by Paul Edwards
The end came not with that slightest of shuffles forward and the square drive but instead with a jogged single for his opening partner, Jake Libby, who had been unsure how to manage things. “Let’s do it properly, let’s treat the game with respect,” came the utterly typical reply. So Worcestershire collected the 12 runs they needed to beat Leicestershire without fuss or contrivance and Daryl Mitchell walked off New Road as a professional cricketer for the last time.
“It was nice to be there at the end,” he admitted. “I had one eye on my wife and two kids, who were at the side, and my mum and dad were there as well. It was also good to end with a win and there was a relatively good crowd for a Thursday.” He sounded a little surprised by this latter fact, as if unaware that anyone might have had a particular reason for being on the ground that afternoon.
Cricketers’ retirements have two elements to them. On the one side the player is saying farewell to a game that has defined his life for perhaps the best part of two decades; on the other spectators are bidding goodbye to a player who, in Mitchell’s case, has been the very embodiment of a one-club man: 221 of his 225 first-class games have been played for Worcestershire, 132 of 135 List A appearances, all his 177 T20 matches. Some of those at New Road on Thursday afternoon will have seen most of his 39 first-class hundreds; they’ve been in the cheering crowds on the outfield when Worcestershire won their promotions; they were at Edgbaston when the Rapids won the Blast in 2018. So even now, when the presentations are over, and the farewell parties have taken place, Mitchell may not quite appreciate what he means to supporters whose summers he has enriched.
“Did you have a good day at the cricket, dear?
“Oh, I certainly did. Mitch made another century. That’s four so far this season.”
And a few travelling fans may even have watched the first of the 39, which was scored at Colwyn Bay on August 3, 2006 and was made in a winning cause, which always makes these things even better. And you can be certain that cricketers like Phil Jaques, Vikram Solanki and Matt Mason were watching that innings of 134 not out. It was Mitch’s ninth first-class match and his second season in the first team.
He was only playing in the game because Graeme Hick had split the webbing on his hand. He was at a stage in his career when his fellow professionals could not be sure how good the 22-year-old was. There was nothing unusual or vindictive in that. Coaches might say a young player has what’s needed to make it in the county game but it’s his fellow professionals whose judgement matters most. They see at close quarters whether a bloke has got the technique to face proper spinners or the bottle to face the fast and nasty quicks. It’s no good saying that all talented young players make it. They don’t. Look at the retirement age for professional cricketers.
Anyway, Mitch made the first of his five hundreds against Glamorgan and the next week he made an unbeaten 54 in the first innings against Surrey for whom Anil Kumble took six wickets and Ian Salisbury another three. Another tick against his name and, though his team mates didn’t know it, those innings mattered to Mitch, too.
“That was a pivotal week because I suddenly realised I was quite good at this and could perform at this level,” he said. “I think I thought I was good enough but after that week and those innings I knew it. I decided: ‘This is me, this is what I want to do.”
The next week Hick was fit again and Mitch was dropped. Well batted and welcome to professional cricket. He didn’t play another first-class match until the following April but by that time there had been another of those vital graduations in the young cricketer’s career.
“I was invited into the first-team dressing room at New Road at the beginning of 2007,” he recalled. “In the old pavilion there was almost a roof-space at the top where the second-team players changed, so to be invited down to the first-team room was a big thing for me. I had a spot there and my name above the locker and I was changing in the same room as Graeme Hick and Vikram Solanki. That sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore and in many ways it’s right that it doesn’t but it was still a pivotal moment for me.”
And there he stayed for over 14 summers until last Thursday. There have been great days and fine seasons and there have been plenty of occasions when it was necessary to recall the good times and latch on tight to the professional disciplines of his chosen craft. That way his game was in good order for matches like that against Nottinghamshire in 2017, a promotion season.
“Notts were top of Division Two and we were second,” he recalled. “Neither side got many runs in the first innings and we needed 226 to win. I dug in for half a day on a really spicy wicket to be 63 not out overnight but then something clicked and I got 76 out of the next 109 runs the next morning. That was the season we went on to win the Division as well and while scoring runs is great it’s the impact they have that counts for more with me.”
And yes, of course, there were six seasons when Mitch was club captain at New Road, years when his ‘impact’ went beyond his runs but also plenty of days when he was hardly more than best actor in a supporting role while someone else stole the movie. It’s time to mention Shantry’s Match, a film that most people reading this will know so well that they can chant the lines with the players. Just one incident, then?
