Cricket was a metaphor for how Alex Fergusson lived his life

Cricket was a metaphor for how Alex Fergusson lived his life

by Elizabeth Smith
article from Thursday 2, August, 2018

THE FIRST TIME l met Alex Fergusson was in April 1999 when he was one of our candidates in the first Scottish Parliament election campaign.

I had spent most of that month being dispatched by Conservative Central Office to drive various visiting MPs who were campaigning in Scotland. On this occasion, the passenger in my car was the little known MP for Maidenhead - a certain Theresa May who was also a Shadow Education Spokesman in William Hague’s Opposition team.

As we arrived at Alex’s campaign HQ, he engaged in the usual pleasantries and introductions then discreetly pulled me aside and said;

“Well, what’s she like then?” 

I told him that she seemed very pleasant but because she had been working on her parliamentary papers throughout the journey, l couldn’t tell him a huge amount. 

“However, there is one thing of which you will approve”, I said, “She’s just told me she is a big cricket fan and her hero is Geoffrey Boycott”.  Alex rose to his full height and replied;

“In that case, she must be alright although l do hope she’s not as damned difficult.” How much Alex rejoiced when, on his Test Match Special interview with the Prime Minister in 2017, Jonathan Agnew expressed exactly the same views!

I’m not sure if the Prime Minister remembers her visit to Galloway all these years ago but Alex was on fine form. Gracious and engaging as ever, he went out of his way to make his visitor feel at home and well informed about the task ahead in Scottish politics.  He then summoned up enough courage to ask her about her interest in cricket.

“A little bird tells me you are a cricket fan. So am l.”

“Indeed, yes!” came the reply and that was it. It was almost impossible to separate the pair and get them to move onto the next stage of the visit so engrossed were they both in the cricket stories of the day.

The love of cricket was a big part of Alex’s life, not just because he conveniently had a son with his family living in Barbados for whom the best time to visit was quite clearly when the West Indies were playing hosts to England, but because, in the eyes of Alex, cricket stood for so many of the values he held so dear. 

Often, in the early morning before the rough and tumble of the parliamentary day began at Holyrood, Alex would bring me books or newspaper cuttings from the cricket correspondents and letters pages of the Telegraph and the Times. Over the years, I got to learn that he was a huge fan, not so much of the players, but of the cricket commentators mainly because he had spent a huge amount of time throughout his early life listening to Test Match Special. His favourites, were John Arlott, Brian Johnston, Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Jonathan Agnew, and thinking about this in the last few days since Alex’s untimely death, I can see why. They each had characteristics of which Alex so strongly approved and which were so similar to his own.

He adored the mellifluous tones of John Arlott’s rather gravelly voice and the commentator’s ability to describe with precision – over the wireless, as Alex continued to call it – exactly what was happening on the field of play. Arlott was so perceptive about every nuance on the cricket field – so too, was Alex about parliament and politics. And like Arlott, there was nothing he liked better than discussing the day’s play over a glass – or two – of really good claret.

John Arlott was also a master craftsman when it came to the use of English language, something about which Alex felt very strongly, grammar and punctuation in particular. Indeed you could sometimes see him wince in the Presiding Officer’s chair when any MSP did not deliver the Queen’s English. 

But if Alex had a strong commitment to standards of courtesy he also had a boyish sense of humour identical to that of Brian Johnston. Alex’s favourite cricketing moment was actually not something which happened on the field of play but the hilarious, and infamous moment in 1991 during an England-West Indies Test Match when “Johnners” and “Aggers” descended into an uncontrollable fit of the giggles on air. For a whole two minutes neither of them could speak coherently much to the displeasure of the BBC managers but to the delight of all the listeners. Alex loved this moment perhaps because he too could descend into a fit of giggles.  His shoulders would heave, his face would crease up and his large hands, which protruded out of the almost too short jacket sleeves, would be put across his mouth to prevent any major embarrassments. 

Once however, he was less discreet when, along with Jamie McGrigor, he was umpiring the annual MSPs v Hacks cricket match. The latter, on this occasion, was using a shooting stick to take up his position behind the stumps and at square leg. After a few overs, a journalist (who had not always been very kind to Jamie) was making hay by hitting the ball hard at the square leg boundary – so hard that Jamie announced he would have to re-position his shooting stick, purchased, he was keen to tell us, at a Tory Party jumble sale. He gave a signal across to Alex to hold up the bowler and said he would signal back when he got his shooting stick re-lodged in the ground. Alex was clearly very displeased but back came the signal that Jamie was re-seated. The match resumed but, two balls later, the shooting-stick gave way and Jamie collapsed in a heap on the ground. There began one of Alex’s major fits of the giggles from which he found it difficult to recover his composure.

But it was Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Jonathan Agnew who were, for Alex, the epitome of the spirit of cricket. Their fund of anecdotes about life as well as about cricket, the umbrage they took if courtesy and gentlemanliness were not observed, their sense of fair play and keen sense of what was right and what was wrong, and their unstinting loyalty to their job were attributes greatly admired by Alex. He lived by them in his own life and they were the reason why he was so respected across the political spectrum. As such, he had dignity and a great presence wherever he went.

The last time l spoke with Alex was on the day of the extraordinary win which Scotland had against England at the Grange Cricket Club only a few weeks ago. Despite his failing health, he had managed to get to the match for a short time and he texted me to ask what part of the ground l was in. I had to text him back to tell them that, regrettably l wasn’t there as l was umpiring a match in Stirling where, ironically, one of the teams was from his beloved Galloway. He sympathised but assured me l was in good company. He sent me several texts that day to update me on the score and in his last one he said; “This is so special. I am so pleased l could see this happen.” 

For me, Alex was everything that is good about cricket but, just as importantly, he was everything that was good about life. He has walked back to the pavilion all too soon but what an innings he has played. An example to us all.

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