Novelist and actor Ross Armstrong revisited his memories of the 1995 English summer – the era of teletext, Sega Mega Drive, VHS recordings and some brilliant cricket.

Published in 2017

Published in 2017

As my tired hippocampus reaches its 35th year of service, the early Nineties seem to have bled together into one smooth summer of airplane trails across blue skies, endless smartphone-free hours of staring at things, and long, hot journeys in the back of my dad’s car, as I accompanied him and my mum on exotic work trips to places that either looked like Maidstone, or were Maidstone.

What I certainly remember is cricket, teletext, and watching England play cricket for hours, mostly on teletext – 302 for football, 340 for cricket. I still remember the numbers you had to punch in on hotel room televisions if you wanted to avoid lines of data that described holidays you should never go on, but we sometimes did.

I also remember asking for a guitar and my mother immediately going out and buying me a clarinet. Hoping my grandad would live longer, but instead getting a Sega Mega Drive. And asking to see Manchester United, but being taken to see Worcestershire at New Road. It’s still the greatest enforced compromise I’ve ever made, my dad’s finest hour and one of the best days of my life.

I remember the immediate inclusivity of the low hum of old fellas muttering about ‘actions’ on wooden benches in a strange pastoral paradise. A man called Richard Illingworth with the air of a village minister returning to his fielding position, being applauded for his very existence, and doing his cap in thanks for the recognition. The bafflement of trying to get used to the pace with which the ball went from hand to bat, then sometimes to boundary, which didn’t happen as much in the Sunday League as now but that just made it better when it did. In fact, scratch that; a huge bloke called Tom Moody was opening up for us and I think he broke the club shop window, but as I’ve been unable to verify this it may be my mind telling lies. But he did get a tantalising 99 not out as Worcestershire won by 10 wickets. I went out on the pitch and got Stuart Lampitt’s autograph, and an unattractive pear-coloured jumper that I would intermittently wear for at least 10 fashion-bating years, often claiming irony if asked, but really in remembrance of that day.

[breakout id=”0″][/breakout]

But I don’t want to talk about that. Not in the main. I want to talk about the English cricket team in 1995. The year began as time itself surely did: with England already two Tests down in Australia. Worcestershire’s Steve Rhodes was keeping wicket for England, which made sense to me, Graeme Hick was batting at three, which made more, but big Tom Moody wasn’t playing for Australia, which made even less sense than the lack of girls flocking to me after my clarinet recitals in assembly.

The list of English bowlers made interesting reading too. Being largely a teletext watcher, I’d judge players first and foremost on the strength of their names: as I couldn’t pronounce Shaun Udal, I decided he couldn’t be that good. I loved Devon Malcolm, as every normal man-human should, having seen his ferocious run-up on TV. The name McCague didn’t sound good to me, and Benjamin seemed like the sort of boy at school that would be ‘too into books’, so I didn’t predict great things from them. Before you criticise my methods, history seems to have proved me correct. History also had varying fortunes ahead for Tufnell and Lewis, although if you’d asked me I’d have said they were both thoroughly reliable characters in name and action. And I knew enough to trust Fraser, Gough and DeFreitas from what I’d seen; thoroughly reliable sorts who bounded in with their ample arses.

The third Test, the first game for ‘England 1995’, proved them much better than that ‘England 1994’ side; Darren Gough taking the Man of the Match award and the Aussies hanging on for a draw in dying light. They were even better in the next Test, Phil DeFreitas’ 88 from the lower order leading England to victory. Just by way of colour we lost the final Test by 329 runs, but as dead rubbers don’t count I called that a 1-0 victory for ‘England 1995’.

Next up was the tantalising prospect of a summer visit by the West Indies. DeFreitas was dropped for the first Test in favour of the solidly named Peter Martin, who, while he had his moments, wasn’t to become the England legend that his stalwart name suggested he should. We lost.

The second Test belonged to a debutant who was to become one of two new heroes for me that year: Dominic Cork, who took a seven-fer, which won the match and a small part of my cricket heart. England however, were verily thrashed in the third Test, and when I left with the ‘rents for a holiday in France, things were not looking up for ‘England 1995’. And yet, by the time we returned, the green isle was bathed in sunshine and a friend of my dad’s quickly ushered me into his living room to show me Cork’s hat-trick, which he’d recorded on VHS. For the first, but certainly not the last time, the cricket and the weather combined to give me the feeling that everything in the world was peaceful and beautiful and right.

The series ended a thoroughly entertaining 2-2 draw and it seemed like the next day that England jetted off to play South Africa. The village minister-a-like Illingworth was in the side by then, which made utter sense to me, and I followed every warm-up match, analysing his figures each night so I could picture how he was bowling. But the second hero of 1995 comes rather late to this story. At times, this five-Test series, that somehow included four draws, seemed to me like the most important thing that had ever happened anywhere, ever. And most of these times involved Allan Donald, in fearsome form, and that hero and bastion of utter English cricketness, Michael Atherton.

[caption id=”attachment_181416″ align=”alignnone” width=”800″] Mike Atherton and Jack Russell run through England supporters after the former produced one of the best Test-match saving knocks [/caption]

Every He-Man needs his Skeletor, every Hulk Hogan needs his Undertaker, every boy needs his clarinet; because it’s the brilliance of the adversary that makes heroes what they are. On December 4, 1995, during Atherton’s 10-and-a-half hour marathon innings of 185 not out, he stood firm against bowling that was dangerous to his stumps and all the best bones in his body. Atherton’s innings didn’t just have everything, it was everything: it was politics, it was a wrestling match, it was scones and jam under a broken umbrella in the rain, it was the definition of stoicism in all languages, it was winning a Droitwich Spa pub quiz, it was the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, it was two men blessed respectively with skill and will, watched by a small percentage of the world, as if the fate of humanity depended on it.

And the result was a draw. And I knew for sure that my heart was lost forever.