Growing up in Norton;Neil. Is just something I have been meaning to write about for a long, long, time now but haven’t for reasons which you will realise later in the post. Now Neil Wrench was two years older than me but only one year younger than my elder brother and growing up in the farming community of Norton, the two became close childhood friends. Our two farms were not that far apart so the two boys spent many hours together. The weather in our country was splendid and Wilf and Velma, Neil’s parents were both very talented sports people. Naturally then, Neil and my brother Peter spent many hours together playing tennis. This culminated in them playing boys doubles together at the Norton and also Hartley tennis championships and they were an unbeatable combination winning year in and year out.
They were such happy times. Mashonaland province was the heartland of farming in the then Rhodesia and the Capital city Salisbury was situated there. They also had there children’s tennis championships and one year Peter and Neil decided to play in them. I think when they were in the under 16 category. No doubt goaded on by Neil’s mother Velma who was an ex Rhodesian tennis player. Blow me down but they ended up winning the boy’s doubles final in that age group and which just goes to show what an enormous talent they were. Everybody was bursting with pride.
Photo courtesy of Frankie Kay.
It is now time for the kids tennis champs in Norton again. My mother is the person in charge and Neil and Peter are playing in the under 18 boys doubles final. Neil serves and the opponents just manage to pop the ball high over the net. My brother goes for the overhead smash at the net. Now he has a funny style, both legs leave the ground at the same time and he lays into it with all his might. Unfortunately, he clean missed and the ball lands at his feet and the opponents get the point. Furious with himself Boetie picks up the errant ball and he whams it into the side net. He is so enraged that even this misses and the ball sails over the side net, the outside trees and lands with a thump on the bowling green where dear old Poppy Rice is about to take her shot which of course she flunks. My Mother is mortified and shaking her head and hand at her dearly beloved son who has just lost his temper. Good gosh, golly gumdrops, jeepers creepers.
Time like the wind goes on hurrying by and the hours just fly. My brother goes to University and then Neil goes to Gwebi Agricultural College a little while later. So although still firm friends they see very little of each other which is about where I come in. Now I am left profoundly deafened after a very short spell in the army doing National Service which was compulsory, so decide to go to Gwebi instead which I have already mentioned before. Neil has left college by this time but we see more and more of each other and become firm friends.
The long and short of all this, is, I begin playing more and more cricket and getting better and better at it. Neil was an ace cricketer and we are both chosen for Mashonaland Winter Crickets Association where we tour South Africa and a fabulous time we had too. In Nelspruit playing against Lowveld Country Districts, Neil makes a century in both innings, magic man. There came a time when Neil has become captain of Norton cricket club and my Dad is chairman of this. Apart from being a wonderful cricket player Neil is full of ideas and decides to build a Lapa at the cricket ground, instead of us all having to troop back to the clubhouse which was a long way away. Beautifully designed it was too no doubt with much input from his mother who already mentioned was a major talent. One just had to see what they had done to their farm and the fabulous house they built there too. Neil had everything, long blonde hair, athletic and tall and very good looking. We are at the Selous sports club at a dance and Neil says something to me which pisses me off. So I retaliate by saying, ‘Wrench why don’t you just get married boy’? He bursts out laughing and says, ‘before you’? What’s the point’. It was one of the nicest things ever said about me and I make a special point here in that I never and I mean never went after my friends girlfriends. No Sir, noSireeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.
We are both playing first league cricket in Salisbury, Neil for Alex (Alexandria) and me for Standard Bank. I arrive home late at night, stop my car to open the security gates and toss my SLR over my shoulder. Lights ablaze I try to open the gate and I realise after all this time that we are sitting ducks whilst doing this if any terrorists were present. The Cumming family has just been murdered in our area, up until this time we were terr free. Which is why we are so armed. I make it through and close and lock the gates and amble into the house, the living room. I am very surprised to find both my parents still up and waiting for me. Whereupon my Mother says to me, ‘Kevin, I have very bad news for you, your friend Neil Wrench was killed today playing cricket’. Oh no, oh no, I just cannot believe it. Now I cannot swear by this as my Mother is Irish but what she tells me is the Alex cricket club phoned her as they couldn’t get through to Wilf and Velma. She managed to however and passed on the news that Neil had been hit and was in the hospital. Velma said, ‘where has he been hit Mary’? To which my mum replied, ‘in the head Velma’.
Neil never made it, being such a terrific fielder he was fielding very close to the bat and whoever was bowling bowled a loose ball which the batsman laid into and which hit Neil in the head. At the funeral a couple of days later I have never seen so many big, strong men, crying. It was a very hard time. The newspaper the Rhodesia Herald was full of obituaries for Neil and the one I liked the best was from Duncan Fletcher’s (captain of Rhodesia cricket) parents which said. ‘ When the last great scorer came to write about his name. He asked not how he won or lost, but, how he played the game’. I can think of no finer tribute to him. Writing to his parents a few days later, I said, ‘I have been thinking hard today and I cannot remember ever hearing a bad word said about him’. I’ll stand by that.