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Malcolm Ewing was on everyone’s mind when Larne Cricket Club took to the field on Saturday at Sandy Bay. The First Eleven all wore black armbands in his memory as they took on Belfast Superkings. Mal would have had fun with their name had he been there...sounding like a pack of cigarettes would have been asking for trouble if Mal was around.
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Perhaps fortunately for the recently founded visitors they had never had the pleasure of meeting him, as this was their first game at the Bay. Several of the younger players on the home side had never met him either, for it had been several years since “Big Mal” had last graced Sandy Bay with his presence.
Somehow we all expected he would be back at the club, someday. Surely it was just a matter of time before he returned? The big man and either of his small dogs (Scooter or Marty) had became permanent fixtures at Larne’s home matches, seldom missing a game or even a net session for around 20 years.
In addition, any team short of a car for an away game anywhere could also always count on Mal to help out as a driver. During the club’s heyday of fielding five teams he was particularly invaluable in helping us fulfil fixtures across the province.
The only matches he ever missed at Sandy Bay were representative fixtures not featuring any Larne teams. “I am very parochial when it comes to cricket, if Larne are not involved I am not interested” he told me once when I asked him if he had been watching the Test match on TV.
Most sports teams have their die-hard fans, but for Larne Cricket Club to have what we would now call a “Super-fan” was quite unusual for such a slow game as cricket.
Cricket though, with its long periods of silence between deliveries has always afforded spectators a magnificent opportunity to interact with the players.
There is a long tradition at grounds around the world having resident wits who attended every match, they would routinely mock the visiting teams and occasionally their own players too.
At Sheffield it was “Old Annie”, whilst most famous of all it was “Yabba” at Sydney. “Hey Jardine, leave our flies alone, they are the only friends you have in Australia” he memorably commented during the Bodyline series of the 1930s. The Australians respected the irreverence of Yabba to the extent that the current ground still has a stand named after him.
Malcolm Ewing was Larne’s answer to Yabba. Visiting players often had more reason to fear his caustic wit and mischievous comments than the Larne bowling attacks. Many batsmen were befuddled by his seemingly friendly advice either about the pitch or the bowler. The information Mal provided to the visitors was always entirely incorrect and deliberately misleading.
“You should make sure and get on the back foot to give yourself more time” was a common bit of advice Mal provided to those visiting Sandy Bay for the first time...and this, of course at a time when getting forward was the order of the day on Larne’s wickets Home players were not exempt from his machinations, as every young player found themselves in the firing line at some point.
In my first ever game I scraped two runs, then later foolishly stood in front of the scorers. “Look, he could not trouble the scorers with the bat so now he is troubling them by blocking their view.”
This was in the days before the current score hut was built. Back then everything was focussed on the pavilion; players, spectators and scorers all milled around in this busy area, with a portable scoreboard also adding to the clutter.
This was fertile territory for a joker like Malcolm, and surely every Larne player of the last 40 years has there own personal memory of being gently mocked by him, either just before or just after a failure at the crease.
Mal had first encountered cricket at a time when the game in Larne was at a crossroads. It had traditionally been played by the upper-echelons of the town’s society, with Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon amongst its founding patrons. That prestige could not last, and by the by the late 1970s this rather aloof and unwelcoming club was suffering from a player shortage as the old establishment began fading away. The game may well have died in the town but for a sudden interest from a different section of the community.
At some point a class at Larne Technical College became interested in the game, and from that fortuitous event cricket began to grow and then thrive in Larne.
It was a movement led by Malcolm and his friend and classmate Liam McCallister. The pair became involved in organising and playing for LCC for many years. Malcolm served as the first Captain of Larne Thirds, continuing to grow the game by organising and transporting players all over the province. His large frame prevented him from being a top cricketer, but he certainly had the skills to compete and desire to win.
His finest sporting moment actually came during a tennis match. A haughty young player at the cricket club mentioned he was also a member of the tennis club, and after a brief argument about their relative abilities a special challenge match was arranged between the two, with the younger player vowing to run Mal “all over the court.”
Four or five of us watched as worlds collided that day at the Town Park courts. Big Mal, with rented racquet in hand, did indeed struggle to win rallies. The tennis club member, complete with his own racquet and head-cover, looked immaculate in his white kit as he fired down impressive booming serves.
Mal though had a few tricks up his sleeve. Firstly he had perfected a flat, fast top-spin underarm serve that troubled his opponent throughout the match. An adapted version of this serve doubled as a blistering return. The result was a fairly even game, with the pair splitting the first four sets as Malcolm won enough short points to prove very competitive.
