Bentley felt a sadness washing over him as he watched the evening news on television. The news reader had announced the death of England’s legendary fast bowler, Sir Alec Bedser, aged 91. Bentley looked at the black and white photographs flashing on the screen, Bedser in impossibly white cricket gear, in full flight, his arm stretched rigid above his head, letting fly a rocket.
Amid the melancholy, Bentley also felt a thirst coming on, a craving for hops on the tongue. Bentley was remembering the time Alec Bedser had handed him a pint of Fuller’s bitter one bleak English winter’s night in the mid-1960s.
Bedser had never met the cub reporter Bentley before, didn’t even know his name. Although buying a pint for all and sundry might have been nothing out of the ordinary for the friendly and generous Bedser, it carried a message for the awe-struck teenage Bentley. The famous cricketer had stepped out of the Boy’s Own pantheon of sporting icon not for his exploits on the cricket pitch but as the local hero who never forgot his roots.
Bedser did not have to be acquainted with the reporter. It was enough for Bedser to know that the young Bentley was from his home town of Woking in Surrey, and was eager to write about Bedser’s beloved Horsell and Woking Cricket Club. Bedser may have now been an England selector and a successful businessman inLondon, but he still involved himself in the business of running the amateur cricket club from where they had started out.
Alec and his twin cricketing brother Eric’s lives in the small town were steeped in myth and fable and, although instructed by his editor to compile a lengthy report on the cricket club’s annual general meeting for that week’s newspaper, Bentley had planned his own interview with the cricket great. Bentley hoped to separate fact from fiction, most of the fiction coming from tales of the brothers’ exploits recounted by Bentley’s cricket-mad dad.
From the outset, it was clear that this was not a social gathering, and the president of the club, Alec Bedser, would approach affairs with the same discipline and determination as he would to a board meeting of his company, or a meeting of theEnglandselectors.
Bentley could see that he would not get the chance to talk about Bedser’s cricketing past. That, nonetheless, did not stop Bedser pressing a pint of cold, very cold bitter into Bentley’s hand at the start of deliberations.
The cricket pitch outside the Victorian clubhouse was coated in snow and, inside, an array of single-bar electric heaters tried to ward off the cold in a wooden building clearly not designed for occupancy in winter.
“Get that inside you, son, that’s the way they drink it inAustralia,’’
Bedser said with a laugh, as Bentley supped the freezing pint drawn from a wooden keg that a half hour previously had been standing outside in the snow.
After two more pints, the young reporter found myself struggling with his shorthand note, but there was no need for panic. Bentley somehow knew the affable Bedser would fill him in with anything he missed if he phoned his office next day. Bentley might even be able to discuss myth and legend.
The Bedsers were identical twins, Alec a fast bowler with a fearsome leg-cutter and Eric an all-rounder and master of off-spin.
Was it really true that a craggy old batsman playing for Yorkshire, who no doubt had received one too many bouncers to the head during his lengthy career, had turned to a teammate after experiencing difficulty playing both Bedsers and said:
“Jesus, that boy Bedser can really mix it up a bit?’’
And was it true that the Bedsers had played a trick on aSydneybarber during an Ashes tour in 1946 by going in for a trim one after the other, Alec first.
“But I could have sworn I done your hair just a minute ago,’’ said the confused barber.
Eric replied, “Yes, I know. It’s stuff that you put on it that made it grow so fast. ‘’
One of the best stories that did the rounds concerned the Bedsers sailing to South Africa in 1948, Alec as an MCC player and Eric as a journalist. A woman passenger who had been drinking non-stop for three days saw the Bedser twins together, uttered a shrill shriek and rushed to the cabin, convinced she was seeing double.
The Bedsers always had a story to tell, especially about the state of the modern game.
Sometimes their comments did not sit well with a game moving out of the era of the eager semi-professional, sometimes playing in borrowed kit and boots, sometimes playing with a hangover.
Bentley hung on every word, as he hung on to his own memories of the game from what he called the black-and-white era, a contorted metaphor for the game pre-colour television and before the one-day game which saw players donning coloured suits.
Bentley was not a fan of the one-day game but in all his attention to the mutterings and utterings of Bedser he never ascertained the retired cricket’s position on the subject.
“Big Alec’’. however, was never afraid to speak out against modern training methods which he complained saw players spending just as much time in the gym as in the nets.
“I just bowled,’’ he told reporters duringEngland’s tour of theWest Indiesin 1990. “Often walked to the ground, changed and bowled all day. Did that inAustraliain 90 degrees. Didn’t need to go to a gym.’’
If those comments did not mark him as a man from another age, his reaction one day to anEnglandsupporter wearing anEnglandbaggy cap most certainly did.
“You earn that?’’ he barked. The man stopped dead in his tracks, looking embarrassed. “You have to earn that cap,’’ the England great continued. “It’s supposed to be a privilege.’’
The age of replica sports gear was just dawning, and Alec Bedser didn’t like what he saw. He was old school.
The Bedser twins were inseparable for their entire lives, never marrying and living in the house inWokingbuilt by their parents. Although Eric _ who died in 2006 _ did not play forEngland, he still visitedAustraliaduring the Ashes so he could see his brother play. Alec in fact took 236 wickets forEngland(24.86) between 1946 and 1955, at the time the most wickets taken in Test cricket. He dismissed Don Bradman six times; no other test bowler had that success.
Bentley would confess that he never saw the Bedsers play as a boy, and at the time he was not too troubled. Being named “Donald’’ in honour of Bradman was enough cricket for a boy from Woking whose heart was drawn towards winter sports like football. So perhaps it was the winter setting of Bentley’s meeting with the great Alec Bedser that made it so memorable for him, frozen in time by the cold sting of Fuller’s London Pride on the tongue.
It was only a brief item on the death of Alec Bedser on the TV news. And when it was over Bentley felt compelled to reach for a biography of another of his heroes, the late cricket writer John Arlott, and write on its flyleaf: “Our cricket heroes, their feats and exploits are a part of our youth, part of our connection with our fathers, and when these legends die we lose a part of ourselves.’’