Two burly policemen (my word, what a lot of stuff they have about their person) were blocking the entrance to the disabled enclosure in the Gasometer Stand (I don’t know its correct name) at The Oval on the second day of the final Test of an Ashes summer. Of all the places least likely to house a terrorist, I thought to myself, a cricket match would be up there at the top of the list. And surely the least likely category of cricket fans to embrace a terrorist would be wheelchair occupants. The two coppers stood politely aside; perhaps they were just shooting the breeze with equally burly stewards, of whom there seemed to be plenty. I showed my ticket and was escorted to my seat, nobody commenting on the fact that an obviously able-bodied man was taking his place in the disabled enclosure (splendidly situated, I have to point out, right at the front, within touching distance of the boundary markers).
What was I doing there, you may well ask. A cheery, “There you are! Hi Andy,” from behind me five minutes later would provide the answer. I was the guest of Jason Courage, a boy in No 2 when I was a tutor in his House at Malvern College under Martin Knott. Jason’s story is an interesting one, encompassing the most appalling tragedy and bad luck side by side with great fortitude, an exemplar if ever there was one of the indomitable resolve of the human spirit. Jason’s father was Piers Courage, a scion of the Courage brewing dynasty and a successful racing driver in Formula One. Racing for Frank Williams’s team, he was killed in a horrific accident in the Dutch Grand Prix in 1970. Son Jason was three at the time. By the time Jason came to Malvern in the early 1980s, Frank Williams, who had sort of adopted him as a stepson, was himself wheelchair bound following a car accident of his own. Jason’s mother, Lady Sarah Curzon, had in the meantime been remarried to John Aspinall, the zoo owner and gambling club host. I remember Jason as a shy lad, not one to throw his weight around and boast of his famous family connections.
We lost touch with him after he left Malvern; that is until news of further calamity filtered through to school. One evening in October 1995, Jason was riding his motorbike along the Cromwell Road in London when the driver of the car in front executed a sudden, dangerous and illegal right-hand turn. The impact basically broke Jason’s body in two; thereafter, he too has been confined to a wheelchair. We met up at the No 2 reunion last year and he invited me to accompany him to The Oval. I nearly bit his hand off.
It was a glorious September day, rather late in the summer for a Test match, but the old ground – in need of a lick of paint, it has to be said – was packed to the rafters. The day’s play was absorbing rather than exciting in which England, with a disciplined bowling display, lay the foundations for a famous victory two day’s later. Archer (6-62) bowled superbly. What a find this young man is and what a future lies ahead of him, provided he stays injury free. From our vantage point square of the wicket, I was able to study his run-up and delivery from sideways on. He has a loose-limbed, easy approach to the wicket. He doesn’t have to bust a gut to generate pace through the crease, as did, for example, Bob Willis, Shoaib Akhtar and Andrew Flintoff, to name but three. He generates extreme pace with the help of the biggest flick of the wrist I’ve ever seen. In real time, it seems like a throw but the jerk, or the flick, comes from the wrist, not the elbow. On account of his shortish run-up and economical action, he can bowl long spells. On that day, he bowled 24 overs, which is a lot for a fast bowler. If I were the new – as yet unannounced – England coach, I would guard against over-bowling him, always a temptation when you have a match-winner in your team.
Of all games, cricket is the most sociable. On this occasion I am talking about the experience of the spectator. As play progresses, there are periods of longueurs, which allow for easy, unhurried conversation. Is it any wonder that a Test match is the ideal opportunity for old friends to meet up, to swap news, to enjoy a pint or two and watch some cricket, sometimes dressed in the most outrageous costumes? WG Grace, accoutred in old pads and MCC cap, queued with me for the toilets and his beard was genuine (I think). Jason Courage was not fancily dressed. I guess getting dressed in ordinary clothes is a mammoth task in itself; he would have little time or energy for such fripperies. What struck me most during our companionable day together was the absolute absence of self-pity. He did not attempt to dissemble or fudge the difficulties which confront him on a daily basis but one agreeable by-product of his condition is that it has allowed him to watch live a variety of sports, usually from the best of vantage points. “The trick is,” he said, “to form a relationship with the official at each venue who deals with disability access and tickets. That way, you don’t exactly jump the queue but…..” Who taught him that priceless, ageless, formula is unknown to me but I can guess.
Never having been a cricketer himself – he came to a love of the game later on in his life – he was interested in, and bombarded me with, questions about its more arcane laws. LBW was one such object of discussion. I tried to explain if the ball pitches outside the line of the leg stump, it cannot be given out if it strikes the batsman’s pads. “So even if it had gone on to hit the stumps and your leg is in the way, it’s not out?” I nodded. “Why?” he demanded. “Well….er…. that’s the law…yes…. well, it’s always been like…..” I tailed off, all too aware of the inadequacy of my explanation. Why indeed? Where is the logic in that? Sometimes you need someone like Jason, with a sharp, analytical brain, to challenge long-held dictums. “I guess the Australians are a bit end-of-termish,” he astutely observed as yet another batsman fell to an injudicious shot.
He had come well prepared. You have to be when you are in his position. From his rucksack, he provided lunch. “I do it myself,” he said, “Because of my condition I have to be careful of my diet. The unhealthy stuff that’s on offer from those outlets in the concourse plays havoc with my stomach and besides, it’s all so expensive, isn’t it?” Hear hear, I would have concurred had my mouth not been full with a large bite from one of his delicious sandwiches. Not having had pressing reason to consider the matter of disability access to major sporting occasions, I was intrigued to learn of his experiences at the different venues. “All good except Wimbledon,” was his verdict. How come? “Well, their definition of ‘disabled’ seems to differ from other places. They lump together people in wheelchairs with those with broken legs or mental difficulties and the like, so the pool for the ballot to secure tickets is that much larger.” He wasn’t cross or resentful; it is just the way it is. Something else to deal with, as there has been so much in his life.
I left The Oval to make my way home with much to ponder. Watching a day’s play in a Test match is always an absorbing experience; to watch it in the company of Jason was doubly enjoyable. On the train back to Malvern, I pondered on the bravery of any batsman who has to face the fearsome pace of a Joffra Archer and the bravery of a man who has to face daily life without the use of half his body. Courage by name, courage by nature.