By Nick Friend
In the 132 years that England and Australia have fought for the Ashes, some of cricket’s most illustrious faces have competed for sport’s smallest trophy, their names synonymous with this most famous of Test series. Bradman, Grace, Botham, Ponting, Flintoff, McGrath, Pietersen, Gower – cricketing royalty one and all. Yet, among the unforgettable memories – Warne’s ball of the century, the Edgbaston Test, Panesar and Anderson’s heroic last stand, one sticks out for its sheer fairy-tale.
27th August 2005, Trent Bridge. The greatest series of them all in the balance as Ricky Ponting and Damien Martyn dragged Australia back into the fourth Test.
Flintoff to Martyn. A push into the offside, the Australian captain frantically scurrying to the keeper’s end, a little known Durham youngster racing towards the ball, a shy at the stumps, bails flying, thousands cheering, Ponting spewing as he trudged off, Gary Pratt held aloft by his teammates. History. The most famous run-out of all time.
“It’s something that nobody can take away from me”, he tells me. “It’s probably something that people will always associate me with. You get that one chance in probably the biggest game in England’s history. Thankfully, I picked it up cleanly, threw it and the ball just hit the stumps. People just remember that particular series – probably the best ever and to be a part of that was pretty special.
“It was just a special team to be involved in. When you were on the field, you were on the field as part of the eleven – not as a twelfth man. So, you just felt like part of the team. At the end of the day, everybody is an England fan – whether you talk about the public or the players. I was just the lucky one that had the chance to go and watch all the games and be a part of it and thankfully, I was able to do something to contribute.”
While nowadays, England’s twelfth men are provided by the host county, back in 2005, Duncan Fletcher was searching for every possible advantage as he looked to mastermind a remarkable Ashes triumph. The result was handpicking the best fielders in the country to act as substitute fielders, who would then follow the team for the duration of the series. Trevor Penney – later England’s fielding coach, Samit Patel and Pratt were all selected and they would routinely replace England’s fast bowlers between spells to allow them a comfort break.
“It was something that was done as part of the plan”, admits Pratt. “The plan was always for the guys to go off and get showered and freshened up – especially the bowlers – to come back out and have another spell.”
While he confesses that the legitimacy of such tactics were somewhat blurred, he made a convincing case for the ploy’s advantages.
“I think the counties are missing out on it because it is good for the players. I learnt so much and gained so much confidence. I knew that I was meeting up with the squad and getting into that dressing room on merit – not just because I’d been [plucked from the MCC Young Cricketers] as twelfth man. Obviously, it didn’t happen for me but there’s nothing to say that if they gave the chance to ten people to do the same thing over the years, two of them might make it and be back in that dressing room as part of the squad.
The run-out had infamous repercussions, with Ponting accusing England of cheating and defying the spirit of the game. Pratt, however, rebuffs the Australian captain’s grievances.
“When Ricky [Ponting] was trying to complain, he was actually doing it at the wrong time because Simon Jones was in hospital at the time. So really, it wasn’t a very good argument at the time. And of course, they did the same the year after in Australia.”
In the controversy that followed the incident, what was lost in it was a remarkable piece of fielding from a man, who puts the piece of fielding as much down to his anonymity as anything else.
“I was quite well-renowned on the county circuit but once you get that reputation on the county circuit, people just don’t run to you. But obviously, the Australians just didn’t know anything about me! It was funny really because it was the first direct hit I’d had all year – even though I practiced for so long and done so many hours of training.
“The real issue was actually the fact that there was never ever a run there! It was horrendous. Everyone goes on about Ponting’s reaction but, in reality, Damien Martyn called him through for a horrific run, to be fair.”
For all the fanfare that the moment brought Pratt – the Barmy Army tried to whisk him out to Australia for the return series; the consequences of the episode were double-edged.
“It can be a bit frustrating”, Pratt confesses. “When people just associate me with that one ball, it does take away a bit from the fact that I was actually a fairly decent cricketer.”
Such was the celebration of the runout, Pratt became intrinsically linked to his fielding, leaving his batting and keeping overlooked.
Indeed, a part of Pratt wishes that it had never happened at all.
“It’s a tough one”, he explains with reflection. “I’d rather it hadn’t happened and I was still playing first class cricket for Durham.
“I didn’t play for Durham at all in 2005 because I was away on twelfth man duties. That then caused a problem because Durham weren’t too happy that I was going away as England’s twelfth man while they were paying my wages. So, to be honest, I don’t think it helped my case whatsoever in terms of getting a new contract. But obviously, at the same time, you’re going away with England with the top players in the country. You’re going to learn. You’re around experienced players, experienced coaches. It can really only do good for you. And to be honest, that’s going to be more beneficial to me as a player than going and playing second team cricket for Durham.”
