When Rory Burns left the field in Birmingham yesterday evening, his bat raised in acknowledgement of the standing ovation from the Edgbaston pavilion, after he had batted all day to remain unbeaten and unbowed on 125, with the crowd chanting his name after his first Ashes century, a South Croydon school had another sporting hero to celebrate.
Whitgift now lays justifiable claim to being the country’s leading sporting school.
In the past month, they have been proud to acknowledge the achievements of a Cricket World Cup-winner in Jason Roy. That pride must have been redoubled on Thursday evening when Roy and Burns walked out to the crease together at the start of England’s innings in the first Ashes Test, two Whitgift schoolmates together.
Next month, Eliot Daly, if not Danny Cipriani as well, will represent England at another World Cup, in rugby union.
And surely not too far distant, if he can recover from the ruptured Achilles tendon that curtailed his season earlier this year, there may be a place in the football World Cup for another Whitgift old boy, Callum Hudson-Odoi, a senior England footballer in his teens and a World Cup-winner at under-17 level.
These are just the stand-outs, the headliners. There are many more accomplished international sportsmen, from Victor Moses, through at least a dozen rugby and hockey players, and even one or two water polo players.
Last year, when Geraint Thomas won the Tour de France, there was huge praise, rightfully, heaped on his old schoolmasters and coaches at Whitchurch High, near Cardiff, which had the extraordinary success of tutoring the double Olympic gold medallist as well as Real Madrid galactico Gareth Bale and Six Nations rugby winning captain Sam Warburton.
Whitchurch High is a state comprehensive, without all the advantages of a £20,000-a-year fee-paying Whitgift, with its sports centre, carefully manicured lawns for playing fields and peacocks to terrify the young pupils, and where the charitable foundation’s funds are used to lure to Croydon outstanding sporting scholars.
Nonetheless, the litany of achievements by Old Whitgiftians are stacking up, with Burns’ gritty Ashes innings the latest to add to an honours board that can be traced back, at least, to the late 1950s and one of his predecessors as a Surrey and England batsman – Raman Subba Row, who still lives close to the old boys’ sports ground off Croham Manor Road, where he used to pop in for an occasional half-pint in the evenings.
Burns’ task in the Test match against Australia is not over yet. The Surrey captain resumed his innings this morning on 125 not out, his task to bat on for as long as possible. And to put the plaudits of the previous evening and morning’s back pages out of his mind for longer still.
Burns is 29. He and Roy batted together in Surrey age group teams and for their school from the age of 10. This is his eighth Test, following six appearances during the tours of Sri Lanka and the West Indies over the winter and what might be reasonably described as a disastrous Lord’s Test last week against Ireland.
Failure there meant that Burns was probably playing for his international cricket future yesterday. He earned a good deal of capital in the dogged, determined manner that he held together the England innings.
His unconventional, some might say awkward, batting style attracted some attention: “with all the graceful serenity of a man trying to force his way head-first through a privet hedge”, wrote one wag in the press box, who may just about know which way up to hold a cricket bat, and probably never saw the likes of Geoff Boycott or David Steele turn around their batting stances to cope with the demands of having lumps of leather hurled at them at 90 miles per hour-plus.
Burns, for all his stylistic tics – he “squinted, squatted suddenly as though fighting a bout of gastric nerves” was another description – got the job done with “an innings that already seems likely to garland and indeed define his career as a cricketer”.
Today, he just has to do it all over again.
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