Ten seconds into our conversation, Chris Scott already knows where I’m heading.
‘And then the ball was on the floor’
I’ve never met Scott, or ever spoken to him. And for all the time I misspent studying scorecards on Ceefax in the 1990s, I struggle to recall anything much about his career. Scott was a wicketkeeper. He spent a decade understudying Bruce French at Nottinghamshire. Then he joined Durham in 1992, where he was “perhaps least celebrated,” as Stephen Brenkley wrote, “of the seasoned pros signed to ease Durham’s passage in their first years in the Championship”. Twenty-four years later, Scott is on the other end of my phone.
“Is this Chris Scott?”
“I’m a sports journalist and …”
“You want to ask me about Brian Lara?”
He sighed. I apologised.
“Do people often mention it then?”
“Only every day of my life.”
Scott quit first-class cricket in 1996. At least once a season every season since, his phone will buzz with a sudden flurry of incoming messages. He knows this likely means he’s been mentioned again, on the TV or radio. “Every time in a Test match somebody drops an easy catch and the batsman starts to score a few runs I think ‘here it comes’.” Back in January England were playing South Africa at Cape Town. Joe Root dropped AB de Villiers at second slip, fifth ball. De Villiers batted for another five hours. “And I was bombarded with messages,” Scott says, wearily, “I’m pretty sure I was mentioned on both TMS and Sky Sports at the very same time.”
There have been more famous drops, like Herschelle Gibbs’ off Steve Waugh in the 1999 World Cup. There have been more traumatic drops, like Fred Tate’s off Joe Darling in the fourth Test of the 1902 Ashes. And there have been more embarrassing drops, like Mike Gatting’s off Kiran More in the second Test against India in 1993. But we can say, with rare certainty, that there’s never been a drop that cost more than Chris Scott’s, off Brian Lara at Edgbaston on 3 June 1994. Because Lara, on 18 at the time, went on to make 501 not out, the highest score in the history of first-class cricket.
It was Durham’s third season in first-class cricket. They’d finished bottom of the table in both the previous two. “At the time it felt so important for us to try and establish a foothold in the championship,” Scott says. “And we started the ’94 season really well.” They’d beaten Derbyshire in April, and Gloucestershire in May. For Warwickshire, meanwhile, Lara had made six centuries in seven innings. That stat was on Scott’s mind as the team travelled to Edgbaston. “I am a real cricket anorak. I knew he had six in a row. I was thinking about it all the time,” Scott says. “When I played against great players I probably did focus on them a little bit too much instead of myself.” Lara, Scott says, was the greatest he played with or against.
Durham won the toss, batted, made 556, then declared. By 3pm on the second day, Scott had his gloves on and was set behind the stumps. He’d never felt that comfortable ‘keeping at Edgbaston. “It’s a beautiful place, don’t get me wrong. But it is one of those grounds where the ball can wobble around a bit somewhere between the batsman and the wicketkeeper.” That Friday, Scott says: “It was very windy, and I remember I wasn’t taking it very well at all.” The ball just didn’t seem to be hitting the thick of his gloves. Despite that in the second over he took a good catch to dismiss Dominic Ostler, off Durham’s West Indian quick, Anderson Cummins.
So Warwickshire were eight for one, and Lara was in at No3. Cummins almost got him first ball. “He was within a whisker of being caught-and-bowled. Anderson dived and couldn’t quite reach it.” Then, when Lara was on 12, Cummins bowled him. “But of course it was a no ball.” Simon Brown was bowling at the other end. Left-arm medium-fast. Brown had taken a total of 93 wickets in the two previous seasons, and would take another 66 that summer. “I felt Simon was the best bowler in the country at that time,” Scott says. In the final few minutes before tea, Brown did it. Lara moved on to his back foot, played a hard drive at a ball that was swinging away from him.
“It was a catch I’d taken a million times before,” Scott says. “A very healthy edge, but a very straightforward catch. Regulation.”
