Vermeulen receives marching orders

hat lies behind the return of Mark Vermeulen to Zimbabwe? We may never know.


JUNE 9: What lies behind the return of Mark Vermeulen to Zimbabwe? We may never know. Just when we are expecting an announcement to say that he will be staying here as one of the limited overs squad, there is a brief statement from their management revealing that he is disciplined for, among other things, failing to get on the bus to return the half mile from the Chester-le-Street ground to the hotel at Lumley Castle on the second night of the Test. He is guilty of "persistent misconduct" their statement says. Team manager Babu Meman adds: "Mark has been warned about his conduct on a number of separate occasions during the tour but unfortunately has not heeded that advice. The final straw concerned an incident that took place at the end of play on the Friday of the Test. Mark ignored a management instruction to travel with the rest of the squad on the coach, which is a practice followed to promote team morale and adhere to the security advice we have been given for the tour. Instead he left the ground on his own, deliberately ignoring a perfectly reasonable request." The coach Geoff Marsh says: "Mark is a talented player but he has to learn that the team comes before personal considerations. His poor behaviour means that he will now miss the opportunity to continue learning about international cricket. That is very disappointing for him personally, but even more so from the team perspective." All the insiders reckon that there is no political motive behind the action. But an athlete being sent home for preferring to walk rather than get on a bus? Surely he ought to be encouraged to get all the exercise he can.

June 10: The cost of overseas players soars so high that in the next few months counties will pay out more than three and a half million pounds sterling in wages, travel and other expenses to bring them into our cricket; roughly 200,000 pounds sterling for each county. I am never sure that English cricket ought to allow two overseas professionals for each county and I am old-fashioned enough to believe that Yorkshire may make a mistake when they change the policy that once suits them wonderfully and admit players born outside the county. Yes, it is idiosyncratic, strange and romantic but it is different and gives Yorkshire a distinction that other counties cannot emulate. Not only is the cost of overseas stars rising but the quality drops alarmingly. Injured players come and go rapidly; mainly because they are not able to play year-in, year-out. And who can blame them?

June 11: I know everyone who reads this column will want to hear that Geoff Boycott is fit and well. We keep in touch with him this winter when he goes through intensive treatment for the cancer that hit his throat late last summer. He tells me that he is in remission, that he is feeling stronger, going to the gym and that about once a month he realises that he is improving to a noticeable degree. He still can't taste the food he eats. "You know, you see something on your plate you enjoy in the past and look forward to eating it — and it tastes like cardboard." Probably as a result he is not putting on much weight but he seems to be enjoying life again and we hope he is fit enough to make the trip as a radio commentator to the Caribbean next spring. The old, unmistakable voice sounds fine and, although I don't ask him anything about recent cricket I suspect he has a lot of strong opinions in store for the moment — and may it be soon — when he returns to the microphone full time.

June 12: As the Cheltenham and Gloucester tournament reaches its final stages, and Lancashire are short odds favourites, talk turns to one of the great moments in English cricket. The day the game delays the Nine O'Clock News. (You need to know that the Nine O'Clock News is at that time an almost sacred institution because it was essential listening — on the radio — during the Second World War. Now it is broadcast at 10 o'clock. Crazy!). The semi-final of the Gillette Cup is played at Old Trafford between Lancashire and Gloucestershire on July 28, 1971 and, mainly because of a rain break, does not finish until the news is, for the first time in its history, five minutes late. David Hughes, a Lancashire all-rounder with "eyes like a farmhouse rat" according to his captain Jack Bond, changes the course of the match with a dramatic over of 24 — two sixes, two fours, two twos — from the off-spinner John Mortimore. With a finish of that quality, even the BBC do not regret their decision to keep the cricket running. As the game ends, I bump into Roger Knight, now secretary of MCC, then a batsman with Gloucestershire. "Hard luck, Roger," I say. "You don't expect No. 9 to smack it about like that." He laughs. "No not at midnight you don't." Some of those players are around. Mike Proctor and Clive Lloyd, the ICC match referees, Farokh Engineer, now a couple of pounds heavier than the lithe wicket-keeper of the 1970s, and "Flat" Jack Simmons who is always a pound or two heavier, still pop up from time to time.

June 13: I predict a long life for the Twenty20 competition. I admit I am as sniffy as the rest at the thought of this midsummer madness, with bowlers running back to their marks, batsmen trotting to the crease and the desperate need to score at better than one a ball. Is that cricket? I keep asking. But it draws the crowds because it lasts only two and a half hours in the sunniest part of our season when the long evenings make floodlit games a nonsense.

Of course, it needs fine tuning and it needs better marketing. For instance both semi-finals and the final are on the same day at Trent Bridge on July 19. The first semi begins in the morning and the final is due to finish 12 hours later. That's too much, even for the most dedicated fan. But keep trying, ECB, you may have a winner here.

June 14: To Bristol where I meet two of my favourite people. Sid Lawrence is huge, a great Lennox Lewis of a cricketer, with the gentlest handshake and the softest voice you will ever encounter. He is so badly injured playing for England that he is forced to give up his favourite pastime of whizzing the ball past footfast batsmen. Now he is a Gloucestershire supporter, watching from the sidelines and waiting for his 12-year-old son Buster to turn into the next great English quick. "He's my life now," he says as we watch Gloucestershire finish off Worcestershire in the Twenty20 competition. "He's full of promise, a much better cricketer than I am. Watch for the name." So sometime in the next 10 years we may see another Lawrence with a deadly yorker, a bouncer good enough to put Phil Simmons in hospital and an enthusiasm for life that makes him an irresistible companion.

June 15: Jack Russell, eccentric portrait painter, and oddball wicket-keeper is my other all-time favourite cricketer. "Hey," he says, "what are two old 'uns like you and I doing, still earning a living out of this lovely game." There is always a twinkle in his eye but now, aged 39, he is fit, and so lively that even his ragged moustache seems to be powered by its own electric motor. He has one year to run on his contract. "One morning I guess I am going to wake and think `What am I doing playing cricket at my age?' and then I'll pack the stuff away and do something else." Jack's self-confidence is based on his knowledge that he will be able to earn a living with his brush even if his skill with those battered old gloves deserts him overnight. "Busy winter at the easel," he says. "A few paintings, a few portraits. Keeps me going just like the lads here keep me young. They are a good bunch and that enables me to go on. Another year perhaps. Then it might be time to go." Is he inspired by Alec Stewart's longevity? He is as quick as ever and, in the opinion of good judges, still the best in the country. Maybe he gives up the international scene too soon.