June 10, 1961

This Cox is a Pippin

A A Thomson
A A Thomson on George Cox, whose gay batting gave pleasure alike to the connoisseur of beautiful strokes and the cheerful chap in the wooden seats who likes to hear the scoreboard rattle

I was never deeply impressed by the sort of mildly fatuous question commonly put to innocent members of Brains Trusts, such as "Who was the finest batsman who never played for England?" I remember dear Alec Skelding once tucking this one away. "I'll tell you," he said, with deadpan solemnity, "Don Bradman."

Nevertheless, there are some batsmen so gifted, so dazzling on their day, that you wonder what little devil of malicious fortune has kept snatching an England cap away from them. Such a cricketer was George Cox, whose gay batting gave pleasure alike to the connoisseur of beautiful strokes and the cheerful chap in the wooden seats who likes to hear the scoreboard rattle. George Cox made quite a number of his 50 centuries against Yorkshire, but his manner of making them was so joyous that even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer. And in Yorkshire we are a Tuscan lot.

He chose his county wisely. The traditions of Sussex cricket are rural and romantic. If you could imagine an idealised picture of the summer game with the sun full overhead, the turf a gleaming emerald, and a court of noble trees on the boundary's edge, it would sit graciously in some broad fold of the Sussex Downs. The names of the villages where cricket lived in early days-Ifield, Oakendene Green, Mayfield, Ringmer-are as sweet to the ear as the sound of bat on ball. In Sussex, too, far more than in any other county, cricket has often looked like a cosy family affair. Quite apart from the innumerable Lillywhite boys, Sussex men may be brothers, like the Broadbridges, the Relfs, the Parkses, the Oakses or the Langridges; or they may be father and son, like Fred and Maurice Tate; Jim Parks and young Jim; and George Cox and George Cox Junior.

George the Elder was the sturdy bowler who toiled and spun in the Sussex attack for over 30 years. In 1926, his last active season, he took 17 Warwickshire wickets in a game at Horsham. "If I had another pair of legs," said he, some of 'em would have to answer for it." In bowling and in teaching he was a perfectionist and in comment he was short. When young George, in a near-volcanic eruption at the wicket, scored 414 in two successive innings, paternal praise lacked extravagance. "Oh," said old George, "so you went mad, did you?"

After quiet beginnings as a batsman young George blossomed into brilliance in 1937, when he made nearly 2,000 runs, including four 100's, and made them supremely attractively. Then the little devil smiled its evil smile and the next season found George Cox, after a sticky patch, in the second XI. This cannot have been a carefree time, but he always. batted as though he hadn't a care in the world, even when he must have had many. Back in the first team, he hit a dream of a 50 in 28 minutes against Yorkshire. This was no matter of savage slogging, but of powerful strokes, elegantly executed. The speed of this innings ran in competition with the mighty hitter Hugh Bartlett, and George beat him for the fastest 50, but (the little devil intervening) just failed to beat him for the fastest 100.

In the seasons that followed the war, George played with the same ease and grace as if county cricket had had no interruption. He topped the county batting average in 1946; scored over 2,000 runs, including a glorious century against the touring South Africans, in 1947; and in 1950 hit half-a-dozen centuries and averaged only a fraction under 50. In his career he scored over 23,000 runs, most of them beauties. Just as the comedian wants to play Hamlet, so Hamlet envies the comedian. George, normally the most modest of men, is a little boastful of his bowling. "My floater," he says, "is something special." At any rate, he took. 200 wickets; not all, you understand, in one season.

After a period spent coaching at Winchester, he has now returned to Hove to take over the job of coaching there. The first fruits of this appointment (and, to be fair, of Dexter's captaincy), have at once been seen in his county's 32-run victory over Yorkshire, which reversed the palpitating result that settled last year's Championship. I could wager George will be an ideal coach. His own gay, attacking approach to the game always delighted player and spectator alike. It would be impossible for a team to lack this spirit, if George Cox were its coach. He will keep them on their toes in fielding, for few have surpassed his skill and the fun he derived from it. In the 30s he competed with Walter Robins as the best cover-point of the day.

Best of all, I think, he should be able to give hope and encouragement to those who have lost their touch and their confidence. He will know how to jolly the youngsters out of their bad spells, because he has suffered such excruciating bad spells. himself. When the little devil was pursuing him, deliveries would pitch on, freak spots, impeccable umpires would give odd decisions, and fieldsmen noted for their butterfingers would conjure "impossible" catches out of thin air. In strict fact, no cowboy, riding his bronco, has ever galloped on to the pitch, lassoed George and dragged him away to the pavilion. But, as he will tell you, he could be got out in practically every other way. The luck could even play him up the other direction. One of his dearest ambitions, or so he says, was to score a 100 ducks. This aim he never achieved. His story goes that when he needed only two for his tun he put up a sitter to the one fielder who had put more catches on the floor than Kidderminster has put carpets. The other one went to a mid-on so short that a gentle low drive went right over his head. After that he gave up trying. Or so he says. And yet, when the little devil had done with him, he emerged like a master. Usually a century then was not enough. He preferred a double one. Because he could do this, he can obviously help his weaker brethren.

I have rarely met a more beguiling conversationalist. Kindly folk can be prosy and witty talkers can be wicked, but George has the almost unique gift of being both warmhearted and witty. He has an inimitable way of telling the story of the good bishop who conducted the funeral service for F. S. Jackson, the mighty Jacker, who, in his triumphant year of England captaincy, won the toss five times, carried off the rubber and topped the batting and bowling averages. "As I looked down," said the bishop, "on that vast congregation of cricketers who had known him, I could see from the rapt expressions on their faces how they felt towards the great man . . . how they revered him; how, indeed, they reverenced him as though he were the Almighty, but infinitely stronger on the leg-side., . . ."

George also has an enchanting description of the last Sussex v. Yorkshire match at Hove in 1939, as the war clouds gathered over England and all summer's joys. "I made top score," said George. "It was 198. I'm rather proud of my second-innings effort, too. That was 8, without the one-ninety, but it was top score,all the same. It rained on the second night and, when the sun came blazing out, Hedley Verity touched the pitch with his finger and said sympathetically: `How sad for Sussex.' We were all out for 33 and Hedley took 7 for 11. But I got top-score. That night Hedley went off to the war. Sad for cricket, sad for England, saddest of all for Hedley Verity."

I love to hear George Cox talk of his coaching in South Africa. Taking a tremendous swing one day at practice, he hit the ball right out of the net. "Why," said a local acquaintance, standing by, "you swept that just like a native." "True," replied George, "because, you see, when I'm home in England, I am a native." For George Cox has not only humour, but humanity.