Nick Ahad: Having a giggle as we bade farewell to true character of village cricket

Ken 'Biff' Smith, president of Airedale Cricket Club in Keighley, who has passed away.
Ken 'Biff' Smith, president of Airedale Cricket Club in Keighley, who has passed away.
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Before Stephen Moffat became show-runner (basically the man in total charge) of Doctor Who and one of the most powerful men in British television, he wrote a brilliant and undersung comedy series called Coupling.

For the show, Moffat borrowed the American tradition of giving each episode a title.

I thought about the episode called The Giggle Loop last week.

The Giggle Loop describes that experience when you are in a serious situation and get an attack of the giggles. The more you try to suppress the inappropriate and embarrassing laughter, the more you need to laugh.

You get trapped in The Giggle Loop.

It was at a funeral that I thought of that episode and, yes, I found myself trapped in The Giggle Loop. Fortunately in this case, there was nothing to be embarrassed about.

Smiling and even having a chuckle at some fun memories while saying goodbye to an old friend was okay.

I was at the funeral of one of the most loved and respected men I have ever had the privilege of knowing.

Members past and present of Airedale Cricket Club gathered at our ground last week, not on a Saturday for our weekly fixture, but in the middle of the week, in the middle of the day.

Congregating at the gate at the top of the track that leads down to Paradise were current players, lads who have not played for a couple of years and men who have not played for many, many more.

We were all there for one reason: Biff.

Ken Smith, the man who set up our cricket club in 1956, has passed.

If there is a heaven, Biff will be sending St Peter from third man to fine leg for a wheeze, and he will be running through Heaven’s 11 like a dose of salts with his surprisingly effective and attacking off-spin.

I was one of the six club members honoured with the job of carrying Biff on his final journey, taking him into the crematorium from the hearse that bore him from Airedale: there was nowhere else the funeral cortege would begin but the ground that Biff built.

Up at Oakworth Crem, we carried him into the building and a familiar sound rung out.

Of course, Soul Limbo. What else would accompanying Biff departing this earth?

A cricket bat made of flowers was waiting for him inside.

That was the first time I chuckled during Biff’s funeral, when I heard the familiar strains of Soul Limbo. It was not the last.

When I first met Biff, two decades ago, he seemed like a gentle old soul. He would have been in his mid-sixties then. He always greeted me in the same way: “Nick, lad!” announced in his unmistakable thick Yorkshire accent. He would often follow this up with: “You in love yet?”

I still do not really know why he asked me that. Although I do wonder – my dad is very keen for me to get married and has even started using the word ‘arranged’.

It is because my dad cares and wants to see me happy, he wants me to settle down. Tears prick my eyes when I wonder if Biff’s question about my love life came from a similar sense of almost paternal caring.

If that was it – and I suspect it might be – it gives you an idea of how much Biff cared about all the lads who bore Airedale Cricket Club on the chests of our shirts.

The Giggle Loop forced its way back into proceedings at the funeral when our club chairman Tim delivered the eulogy for ‘Our Biff’.

I knew our club was built by and around Biff, but I did not know the tenacity with which he created and turned Airedale into a formidable force. In the Eighties, the club, it seems, was going through a slump – in comparison at least to the glory days when Biff first brought folk together to play under the banner of Airedale in the 1950s.

In 1988, Billy Arnold, something of a legend of a player, had a leg in plaster. Biff wanted to poach him from Long Lee and because Billy was in plaster, he could not run away. Sadly, he also was not going to leave Long Lee. When Billy’s plaster came off, out came the transfer form Biff had secreted in there. He duly signed the form in order to leave Long Lee and join our club. Ray Geldard was pot-holing in the Lakes when Biff appeared from behind a stalagmite and to get Colin Garthwaite he disguised himself as a tree to sneak up on him during a game at another ground.

Characters.

You just do not get them any more. You certainly do not get them like Biff. At least, not in the wider world you don’t.

The good news for some of us is that village cricket in Yorkshire is played in a living time capsule. It is a capsule that captures and preserves men like Biff. If you want to find a Yorkshire that appears stuck in a time when summers were hot, grass was that bit greener and characters wandered the boundary edge, visit a cricket ground.

You will not meet another Biff – he was a one-off.

If you are lucky, though, you might meet one like him. He is the one who loves the ground and the men who play on it more than you can imagine. All the men who follow, as we at Airedale follow Biff, walk in the footsteps of the greatest of men.

He is gone, but his legacy is a team that boasts players who have stayed 10, 20, 30 years with the same club. I could really do with finding somewhere closer to home to play my cricket. It will never happen now. Biff would not let me.

He ran our little show and even though he is gone, he remains the man in charge.

Thanks, Biff.

And another thing...

It has been six months since I departed the good ship The Yorkshire Post for a freelance life. The sports editor was very kind in allowing me a guest appearance here to celebrate the life of Biff.

I miss journalism. A front seat at the stage of history is not an easy thing to relinquish.

Then again, one of the many wonderful things about journalism is its fleeting nature: you get the story, you tell the story, you eat your fish and chips from the story and you move on. Occasionally, journalism transcends that ephemeral state and achieves a permanence.

Last weekend, I was in my home town Keighley when the Tour de France came to Yorkshire. The riders were there and they were gone, like journalism: fleeting.

Except in this case the riders achieved the thing to which great journalism aspires: permanence. I went back to Keighley a few days ago and the place felt different. I was no longer in town, I was in the town through which the Tour de France came.

Something fleeting achieved permanence. That is quite a legacy.