The Cricketer / Features

January 1996

Whistling up the winners

Alan Hill makes a pit-stop to recall the cricketing gems unearthed at the coal face who went on to shine at the surface

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Alan Hill makes a pit-stop to recall the cricketing gems unearthed at the coal face who went on to shine at the surface



Dickie Bird on the attack for Leicestershire © The Cricketer
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The muscular battalions of miners, plunged into their brutal activity, stopped being boys at an early age. In the dust-filled and dwarfish seams, it was said, there were two kinds of work on the coal face - one hard and the other harder. `The darkest night is mere twilight compared to darkness down the pit,' commented writer and MP Jack Lawson.

The present-day dearth of English fast bowlers is arguably linked to the collapse of a great industry. Whistling down a mine shaft for a cricketer was a legend based on truth. The escape from the harsh under-ground toil was celebrated as gladly as a break-out from the wartime fortress at Colditz. The measure of the miner's martyrdom was expressed by one observer: `There was one road into a coal mine and two exits - sport and politics.'

Dickie Bird first stood as a Test umpire on home territory at Headingley, in the Third Test between England and New Zealand in July 1973. He recalls that he decided at an early age not to follow his father down the pit.

Harold senior was a miner at Monk Bretton Colliery for over 50 years, from the age of 13 until he retired at 65. The suffocating impact of dust on his lungs meant that he lived for only five more years. Dickie worked in the fitting shop at his father's colliery before becoming a Yorkshire and later Leicestershire cricketer. "Dad worked in the bowels of the earth, sometimes in seams just 18 inches high. When he crawled through, his trousers would get caught and he would pick them up on his way out at the end of his shift."

Dickie reveres the memory of his parents and regrets that his father did not live to see him reach his eminence as an umpire. "Mum did, but she did not know anything about cricket which was a good thing really." He looks back fondly at his boyhood, partly spent in a tiny two-up, two-down ter-race house in Church Lane, Barnsley. The family later moved to a house on a new estate at Smithies, which boasted the much desired amenity of a bathroom. "My sisters and I had a wonderful upbringing," says Dickie. "We were well cared for, always had the best of food." There was a strict insistence on regular church attendance on Sundays. "To this day, whenever I have the opportunity and wherever I am, I go to church on the Sabbath," he says.

Dickie's sporting friends in Barnsley included Tommy Taylor, the former England and Manchester United centre-forward, who was killed in the Munich air disaster in 1958. Taylor's father, Charlie, worked alongside Dickie's at the Monk Bretton coal face. Another friend, Dorothy Hyman the sprinter, was employed as a tracer in the office at Grimethorpe Colliery. Her training runs were up and down the local slagheaps. Dorothy's father also worked at Monk Bretton. Also around at the beginning of Dickie's cricket days were two other sons of miners. These team mates at Barnsley in the Yorkshire League were Michael Parkinson, the television personality and writer, and Geoffrey Boycott, then a "young 16-yearold. who batted at number six".



Harold Larwood lets rip for Nottinghamshire © The Cricketer
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The quality which placed the miners apart as men, was most truly exemplified by Harold Larwood from Nuncargate in the Nottinghamshire coal-field. Larwood's death in exile in Australia at the age of 90 has evoked memories of his bowling triumphs on the body-line tour of 1932-33. At 5ft 8in he was a pygmy compared with the modern West Indian speed merchants. But his success, awe-inspiring in its ferocity, was a testimony to the strength he acquired as a miner.

"Had Larwood been an office worker," wrote John Threlkeld in his absorbing book on the coal industry, "one doubts whether he would have had such formidable power in his legs and shoulders, essential requirements for an intimidating bowler. It was not just Larwood's physical strength. His mental attitude had been moulded down the pit as well. He gave no quarter on the field, to give emphasis to the cliche that miners worked and played hard."

Tommy Mitchell was an engaging entertainer and ranked high among the exponents of artful spin between the wars. Tommy, a miner at Creswell Colliery, was spotted bowling near the pithead during the General Strike in 1926. An old cricketer, who saw Mitchell turning the ball prodigiously, at once recommended him to Derbyshire.