The loser had to pay for the entire cost of the court, and with the pressure of this bill mounting as the game went on, the young player’s serve collapsed entirely. “You are not throwing the ball as high as you did at the start” was Mal helpful advice to his opponent after a double fault in the decider. For the rest of the set he hardly got a single serve in.
It was 6-2 to Mal in the fifth set. He enjoyed that victory, but not quite as much as he enjoyed forcing his vanquished foe to pay the 50p rental charge for his racquet. “It was part of the court charge” he explained, with the sort of grin in his eye that always left you wondering if he was serious or not.
Perhaps Mal’s finest cricketing hour came from the edge of the boundary. The now defunct North of Ireland club were at Larne that day, with one balding player displaying their slight air of superiority by appealing continually against the Larne batsmen.
The bowlers’ tone and demeanor, plus his exasperation at the negative decisions he received from the Larne umpires, clearly rankled Mal. Soon there was yet another vociferous appeal of “How’s that?” from the North bowler. Even before the umpire could answer, it was Mal’s stentorian voice that rang across Sandy Bay-
“Not today, Baldy!”
It was a response that instantly became incorporated into the club’s shared vocabulary.
At almost every match for the next few decades, a visiting bowler would eventually make an earnest appeal to the umpire; almost invariably Mal would be be there give his opinion and amuse everyone in earshot by quickly and loudly booming out-
“Not today, Baldy!”
It did not matter if the bowler was indeed bald; in fact the most quizzical glances came from players with full heads of hair. I doubt any Larne player ever explained the remark to the opposition, which surely led to numerous players looking nervously at their hairline after appealing for lbw during a game at Sandy Bay.
Cricketers of all sorts come and go. The opener we always thought was irreplaceable must eventually depart, allowing a new player to take his place at the top of the order. Bowlers too must continually be replaced, plus wicketkeepers and even captains: They must all depart in their turn and be replaced by a new generation of cricketers.
Groundsmen, committee members and yes even club Chairman have a limited shelf-life, all destined to depart and be replaced, for either better or worse. The roles will be around for as long as Larne Cricket Club exists.
Yet the saddest thing about Malcolm Ewing’s passing is that there is no necessity for him to be replaced as our club’s resident wit. It has been several years-perhaps more- since Malcolm last attended a game, and during that absence no-one has even vaguely replaced him at the ground.
Worryingly, the other characters mentioned early were also simply never replaced.
There have been no more Yabba type characters at the Sydney Cricket Ground, and Yabba was barracking between the two world wars. Cricket itself has long ceased to be played at Bramall Lane, with the days of Annie heckling players now only lives on in the mind of Boycott.
And now Sandy Bay has lost its greatest character, cricket at the ground has lost some of its unique charm and the NCU is itself poorer for his departure.
I still cannot believe he is not at our games, much less that he will never return. When I turned up yesterday, knowing of his death, I still found myself scanning to the car park to see if he was there. Who knows how many Larne matches he watched over the years? Certainly he saw more of our games than anyone else in the club’s history.
On the rare occasions when we had two home teams playing at once, Mal was always in a quandary about which to watch. He would drive between the Bay and Rugby Club or Grammar grounds, often making several trips back and forth to seek out and then stick with whichever Larne side was doing better.
Yesterday would have been a classic for him, as the first Saturday of July saw the Firsts racking up a massive score of over 250, with the unforgiving sun baking players and spectators alike.
Then a dip in fortunes for Larne, as the curiously named visitors rallied strongly during their innings as they looked to be cruising to a surprisingly comfortable triumph. A late collapse saw Larne steal a narrow and exciting victory, but I found the whole day crushingly sad.
Big Mal was not there...what somehow made the victory feel so hollow was the thought he would never again be there to savour any of our future victories, and worse than that he would never even get the simple pleasure of reading in the local paper that Larne Cricket Club had won another match.
Even if we make it to a cup final he will not be there...somehow playing cricket for Larne seems slightly more pointless than it had done just a week before Big Mal passed away.
Malcolm Ewing was still a vice-president of the club at his time of passing, a small mark of respect toward a man who managed to become an immortal Larne Cricket Club legend, despite never winning a match with either bat nor ball.
We shall surely never see his like again.
RIP Big Mal, with condolences to all his friends and family from everyone at Larne Cricket Club, who will always remember their number one fan.
Mike Lyle, Chairman Larne Cricket Club.
Monday 09 July 2018