The problems being faced now by his home county, naturally, trouble him immensely. As well as the financial bailout from the ECB that has resulted in relegation and a 48-point penalty, Pratt is equally concerned by the state of the playing staff after losing prize assets to Surrey – a worry heightened by rumours surrounding vice-captain Keaton Jennings’s future.
“I think it’s absolutely shameful that Durham are letting guys like Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick go. They are the spine of the team. It’s a real shame that they’re doing that and I just think that it’s all happening for financial reasons more than anything else.
“I think Durham should have taken a stand and told Paul Collingwood to stand aside and take up a coaching role because, as we’ve seen, we’ve now lost two quality young players and 2000 runs that we’ll need to replace somehow. To lose two local lads should be a real kick in the teeth. It is a wake-up call but the horse has bolted now. The wake-up call should have come when Stoneman left. But to let Borthwick go too is pretty disappointing.”
His relationship with Durham is an interesting one. Having joined the county’s academy setup as a 13 year-old and represented Durham Academy in senior cricket from the age of just fourteen, he remains extremely proud both of his time at the club and the way in which cricket is played in the northernmost echelons of the country.
Despite only receiving first class status in 1992, the county has been responsible for producing some of English cricket’s fiercest competitors of the last three decades. Ben Stokes is one of the reigning Wisden Cricketers of the year, Mark Wood took the wicket that won last year’s Ashes, Paul Collingwood captained England to World T20 triumph, whilst Steve Harmison topped the ICC bowling rankings in 2004. Pratt puts these remarkable feats down to the underdog attitude of the locals.
“I think it’s always been a case of that northern grit and determination. A lot of people have the perception that the guys up north aren’t as good as the southern guys. And then you have that north south divide. As a result, you end up with a lot of blokes that want to prove people wrong. And that’s just the kind of attitude people have. I know it’s not necessarily correct but I guess that’s just what drives everybody from the north on. It’s just the perception that people have. When southerners come and play up here and they arrive with the perception that it’s going to be hard gritty stuff, they’re generally right – that’s just how the game’s played up here.”
It was not always plain sailing during his time on the playing staff. As part of a young side with a core of young local talent, Pratt’s Durham side was relegated twice to Division Two, as well as finishing last of the eighteen counties in 2004.
Many of the difficulties that encompassed the county during the period were as frustrating as they were unavoidable.
“We’d existed as a county side for about eleven years – we were a young side and we didn’t have any experienced players. Paul Collingwood was missing all the time, either through injury of being away with England, overseas players kept on coming over and getting injured and we never really had a stable side.”
Indeed, the side’s miserable 2004 season can be partially explained by Harmison’s absence for the entire season and Paul Collingwood only featuring on six occasions. However, the upshot of the team’s troubles was a lack of clear thinking, with Pratt in and out of the side despite scoring more than 1,000 runs the previous year.
The situation wasn’t improved by a luckless search for quality overseas reinforcements – their pursuits ending in failure for countless bizarre reasons.
“Brad Hodge came over – he broke his thumb in the nets before he’d even started! It was just crazy what was happening at the time. Some of the guys were coming towards the end of their careers as well – Nathan Astle, Martin Love, David Boon. They were obviously great players and had great temperaments in the dressing room and we learnt a lot from them.
“But then you had guys like Shoaib Akhtar who was just off the rails really. He’s a complete one-off, that guy. I mean, he was exceptionally good and talented but he was always a bit on the edge – a bit of a maverick really. Literally, if he wanted to bowl a side out because it was a Friday night and he fancied going out for a few beers, then he had that ability where he’d just bowl the side out. If he was in the mood to bowl a team out and win you the game, he’d just do it.”
The result was a year that saw two wins in sixteen – a tough time for a young side, much of which had grown up together through the Durham age group teams.
Pratt’s teammates would reap the rewards of their perseverance, winning consecutive County Championship titles in 2008 and 2009. Though he had long since left the club, it was easy for him to pinpoint the makings of those triumphs.
“The team that won that County Championship was basically the same blokes but at the right ages for winning titles – all around 27 years-old. In cricket, you’re never going to achieve what they achieved when we were all 23 years-old because the experience just wasn’t there. Nobody knew how to do it. We didn’t know how to win games from certain situations and I guess that just came down to having no experience in the team and that’s where we were let down with overseas players and stuff like that. It was just a big learning curve for a bunch of young lads.”
While he looks back upon these chaotic years with real fondness, at the same time, there is more than a tinge of regret at the way in which in his departure was handled.
Twelve months after Ashes delirium, Pratt found himself without a county, an especially difficult situation for a man to whom Durham was all he had known in his cricketing life.
