At 10.30am on Saturday August 3rd I’m presenting a documentary for BBC Radio 4 about Alf Gover and his legendary cricket school in south London. There are more details about the programme here.
Whenever talk turns to the great sporting venues of the world it’s safe to say that East Hill in Wandsworth never warrants a mention.
In fact, if you go there today there’s nothing to remotely suggest any connection to sport at the highest or indeed any level at all.
There is however a small clue to sporting immortality if you look closely enough: where number 172 should be is a modern, gated apartment complex called ‘Cricketers Mews’.
A soulless block of flats on a noisy main road in south London is about as far from a field of dreams as you can get, but, hard as it is to believe, on this spot, right here, magical things would happen.
I was a skinny, nervous, bespectacled, unco-ordinated ten year old when I first attended Alf Gover’s cricket school in 1981. Situated on the A3 behind a petrol forecourt and up a treacherous narrow staircase, the school didn’t seem to have changed much since it originally opened in the late 1920s (there’s a brilliant description of it on The Old Batsman’s blog here that evokes the place far better than I could).
It was like stepping back in time to a cricketing golden age. That there was a whiff of the 1930s about the place – literally and metaphorically – was entirely fitting as that was when Alf Gover, the kind, lovely man and brilliant coach who ran the place, was at the peak of his playing powers.
Despite a highly successful twenty-year first-class career as a fast bowler for Surrey that yielded more than 1500 wickets Alf played only a handful of matches for England. But, gifted cricketer though he was, it was as a visionary teacher that he would make his name in a coaching career of more than half a century. Not for nothing did his Wisden obituary bestow upon him the sobriquet ‘Mr Chips of cricket’.
Fuelled by an unquenchable passion for the game, Alf coached the full range of players, from scaredy-cat talent-vacuums like me to genuine legends like Viv Richards and Brian Lara, lending each of us exactly the same attention to the basics and the benefit of his natural eye for minuscule but vital flaws in technique.
In resurrecting my own playing career this season after a very long hiatus it’s only now I realise what Alf Gover did for me. He made sure, even though I was never exactly going to set the cricket world on fire, that I had the basics right. Once they had become second nature I was free to enjoy myself on the cricket field. That was the core of his coaching philosophy: he wanted everyone, whoever they were, to enjoy their cricket as much as he did. I’m not a great cricketer but I’m the best I can be thanks to Alf Gover.
I may be the first person to say this – I may well be the last – but the Gover Cricket School was one of the great sporting venues of the world. What happened there under the gas lamps was magical, and had a ripple effect that touched every corner of the globe and every stratum of the game. Alf’s legacy spread from that draughty, gas-lit building in fume-choked south London right across the cricket-playing world, from Headingley to Hyderabad, Barbados to Brisbane, from packed out Test venue to sun-dozed village green.
Few of us will ever thump a cover drive to the Mound Stand boundary at Lord’s or rise like a salmon to head home the winner in the Cup Final at Wembley. Yet many of us, myself included, can say we were coached by Alf Gover at the Gover Cricket School. It’s about the only time we’ll ever be bracketed with Viv Richards and Sunil Gavaskar, that’s for sure, but for me the school deserves a place in the pantheon of great sporting venues because it housed the immortal and the hopeless in equal measure and made us all the best we could be.
The school was demolished shortly after Alf’s reluctant 1989 retirement on doctor’s orders at the age of 81 (he died in 2001 aged 93). I’ve nothing against the residents of Cricketers Mews but I do rather hope that in the dead of night their dreams are disturbed by the ghostly sound of leather on willow, the hiss of gas lamps and, echoing down the decades, a voice booming, “bat up, old boy, one to drive”.
The Gover Way goes out on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 3rd August at 10.30am. As well as me banging on it also features Sir Trevor McDonald, Mike Selvey, Nicholas Parsons, Mickey Stewart, The Old Batsman and more.
There are some wonderful photographs of Alf at the school here.