Rob Steen on how the first World Cup final united a teenage socialist with his Thatcherite stepfather
As jobs go, there can’t be many less enticing than being a step-parent. There’s no money in it, appreciation is rarer than a Glenn McGrath long-hop, and success is impossible to measure. I certainly wouldn’t have liked to have been my stepfather. After all, I was the good child, the son who rarely put a foot wrong for fear of upsetting his beloved mother, and was therefore potentially ferocious competition. Throw in a troubled sister and I’m still amazed Ralph didn’t run for the hills.
Ralph and I should have been too different to get on, much less to bond. When we met over a Chinese meal in the autumn of 1974, I was 16, a budding socialist who didn’t have the foggiest idea what he was going to do with his life besides listen to music, watch men playing with balls and write a love story that succeeded where The Great Gatsby failed. Ralph’s parents couldn’t finance his dreams of swimming in the Olympics and he wound up performing doughty service fighting the Japanese in Burma during the Second World War; for the remainder of his days he would replay those battles in his sleep. My father had evaded National Service by dint of his flat feet.
On returning home Ralph qualified as a surveyor, maturing into a pale-blue Thatcherite before Mrs T had even ascended her Downing Street throne: shy, dutiful, a slave to work, rigidly old-school and endearingly unambitious. Two things united us: a deep, unwavering love for both my mother and cricket.
Ralph couldn’t have cut a starker contrast to my father. The latter was loud, charming, witty, guileless, an intoxicating enthusiast and mentally lazy Glaswegian, the source of my lifelong immersion in music, movies and newspapers. At his funeral, having thanked my mother for teaching me how to navigate a cruel planet, I would express my gratitude to him for inculcating the wherewithal to savour and convey joy.
Everyone said my father was “a character”, an iconoclast who’d traded in a career as an optician to chase his dream of becoming a classical concert promoter. When the first show bombed – he and a Russian pianist quaffed the meagre profits, so my mother insisted he get a proper job – he opened a short-lived ladieswear shop then went through a succession of gigs as a globetrotting menswear buyer. Never was he unduly motivated by work, much less fulfilled by it. It was a means to an end, which chiefly meant going to the Royal Festival Hall and the National Film Theatre as often as possible and doing his level best to drown the misery of his marriage in the pub.
My parents had fallen utterly but witlessly for each other on holiday in Bournemouth, married shortly afterwards and spent the next decade and a half regretting almost every moment. Divorce wasn’t something Jewish people did in the 1960s, but by the dawn of the 1970s my mother, whose estimation of men had never been high, had plucked up the gumption. Ralph didn’t have a hard act to follow.
What he immediately seemed to grasp, vastly better than my father, was that keeping a smile on my mother’s face was the passport to his own happiness. When he was around she seemed younger, lighter, softer. He’d come through enough grief already: the mentally disturbed mother of his two sons had committed suicide. My mother’s mother and sister had both done the same, which underpinned the union.
Our arguments about the striking miners may have ruined many a dinner time, but patience was Ralph’s most palpable virtue. Which was why, for all that a chasm divided us on so many aspects of everyday existence, I welcomed him into our lives. Maybe he could succeed where my father and I had failed? But he’d need help.
I like to think that that was why I decided, at the eleventh hour, to go to Lord’s with Ralph for the inaugural World Cup final in 1975. It wasn’t an easy choice. The Beach Boys, Joe Walsh, The Eagles and Elton John were playing at Wembley Stadium that sun-snogged Saturday and my best pal’s sister had a spare ticket; besides, I wasn’t convinced by all that limited-overs malarkey. And it wasn’t as if England had qualified.
Still, Clive Lloyd, the most exhilarating, eye-catching batsman of the mid-1970s, was topping the bill in NW8, and the supporting cast included Alvin Kallicharran, who’d been doing so much to embolden us short-arsed chaps. For a Pom who had endured the previous winter’s Ashes slaughter on highlight-free TV highlights, watching wee Kalli clobber demonic Dennis Lillee all over The Oval a few days earlier had supplied solace of the most delicious kind.
I still hadn’t completely made my mind up when the morning of the match found Ralph and I sitting together in a synagogue just off the Edgware Road. He and my mother were due to tie the knot there the following week, so attendance was expected, nay demanded, even though I had dispensed with praying after England lost the 1970 FIFA World Cup quarter-final to West Germany in distant, dismal Guadalajara.
Up to that point, my obsession with cricket had been rather a lonely one. Ralph had come gingerly into my life at a time when the only other enthusiasts I knew outside my school and club sides were a pair of brothers, Paul and Michael Filer, with whom I attended the occasional Test. All to no avail had I schlepped other friends to Lord’s for county fixtures in the hope of converting them from their one-eyed adoration of f***ball. During the Oval Test of 1966 my maternal grandfather had plonked me down in front of the box to watch my first day’s play, but we never went to a match together. My father took me once, to a 40-over Sunday affair at Lord’s; naturally, he was fast asleep beneath the Grandstand clock when, in the nearest the contest got to a thrill, Sam Black biffed a six millimetres past his nose.