Coal mines were undoubtedly a rich source of cricketing talents, especially in the heyday of the industry. They employed one million people and it was estimated that one in 10 of all workers in the country was a pitman or was employed in allied industries in 1913, the peak year of mining. The increasing zest for cricket and soccer at this time was encouraged by coal owners because the sports kept the men busy in their spare time.

Eric Midwinter, the social historian and cricket writer, has described mining, along with the woollen trade, as the fulcrum of life for the surrounding communities in the villages and towns in Yorkshire. In the late 1950s a group of Yorkshire pitmen, following highly popular colliery departmental knockout matches, established their own county team. Caps were awarded on strict merit and several one-day games, including one against Staffordshire, were played before the team was disbanded.

The yield of miner-cricketers inspired the concept of a Sportsmen's Exhibition, yet to be realised, in the newly designated National Mining Museum at the Caphouse Colliery in Overton, near Wakefield.



Tommy Mitchell: spotted bowling near the pithead during the General Strike in 1926 © The Cricketer
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Dickie Bird turns the leaves of his memory scrapbook to recall his friendship with Johnny Wardle, born at Ardsley, near Barnsley. Wardle was an apprentice fitter at Hickleton Main colliery before moving on to first-class cricket. His reputation was sadly sullied by his dispute with Yorkshire in the late 1950s. He was, though, diamond-sharp as a mesmeric spinner at Test and county level. "I learned more about cricket in an hour, talking with Johnny, than I have done in a lifetime", says Bird.

The miners' hall of sporting fame also includes another South Yorkshireman and England cricketer, Roy Kilner. The cricket of Kilner, a slow left-arm bowler with a touch of the magic of Peate and Peel, "came straight from the heart and went straight to the heart," wrote Neville Cardus. Kilner died at the age of 37 after contracting enteric fever on a coaching trip to India.

The carnage of World War One claimed the life of Major Booth, a Pudsey man, who worked as a colliery electrician at Wath-on-Dearne. Booth, along with Scofield Haigh and Alonzo Drake, was one of Yorkshire's bowling eminences before the war. He was one of Wisden's five Cricketers of the Year in 1913 and represented England in two Tests in South Africa in the 1913-14 series. Booth and Drake, who died of a heart disease in 1919, were confidently expected to spearhead the Yorkshire attack in the 1920s.

The inter-war years were sprinkled with an array of other mining aspirants. Horace Fisher from Flockton Colliery, Wakefield, vainly challenged Hedley Verity in his bid to succeed Wilfred Rhodes. Fisher accomplished an unusual hat-trick of lbws for Yorkshire against Somerset in 1932. He came up out of the pits to take up cricket and vowed he would never go down again.

Gerry Smithson, the handsome left-hander from Spofforth, was a Yorkshire cricketer who chose to serve as a Bevan Boy (at Askern Main colliery) rather than carry out his National Service in the armed forces. With Johnny Wardle he was selected for the 1947-48 tour of the West Indies.

Smithson was a stylist in the manner of David Gower of another cricket generation. It was his regal innings of 98 against Lancashire in 1947 which aroused hopes of an exciting future. His batting, in the words of Yorkshire captain Norman Yardley, invited comparison with young Australians. Smithson touched the hems of glory in his short reign with Yorkshire before moving on to Leicestershire and Hertfordshire. He died in Abingdon at the early age of 43.

Cyril Turner, the modest and unsung all-rounder from Wombwell, was another product of the South Yorkshire coalfield. He served Yorkshire valiantly for 31 years as player, coach and scorer. He was the perfect guardian for young cricketers. Sir Leonard Hutton remembered Turner as a kind mentor and companion in his formative years with Yorkshire in the 1930s.

A young Fred Trueman was a beneficiary of Turner's perception at a coaching session at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. He thrust the young Maltby colliery haulage worker into the county spotlight.

All the miner-cricketers who graduated to sporting glory were propelled by a fierce, relentless determination. Dickie Bird expresses their fervent spirit. "They were honest, straight and good-living men. If they had anything to say, they would tell you to your face. They would never go behind your back. Miners were hard men but they had big hearts."

He is a supreme example of this bound-less life force. Sporting his familiar broad-fronted white cap and earnestly flicking his wrists, he exudes courage, sensitivity and authority in a combative and often intimidatory arena. He officiated in over 150 Tests and One-Day Internationals and four World Cup tournaments, umpiring in three finals.

© The Cricketer

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