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'HODGE' - A TRIBUTE

It had become one of the time-honoured rituals of the cricketing year at Wantage Road.

Each and every Former Players’ Day, Alan Hodgson would put down his wine glass, get to his feet and deliver the familiar keynote speech. 

Regular attendees could almost mouth it word for word.

A mention of precisely how many cricketers have appeared for Northamptonshire in the first-class game since 1905 (he would check with me beforehand) and a tribute to those who had passed away since the previous gathering.

And then to the very heart of the matter – the importance of the occasion for perpetuating old friendships (“we just pick up where we left off”) and making new ones.  The fellowship of cricket, and of Northamptonshire cricket in particular.

I’ve no idea who will do the honours next year.  Whoever it is may use a few longer words and even vary the script a little. 

But – following Alan’s sudden death last week, aged just 64 – it won’t be the same.

‘Hodge’ was a north-easterner who became a Northamptonian by adoption.  But the accent remained, giving all those tales (not always much to do with on-field activity) about ‘Coookey, Shaaarpey and Taaaitey’ an authentic flavour.

Born in Consett, the 16-year-old fast bowler came down to Wantage Road – a well-trodden path in those days – for trials in April 1968.

The other promising teenagers that day included his contemporary, Geoff Cook, who would be ‘invited to spend a week or two here during the summer’ according to the committee minutes – and was still around two decades later.

Northamptonshire liked the look of young Hodgson too, so Ken Turner duly signed him for 12 quid a week when he left school.

This brought the youngster into the orbit of Colin Milburn, whose brief-but-brilliant career would be shattered the following spring by ‘that’ car smash near Moulton.

The tragic story of ‘Ollie’ is to be told in a new PCA-backed play whose author, the former county cricketer James Graham-Brown, consulted Alan extensively to help him get under the skin of his subject.

It will be performed at the County Ground later this month – and the absence of ‘Hodge’ is bound to hang heavy on the occasion.

The young paceman’s first-class debut came against Cambridge University at Northampton in June 1970, the week Ted Heath became Prime Minister, and he picked up a couple of first-innings wickets to open his account.

“He was an important member of the team in my years as captain,” Jim Watts told me last week.

“Later in his career I know he enjoyed the coaching role he was given – and I’m shocked that he should pass away so young.

“I have great memories of him and the support he gave me.  He was a good friend.”

So many of the tributes paid via social media have mentioned Alan’s empathy with young cricketers trying to make their way in the game.

And that’s not a surprise when you look at his own cricketing journey.

He spent several seasons vying with the likes of Bob Cottam, John Dye, Sarfraz Nawaz and Jim Griffiths for fast-bowling slots – and that meant making the most of any chances going, whether in the Championship or the relatively newfangled one-day stuff.

For Alan – as for Northamptonshire – 1976 was an annus mirabilis.  Although he probably never called it that himself.

‘The pace trio of Sarfraz, Dye and Hodgson were a match-winning combination,’ wrote Fred Speakman in Wisden, reflecting on a campaign that saw Mushtaq’s men finish as runners-up to Middlesex in the Championship…

‘Three times in the later part of the season, opponents were dismissed before lunch on the first morning of a game.

‘(Hodgson) took his opportunity so well that he was capped in August.’

If there’s ever been a Northamptonshire cricketer prouder of his capped player’s tie – on a par with Brian Reynolds, I reckon, which is high praise indeed – I haven’t met him.

In that same scorching summer, he bagged 7-39 in a Sunday League game against Somerset, including a hat-trick (when the visitors had needed seven to win from the final over) to wrap up victory.

What Brian Close, stranded at the non-striker’s end, thought about it all is not recorded.  Probably just as well.

And, of course, on September 4 he played in the Gillette Cup-winning side at Lord’s, holding a return catch to dismiss Frank Hayes early in the Lancashire innings.

A money-can’t-buy experience that’s eluded many cricketers who’ve taken an awful lot more money out of the game than Alan ever did – notwithstanding a £3,466 ‘testimonial’ granted after a serious back operation hastened the end of his County career in 1979.

If he’d then trundled back up to Durham we wouldn’t be remembering him as fondly as we do.

But he stayed put and immersed himself in local cricket – first with Overstone Park (57 wickets at 8.86 to earn them the Division One title in 1981) and then at Old Northamptonians, captaining them to ‘Prem’ honours in 1983 and 1984.

By a horrible coincidence, he was due to attend the ONs dinner – sharing a table with his old chum Geoff Moss – to celebrate their title triumph this summer just a couple of days after his death.

I understand a few glasses were raised in his honour, and quite right too.

He subsequently returned to Wantage Road as an inspirational coach of young cricketers, skippering the County Colts (without too many long chases to the boundary) and eventually managing the new Lynn Wilson Indoor Centre when it opened in 1998.

Alan – not a cricketing politician, which helped – also played a key role in bringing together four separate leagues to form the current NCL, of which he was the first vice-chairman.

Quite a CV. 

And, throughout, his enthusiasm for his adopted county (even when he wasn’t convinced it was heading in the right direction) and for the game of cricket – never forgetting its social side – shone through.

To quote one former Northamptonshire player this week: ‘I guess everyone who met him regarded him as a pal.’

The last word if ever I heard it.

 

****This tribute first appeared in the Northamptonshire Telegraph and is reproduced with their kind permission.  You can read Andrew Radd's column in the 'NT' every Thursday****

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