Editor Matt Thacker makes his selection from the Summer 2016 issue. We publish one article from each edition on the website, but you can see the rest if you subscribe or buy a single issue or four-issue bundle. Matt has gone for Marcus Leroux’s memories of playing cricket in Northern Ireland.
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I’m biased. Born in the shadow of the gun right at the start of The Troubles, I spent my first three (unfortunately non-cricketing) years in Belfast. And growing up on the Wirral – geographically close but temperamentally worlds away – it never occurred to me that the game was even played over there. Then recently, my Authors team recruited Roger, a molasses-voiced, double-bass playing Northern Irishman who put me right about just how much cricket is played in his homeland, and then when The Times’ Industrial correspondent Marcus Leroux sent in this piece out of the blue, it felt like a story about the road I didn’t get to travel.
Matt Thacker, June 2016
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SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
Marcus Leroux on his cricketing education in Northern Ireland
When I remember Mark Burcombe, more than anything else, I remember a cut: the bowler steaming in, first ball of the innings, unleashing a ball just outside off-stump. Burcombe, slightly shifting his hefty frame onto his back foot, sends the ball flying between frozen fielders with an almost disdainful dab of the blade.
Have a taste of that, I remember thinking to myself from the score hut. I was 12th man, two years younger than most of the players and nowhere near as good. The opposition had come from Comber, a more genteel part of Northern Ireland, to Portadown, our town in the centre of the province that at that time in the mid-90s had a reputation for little apart from bigotry, violence and a decent football team. They had come for an under-17 20-over game and had put on a vast total of 200-plus. That one shot punctured the air of supercilious superiority we had projected onto them, just as abruptly as it punctured their infield.
That evening Burcombe, a renowned local hardman, batted wearing a woollen hat with the insignia of the Young Citizen Volunteers, the youth wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the murderous paramilitary group. The visitors were probably aghast and almost certainly intimidated. They were from a club founded by the shipbuilding family behind the Titanic. They played their home games in one of Northern Ireland’s most picturesque small towns.
We lost badly, despite Burcombe’s bruising innings. Two years earlier, we had beaten them easily. They had spent the intervening period playing better opponents, we had spent two years languishing in the lowest rung of Northern Irish cricket (which is to say a very low rung).
In microcosm, ours was the problem of Irish cricket: denied a place at the top table, we were starved of the intensity of competition that metamorphoses raw talent into battle-hardened skill.
Their best player, Andrew White, went on to play in the Ireland side that beat Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup. Our best player, Burcombe, went to prison and, after that, witness protection. But that’s a story for later.
Our ground, Chambers Park, was not a favourite away venue for Ulster’s cricketers. It used to be a tip. It was shielded on one side from a dual carriageway by a narrow band of trees and shared much of its outfield with a rugby pitch. The single practice net was on the edge of where the cut grass ended and a rutted wasteland of long grass littered with lost balls began. It was best known as the home of the town’s moderately successful rugby club and had been built in the early 60s on ground reclaimed from landfill. To the east lay one of the town’s more affluent areas, to the west an abandoned gasworks.
Portadown generally was a town where few outsiders, save for journalists and international observers, bothered to venture. Around the same time, Rough Guide summed it up rather bluntly: “There is little in this urban hinterland to attract you – and, indeed, Portadown’s reputation as the most vehemently bigoted Loyalist town in the North is in itself deterrent enough.” It probably felt odd to some that cricket could ever take root somewhere apparently so barren as Chambers Park – and, as the older generation would remind those of us that listened, it had indeed been transplanted there after the cricket club was burnt out of the public park when it found itself on the wrong side a shifting sectarian frontline in the early years of the Troubles. (A not uncommon fate on an island where cricket is considered by many a garrison sport.)
Yet to us Chambers Park was a sort of oasis. We loved the place. In the long summer evenings, a gaggle of teenage boys would be clustered around the nets. Our shadows would lengthen, swallows would swoop over the grass, midges would gather. Sometimes the rattle of a distant Lambeg drum or the thrum of an army helicopter would offer an off-beat accompaniment to the periodic crack of leather on willow. For a few golden summers, this green expanse was what summer was about.
The club was a spectacular cross section. The captain of the first XI was a barrister, a former head boy and rugby captain of the local grammar school. There was a reverend, a doctor. There was also a barrel-chested loyalist whose torso bore a tattoo of a Nazi storm trooper and who had the face of a notorious paramilitary killer tattooed on his calf. Gordie, I’ve changed his name, was considered a bit of a harmless joker (though not so much of a harmless joker to prevent me from changing his name). Behind his back, it was suggested he was a hanger-on or wannabe among true loyalists. He was also terrible at cricket. On both counts, he was far removed from Burcombe.
Burcombe was fat, not that anybody ever called him that. Not even behind his back. In his younger years he had had curly hair in curtains with an undercut, as was the fashion. The sort of haircut you needed to be hard to get away with. Later on he went for the skinhead-and-earring combination. His bowling was fierce. He was too hefty for much of a run-up, but his powerful shoulder made up for it. I remember once I had irked him for some reason while batting in the nets. He put me on my backside with an in-swinging beamer that I evaded by flinging myself on the ground, succeeding in keeping my teeth but not my dignity. But his batting was the thing. He could pound the ball back over the bowler’s head, he could deftly run it down to third man. When he played a forward defensive it looked like he had so much time that he was mocking the bowler, which, in the nets at least, he occasionally was. A judge later would later describe him, accurately, as a man of “limited intellectual ability”, but he had a preternatural ability to stand in the way of a rapidly travelling five-and-a-half ounce projectile and put it wherever he wanted using a bit of wood.