I was exceedingly grateful, then, for having a wannabe stepfather who shared my enthusiasm for flannelled tomfoolery. Especially one who happened to be a paid-up Middlesex supporter, which would have the happy by-product of allowing me to revise for my A levels the following summer while watching Mike Brearley’s mob claim the club’s first Championship pennant since 1947. For seasons thereafter, until I received my first press pass in 1984, I would gain admission by flourishing Ralph’s membership card.
Anyway, at some point between the first psalm and the sermon that historic June Saturday, I plumped for the Lord’s showpiece. It would mark our first match in harness; of all the wedding gifts I could have given my mother, this, I like to think I concluded, would be the most apt, the most symbolic. It would demonstrate my acceptance of her choice, and my belief that her husband-to-be was A Good Guy. It helped, admittedly, that Ralph had tickets; it also helped that, thanks to his salary, my mother, sister and I had migrated from a small flat in the Middlesex suburbs to a townhouse 10 minutes’ walk from the Nursery End. Convenience is so often the mother of reinvention.
As we sat there in synagogue listening to the late, great Rabbi Hugo Gryn talk about the latest Middle East imbroglio with his inimitable combination of reason and tolerance, we knew the match had already passed its infancy, but that didn’t dissuade us. Even taking into account the traffic, it wouldn’t take more than 45 minutes to get home, changed and into our seats. By the time we occupied them, we had long since missed Roy Fredericks’ back foot sliding through the dew and nudging his stumps even as he hooked Lillee for six, but no matter. There were still nearly 100 more overs scheduled to come, and hell, we both wanted to see the Aussies hanged, drawn and, preferably, eighthed.
For seven hours we sat there in our own spiritual synagogue, absolutely rapt, the 37-year difference in our ages reflected in prolonged passages of silence punctuated by mutual cries of “shot” or “bowled”. Almost all the memories are West Indian. Lloyd invigorated and enchanted us with his feline audacity; Rohan Kanhai afforded glimpses of the innovative willow-wielder I’d only read about; Andy Roberts offered an unsuspected preview of the Caribbean pace offensive that would dominate the sport for the next 20 years.
There was also a deceptive initial sighting of another Antiguan, the regally named Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards, who regaled us with barely more runs (five) than run-outs (three). Not for a nano-second did we imagine we were witnessing the most self-assured sportsman we would ever set eyes on, let alone a turning point in the game’s history, but something more soulful had happened: Ralph and I had dug the foundations of what transpired to be a lasting friendship.
So inevitable had the result become by the time stomachs began rumbling, we agreed to leave with half a dozen overs unbowled. Lillee and Jeff Thomson, Australia’s final pair, had come together with 59 wanted, so it seemed a worthwhile risk if it meant beating the crush inching up Wellington Road. We got home in time to turn on the TV and see that comical scene where nobody knows where the ball is and Lillee and Thommo keep running, but the improbable rally eventually ran out of puff and another run-out ensured that justice was done.
Missing the end as well as the start of the match that sold one-day cricket to the world might not be the most cherishable claim to fame, but at least we could say we were there. Only 26,000 people can say that.
I have never been brave enough to be a stepfather. As valiantly as they tried, neither my father nor my own children’s stepfather overcame the obstacles Ralph did. He was kind, gentle and generous, seldom passed judgment on us or our lives, never sought to displace our father or criticise him. He and my mother remained a remarkably harmonious duo until he died, at 91, in 2011; my sister and I loved him to the end. A bust of a sailor that looks uncannily like him stands in my mother’s hallway; even now, every time she leaves the flat, she says “Goodbye darling” to it.
In the 1980s and 1990s, whenever we spoke on the phone, the first thing Ralph would say was: “Don’t think much of your cricket team.” He had grown up revelling in the carefree frolics of Denis Compton and Bill Edrich, and the implacable dependability of Len Hutton; Ken Barrington, Colin Cowdrey, Freddie Trueman and Ted Dexter had illuminated his early adulthood; it pained him more than anything to see England teams look so forlorn, so bereft of joy and optimism, or even defiance. Although we seldom attended games together, we spent countless Saturdays watching Tests in his study, united in our gall and despondency. Only Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff and David Gower could encourage a boyish grin to cross his lips.
Sure, we shared the fleeting Ashes wonders of 1981 and 2005, and at least he died basking in the heady glow of 2010–11, but how I wish Ralph could have survived to see Eoin Morgan and his merry men flex their muscles. He deserved a spot of prolonged exuberance. Then again, who knows: maybe you can get a Sky dish in heaven.