Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The nicest bloke I ever met in cricket

Graeme Welch, end of story.

I've never got especially close to any player though have had conversations with many. My concern has always been that if you find your idols have feet of clay a lot of the magic might dissipate. That could quite easily have happened early on in my cricket supporting career when, after a game at Chesterfield, I politely asked a then Derbyshire batsman for his autograph as he stood by his car and was told to "**** off".

I was only eleven at the time and seriously upset by the incident. If that was how cricketers behaved I really didn't want to know them. After that incident I hoped that the player in question failed whenever he played for us. Apart from the odd innings, my prayers were answered and I celebrated quietly when he was released.

Subsequently I've known professional players as club pros and been unimpressed. A South African we had was incredibly full of his own importance and chatted up anything in a skirt with a greater determination than he showed at the crease, while an Aussie of some reputation was patently incapable of explaining to lesser mortals how to play a particular shot or how to get into the mindset of batting.

I've spoken with a number of Derbyshire players past and present and most have been OK. Steve Stubbings is a top bloke and I had a few pleasant chats with Kim Barnett. Dave Houghton was also a really nice man, happy to chat cricket for as long as you wished.

Best of them all was "Pop" Welch. A very fine cricketer and fantastic bloke.

A few years ago I took my son to see his first cricket match. A pre-season friendly at Derby, nice day and Chris Bassano in full flight. Derbyshire players were going to and fro between pavilion and nets and my son had a new autograph book. I saw the familiar Derbyshire all-rounder, hot and sweaty from a vigorous net, making his way back to the pavilion.

My son and I headed towards him, and before I could say anything he said "Hiya, how ya doing?"

After introducing ourselves, we stood for 10-15 minutes talking cricket and he happily became the first signature in my son's book. He asked my son questions too and included him in the conversation, which made him feel important, then came out with the bombshell.

"Would you like me to take your book into the dressing room and get the other guys to sign it"?

My son's face had the look that normally crosses it when Nintendo bring out another top game, and we walked with him to the pavilion. Five minutes later he emerged with a book laden with signatures, talked a while longer then excused himself as he needed a shower and a massage.

Pop Welch didn't need to do what he did that day, but he increased my son's interest in the game tenfold. He also restored his Dad's faith in professional cricketers. It was a sad day when injury forced his early retirement, but he will always be my son's favourite cricketer. For that matter, mine too...

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