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The last telephone call from Michael Marshall was in midsummer

27 September 2006

2:43 PM

27 September 2006

2:43 PM

The last telephone call from Michael Marshall was in midsummer. Should we sit together at the half-century dinner of the cricket-writers’ club at Lord’s? Sorry, I hadn’t booked. I wish I had. Sir Michael died this month at 76. For a devout Yorkshireman, I suppose having to be Conservative MP for Arundel for 32 years had compensations for pastoral cricketing even if the castle’s fabled private ground was a world away from Sheffield’s Bramall Lane where Marshall, as he said, ‘learned the lore of the game’ long before his father sent him south to Bradfield.

Michael was fully entitled to be an eminence of our cricket-writers’ club, not only for his books and journalism but in his early business career representing Sheffield steel in Calcutta and Bombay when he was a regular cricket commentator for All India Radio. The Daily Telegraph obit listed only A Celebration of Lords and Commons Cricket (1989) as his cricket book, but two years earlier he had produced the far more substantial Gentlemen and Players, a diligently researched, vivid and highly readable documentary on the old amateur–professionals divide; it remains in the all-time First XI for social histories on any sport. As well, Marshall wrote books on business, technology and his companion hobby, theatre and the music hall.

I never went to his beloved Bramall Lane for cricket. It finished in 1973. Keeper of the white-rose log for aeons was prickly J.M. Kilburn of the Yorkshire Post, who described the ancient sanctum of Marshall’s childhood as ‘treeless, enclosed, begrimed, its outline harsh, its colours drab, its air filthy, nothing to commend it — but history. Yet from its uncomfortable seats a warmth of affection flowed out to favourites, and a chilling tide of disparagement for those not fortunate enough to be so.’ For Sheffield’s ‘grinders’, I suppose, Leeds’s Headingley was grudgingly next best thing. Twenty-odd summers ago — the Ashes Test of 1985? — one morning in the foyer of the Queen’s Hotel in Leeds I was amiably ruminating on the upcoming day with another cricket-loving Sheffield son, the Spec’s new Arcady corr, Roy Hattersley, when of a sudden the eyes of Labour’s then deputy leader turned from edgy to full-beam bright and he bonnily blushed into the shining morning-face of overwhelmed boyhood, and he was up with his satchel and off — Sir Len Hutton, Yorkshire’s peerless cricket legend, was giving him a lift to the ground.

That lunchtime at Headingley, in passing I carelessly mentioned to Marshall, ‘Hutton drove Hattersley to Headingley this morning.’ Now Sir M. Marshall was famed for being the most generous and equitable of men, none better liked by any who dealt with him, and by both sides of the House. It was not remotely to do with rivalry in party politics — but I have to tell it as I saw it, and on my announcing ‘Hutton drove Hattersley to Headingley’ I was dazzled by the lightning flash of emerald green which lit up Michael’s face for a split- second in abject horror — a Yorkshireman’s utter and unbearable schoolboy jealousy: ‘Hutton drove Hattersley to Headingley.’

I fancy it took till teatime for Michael fully to recover his mirth — when fellow Tyke, the Guardian’s sainted Hugo Young, told us how, as a graduate-trainee Yorkshire Post sub-editor in the early 1960s, he’d just once dared change — a firing offence — the ‘unchangeable’ Kilburn’s sacred cricket copy… altering the typically Kilburnish ‘interminable inevitability’ to ‘inevitable interminability’.

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