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On another level

March 21, 2012

The loss of Scottish club cricket legend, Irvin Iffla, encourages a moment of reflection – both on his contribution to the game, and cricket’s powerful ability to grasp the psyche of its adherents.

As a man – in his cricketing career and personal life, Irvin was truly unique; but as a type, he represented a particular part of cricket that is both emotional and practical. Probably robbed of caps for his native West Indies by the genius of Ramadhin and Valentine, his sporting life in Scotland was devoted to playing the game at club level to the height of his not inconsiderable ability but, even more impressively, coaching and inspiring thousands over the years -including future England Captain, Mike Denness, at Ayr, to play cricket in a manner that was not only technically effective, but in keeping with the spirit of the game. I’m reminded of a similar, genial immigrant: Roger Sardesai, from Goa, who played cricket with a smile but with deadly spin, and, in conjunction with his great love of the game, put in the hard work at organising and coaching with Holy Cross and Marchmont, so that many were inspired not only to take up the game bit to play it the right way.

The fact that I ever came into contact with Irvin is a great testament both to the idiosyncracies of cricket and to the enthusiasm of the man, for, in cricketing ability, there aren’t words to describe how many light years he was ahead of me. Suffice to say that, though, of course, like all club cricketers, I knew of him by repute, our paths finally crossed at New Williamfield in a third, or maybe even fourth, eleven game between Stirling County and Holy Cross. I was in my early thirties and he was more than twice as old as me – which probably tells you all you need to know.

The game that day was memorable for a number of reasons. It was a sultry June day and the Saturday of the annual Bannockburn rally. My nationalist self fought with my cricketing self, as I kept my head down for fear of being recognised by friends toting saltires and lions rampant, and drove on past the battlefield to the picturesque ground.

It was also, as best I can recall, my longest ever bowling stint in club cricket, 34 or 35 overs if I remember correctly. I’m not sure if this was due to a dearth of bowlers, a sadistic captain, or Irvin’s comfort at the crease dissuading any of my team mates from stepping up to the return crease. It certainly wasn’t because my bowling was in any way effective.

In fact, a strange thing happened, which I can only compare to ‘the wall’ in the Marathon; it was almost – don’t laugh – zen like. After 21 miles in the London Marathon, the angst, the timings, the desire to keep going are all replaced, firstly by pain and then by a kind of calm acceptance. You keep putting one leg in front of the other because you’re putting one leg in front of the other; nothing else impinges; it’s almost easy, and, in fact, it’s only when you stop that it becomes really painful again. Well, bowling to Irvin Iffla, particulalrly with my extremely limited ability, was a bit like that.

He was absolutley lovely about it. He gave me full attention, never took a risk, played correct strokes at all times, and ran singles as well as hitting boundaries. On the one or two occasions I bowled a reasonable ball there would be a smile and a quiet ‘Well bowled!’ – which, as you can imagine, was gratefully received.

After about 25 overs, I realised I would never get him out – barring some major freakish event, but also, heinous crime for a bowler, I didn’t really want to. Here was a guy, even in his sixties, a world away from me in ability but still enjoying playing his cricket, for its own sake; and here was I, bowling over after over without success but feeling privileged to be bowling to such a player, and enjoying it. For the last five overs or so, I actually bowled quite well, by my standards; not trying desperately to get a wicket every ball will do that for you. It was a magical and slightly surreal feeling – to be enjoying what I was doing – because I was doing it, and not needing any end product. Other than playing at Broadhalfpenny Down in Hambledon, I can’t think of any other occasion when that happened. Down in Hampshire it was because of the place and its historical significance, at New Williamfield, it was because of Irvin Iffla.

What a talent to have; what an aura to display; what a gift to be able to share with your fellow cricketers! Respect, enjoyment, and shared pleasure – no wonder he was such a superb coach.

Like the end of the Marathon, it hurt like hell when I eventually stopped bowling after thirty odd overs (some of them very odd indeed). And the pain was hardly assuaged when I looked at my figures through my fingers.

But it was a fabulous experience, which affirmed my hopeless and irredeemable love affair with cricket.
And it was thanks to Irvin Iffla.

I wonder how many times that’s been said on the cricket fields of Scotland over the past six decades?

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