. Then my driving companion – wild horses won’t persuade me to reveal his name – suggested we hide Pete in the boot. “The Welsh Guards will never bother to look,” he assured us. At the next lay-by, we stopped and bundled Pete into the boot. We crossed the Severn Bridge without mishap and my companion was right. The border guards were shamefully lax and let us pass without hindrance. At another lay-by, we stopped and opened the boot. Pete was mightily relieved and full of admiration for our resourcefulness. It was the Glamorgan boys who gave the game away in spite of our pleas to keep their mouths shut. They told him when he was batting. I think they were trying to put him off. They succeeded. I hid when Pete came back into the dressing room.
And then he was gone, all too soon, from our dressing room, from the club and shortly from this life. The news that he had been killed in a motor bike accident in 1983, aged only 28, came as an awful shock. I’ve always had a horror of motor bikes, having shared too many hospital wards with young lads broken in pieces by their crashes. It only confirmed the truth of that slogan (slightly modified) in George Orwell’s Animal Farm: Four Wheels Good, Two Wheels Bad. Somehow, one felt, Pete was not destined for a long life. Like one of his innings, he sparkled and then was extinguished. Tim Tremlett once said of him that you would be hard pressed to find anyone who had a bad word to say about Pete. I beg to disagree. You won’t find anyone, no matter how hard you try. Scant consolation for his poor parents, family and friends, however. On the board in the Arlott Atrium at Hampshire’s new ground, identifying every player who has represented the club since its inception as a first-class county in 1864, you can find Pete’s name and number, 365. Immediately before him is John Southern (364). Next in line is Tim Tremlett (366). Both became county stalwarts. Pete has no such back catalogue of success. But he is fondly remembered by those who shared a dressing room with him and that, in the final analysis, is all that really counts.