Video: Our man faces Reece Topley
“IF HE kills you then at least I can say at your funeral that you died doing something you love!”
It was with those comforting words from my wife ringing in my ears that I set off on a sporting assignment with a difference in the line of duty.
Interviewing emerging Essex and England Under-19 bowler Reece Topley was nothing new to me, but him bowling an over at me in order that I could write a feature was a whole different ball game.
With the first-class season officially over and Reece now in a position to oblige, I set off for the Topley family home near Hadleigh, where a cricket net is neatly tucked away out of view in the back garden.
It was here that I was to put not so much my reputation as a one-time club cricketer on the line, but more importantly my immediate health. Seriously, I was asked to sign a risk assessment form before being allowed to pad up!
I had, vainly, pointed out to my sports editor it was hardly an even contest – at 17-years-old Topley is one of the brightest fast bowling prospects in England and was even the country’s leading wicket-taker early last season.
At 50-years-old and well past my sell-by date as a below-average club cricketer, whose career high was batting at No.9 for Suffolk Under-15s, I was destined for an uncomfortable experience to say the least.
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Indeed, I retired from playing for Copdock 2nd XI the same year that Reece was in nappies, and apart from appearing in charity matches that can be counted on one hand, I had not picked up a bat since.
I have known Reece’s father Don for many years; indeed, I had faced an over from him while opening the batting for Northgate Grammar School, Ipswich against the Royal Hospital School at Holbrook, where he now works, as a 14-year-old.
It is an exaggeration to say an over as after delivering a wide first ball, Topley Senior found the edge of my bat and I was caught in the slips off the second ball. The omens, to say the least, were not good.
Having never worn a helmet in my life – only in the upper echelons of the amateur game against genuine quicks was one deemed to be a fundamental requirement when I played – I was grateful to Topley Junior for the loan of his England embossed head gear.
At least I would be able to tell the grandchildren I once wore a helmet bearing the Three Lions crest, always assuming I was about to come through the next six balls to tell the tale!
Don was concerned that I had no chest guard or arm guard, and rummaged through Reece’s kit bag before fitting both outside my clothing to make my appearance look more ‘authentic’ as he put it for the video camera that was to record my moment of sporting infamy.
There have been some memorable overs bowled in cricket – Holding to Boycott at Bridgetown in 1981 and Donald to Atherton at Trent Bridge in 1988 – the next six balls would decree whether this was to join them in the annals of cricketing history.
I had never prospered against left-arm quicks because of the angle at which they slant the ball across a right-handed batsman, but it is Reece’s ability to swing the ball back in at pace which makes him such a hot property.
At least he did not have the advantage of a brand new ball in his hand, so he was unlikely to get much, if any, real swing.
After a couple of ‘sighters’ the camera started rolling and Reece started running in, admittedly not off his full run up as space in his back garden (fortunately for me) does not permit him to do so.
I was not nervous, although I had no idea just how fast Reece would actually bowl at me, so told myself just to watch the ball and try to get in line as he let go with the first delivery. I moved back and across and played the ball down towards where the slip cordon would be.
The second one was also short of a length on off stump and I got in line and pushed defensively towards the covers. I was seeing the ball well and I was getting in line, allowing me to control my shots. Two down four to go.
Gaining in confidence, I then put in a good stride forward to meet a half volley and drove firmly at the third ball, although it skewed towards mid on rather than cover as my dominant bottom hand took over.
I was on the front foot again to push the fourth delivery into the covers.
Believe it or not, at this point I actually felt quite confident. Perhaps sensing that I appeared comfortable Reece bowled a bouncer, which I saw coming and ducked under as it reared up over my left shoulder, missing my helmet by a matter of inches.
Now that was much quicker and had caused me to not only take evasive action but also take my eye off the ball – a cardinal sin for a batsman – as I sought to avoid being struck.
The final delivery was pushed further across me and, perhaps now over-confident, I failed to get my front foot across and the ball caught the leading edge of my bat, popping up in the direction of cover point where a fielder may have swooped to catch me out.
And then it was all over. It had not been such an ordeal after all and my pride, not to mention all my limbs, were still intact.
Reece said afterwards he had only been bowling at around 70mph, although the bouncer was nearer 75pmh.
His usual speed is 75-80mph and his fastest delivery has been clocked at 84mph. The difference may not sound significant, but I am assured it is.
Part one of my assignment was complete – now for the easy part: interviewing Reece.