October 3, 2015

The summer of a man's life

The summer of 1947 was the zenith for the County Championship, and of Denis Compton and Bill Edrich

The Terrible Twins: Bill Edrich and Denis Compton on the first day of the match against Sussex at Lord's in May. Both scored hundreds © PA Photos

The County Championship may be a shadow of the tournament it once was, rendered increasingly irrelevant in an age of instant gratification, saturation TV coverage and indifference from the ECB, the very organisation supporting it. Denied of not only the leading overseas players which kept it afloat for three decades but also the best home-grown talent, it limps along, the counties only sustained by handouts from the ECB and the appeal of Twenty20. How it will look in a decade is uncertain.

It was not always the case. For more than half a century from its recognised start in 1890, it dominated the English summer unless the Australians were touring. Arguably, the Championship's zenith came in 1947 when the sun shone, the players, in a spirit of joie de vivre after years of war, played with freedom and a will to entertain, and crowds flocked to matches across the land.

The public at that time needed distractions. The danger had gone but life had become harder. "They were worn down by six years of war, by ration books and bombed-out city centres, by the very worst of winters, and at last the sun had come out," wrote Stephen Chalke in his excellent Summer's Crown - The Story of Cricket's County Championship. "Cricket had the weather to show itself in its full glory, and it did not disappoint." And in Denis Compton and Bill Edrich, they found two cavaliers willing to take centre stage.

The previous winter's Ashes had provided a stark reminder of how low England's cricketing stock had fallen, but by the time the 1947 season started, those memories had been put to one side. South Africa were the tourists, and while they were popular, they did not attract the same fervour as the Australians. As a result, the Championship took centre stage, although in the event the five-Test series was highly entertaining.

The summer was slow to start, with May cold and wet. By the end of the month Middlesex and Gloucestershire had started to emerge as the front runners, and it remained that way until the end of the season. For several of Middlesex's home matches, the gates were shut with 30,000 crammed inside Lord's. Neville Cardus wrote that he had never "been so deeply touched on a cricket ground as I was in this heavenly summer when I went to Lord's to see a pale-faced crowd, existing on rations, the rocket bomb still in the ears of most folk - to see this worn, dowdy crowd watching Compton".

By mid-June, Middlesex were pulling away but in the next two months they only had one home match and their lead disappeared. Lord's had a busy fixture list and Middlesex were very much the poor relations, playing second fiddle not only to England but also to school and services matches. They also had to play without their England players for a number of games.

They faced, like all cricketers, other obstacles. Unlike today, transport between matches was gruelling. Petrol rationing meant that teams had little choice but to travel by train on a network where the infrastructure was still recovering from bombing and a decade of almost no investment. With two matches a week, they wearily criss-crossed the country, staying at hotels and bed-and-breakfasts that were often basic in the extreme. And they did all this against a backdrop of food rationing and shortages which meant most Britons in 1947 survived on 1700 calories a day.

Two matches defined Middlesex's summer. The first came in Leicester in mid-July. Big hundreds from Edrich (257) and Compton (151) - the pair added 310 in a little over two hours in the afternoon session - helped Middlesex amass a 328-run first-innings lead, but a draw still seemed likely when they were left to get 66 in 25 minutes on the final evening .

Compton and Edrich, who usually batted No. 3 and 4, opened. My father, who spent the second half of the summer cycling around the country on a tandem with a friend following Middlesex's matches, recalled that to save time there were two batsmen padded up, one behind each sightscreen. At one point, Edrich appeared to have been run out, and so continued his sprint to the boundary as Syd Brown raced to the middle. When the umpire ruled Edrich "not out" the pair had to turn around and resume their places. Leicestershire dispensed with close fielders but, to their credit, ran between overs. Middlesex won the match with four minutes to spare.

A remarkable scorecard showing how Middlesex scored 66 in 25 minutes. Note that the game was scheduled to finish at 3.30pm. This was to give sides enough time to travel to their next games, which could start the following morning © Martin Williamson

The other match came in Cheltenham in August when Middlesex arrived four points behind Championship leaders Gloucestershire. Record crowds crammed into the College Ground, spilling onto the outfield and occupying every possible vantage point. Such was the national interest that the Test at The Oval was unquestionably the second most important fixture.

Middlesex were without Compton - on England duty - but an injured Edrich did play despite being injured. "I've never been on a ground for a cricket match where there was such an air of football Cup Final excitement," he said of the Cheltenham game. After two-and-a-half tense days, Gloucestershire were left needing 169 on a wearing pitch. They managed only 100.

The title race nevertheless went to the last round of matches, Middlesex eventually winning by a margin of 20 points. They had won 19 of their 26 games.

The headlines were dominated by Compton and Edrich. Compton finished the summer with 3816 runs at 90.85 including 18 hundreds. With far fewer matches these days, neither record will be beaten. Edrich scored 3539 runs at 80.43; his aggregate also broke the previous record. Amid the run spree, Compton also took 73 wickets, Edrich 67. Almost forgotten were Middlesex's two openers. Jack Robertson made 2760 runs at 52.07, with 12 hundreds, while Syd Brown accumulated 2078 runs.

John Arlott wrote that "this glorious phase of Compton was only possible in one summer, the sun's summer of a century and the summer of a man's life … [his feats] will become a dream that passed across English cricket in a summer of amazing sun and lit the furthest corners of every field in the land".

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