Odd men in March 14, 2006

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He became one of only six Englishmen to secure 10 wickets on his Test debut, and in his next Test he was partnered by the bespectacled and ungainly Bill Bowes. Yet nobody would fail to pick Ken Farnes as a fast bowler in a cricket identikit parade today

Odd Men In - a title shamelessly borrowed from AA Thomson's fantastic book - concerns cricketers who have caught my attention over the years in different ways - personally, historically, technically, stylistically - and about whom I have never previously found a pretext to write



Ken Farnes: a modern-day athlete from a bygone era © Getty Images

With our narrowing sense of what constitutes a properly athletic physique, cricketers of the past can seem increasingly remote. How did a figure so diminutive as Harold Larwood terrorise Australia, or a man as mountainous as Warwick Armstrong intimidate England? As for WG Grace, today he'd be nicknamed `Dis'.

Ken Farnes represents a type far more recognisable, standing 200cm, displacing 73kg and bowling what would now be called a `heavy ball', usually fast and often short. When he became one of only six Englishmen to secure 10 wickets on his Test debut, he opened the bowling with the amiable forty-year-old pro George Geary; in his next Test he was partnered by the bespectacled and ungainly Bill Bowes. Yet nobody would fail to pick Farnes as a fast bowler in a cricket identikit parade today.

RC Robertson-Glasgow thought him a bowler `who can suggest even by his run up that the batsman would do well to stay firm', and batsmen stayed hit when he hit them. Jim Swanton offered his biographer David Thurlow a vivid aural vignette of Farnes in the 1932 Varsity match: `I can still hear the ball thudding around Peter van der Bijl's ribs and Peter giving great groans. You could hear him in the Tavern.' And Player Bill Edrich left a memento of Farnes' 8 for 43 for the Gentlemen at Lord's six years later which has a distinctly modern ring: `I tried to play back, a defensive back stroke while turning my head and lifting my hands. The next thing I knew was that someone was saying smoothly, `have some water, there's no hurry'.'

Long before cricketers began subscribing to the body cult, too, Farnes was an addict of physical culture, who undertook a Mr Universe course, and who was often pestered in dressing rooms to show off his stomach muscles; his party piece was to contract first one half, then the other. In every team photo where you find him, he exudes a very contemporary strength and youth. He could have changed in the next cubicle to Michael Bevan without coyness.

In most other senses, however, Farnes was a distinctly unusual cricketer, even in his time. Pace in 1930s England was a professional vocation: Larwood, Tate, Voce, Bowes, Clark, Nichols, Copson. Farnes, a housemaster at Worksop College, was the most serene of amateurs, and the last of a line to pursue such hard labour. And Farnes's attraction to fast bowling was not so much temperamental, for he was a gentle and charming man hard to rouse to aggression, as a combination of the aesthetic and the athletic.

Twelve-year-old Farnes watched Arthur Gilligan knocking a stump from the ground in a Test at Lord's, thought it `a wonderful, unforgettable, inspiring sight', and never lost the love of doing it himself: `The sight of a stump seen hurtling out of the ground has always struck me as one of the finest in cricket. It sends a shock through the spectators and from the middle you can hear a gasp all round.' To not then have bowled fast, with his physique and physicality, would then have seemed like a denial of destiny.

In anointing him a Cricketer of the Year in 1939, Wisden called him `essentially a natural cricketer', and this was perhaps about more than talent; he revelled in what Frank Tyson would describe so memorably as `the glad animal action' and the `thrill in physical power' of fast bowling.

He revelled in what Frank Tyson would describe so memorably as `the glad animal action' and the `thrill in physical power' of fast bowling

Some passages in Farnes's 1940 autobiography Tours and Tests even have a kind of muted mysticism to them, like a recollection of fielding in the deep one day at Leyton against Kent: `It was there too that a day's fielding in the late summer heat brought about in me an amazing evening's contentment. I cannot explain the reason - just positive physical well-being really. I had not done well myself, for Kent had thumped our bowling, but it was just the end of the season and I still remember the glow of pure contentment that I felt that evening.'

Team-mates thought Farnes a little too susceptible to such reveries. He was a mystery to Len Hutton, who thought the absence of histrionics from his bowling suggested limited ambition. In fact, Farnes' ambitions were broader and vaster than Hutton's professional imaginings. The salient exhibit in Thurlow's economical but evocative biography is Farnes' diary of the MCC's 1938-9 tour of South Africa, which gives surprising glimpses of his sensitive, restless, questing mind.

Before the trip, Farnes set himself five objectives, none of them having anything to do with cricket; he would try instead, for instance, to `remain conscious of my inner, natural, more realised self instead of being overcome by successive and accumulative environments experienced on tour'. He wrote of having seen some children in the East End, `monstrous in their lack of realisation', whose appearance `seemed a horrible reflection on the state of civilisation or education'. Yet he also confessed to feeling `detached' and `somewhat disgruntled with myself', and pledged himself a `subjugation of self' that he felt might induce `the required metaphysical state'.

Farnes had long had a literary bent: he was an aficianado of the orientalist poet James Elroy Flecker and the Irish novelist George Moore. The diary reveals a fascination with the work of JW Dunne, an engineer-turned-philosopher who had developed an abstruse theory of sleep's effect on time after becoming obsessed with his dreams. Dunne was an eccentric and obscurantist; even his friend H. G. Wells thought his theories `an entertaining paradox expanded into a humourless obsession'. But Farnes was `absorbed and thrilled' by Dunne's The New Immortality, and imagined himself `glimpsing a new world' - which suggests that he was looking for one.

Farnes was also introduced in South Africa to the metaphysical lyrics of Rabindrinath Tagore, which probably also resonated with him: `The song that I came to sing remains unsung to this day...The time has not come true, the words have not been rightly set; only there is the agony of wishing in my heart.'

As well as an expression of patriotism, then, Farnes's enlistment in the Royal Air Force at the outbreak of war smacks of a continuation of a search for fulfilment, for a transcendent cause or duty. In Gitanjali, Tagore asks: `On the day when death will knock at thy door what wilt thou offer him?' Farnes, perhaps, wished it to be more than wickets. The day turned out to be 20 October 1941, when 30-year-old Farnes crashed during a night-flying exercise. There were no more amateur fast bowlers of note; within two decades of war's end, there were no more amateurs. The love of speed remained, and the game now teems with towering athletes bowling fast. Yet to fast bowling's traditions, Farnes both belongs and does not - a big man in all senses.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer