A SADLY SMOKE FREE ZONE

The cricket ground at Arboretum Road has seen many notable Sunday fixtures over the decades, including a double century from future Aussie captain, Kim Hughes, when playing for Greyhounds against Holy Cross, but seldom has a game been as stirring as Sunday’s memorial game for Holy Cross stalwart, Colin McGill, who died last year after over four decades of service to the club.

Through the years, Colin had performed heroically on and off the pitch – fulfilling the less desirable roles of fixture secretary, mid week skipper, umpire, and even groundsman, when others were less willing or able to step forward.

He had a love hate relationship with the club’s original and venerable motor roller, and a similar effect on countless wives and partners across the Lothians, who could be heard shouting through the house after answering a late night Thursday phone call: “It’s that man again!” in a kind of weird tribute to the war time radio comedy show. But he never let us down.

On the pitch, as he would frequently tell you himself, he was the epitome of an all rounder, whose idea of a bowling change was often to stop bowling his medium pacers and switch to his spinners, and he would have bowled from both ends if the rules had permitted.

But his talent for self proclamation could not hide the fact that he was a fine cricketer, who could indeed bowl swing, slow, and spin and with his heavyweight bats  could smote even decent bowling to the four corners of the field. He saved games and won games for all the club’s teams repeatedly through the years, and he was absolutely cricket mad.

When he was eventually forced to assume umpiring duties, he added to his lustre with a constant stream of comments – helpful and otherwise – issuing forth from under the perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke, the rattle of matches often denoting the end of an over.

He liked his fags did Colin, and there were times when the cricket seemed to be merely an interlude between cigarettes rather than the other way round. Snootier opponents who did not know Colin would occasionally raise the eyebrows or even make comments about “smoking in the field”. It was not a mistake they made twice.

Colin starred on the pitch, prepared the pitch, and was a star off the pitch, for he came into his own, again, in the clubhouse.

With his excellent recall of detail and statistics he would have made a first class cricket commentator – with the proviso that his subject should always be Colin McGill! Over the years we became skilled at avoiding mention of locations or matches which would unleash the awesome power of Colin in full anecdotal flow. He knew this, of course, and was well capable of manufacturing specious connections so as to enable the repeating of a well loved tale.

“Did I ever tell you about my five for at…” he would mumble, drink in hand, fag well alight.

“I probably have, but it bears telling again. Anyway……”

Mostly it did bear re-telling, for he had forty years or more of tales to tell – all featuring his own exploits, and many of them singular in their content. What made it bearable – for a time, at least, was that Colin told the tales – even of his successes, in the most self deprecatory way, even while boasting of his performance. He was not a braggard, he was just proud of his achievements. I don’t think anybody else could have said: “They said it was the best spin bowling they’d ever seen at the ground” without sounding  vain – but Colin managed it – and there was always that knowing twinkle in his eye which betrayed the fact that he knew what he was doing, and was at least a wicket’s length away from being totally serious  in his accounts.

He was gold dust in the bar after a game.

Always friendly off the pitch, despite his muttered epithets towards the opposition during play, he would always reach out to the opposition  – many of whom had only intended to “stay for one”.

Whilst, as team mates, we had long worked out escape strategies to avoid yet another telling of the great moments of Colin’s career, the opposition were generally not so well prepared.

At some point in the evening, glancing around them in mid McGill tale, they would realise that, rather like the musicians in Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, the home team had gradually, one by one, sneaked out of the bar, and they were left stranded with the ongoing memoirs.

But all who played and attended today, I know, would give anything to be trapped by Colin’s tales of grandeur just one more time. Simple truth is, we loved him for them, and across the Grade leagues and beyond there was a fondness and respect for this most friendly and knowledgeable of competitors. He is greatly mourned, a centrepiece now missing  in the fabric of our club.

It was brilliant to meet up with team mates from long ago and to reminisce of days gone by and Colin’s solid part at the heart of it all for so long. The affection for our team mate and club legend was palpable.

There was no pall of cigarette smoke over square leg, but umpire Chris Kerr was brought a pint to aid his concentration,  in a nice reflection of the idiosyncrasy that makes Holy Cross such a loveable institution.

Beyond all doubt,  Arboretum – on the pitch and in the bar – is where Colin would want to be remembered – and he will be as long as Holy Cross stories are told.

It is not hard to imagine some celestial pavilion where those who have gone to their eternal reward are sitting in a circle round McGill, as, cigarette in one hand, pint in the other, he fixes them with his famous look and says:

“Did I ever tell you the story of the day they had a memorial match for me at Arboretum……?”

Published by seánmcp

Former deputy headteacher; Edinburgh born Leitrim man; family man; writer, photographer and sports fan: cricket, football, GAA, athletics. Education & Welfare Officer at Hibernian FC; follow Hibs, Southport FC, Leitrim GAA, Dunedin Connollys GAA, Drumkeerin GAA, Cricket Scotland and Scottish Wildcats.

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