I was terrified of him. I remember him and one of his mates heading a cricket ball back and forth to each other like it was a football. I had met him when I was still a kid and he was a young teenager, through my friend Andy who was, like Burcombe, two years older than me. We played football together. They were at high school and talked about things I didn’t particularly understand, like fighting, girls and rave music. Andy’s dad George was the one who introduced me and Burcombe, and probably most of the club’s youngsters, to cricket. It was partly down to him that we had this motley, rag-tag collection of players across the social spectrum. George was frustrated that the trophy-winning misfits he put together at youth level weren’t given a fair chance to graduate to senior cricket. Players like Burcombe drifted off. For him, it was to drink, drugs and paramilitary violence. For others, university.
At one point he had gone to England and trained with Essex. I doubt whether he could have ever resisted the allure of being a big fish in a small pond. In any case he came back and was dragged in still further. Until, one night, he was dragged in so far he could never come back.
It was a night out in February 2000 in a village near Portadown called Tandragee. Portadown, though far larger, had no nightlife to talk of; Tandragee, inexplicably, had a couple of places that could pass for nightclubs. Burcombe was drinking with two hoods called Noel Dillon and Stephen Brown. They bumped into Andrew Robb, 19, and David McIlwaine, an 18-year-old. McIlwaine I didn’t know, but Robb was in the same year at my school as Burcombe, who was his mate. Robb terrified me even more than Burcombe. A few years before I had been in a record shop with my friend Aaron, a long-haired metaller who had the distinction of being the most bullied person in what was, with hindsight, a pretty tough town. Robb walked in off the street and, for no reason whatsoever, brought my mate Aaron to the ground with a swift punch to the ribs. The bearded, long-haired old guy who ran the record shop glared at him but didn’t dare say a word, like the nervous barman in a western. Robb was a thug who barely knew his drinking partner David, though he did once beat him up because David was going out with a Catholic girl. Robb later bought him a pint by way of apology and they bumped into each other again on the last night of their lives. For McIlwaine, a well-liked graphic design student, it was an extreme case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
McIlwaine and Robb went looking for a party. They ended up drinking with Burcombe and his pals at a house in Tandragee. The local UVF commander had recently been murdered in a loyalist feud by the Loyalist Volunteer Force (it was the leader of this splinter group who had the honour of being tattooed on Gordie’s generously proportioned calf). Robb said something ill-advised about the UVF guy. The atmosphere soured.
The five of them later went off in a car, only for the car to stop on a country lane. When daylight came the bodies of McIlwaine and Robb were found 100 yards apart by a woman taking her daughter to a dance class. Both teenagers had what was euphemistically described in court as a “severe cut throat injury”. Police in Northern Ireland at this point in time could ill afford to be sensitive, but some of the men on the scene that day needed counselling.
Five years later, Burcombe turned himself in. He later cut a deal with the police by agreeing to testify against Brown (Dillon by this stage had killed himself). Burcombe pleaded guilty to conspiracy to cause grievous bodily harm to Andrew Robb in 2008 and was sentenced to 28 months. Brown was given 35 years for the two murders.
David McIlwaine’s father was appalled by the leniency shown to Burcombe and believes the deal was part of a cover-up to conceal the involvement of a police informer.
As a “supergrass”, Burcombe lives with a new identity. What chance did the old Burcombe have? I had seen the captain of the first XI stand up to him (“I’m cleverer than you and I’m not afraid of you,” he told him publicly, eye-to-eye after one insolent remark too many). But the only person I ever saw exert any control over him was George, the wily old organiser of Portadown’s youth teams. George commanded loyalty by giving Burcombe slack. He made him captain. Burcombe encouraged the weaker players instead of bullying them. Soon he had warm words for lesser players or a nod of appreciation when he edged a good one in nets. His ferociousness was channelled into the contest.
Perhaps it is naive to think that sport can reform characters. Yet cricket was the only thing, aside from thuggery, that Burcombe seemed any good at. What would have happened if, instead of drifting away from cricket towards delinquency and then serious crime, he had been able to step up to a level of the game that befitted his talent? A level where his extraordinary ability for the game would have had to have been combined with diligence and discipline?
Cricket and power have always been bedfellows. The sport’s arrival in Ireland was via the garrison (in the south) and the mill (in the north). Paul Rouse, a historian at University College Dublin, wrote recently that by 1880 cricket was “the most important game in Ireland”. Tellingly it was purged as a pastime in an increasingly politicised country, aided by the rise of Gaelic football, which was devised “as a means of saving thousands of young Irishmen from becoming mere West Britons”, in the words of its earliest historian. In Beyond A Boundary CLR James vividly described the exalted position of Queens Park CC, the white club, in Trinidad’s cricket hierarchy and the intensely felt racial politics of the game. Today this alignment between cricket and power translates into an increasing reliance on fee-paying schools to pass the game to the next generation. Globally, it means India, England and Australia dominate the sport’s governance, perhaps at the expense of truly internationalising it – at the expense, in other words, of emerging players like Ireland. Burcombe was a misfit in cricket just as Ireland is a misfit in cricket. How much richer would cricket be if it had room for more misfits? How much richer would life be for misfits be if cricket had room for them?
On the internet, the only photo of Burcombe is on a news story about his conviction. He is in his Portadown whites, cropped from a team photo; smiling, or maybe sneering, at the photographer. That man is gone – retired hurt, the scorebook will say, with no further elaboration. But sometimes I imagine that whoever he has become is padding up somewhere, in a pavilion far from Portadown, ready to go out to bat.
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Why not give the gift of The Nightwatchman this Father’s Day?