1921 May 14, 2005

Perfection from a man who was anything but

Billy Bestwick took a ten-for ... his off-field problems made that all the more remarkable



Billy Bestwick: one of the best bowlers of his era © The Cricketer
The perfect ten. Any bowler's dream is to take all ten wickets in an innings, but few achieve it. It is even rarer in first-class cricket, where there have been only 77 instances in the history of the game (plus another couple in 12-a-side games). And yet in 1921, it happened five times in ten weeks.

Somerset were twice on the receiving end. At the start of July, Surrey's Tom Rushby took 10 for 43 and then, three weeks later, Gloucestershire's Charlie Parker grabbed 10 for 79 at Bristol. On the same ground 24 days later, the tables were turned on Gloucestershire as Arthur Mailey took 10 for 66 for the Australians; ironically, Parker was the not-out batsman who escaped his clutches.

The other two instances both happened on the same day - June 20. One was at Worcester when Somerset's Jack White took 10 for 76 (he followed with 5 for 99 second time round). The other was Derbyshire's Billy Bestwick, but he is probably the most remarkable of them all. Statistically, he is the oldest man ever to achieve the feat - he was aged 46 years and 116 days when he bowled out Glamorgan at Cardiff - but the miracle was that he was playing at all. His career might politely be described as colourful.

Bestwick was a good bowler, of that there is little doubt. Well built, he was a brisk medium-pacer whose height and accuracy made him difficult to play. And he was fit, as befitted a man who spent his winters working down the mines.

In 1905, 1906 and 1908 he took 100 wickets for Derbyshire, but off the field things began to go wrong in 1906 when his wife died, leaving him with a small child. He was already rather partial to drink, and he rarely stopped at one or two pints. In January 1907, he got involved in a scrap in pub which ended with a man being knifed to death. Although Bestwick was charged with unlawful killing, he was acquitted by a jury which ruled he had acted in self-defence. But by 1909 his drinking had become a major issue, and that summer he was suspended by the county committee and dismissed at the end of the season. At 34 and with a poor reputation, his career seemed over. Bestwick headed to south Wales, where he quickly found employment as a professional in league cricket, with a few appearances for Glamorgan (then not a first-class county) thrown in.

When county cricket resumed in 1919 after the Great War, Derbyshire and Bestwick were again reunited, and in 1921 he enjoyed his best season ever, with 147 wickets at 16.78 even though he was then 44. On an overcast Monday morning at Cardiff , he enjoyed his finest hour, but he almost missed the game altogether.

He might have been playing for Derbyshire again, but he was an unreformed character. The county tackled the problem by allocating him a minder, but ever-thirsty, Bestwick more than once gave him the slip ... with inevitable consequences.

The game preceding the one against Glamorgan was at Bristol, and there he was rendered virtually incapable by a couple of late-night sessions. At Cardiff, the rest day on the Sunday was disastrous, and Bestwick was considered an unlikely starter on the Monday. George Buckson, his captain, decided to go for broke and asked Bestwick to open the bowling. With his fifth ball he bowled Tom Whittington, and thereafter maintained a devastating line and length. Seven of his victims were clean bowled, and he wrapped things up with three wickets in four balls. His ten wickets had all come before lunch off 19 overs. Derbyshire went on to win by two wickets and Bestwick probably celebrated as only he knew how.

He never did reform. In 1922, after another night out, he was left back at the team's hotel for the game at Worcester but recovered sufficiently to make his way to the ground, pay to get in, and then sit and loudly barrack his own side. That same summer he was part of another unique occurrence when he bowled in tandem with his son, Robert, against Warwickshire's Willie Quaife and his son, Bernard. He carried on playing until 1925, by which time he was 50.

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Bibliography
The Cricketer June 1921
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 1939
A History of Derbyshire CC John Shawcroft (Helm, 1989)

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo