RIP Mr J

Today Peter Drake remembers a special cricket coach from his youth. Did you have an inspirational coach? And what made him or her unique? Feel free to share you own tales in the comments.

Those of us whose age long ago exceeded their batting average (and will soon be equal to our highest score) will remember him well; he was the cricket coach, common in the sixties, seventies and eighties, whose tireless efforts created, nurtured and cemented the love of the game that has, in my case at any rate, lasted for the whole of my adult life.

Let’s call him Mr J. There must be hundreds, if not thousands of Mr J’s up and down the country. The version that played such an influence over my cricketing life was a teacher of woodwork and craft (yes, there used to be such a subject!) at a grammar school in mid-Lincolnhire – a place of education made up of half a dozen town houses loosely linked by lanes and residential streets, a leaf lined quadrangle where Tennyson walked, and a whitewashed pavilion next to a traditional grass square. As schoolboys we thought nothing of our good fortune in learning the game in such a lovely place.

I doubt that he played a lot of cricket; certainly I never saw him in action. He was born with talipes, or club foot, in an era where such afflictions were not treated successfully, if at all. As a result, he walked with a pronounced limp, supported by a sturdy looking stick with which he would pointedly direct fielders during practice.

His disability (not that he would ever have called it that) did not impact on his love for the game. Not a bit of it. He became a coach early in life and found, to our great fortune, that a man with such a qualification can make a huge impact on the thousands of young people that pass through his school over the generations.

He might have been created by an author or playwright, so strong was his character. His manner could be gruff to say the least. Although not a tall man, his toothbrush moustache and steel – grey, military style haircut commanded no small amount of respect. Not that he needed to.

His knowledge of the game and willingness to make the effort to allow boys to play his beloved game was enough to inspire something close to devotion. The schoolteacher in him allowed him to recognise when a boy was trying his hardest but struggling, or when a talented lad was not giving his best, and to tailor his advice accordingly.

Mr J’s coaching methods were unorthodox, to say the least, and I doubt they were taken from any reputable manual. I distinctly remember standing with one eye tight shut, holding a cricket stump, attempting to swat away a golf ball thrown at me from a distance of ten feet or so. All done to improve hand – eye coordination.

How about practicing throwing with the ‘wrong’ arm?

“Bilateral throwing is the next big idea in cricket, boys, take it from me!”

We did, and it wasn’t, but it was the most marvellous fun; surely the point of any sporting activity, and Mr J made it so.

We were a decent team, and won the great part of the many games we played over my time in Sixth Form. I was a timid, squeak-voiced 13 year old when I arrived at the school. When I left, five years later, overconfident, post-A level and University–bound, I had played more hours of cricket than I could possibly count.

I have played thousands more hours of cricket since then, as have all three of my sons who have inherited my love for the game. Mr J played a huge part in bringing about this change, and for that I offer my most humble thanks.

Mr J left us many years ago, but his influence lives on.

God bless him.

Peter Drake

Peter is a teacher, playwright and cricket nut from Hexham, Northumberland

5 comments

  • What a lovely reflection on a time gone by. I feel sure such people still exist.

    I live in Texas so no longer see cricket first hand.

  • I was lucky enough to get taught by two former pros at school, Roger Tolchard and Andy Murtagh (Tim’s uncle). However, it was an old boy called Bob Hanworth, who was actually my English teacher at the time, who had the biggest impact on me. He taught the cover drive like he taught Anthony and Cleopatra. The love and passion just came through.

    He drilled into me that cricket could be a beautiful game, that batting could / should be aesthetically pleasing, and he spend hours feeding me balls on the bowling machine – getting me to lean into my cover drives and follow through with a full flourish rather than checking the shot. I will always be grateful for that.

    He also seemed to really believe in me as a player. Despite being a reasonably productive school batsman (at least in my final year), I always struggled a bit for confidence and was an anxious soul who was too afraid to play shots in fear of getting out (not that I let anyone know that at the time). Those hours on the bowling machine, when old Bob would shout things like “beautiful, James” gave me a real boost.

    • I bet Tolchard was a great teacher. Always came accross as a player who just loved to play. Would have fitted in well today. Probably as good a keeper batsman as Bairstow or Buttler. As I remember he played a few times for England, but if you were in the Knott/Taylor era you’re weren’t going to get much of a look in. Interestingly there were a few decent wk/ batsmen in that time who got to play for their country, with the likes of Bairstow, Humpage and Parks to the fore.

  • Anyone who received coaching at the Edgbaston indoor nets during the 60’s and 70’s will remember Derief Taylor. I had him for about 3 years and he was a joy to work with as a kid. He had boundless enthusiasm for the game and a real understanding of how to communicate technical stuff without being pedantic. He was always encouraging and supportive, even if you were having a bad time. He set up skittles and sent down deliveries for you to knock down, keeping the ball on the ground. Years later his advice frequently rang in my ears at the crease. He was a legend at the club.
    Another unsung hero in this vein was Alan Townsend, who’s son Peter was a friend of mine. A first teamer in the 50’s, he was a brilliant close fielder for a big man and did a lot of work to reduce any fear of the hard ball. He was my first coach and was great with youngsters, prepar the young kids for their introduction to Derief. Peter was a bowler and I was a batter so we had some great duals in the nets.

    • Just a nostalgia trip concerning my time with Derief. Dad would take me to the nets on a Friday, always staying to watch me in the small public area behind with theither dad’s and then if he felt I had done well we would drop into Johnny Lyons, a sort of subway like deli for cakes or savouries, as a treat. He was a teacher and cricket coach at his school with a busy social life so we didn’t get to do much together, but this was our time and our shared love of the game was real bond, as neither of my brothers followed this path. He picked up quite a few tips watching the coaches work there. As a player his game was hockey rather than a cricket but enjoyed the fact I loved and played a team sport.

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