Axminster sporting legends - an appreciation of a triumvirate of stars
PUBLISHED: 09:07 04 May 2020 | UPDATED: 13:13 14 May 2020
I was sad to hear that Gerald Marsh has recently passed away, writes Dick Sturch.
Gerald was a member of the President’s XI team photograph, together with his brother Michael and other well known cricketers from around the area featured in last week’s copy of the Midweek Herald.
Looking at that picture again I was reminded how lucky I have been to have played football or cricket with or against most of them.
None more so than the triumvirate of Axminster’s finest all-round sportsmen of my generation; Mike Marsh, Tony Rockett and Martin Leach.
They were dominant forces in local cricket and football and I had the good fortune to play in some of the same teams they graced.
As youngsters we all went to Colyton Grammar School though Tony was older than me and was already playing for the school’s 1st IX football and cricket teams.
I well remember at morning assembly hearing his name mentioned countless times for the wickets he’d taken or runs he’d scored the previous day against our opponents.
I wish it had provided the same motivation for my school work as it did for my determination to emulate him.
I never played cricket against him but I was always in awe of how he made everything look so easy. His natural timing with the bat gave the impression he put little effort into a stroke yet the ball sped to or cleared the boundary time and again. He bowled, off a short, fluid eight pace run up and with a flick of his wrist was consistently accurate, continually hit a nagging length and made the bal lift uncomfortably for the opposing batsman.
With this same flick of the wrist his arrow like returns from the outfield slammed into the wicket keepers gloves.
Tony played for Axminster CC in his early years then joined Kilmington. In 1982 his penultimate year at the club, Tony was still third in the batting and topped the bowling averages with 63 wickets at the cost of 10.62 runs each.
His final year saw him involved in fewer games, but still a creditable third in the bowling averages.
The Rockett name remained associated with Kilmington CC first through his son Keith and now his grandsons Alex, James and Matt, who collectively make sure there are no gaps in the scorebook.
During and after his Kilmington years he was well known on most of the local golf courses where his inate timing and natural ability was again very apparent.
I did get the opportunity to play football against Tony in the school ‘House’ matches. He was a formidable half back, compact, quick and with a very powerful shot.
I believe he was chosen to play for the East Devon Youth team while he was at Colyton Grammar School and became a regular in the half back line at Sector Lane for a successful Axminster FC.
During this time he was approached by several Football League Clubs and I remember asking him many years later as we sat in the changing room at Bridport CC waiting for the rain to stop, why he never joined one of them?
He replied: “Dick, he said, what was the point? I would have earnt £10 a week, travelled all over the country and had no job to go to when it was all over?”
Just a year ahead of me at School was Martin Leach who, apart from being a gifted pupil and athlete, was one of the most skillful footballers I have ever seen.
If I had to compare him with any player it would be George Best. He played with a silky smooth fluidity that gave the impression he was gliding across the grass with the ball tied to his boot.
He’d ghost past defenders leaving them floundering in his wake and a bemused goalkeeper picking the ball out of the net.
In one memorable 1st XI match against the adult personnel from the Air Sea Rescue Division based at Lyme Regis we won 9-2.
Martin left them mesmerised and looking in disbelief as he scored all nine goals playing at inside left while I remained a goalless centre forward.
He attracted a lot of attention from league clubs and I believe he was on the books of either Bristol City or Rovers.
He played for Devon at several levels and seemed to have an outstanding football career stretching before him.
I have lifted the following from a 1978 publication by the ‘Old Colytonians Association’ - ‘ Soccer was at a high level during the later 1950’s with a good deal of the success stemming from the prodigious scoring ability of Martin Leach who in four seasons, starting 1955-56, netted 34, 36, 25 and 51 goals.”
Cricket came just as easy for Martin. Although he always fancied himself as a spin bowler his batting, and especially his wicket keeping agility were far superior and it was in the latter position he excelled throughout his playing career both before and after the tragic road accident in which he was seriously injured and cruelly would never play football again.
The following extract is again taken from that 1978 publication: ‘Probably one of the best all-round athletes the school has produced in the last quarter of the century is Martin Leach’. Involved in a serious motoring accident, it was feared he would never play any sport again, but he battled hard and overcame the fears enough to become a better than average wicketkeeper and batsman.
He has written a book called ‘How to Stand on Your Head’. Characteristically, it is an instruction book on gymnastics. Martin has become a ‘Three A’s judge as well’.
We will never know just how good ‘Leachy’ would have been on the professional soccer field, but I have no serious doubt that one day he could have played for his country; he was that gifted.
While both Tony and Martin are no longer with us the final member of the triumvirate Mike Marsh certainly is!
A more determined, focused, thinking cricketer it would be hard to find. During his early days at Grammar School his knowledge of the game came to the fore in an item he wrote for the school magazine.
I can’t remember the title only the content when a humble village cricket XI overcame the might of a visiting County side by a strict interpretation of the games more complex rules.
Mike, who was an accomplished batsman and a wicked spin bowler, captained a very strong school 1st X1 with the likes of Martin Leach, Gerald Cook, Keith Ham, Bob Collier, Dick Sturch and others who went on to play for local teams. He was always working out ways to defeat obdurate opponents with the batting or bowling he had at his disposal.
At times I found this a bit frustrating when, after my first five overs as an opening bowler he would say: “Thanks Dick, take a rest”.
Then replacing me he usually grabbed a wicket within a couple of balls! His batting style was very much copybook straight bat. Whether defending or attacking, his choice of strokes was meticulous. Straight drives, off or on drives, cuts all flowed off his bat but every ball he faced was treated with a measured caution. His bowling was very much the same, one that spun, a straight ball, one slowly tossed up or one with a faster, lower trajectory all the time looking for the batsman’s weak spot. As I said Mike never stopped thinking whether as batsman, bowler or captain.
Cricket was always Mike’s first love but he also captained the School football team. He played for Axminster and later became a referee in the Devon & Exeter League. I will always remember and be grateful to him for an incident at School when he discovered me smoking in the bicycle shed.
He should have reported me to the head master, which may have resulted in my expulsion. Instead he gave me a good dressing down a double detention and we’ve never spoken of it since.
Mike went from Colyton Grammar School to University and then began a teaching career which eventually brought him back to Colyton where, as a well-respected Master, he taught until he retired.
It is my privilege to have known, played with or against and enjoyed the company of so many sportsmen both amateur and professional during my years but these three gentlemen will always remain in my memory for their outstanding abilities and friendship.
Dick Sturch can be contacted bia email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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