Tuesday, 20 May 2014
It was there that I read of the death of Phil Sharpe after a short illness. Switching over to ITV4, I was just in time to watch two slip catches put down by Suresh Raina and Ravi Ashwin and my immediate thought was "Sharpey would have copped them with his eyes shut..."
He would too. While gladly accepting that the standard of overall fielding is massively ahead of the game that I first saw in the 1960's, there were good fielders then, too. And as slip fielders go, I have yet to see a better one than Philip Sharpe.
Despite averaging in the mid-forties for England and being a brave and stubborn player of quick bowling, his county record was fairly ordinary, just topping thirty. A twenty year career brought 'only' 29 centuries, perhaps indicative of a selfless manner in his earlier career, where he went for the bowling in a manner that approached rashness. Later his approach became more sedate and Derbyshire fans will remember him as an accumulator, rather than a dasher.
Truth be told, his best days were behind him when he joined us for two summers in 1975. He had been released by Yorkshire following a summer in which he had failed to score five hundred runs and averaged only seventeen. At 39, he was unlikely to get better and it was no real surprise when his first season saw him struggle past 750 runs at an average of only 23. Younger readers must appreciate that this was at a time when the county was seen as a rest home for those of impending retirement and Sharpe was but one of a succession of players who joined in that era.
The following summer he also struggled, but the news of his release, when it broke, made the final weeks of his career like a grand tour. Sharpe rediscovered the form of his finest years and indeed registered the highest first-class score of his career against Oxford University, a better side then than now.
He ended the summer with 1277 runs at 35, with four centuries. His girth and immobility in the field at that stage made him an unlikely fit for Eddie Barlow's blueprint for a successful Derbyshire, where, as Mike Hendrick once put it, if someone hit the ball for miles we would be quicker than anyone at fetching it back...
Yet to the end Sharpe remained a slip fielder of stunning brilliance. The latter is a much overused word but highly apposite here, because he caught swallows. His success was a combination of razor-sharp reflexes coupled with remarkable hand/eye coordination and an unbelievably understated method.
He took the ball late, often when it was past him and I don't recall seeing him dive at any point. The height and pace of the ball didn't seem to matter, but Sharpe would move to his left or right, sometimes bend and almost always end up with the ball in his hands and another batsman on his way to the pavilion.
In that 1976 summer, with Bob Taylor keeping wicket and Eddie Barlow at second slip, batsmen didn't need to look back once they had nicked it, as there was rarely a reprieve. He held 618 catches in his career and 47 in two seasons with Derbyshire. Many were brilliant, but undemonstratively so, as if Sharpe were channeling the spirit of a Yorkshireman of an earlier generation, Arthur Mitchell.
It was Mitchell who, seeing a colleague dive to take an attempted catch, said to him "Gerrup...tha's mekkin a fool of thaself..." It was anathema to Sharpe too but his expertise in the slips has never been surpassed.
If I live to see a better one, I will be a very fortunate man.
Rest in Peace Phil Sharpe. The heavenly slip cordon has just been strengthened.