Max Brooks knows very little about Rocky Balboa yet skips five times a week – outside, near the back gate. Such rhythmic poise augments his low centre of gravity and remarkable balance. He claims to stand 5’ 6” tall although one suspects that underneath the slicked-back, mountainous hair he is actually 5’ 5.
The grandson of treasured Lancashire cricketer Harry Pilling (himself a dynamic 5’ 3”) and professional ice skater Yvonne Rayner, Max has a blood line that almost forcibly places a sporting implement in his hand. After first picking up a table tennis bat at the age of ten, however, he soon lost interest.
Smooth trajectories rarely chart a player’s career. Most of the time it is a rugged path forward - a Snakes and Ladders board - full of pitfalls, hard dice and the odd bit of luck. Max’s serendipity came in the form of Sport England visiting his Tottington school two years later, informing him that he “had some talent for the game”. This neutral observation acted as a stimulus, a catalyst to where he is now.
Awarded the Ralph Palmer Memorial Trophy in early April as Bolton’s ‘Most Promising Junior of the Season’, Master Brooks – still just 15-years-old – took 44 scalps out of 45 in Division Three; his one blemish losing to the Austrian, Bernd Dumpelnik two weeks before Christmas when gifts are traditionally wrapped up in readiness for handing out.
Such an ascent into the annals of Bolton’s history (and indeed Bury’s if you consider his 49/57 win record with Seedfield in its equivalent division) has largely come about not as a result of any fortunate DNA, but rather through the guidance of surviving paternal grandfather, Mel Brooks (now 73). ‘Grampa Mel started me off at Heaton CC. Both grampas have been role models in helping me achieve my goals.’
Max’s approach to the game is surprisingly serene. There is none of the ‘mad’ or mercurial synonymous with such a christening. ‘Mental toughness and never, never give up – play for every point,’ he casually elucidates. Intensity doesn’t ride with the words but instead an internal grit and indomitable belief. It is the same when discussing education (refusing to fuss and be drawn on his favourite maths discipline): ‘All maths I enjoy. It will be what I need when I start work.’
The pragmatic side of him is startling in part – perhaps too clean or manufactured. But then, as Grampa Mel - chief mentor and disciple of Cliff Booth - tells me, returning to the main subject: ‘We spend time discussing strategy and the mental side of the game. He is like a sponge for taking in information, though being his own man he sometimes tries other things.’
Holding the Ralph Palmer trophy is like a ten-year pass to beautiful things – a soft guarantee of climbing the divisions. Big names have gone before Max including England’s Andrew Rushton (1996/97) - had their names inscribed on the silver plate.
A ‘B-game’ is what is required now. ‘He needs to dig short and develop an aggressive backhand block and kill,’ coach Brooks asserts. As for the skipping (3x40) – that will continue.