Scott sighs again.
Scott has played back that next split-second many times in his memory. He still can’t quite make sense of it. “Now, some people say I was celebrating, trying to throw the ball up before I actually caught it. But I have never quite known what happened. I just wonder if I …” He searches for the right word. “… If I froze. Somewhere in the middle. Suddenly I just froze. And then the ball was on the floor.”
If you’ve ever dropped an easy catch you’ll have an idea how Scott felt, how his stomach must have emptied out as his blood flooded up to his blushing face. I’m a bad catcher myself. Especially under a high ball, one which gives you too much time to think as it rises but, somehow, far too little to act as its falls. Few things are quite so humiliating. But for Scott, cricket wasn’t just a game, but a job. The drop wasn’t just an embarrassing slip, but a professional screw-up.
Later, the story would come about that Scott said: “I bet he’ll go on and get a hundred now.” That was a line he gave to Simon Hughes at a party a couple of years later, which Hughes then used on TV. And maybe Scott did say that. He isn’t certain. “I may have said it. But I’m sure it wasn’t the first thing I said. The first thing I said wasn’t fit for publication.” Away to Scott’s left the two slips, Wayne Larkins and Phil Bainbridge, both stood in silence. Scott remembers that during the tea break Geoff Cook told him “if you dwell on this you are not doing you’re job”. Scott says “Geoff was very kind about it, as he always was”.
Scott doesn’t remember all that much about what happened next. Only that it seemed to him that where Lara had barely been able to lay bat on ball in that first hour, after the drop, “he just hit every ball for four for a day and a half”. The Saturday was washed out. The Sunday set aside for a one-day game. On the Monday Lara made 390 in the day. “Looking back I think my teammates mostly joked about it really,” Scott says, “with a whole day washed out there was no chance of a result. So I didn’t cost the team the win.” Everyone else laughed it off, but the drop still pains Scott. He made exactly 300 dismissals in his first-class career. But it’s the one that got away which has stayed with him.
“What was disappointing was that Durham were still trying to get established, and we had started really well in ’94. And this just wasn’t the publicity that Durham needed at that time.” He even blames himself for holding back Brown’s career. “Lara had got six hundreds on the bounce. Simon did everything to get him out. Only I didn’t do my bit, did I? And who knows? That might have got Simon into the Test side sooner.” Scott says that when Brown was finally picked for England, in 1996, “he wasn’t bowling quite so well”. He only won the one cap. “So it was quite a shame for him.” But Brown, Scott says, hasn’t given it a second thought. “He was most laidback person I’ve ever met so it didn’t really bother him.”
Scott jokes that our conversation has been “something like therapy” for him. “I’ve never really talked about it. Because it was a howler, you know? I don’t want to celebrate something I was paid to do and didn’t do.” The people who know him best tend not to bring it up. When strangers mention it, Scott says: “I generally take in good spirit. Unless I’m in a bad mood.” Occasionally, rarely, Scott will bring the story up himself. He’s spent the last 16 years running Cambridge MCCU, which has a long list of alumni in the county game. Zafar Ansari and Josh Poysden are both recent graduates. The MCCU programme, Scott explains, was set up so that “young players could continue their education at university without having to sacrifice any part of their cricket development”.
Excellent as the idea is, the MCCU teams suffer when they play the first-class teams at the start of each season. Essex made 815 runs in the two innings of their last three-day match against Cambridge MCCU, lost only eight wickets, and won by 523 runs. Notts made 800, lost 12 wickets, and won by 517. “When they have a really tough day,” Scott says, “when we have spent a day chasing leather, I do bring it up. Just to make the players feel a bit better. ‘No matter what sort of day you’ve had out there today,’ I’ll tell them, ‘I’ve had a worse one. I promise’.”
Later that same month, Chris Scott scored his maiden first-class century, against Surrey. Four weeks later he made another, against Yorkshire. Durham won four games that season, and for the first time in their history, they didn’t finish last in the championship.
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