He had joined Durham’s first ever academy setup aged thirteen and had become set on following his two older brothers into the Durham system. Early success saw Pratt become a regular in the England U19 side, playing alongside Ian Bell and Monty Panesar at the U19 World Cup in Sri Lanka, where he would face future stars Mitchell Johnson and Michael Clarke. And it was from here that his Durham career was born, signing professional terms after the tournament – the natural fluidity of progression from academy through to first team only hardening the blow when it came in 2006.
“I got released and I was quite shocked at the time. And to be honest, the reasons for releasing me were just pathetic really. Durham just told me that they wanted to give some of the younger lads a go – even though I was only 24 years-old, which was a bit of a copout really. But you know, it’s just one of those things – it’s life really. You just have to get on with it.”
It is difficult not to be impressed by Pratt as we speak. To go from being an unsuspecting run-of the-mill county batsman to the jubilation and fame that one throw from cover-point brought him; and then to be cast away from professional cricket – all in the space of twelve months, it shows a tremendous sense of perspective and strength of character.
Now aged 34, he is playing on his experience, in his sixth year of captaining Cumberland in the minor counties league – a standard of cricket he believes is criminally underrated and in which are lying a host of untouched gems, with first class sides not bold enough to take a punt.
“I think it would be really nice for the minor counties to get back into the one-day competitions as they did in the past. There are some good players out there who deserve a chance and there are a lot of better players out there playing minor counties cricket than those who are playing first class cricket.
“For example, there was a guy at Cumberland last year called Richard Gleeson, who’s now at Northants and, were it not for an injury, he’d be going on an England Lions tour this winter. He’s been bowling like that for seven or eight years at Cumberland. He’s 28 which is a shame because I’ve been saying for years that this guy should be playing first class cricket. Everyone said that you can’t judge someone on a minor counties game. But you can’t judge someone on a second team game either because county second eleven cricket isn’t as good as minor counties cricket. So you’ll never know until you give him a chance in the first team. And now, he’s been one of the best bowlers in the country.
The Gleeson story is not an isolated one in this country. Former county pros Kadeer Ali and Ben Howgego topped this year’s batting averages while former Middlesex and Yorkshire spinners Chris Peploe and David Wainwright are amongst the leading wicket-takers. The standard of cricket is such that Pratt remains convinced that he still has the game for the professional circuit. Whether he’d consider such a move, however, is an entirely different story.
“I’ve probably enjoyed my cricket a lot more ever since [joining Cumberland from Durham]. I think I’m a far better player now than what I was when I first went in there at Durham.”
But I enjoy my life now. I like playing for Cumberland and I enjoy playing for Richmondshire, my club side. Life’s treated me pretty well so there’s no reason for me to look for that anymore.
“I know what it’s like, I’ve done it – it’s not all what it’s hyped up to be. It might be different now but, from some of the lads, they say it’s different for the worse – not for the better.
“It’s all gone a bit too professional in the sense that guys won’t finish a day’s play and have a pint and just relax. Now they finish a day’s play, go for a swim, have a protein shake, are in bed by 8:30pm and ready for the next day.
“Cricket’s about playing, socialising and making new friends really. I think a little bit of that is getting lost in the game at the moment.”
His own experiences have kept him from wanting to get into coaching, preferring to act as a mentor, as someone who has seen it all himself.
“I just think that people get to where they get to by doing what they’ve always done. So why change them?” he explains to me.
Picking up on the age-old problem in English cricket, he is critical of the outdated methods that, until the arrival of Trevor Bayliss, had stunted the growth of England’s young players.
“They try and model everyone to be the same and like robots. But if you look at the people who we’ve had like Kevin Pietersen, who came over from South Africa; nobody tampered with his game, that’s just who he was and he was too headstrong to listen to people telling him to change. But that’s why he was so good. He knew who he was and what was right for him and I don’t think we let that happen enough. I doubt there was an Englishman back in 2005 who could have done what Pietersen did [on the last day at the Oval] because they’d have had that doubt niggling in his head that if he got out, he’d be lambasted or the press, whereas [Kevin] just thought that he’d do it his way and that’s the way it was.
It is refreshing to hear such honesty from a man who has experienced the best and the worst of what the industry has to offer. His story is a fascinating one, opening eyes to the reality behind the superficial artifice of professional sport.
Held aloft by Vaughan, Pietersen and Flintoff at Trent Bridge eleven years ago – the unlikeliest of heroes, who’d have thought that Gary Pratt is at his happiest now, running his own sports shop, captaining Cumberland and enjoying his cricket.
Photographs: Mike Latham (Cumberland CCC), Ben Sutherland