July 2002

Groomed for success

Gubby Allen was guided in his formative years by a wise and influential schoolmaster, as Anthony Meredith reports

Gubby Allen was guided in his formative years by a wise and influential schoolmaster, as Anthony Meredith reports

An early shot of Gubby Allen © The Cricketer
Gubby Allen long inhabited the corridors of power at Lord's. Groomed for them by Plum Warner, the protégé of those Old Etonian patriarchs, Lords Harris and Hawke, Allen was eventually knighted for a lifetime's service to cricket. This included playing in 25 'tests, despite a county career diminished by business commitments.

Nepotism could be said to have found its rare vindication in Gubby. When Warner outraged his fellow selectors by picking him for the Lord's Test against New Zealand in 1931 without consultation, Gubby responded with a brilliant 122. He was a class act. Yet his abilities might never have found full expression but for a short, stocky Eton housemaster with an Elgarian moustache, Cyril Mowbray Wells.

It was a conversation with Wells on a golf course which persuaded Gubby's father to send his son to Eton. Plum Warner, a former Middlesex team mate of Wells and friend to both, probably engineered it. Wells had made his name as an allrounder at Cambridge University and in county cricket for many years in the school holidays. He had also played rugby union for Cambridge, Harlequins and England.

Wells had been running the Eton XI for many years when, in 1915, Gubby first joined him at Carter House, a somewhat forbidding redbrick boarding establishment. It was a bleak time: 48 members of Wells' wartime teams were to lose their lives in combat. At least Allen's arrival was cheering and Wells proved a sympathetic mentor for his three seasons with the House Juniors. He not only improved Gubby's batting but his whole mental approach, for he was the archetypal thinking cricketer.

Allen poised to strike © The Cricketer
Gubby took sport, rather than work, seriously. College Library preserves the notebook in which he carefully recorded his every performance and several calendars with sporting annotations. He gives full details, for example, of Warner's all-star team which in 1917, at Wells' invitation, played against Eton. It included Hawke, Patsy Hendren, J.T. Hearne, B.J.T. Bosanquet and Percy Fender, who took 9 for 38.

It was not until the fourth of his six Etonian summers that Gubby made the XI. His pride at scoring 69 not out at Lord's against Harrow was immediately deflated. `Wery disappointing match,' Wells told Gubby afterwards (he rolled out his offbreaks and legbreaks rather better than his Rs). 'We only won by 202 wuns.'

Wells retired from running the cricket team the next season, but ensured that his successor had a superb new coach in George Hirst. Gubby's fast bowling benefited enormously, especially in the confidence Hirst instilled, praising his `perfect rhythm and copybook body action'.

Wells' massive contribution to Eton cricket was celebrated with a presentation in 1921, just before Gubby left.

Standards were now extremely high. Although Gubby was to skipper England sides against India, Australia and West Indies, he never captained the Eton Xl. The Cricketer, founded this year by Plum Warner, strongly promoted all the public school stars ('G.O. Allen hits very hard, and is not afraid to jump out and drive straight'). He soon moved easily into first-class cricket and later that summer Gubby was jumping out for Middlesex. Meanwhile, another former Wells protege, Lionel Tennyson, captained England.

Gubby's relationship with Eton endured long after he left, particularly through the Ramblers, the school's old boys' team, who had made Wells an honorary member. Just before his 50th birthday, Gubby scored three consecutive centuries for the Ramblers. Their scrapbook contains a birthday poem Wells wrote for Gubby in Latin. `You bowled with a wonderful action,' ran part of it. 'And you won't cease hitting the ball until the leopard changes its spots and pigs fly. And you, who once scorned reading, are now even writing a book. Wow!'

Master and pupil had much in common besides being Cambridge and Middlesex allrounders. Retiring early, after 21 years of housemastering, Wells lived a gracious, bachelor's existence next door to Lord's, something Gubby would later copy. Wells was an expert on the stock market; his protégé became a stockbroker. Both were devoted to golf and fishing.

Temperamentally, too, there were similarities. Gubby's forthright, perfectionist nature was matched by Wells' potential for irritability. Wells had more catholic tastes, his expertise extending to wine, butterflies and stamps as well as Homer and Aeschylus. Gubby, however, proved the more focused, and the pupil today is more widely remembered than the master.