Alex Ferguson… the heartbeat of Manchester United © Getty Images
Arunabha Sengupta recalls the day when he had interrupted his pilgrimage of English cricket grounds to visit Manchester United, shrine of Sir Alex Ferguson, the longest-serving manager of the club, who announced his retirement on Wednesday after a 27-year-old association with the club.
Summer 2011. We were standing at the Brian Statham End of the Old Trafford Cricket Ground. Above us loomed the Neville Cardus Gallery, on top of the Red Rose Suite.
Beside me, my new friend Mark was eyeing the ground where he had seen half a century’s cricket with the delight of a 10-year old. I was quite lucky to run into him in front of the Old Trafford Lodge just before walking into the ground.
Now he shielded his eyes from the early morning sun and pointed towards the looming conference centre ‘The Point’.
“That is a recent addition,” he informed. “Opened in 2010. An eyesore of sorts, especially if you’ve seen the ground in the older days.”
It was the second English ground after The Oval to host a Test match in England, way back in 1884.
“My first Test here was Jim Laker’s match in 1956,” Mark said proudly. “I was too young to see the original pavilion. German bombardment destroyed the Member’s dining room in 1940. It had to be rebuilt.”
Mark talked me through the way the ground had been used as a transit camp for soldiers returning from Dunkirk. Despite the damage, cricket had resumed soon enough. German Prisoners of War had been paid to prepare the ground for the Victory Test in August 1945. “Since then the pavilion has been renovated again. It had started leaking in 2003.”
I looked up at the press box above us and smiled. “I was just trying to reconstruct how the ground must have looked during the days that guy walked around here,” I jerked my head towards the Neville Cardus gallery.
Mark laughed. “Sir Neville? Quite a character.The gallery, though, is a recent addition. Earlier the press writers used to be cooped up in a small box. Derek Hodgson called it a wart on the face of Venus. The Cardus Gallery was built in 1984.” He paused. “And two years later, the other great man arrived in Manchester.”
His eyes swept across the ground and looked beyond the boundaries of cricket.
“Great man?” I asked, following his gaze.
“Sir Alex. He came over in 1986,” Mark laughed again. “Those days when McGrath and Robson were sloshed. Managed to raise them from 21st to 11th that season.”
I nodded. We walked towards the gate beneath the Old Trafford Lodge. Somehow, almost by mutual consent, we walked out and made our way across Warwick Road and Matt Busby Road.
Mark went on talking about the title hat-trick, UEFA Championships, Gordon Strachan and the many abuses hurled at the officials. He chuckled about the controversy over the stud rights of the racehorse Rock of Gibraltar. It was a short walk of around five minutes. Unfortunately, it would be more than another year before the unveiling of the bronze statue. Soon, the two cricket loving souls stood in front of the Old Trafford Football Stadium, the home of Manchester United and the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson.
Greatness does that to you. The greatness of some names transcend borders between sports and can make one break away from the most focused of quests.
It was not a product of any of the famed Ferguson mind games. It was just the magnetism of a supreme sports personality.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)