Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 June 2019

Cricket World Cup: the day Jacques Kallis, Hansie Cronje and the South Africans hit me into orbit

Turn the clock back to 1999 - the last time the World Cup was being held in England

South Africa had a fearsome World Cup side in 1999. Laurence Griffiths / Allsport
South Africa had a fearsome World Cup side in 1999. Laurence Griffiths / Allsport

Most cricket grounds have tales which live on through the years, turning more and more mythical as time rolls on.

Chelmsford is the headquarters of English county side Essex. There's nothing spectacular about the place - it lacks the old-world charm of Lord's or the space-age architecture of The Oval.

But it has been the breeding ground of England captains such as Graham Gooch, Nasser Hussain, Keith Fletcher and most recently Alastair Cook.

It's boundaries on the straight drive are short and easily reachable, especially so in this age of tree-trunk size bats.

One of the more well-worn stories that used to the do the rounds among the cricket-mad youth in the 1990s involved the West Indies international Phil Simmons, who played a few seasons on the county circuit for Leicestershire and is the current Afghanistan coach.

Simmons is a big man who made the bat look very small. Now, legend has it that he connected with one delivery so sweetly that not only did the ball clear the stadium, but also the River Can and road beyond it and cannoned into the multi-storey car park adjacent to the busy A1060 roundabout. Whether it hit the third or fourth floor depended on who was telling the story.

A look at the map below will tell you that we're talking hundreds of metres between the pitch and the car park - the green rectangle next to High Chelmer Shopping Centre.

Chelmsford town centre. Google Maps
Chelmsford town centre. Google Maps

Reaching the river was a decent enough hit, though not uncommon, particularly when Graham Napier, a former T20 six-hitting world record holder, was at the crease for Essex.

Twenty years ago, Chelmsford was chosen as a venue for the World Cup, hosting Zimbabwe and South Africa on May 29. Zimbabwe ran out winners by 48 runs - and I'd like to think I played a part in that, however insignificant it may have been.

It was a week in which I found out just how short those straight boundaries are, and just how far a cricket ball can be hit.

My involvement came about having played youth age group cricket for Essex for a few years. In the lead up to the World Cup match, the two teams required some bowlers to take part in their training sessions out on the pitch, and a letter arrived in the post summoning me and the other 16/17 year olds to attend.

This brought a mixture of excitement and trepidation. My leg-spin bowling peaked a couple of years previously when I comfortably passed a century of wickets for one summer.

By this stage however the wickets were in decline, the long-hops and full-tosses were more frequent. Bowling leg-spin before the growth spurt can be very different to doing so afterwards.

Zimbabwe were up first and we were greeted by a jovial but extremely talented bunch. The Flower brothers - Andy and Grant - were in the side, as was Murray Goodwin and Heath Streak, while fast bowler Henry Olonga was the first black cricketer to play for Zimbabwe at international level.

The atmosphere was relaxed under sunny skies, and I can remember the leg-spinner Adam Huckle being helpful to the spin bowlers while also spending a lot of time sat on the floor sunbathing. The batsmen were largely respectful with the occasional clatter of ball hitting plastic seats in the stands.

The following day was our turn to join in with the South Africans.

17 May 1999: A general view of the Chelmsford Cricket Ground during the Cricket World Cup Group B match between New Zealand and Bangladesh played at Chelmsford, England. New Zealand won the game by 6 wickets. \ Mandatory Credit: Ben Radford /Allsport
Essex County Cricket Ground during the Cricket World Cup Group B match between New Zealand and Bangladesh in 1999. Allsport

It started badly for me when I boarded a train which failed to stop at Chelmsford and ended up in London. It wasn't the best preparation when you're about to bowl to Jacques Kallis and Hansie Cronje, though thankfully I'd left early.

I had my cricket bag full of kit with me and on reaching the ground one of my teammates asked why I had it.

"You're not expecting to pad up and have a bat today, are you?

"You honestly think I want to face Allan Donald?" I responded.

The mood was immediately different. The late Bob Woolmer was coach. He was marching about with a clipboard and whistle. This was more like a military exercise than a sporting occasion as the players rotated from the nets to fielding drills.

And there was no conversation beyond an occasional "well bowled". The South Africans were stony-faced professionals, and that meant taking apart any bad bowling.

It was here that the legend of Phil Simmons and car park became a real possibility as I saw another of my deliveries disappear over the boundary, and over the seats before giving the ducks in the river a scare.

I wasn't the only one to be given the treatment. Bowl, thwack, plop. Another ball please. It was like a contest to see who could hit the ball the furthest.

One image in particular remains very clear in the mind to this day, and that is of Nicky Boje hitting me over the scoreboard. I knew Boje wasn't a top order batsman and I thought I had a decent chance of getting him out - if you can rightly say you got someone one while having a net.

He patted a few away as Mark Boucher, who was keeping wicket, nodded from behind the stumps. And then we both watched as the next ball turned into a mere dot in the sky and ended up somewhere in Chelmsford town centre.

Boje marched out of the net a few minutes later as Woolmer pumped on his whistle and in marched Herschelle Gibbs, then Gary Kirsten, and Kallis, followed by Lance Klusener and Shaun Pollock.

A glance over to the fast bowlers' nets on the other side of the square gave minor relief as they were suffering amid the carnage as well. And these were young players some of who went on to play professionally.

Still, there was the satisfaction of seeing Kirsten miscue a shot to one particularly slow leg-break I fed him. After looping over the 10-foot high net it was caught by Jonty Rhodes. Bowled Oxborrow, caught Rhodes. Nice.

Shaun Pollock at Essex's County Ground in Chelmsford.
Shaun Pollock at Essex's County Ground in Chelmsford.

Besides the memories is this picture which was taken after the session of me standing with Pollock. I'm looking a little windswept and am somehow still smiling. My leg-spin days ended shortly after. At least they went out with a bang.

So, 20 years on, groups of young bowlers around the country are likely to be called upon to go through a similar experience as the teams prepare for the start of the World Cup.

The bats are bigger, the batsmen more aggressive than ever. All I can say is good luck - and make sure you get out of way when they get swinging.

Updated: May 27, 2019 12:45 PM

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