In the relatively narrow context of English county cricket, David Sales, who played for Northamptonshire from 1994 until 2014, was a fine player, but one whose achievements never quite matched his abilities. Unlike most of the young players with whom he’d played in the England junior sides in the 1990s, he never played for England. Indeed, he never really got that close to doing so. Injuries, inconsistency, and playing for an unfashionable county saw to that.
His retirement, in July 2014, prompted these thoughts.
The old shibboleth which has it that there are only two certainties in life – death and taxes – missed one out. Or at least one that presents itself at the end of most working lives.
In cricket, as in most professional sports, retirement comes early. A cricketer departs the stage just as his peers are getting into their stride; he is required to pick up the pieces of his life – often an abruptly terminated adolescence – at just the time his school and university mates will be sorting theirs out.
Professional sport gives you the chance to do many things which most people will rarely, if ever, experience: you can earn your living – and by most people’s standards it is a very good living – by doing something you love and would happily do for nothing; you will have regular opportunities to perform in front of crowds of people who will hang on your every action and applaud, even idolise, you if you do what you do well; you can travel the world (or at least the United Kingdom) and stay in the best hotels, with someone else picking up the tab. And in most cases you will do all this before you are thirty-five years old.
The payback is that you then have to start living your life all over again in the knowledge that nothing you do again will ever be so much fun.
In cricket, like life, retirements come and go. Some, such as that of Jacques Kallis, attract world-wide attention. Others, such as that of David John Grimwood Sales, who also announced his retirement this week, resonate a little less. Unless you’ve followed county cricket closely these past twenty years or so you may not have heard of David Sales. I have, though, and these are some fragments of his story.
David Sales grew up in Surrey. In his very early, and so talented, years, it seemed obvious that he would become a Brown Cap, but something I once knew about but which is now lost in the mists of time, went wrong, and he fetched up at Northampton. At Wantage Road. A venue never prominent in an England selector’s diary, then or now. But it fitted Sales, and things started to happen.
70 not out in a Sunday League game at Chelmsford, aged 16, 1994. 210 not out in a championship match at Kidderminster, aged 18, 1996. 303 not out on his home ground, aged 21, 1999. 276, again at Northampton, in the first home championship match of 2000.
Sales could bat. This much was obvious, but, for all the scores, and despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that in these years England were a poor, turbulent, often rudderless side, he never seemed to be talked about too much as a potential international. Consistency was a problem, but what really set him back was the knee injury he suffered while playing beach volleyball on the England A tour of the West Indies in early 2001. It cost him a tour, and the whole of the following season, at a time in his career, anyone’s career, when lost momentum can do terrible damage. He returned in 2002 but a season’s average of 25 saw him fall back into the pack. Despite 7000 runs at 50 over the next six English seasons, double centuries scattered around like confetti on a windy day, he never left it.
In these lost years Wantage Road was a long way from my regular beat too and Northants never seemed to be on TV very much, so, in my mind’s eye Sales remained an uncomplicated seventeen year-old in an England under-19 shirt on a clear blue day at Taunton in the summer of 1995, holding his own as he vied for attention with the likes of Trescothick, Flintoff and Alex Tudor, who charged in from the Old Pavilion End like our very own Walsh or Ambrose. In the seasons afterwards he often felt like a mirage: that player who once promised so much but who seemed destined to play his days out under leaden skies in soulless midlands towns. No matter how many runs he made, the vacancies weren’t there, or, if they were, the selectors weren’t looking in his direction.
Sales returned to my consciousness when he made a fine 70 against Middlesex at Southgate in a 40 over play-off game, late in the 2007 season. This was the Sales of legend: uncomplicated, technically sound, powerful and indefinably classy. But it wasn’t enough. It never would be.
As with most players who were never given the opportunity to sample even the briefest taste of the international game, it’s impossible to define or classify the reasons why with any certainty. A lack of form here, a lack of opportunity there. Injuries. Where they played. Everyone knows that historically it’s been harder to get noticed by the selectors if you play for one of a number of counties. Broadly speaking these are those on the western fringes of the English first-class game – Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Somerset – and the unfashionable counties of the East Midlands – Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Northamptonshire.
Ask Don Shepherd, ask Alan Jones, ask Peter Trego, ask David Sales.
Other counties have players like this too. Once upon a time Hampshire had Peter Sainsbury; in Sales’ own era Lancashire have had Glen Chapple.
If Sales, as he once seemed destined to, had spent his career at The Oval, he would probably have played for England.
Success at the highest level, or even having the chance to show what you can do, isn’t everything, though. The county game, with its cultural richness, its history and its folklore, is a pretty good arena in which to spend the short years between apprenticeship and retirement.
There was a time when everything about David Sales – the prodigy’s upbringing, the irresistible strokeplay and the massive scores – suggested that he would grace Test cricket. That he never did does not diminish Test cricket and it does not diminish him.
As he said this week: ‘I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my career…and whilst disappointed that I didn’t play at the very highest level, I will look back with pride at my achievements.’
Different Shades of Green, 31st July 2014