Lord Soper is still haunted by a 77-year-old accident on the pitch. David Budge reports
The death of schoolboy cricketer Yasin Ghodiwallah last week revived heartbreaking memories for one of the country's leading churchmen, 94-year-old Lord Soper.
For 77 years ago, on a sun-baked cricket pitch in South London, Donald Soper accidentally killed a boy in apparently identical circumstances.
The Methodist preacher, who has been braving the elements and the barrackers at Tower Hill for the past 61 years, was then a sixth-former at Aske's School, Hatcham. A talented fast bowler, he was captain of the school cricket team and only months away from taking up a place at St Catharine's College, Cambridge.
"The match had just started - I remember it was 2pm on a Saturday afternoon - and my third ball pitched up and hit the batsman over the heart," Lord Soper recalled. "He staggered from the wicket and as I rushed up to him he collapsed in my arms and died immediately.
"It was a shock from which I don't think I have ever recovered. Reading about last week's tragedy in the morning press revived all my old feelings about the day. It took me back immediately to a world that was so long ago."
Lord Soper remembers sitting numbed in the cricket pavilion afterwards, and his bewilderment when a doctor pronounced that the boy was dead. The resulting inquest was an almost equally harrowing experience.
"The coroner asked me whether I had any animosity towards the boy but, of course, I didn't," he said. "It turned out that he had had a weak heart.
"All the same, the question of whether I was to blame haunted me. It also caused me to re-examine some of the propositions of my faith but, mercifully, did not challenge it."
Nevertheless, later that summer Soper had what he described as "the beginnings of a breakdown". In retrospect, he does not believe that the accident was solely responsible. "There were other compounding problems, such as being rather young to go up to university."
But he wishes that he had been treated in a "more intelligent" way after the accident. "People were very sympathetic, saying 'poor you, how terrible for you'. They sequestered me from the experience, whereas I could have done with more conversation about what had happened. Their sympathy was very welcome but I wish they had impressed on me that it was an accident. It wasn't unique. All kinds of people have been damaged at games."
Lord Soper, who is president of the League Against Cruel Sports, said his advice to the boy who had bowled at Yasin would be to "go out and bowl again as soon as you can". But Soper himself never bowled fast again.
"My father and doctor stopped me bowling fast after the accident. It may be that I would have qualified as a Blue if I had continued as a fast bowler but I tried to develop as a spin bowler instead. I never lost my love of cricket, however. I don't think it's too dangerous a game but I do believe that boys should wear padding and helmets. The victor should never leave the vanquished hurt in any game."