It’s an hour after stumps during the Nottingham Test. An elderly couple wait near the boundary rope. Behind them the empty stands are being cleaned, in front of them tired players are dragging themselves back to the team bus. One of the cricketers spots them and comes jogging. The three form a tight, smiling huddle.
The tall frail man lovingly brushes off the dirt from the player’s shirt, the silver-haired lady fishes out a tiny box of cream from her handbag and applies on the dry lips of the sun-baked cricketer. These are the Plunketts — Alan and Marie with son Liam — a caring, close-knit family whose bond has grown even stronger after a couple of medical crises and a life-changing decision in recent years.
Back in 2007, Liam was recalled to the national team before the World Cup. That’s when the then 22-year-old Durham all-rounder almost quit the sport. The reason: he wanted to donate his kidney to his ailing father fighting a renal disorder. “It’s a genetic problem. My father had it, now my daughter has inherited it. But Liam didn’t. He was a perfect blood match to me that made him a perfect donor,” says Plunkett Sr.
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When these medical tests were done, Liam was preparing for his international comeback. Elsewhere, Alan was spending 20 hours a week getting his dialysis done. With the average wait to receive a kidney donation being 3 years in England, Alan had to spend long hours at hospital. Liam couldn’t see his father suffer.
“He would come home and he would tell me that he would stop playing and go ahead with the kidney donation, and I kept saying ‘no wait’.”
Cut to 2014, the tide has passed. Liam, on his father’s insistence, continued playing and went on to become England’s ‘enforcer’, a bowler who startles the opposition. At Trent Bridge, he clean bowled India skipper MS Dhoni with his first ball, at Lord’s he dismissed Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli off successive balls after scoring an important half-century. Alan, who got a donor after a 4-year wait, has lived a healthy life for the last three years. With Marie, a cancer survivor herself, he now drops by at most venues to watch their son play.
When fielding near the fence, as was the case in Trent Bridge, Liam and Alan talk through gestures and hand signals. When he was getting reverse swing, Liam would draw the ball trajectory in the air with his middle and index figure as if holding the seam of the ball. The father would nod in approval.
Back in the day, Alan was a pacer himself. “I was an amateur, my claim to fame was that I got Desmond Haynes (former West Indian opener) out. I still have a picture at home of his middle stump gone back and the bails flying. I was a fast bowler, but not as fast as Liam.”
He recalls the days of playing league cricket in north-east England that would attract names like Roger Harper, Sanjay Manjrekar, besides Haynes. Liam learnt his cricket growing up on the sidelines of matches that Alan played. Liam was three and he would hang about and watch the cricket with his mother all day long. There were other parents and they would bowl at him often. Consequently, the boy from Middlesbrough grew up more confident with willow and used to play as opening batsman till he was 15. “But once he grew bigger and broader, he started bowling fast,” says Alan.
But for Alan and Marie, he still remains the ‘little boy’ who has been a ‘giver’ all his life. “I am not saying it because he is my son, but people have come and told me that. Did you notice how he signs autograph for every child that approaches him even when he is fielding on the fence,” asks Alan.
You look up to watch, Liam give another autograph.