As so much of my early “cricket activity” took place on an ad hoc basis my early cricketing influences were a very eclectic bunch. Summer holidays were mainly spent in or near Annalong which was not (and still isn’t) mainstream Cricket territory. The advent of TV to the Harte household circa 1957 at least meant that there was cricket to watch “on the box” and names such as May, Cowdrey, Trueman, Statham, Laker, Lock, Benaud, Harvey, Davidson, Sobers, Hall and Ramadin became readily recognised.

At home it was the back garden or the driveway with Willie Allen and for the safety of the windows normally a tennis ball. Cliftonville CC was not far away but there was little or no organised cricket for juveniles until they reached Graham Cup age. On holiday, providing the tide was out, there were “the flat sands” and one summer someone even brought along a “proper” (if small) scorebook for those games! In the village it was “fish box” cricket at the back of the “Kippering store”, a short version in our small front garden (but you had to be quick to see the ball if it went onto the stoney shore or it was game over!), the Plot on Ulster Avenue and, eventually, one-a-side on the Football pitch with a hard ball against Davy Teggarty. I’m convinced that each of these “forms of play” served to whet one’s appetite for “real games of cricket” and passing any regular grounds (e.g. Dundrum) was a special bonus. The first match that I have a clear recollection of attending was Ireland v New Zealand at Ormeau on one of the few dry days in the Summer of 1958. The most notable player was Noel Cantwell although I’m fairly certain that GA Duffy was also in action!

Alf ChapmanAlf Chapman

The first “cricket person” to whom I would attribute hero status was, however, Alf Chapman. I believe he had come to Belfast from Bedford in the mid-1930s as a club professional and was soon appointed to look after the brand new Castle Grounds, the playing fields of the Belfast Royal Academy. The fruits of his labours are still there to see especially in terms of the iconic cricket ground. What is hard to credit is that he also produced a fine grass hockey pitch used by the Girls’ 1st XI until the late 60s when gravel “all-weather” surfaces took over. For good measure there were always very serviceable grass nets at the bottom of the bank to the right looking out from the pavilion. Since this area often feels like a peat bog nowadays one can only marvel at what Alf achieved; plus the actual wickets which, if slow and grassy, were true and all produced with the lightest of rollers.

All this was great but if you were a “customer” of the Prep Department you also had the benefit of Alf the Coach – all year round. No Mini-Rugby in those days; a bit of soccer in the Winter terms but it was to the Cricket in Summer that one was drawn. Having alighted from the Antrim Road Bus and walked through the car park it was eyes left on reaching the corner of the 1st XV pitch. If all was right with the world (i.e. ground playable) Alf already had the stumps in place and the joys of playing on a “proper wicket” with a hard ball were ours!

Three personal Alf stories from various times; having graduated (slowly) to the 1st XI as a rather stodgy but wicket valuing bat, Alf decided it was time to expand my range of shots. He often still “togged out” for nets normally wearing a white neck scarf. He bowled classic slow left arm spinners and on this occasion served me up some gentle half-volleys to drive “through the covers”. Confidence grew and I was putting a bit more oomph into the shots. Then Alf sent down an arm-ball which I totally failed to spot – through a large gate and was clean-bowled! “Aarh they’re not all the same Christopher” was Alf’s advice and I was already a little bit wiser!

In my last year at BRA (1967) our very strong side was only beaten by one school, Portora. Alan Kirk, later a colleague at Trinity tool 7 for 28, 6 of which were lbws given in some haste by the Portora coach, Minibus driver (and more besides) one Monty Ainsley. I was the 4th or 5th in the litany of LBs and was bemoaning my fate in a glum changing room which Alf had entered. “Aarh Christopher if you’d got the bat in the way first you’d have been all right!”

Castle Grounds, Belfast Royal AcademyCastle Grounds, Belfast Royal Academy

By 1974 I was in my second year teaching at Bangor GS and looking after the Under 14 cricket team. We had a morning match in early June at The Castle Grounds – with 2pm afternoon starts I had plenty of time to get to Downpatrick for my own game. Alf was about, but by now he was nearing his retirement (in 1975 I think) and it was great to see him and have a chat. He asked me if I was looking after the Under 14s and followed up with “keep up the good work – they look like a cricket team”! Alf was always keen that we turned out properly and looked after our equipment ; few players had their own bats then but he would sometimes let you take a bat “home” for the summer. It wasn’t said but there was an understanding that it would be left back in tip top condition! So if Alf thought that “my lot” looked like a team I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Chris Harte batting for Trinity in 1970Chris Harte batting for Trinity in 1970

When Alf did retire a special match was held at The Castle. Suitable speeches were delivered; it was announced that the Antrim Road Gates were to be named the Chapman Gates though this seems to have been lost in the mists of time. I managed a quiet moment with the great man and presented him with my Irish Cap. We kept in touch by occasional letters and in 1981 both Stephen Warke and I were delighted when he made it up to The Oval where Ireland were playing Surrey from his Wallingford home (near Oxford). We had a quick chat at the lunch interval where I was 35(ish) not out; alas even a meeting with my cricket hero could not inspire me to secure a first ever half century for that team! Disappointing though that was, Stephen and I both thought it a special event to have met the great man once more.

Another to have benefitted from Alf’s guidance was one FLQ Handley. Quorn (though we much later discovered he was known in other circles as Fred) had arrived at BRA prep from Africa – Kampala in Uganda to be exact – and it was clear that he had already been coached and played “proper cricket”. A left-handed bat he was quite simply miles ahead of the rest of us. But there was no pretentiousness to Quorn and to me he was both a hero and a kindred spirit in his love of the game and the quality of his play. He may have been slightly older than his class-mates and once we reached “the big school” always seemed to be playing a team above. Having made the 1st XI in his 4th Form year he seemed destined for great things. They weren’t a particularly good side but Quorn closed the season with a fine score against Campbell College. That was the last we saw of him as his family moved again, this time to East Anglia.

BRA school team

However by 1969 Fred (or Quorn) was appearing for Norfolk in the Minor Counties Championships and quite often in The Gillette Cup. Of this one is sure for there couldn’t possibly be two FLQ Handleys in the cricketing fraternity. Quorn went on to play for Norfolk for almost 20 years; Graeme Crothers met him once during his “Cambridge Adventure”. On reflection if Quorn had stayed at BRA I might never have made the School 1st XI but he would still have been one of my cricketing heroes.