It is the second afternoon and Surrey are 373 for four in reply to Worcestershire’s 272. Mitch brings on Jack Shantry from the Diglis End and let’s allow Shants to tell us what happened next.
“I said “I want two slips and a gully”. He replied “**** off, Jack, I need a man on the boundary here, I want riders at deep cover, deep square-leg. Let’s settle.” So I had the keeper standing up and Mitch was maybe between second and third slip. My first ball to Gary Wilson was edged between keeper and slip and for about ten seconds I stood in double teapot position, looking at Mitch but not saying anything.”
Basilisk stares. Best mates.
“Shants and I had some disagreements on the field about tactics and plans but the beauty of it was that he was my go-to man if we needed a wicket or needed to tie an end down,” recalls the skipper. “We could fight like cat and dog on the field but as soon as we got back in the dressing room it was forgotten instantly. For a change he was right during that disagreement.”
Let’s move on, just as the game has during Mitch’s 19 years. He has seen T20 grow into a million-pound international industry and he has seen some players offered money their predecessors would not have earned in a career. Fielders are now athletes and batsmen can play strokes the old pro’s might have thought evidence of insanity.
“I think the game’s more professional and fitness has improved,” he said. “The athleticism in the field has gone through the roof – there used to be two or three donkeys in every team in we’re being brutally honest. Batting has improved in that there are fewer rabbits than there used to be and the financial opportunities are better with the T20 leagues. But I don’t think it’s as much fun. I had an absolute ball at the start of my career in the second team and I wouldn’t change any of it.
“There’s still a great deal of enjoyment to be derived from the game – I’ve had a great time right to the end – but it’s a little bit more serious than it was. T20’s been great in developing skills but that’s been to the detriment of the red-ball game in that the mindset needed to bat for six or seven hours to make a hundred is less evident. But I also think the bowlers deserve some credit. When I started almost every new ball bowler used to try and swing it away but now people try to use the red ball’s seam a lot more and that gives batters less time to react than in the time when it swung from the arm.”
As Mitch talks you realise that he could probably give it another year, maybe two, and there might be the tiniest part of him that wishes he was doing so. But it is overwhelmed by the realisation that it is time to go. A job awaits him at the Professional Cricketers Association and he will be often be working from home, which means that Danni will get to see more of her husband and Freddie and Ava more of their Dad. He’ll still be getting around the county circuit in his new role but he’ll be watching the cricket from behind a laptop rather than from second slip.
“I’ve had a good crack – 19 brilliant years – and everyone’s got to move on at some point and I think my time is now,” he reflected. “I reached the decision around August. I’ve felt in reasonable nick all the year and I think there was a little bit more in the tank but there was a big opportunity available outside playing. And I’ve come to terms with things because it’s been in the background for a month or so.
“I’m very fortunate in that I’ve got a job with the PCA that I’ve already been doing on a part-time basis this summer. I’ll still be in the county network so I think it’s about as perfect as transitions go. Playing for Worcestershire for twenty years would have been nice, as would walking off New Road in a non-Covid environment with people in the pavilion but they weren’t strong enough reasons to carry on.”
“For the moment nothing will be changing because in recent years it’s been January before I started hitting cricket balls, but then there will come a time when I would be starting training and I’ll think: ‘This is a bit different.’ I’ll still play in some form, possibly in the Birmingham League and I’ve always said I’ll finish where I started back at Bretforton for one season in the Cotswold Hills League, playing with a few of my mates and trying to help the kids a little bit.”
And no doubt this former professional batsman will leave his mark on whichever club is shrewd enough to sign him up. For you see, there are cricketers whose ability is so great that they are soon playing Test matches and become objects of admiration for thousands (Millions if they are Indian.) Then there are players who live in their own world, contributing to their team for sure but rarely communicating with anyone very much. In truth these are pretty rare birds. Then there are people who change the weather in their clubs, whether recreational or professional. They encourage their colleagues to think differently about the game and may even demand that they change their ways. They honour their ability and thereby their profession. They therefore have an effect on their team mates that lasts long after their retirement.
Such players are remembered because they “did things properly” and “treated the game with respect.” So nothing encapsulated Daryl Mitchell’s cricket career so perfectly as the manner in which it ended. And while there might well have been a good crowd at New Road last Thursday you could have filled Lord’s with people who would have liked to be there. One of them was sitting in a press tent in Liverpool and for some reason he now finds his cheeks unexpectedly damp as he taps out these last words of tribute to one of the most admirable cricketers he has ever seen.
Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications