The youngest County Championship cricketer
In Glamorgan's centenary year, many performances of some of the club's leading personalities have been recalled. But the career of one Glamorgan record-breaker has not been given much prominence. This is Royston Gabe-Jones, who in 1922 at the tender age of 15 years 9 months became not only the club's youngest-ever player, but also the youngest person ever to appear in the County Championship. Even more remarkable was the fact that Gabe-Jones was elevated from the unknown ranks of schoolboy cricket to make just one appearance for the Welsh county and then almost disappeared back into obscurity.
Gabe-Jones hailed from the Pontypridd area and attended Blundell's, the famous West Country public school in Devon. He quickly gained a reputation as a talented young sportsman and athlete, and made his debut for the school's 1st XI in 1922, showing much promise as a right-hand batsman and offcutter. But it was his outstanding fielding and splendid agility which brought him recognition. Indeed, The Blundellian for July 1922 reported how the youngster was "very neat and quick in the field, gathers and returns in good style and is almost invariably a safe catcher".
He scored just 76 runs at 12.6 and took seven wickets at 32 for the school's 1st XI during 1922, and at the end of the summer term Gabe-Jones returned to his family's home in South Wales, hoping to build on this experience and earn a place in his local village side, Clydach Vale CC. The thought of actually representing Glamorgan and playing first-class cricket in the County Championship must have been a very long way from his mind.
The Welsh team had suffered a tough baptism at first-class level, following their elevation from the Minor County ranks in 1921, with a motley assortment of amateurs and professionals turning out for them, but without any degree of success. No settled XI emerged as the amateurs fitted in their games between business commitments, and a variety of professionals were given trials. One of the areas of greatest concern lay in the fielding, and the captain often had to set a field without any specialist close catchers or outfielders. In fact, they were often without a wicketkeeper, and Norman Riches, their leading batsman, had to do duty behind the stumps. And just to add to the worries, there were always three or four portly veterans who had to be hidden in the field. The average age of the Glamorgan team for their initial Championship match in 1921 had been 38 years 2 months, and it was not surprising that at the end of the season Wisden observed how "it is clear that to hold their own in first-class company, Glamorgan must find young talent and not depend so much on middle-aged men". But there were even more grey whiskers around in 1922 as the club desperately tried no fewer than 43 players in the hope of unearthing fresh talent. It produced only two victories, including one against a mediocre Oxbridge XI, and as the county remained at the foot of the Championship table, their officials realised they would have to turn to youth and decided to resurrect the Colts trial match which had been on their fixture list during their days as a Minor County.
While all this was going on, Gabe-Jones was turning in some promising performances for Clydach Vale, and his name came to the attention of Glamorgan's administrators. It resulted in his invitation to take part in the Colts trial at the Arms Park ground in Cardiff in mid-August, and he batted at No. 5 in the XI led by Norman Riches. He scored only 6 and failed to take a wicket, but he impressed the watching committee with his agile fielding, and they realised that the youngster could help solve their problems in the field. A couple of days later, Glamorgan were without four regulars for their match against Leicestershire at the Arms Park. Johnny Clay was on the MCC tour of Denmark, Riches had a leg strain, and a couple of other amateurs were unavailable through business. So the committee decided to call up some of the youngsters who had performed well in the Colts trial, including Gabe-Jones, who made his first-class debut at the age of 15 years and 274 days.
Some of the county's supporters and a few of the local journalists were surprised by the decision to call up the unknown schoolboy, but Gabe-Jones soon showed why the Glamorgan officials had chosen him. Leicestershire batted laboriously on the first day and the South Wales Echo was in no doubt that "the prettiest feature of the play to date was the splendid fielding of the newcomer Roy Gabe-Jones, who delighted the crowd with his smart returns". Many of the veterans must have been equally delighted by his presence, as he enthusiastically chased anything in the outfield.
Heavy rain interrupted the second day's play and on the final morning the inexperienced Glamorgan team collapsed against the Leicestershire attack on a damp wicket and were in danger of following on when Gabe-Jones came in at No. 8. But once again, the young colt rose to the occasion and helped his team avoid the follow-on, and allowed them to reach the rare luxury of a draw. His efforts brought a flood of tributes in the local press, with the correspondent of the Western Mail writing that "the outstanding feature of the Glamorgan innings was the patient and plucky display of Roy Gabe-Jones, a youth not yet 16 years of age, who kept his end up wonderfully for an hour and a half for his half-dozen runs and carried his bat on his first appearance."
After such a marvellous debut, a glittering career was being forecast for the youngster, but remarkably the county officials never called upon his services again, and one is left to speculate on the reasons why. One factor was that Gabe-Jones developed more as a rugby player and failed to become the promising allrounder that many had predicted. He returned to Blundell's to lead the 1st XI, but became a rather impatient cricketer, with The Blundellian for 1923 commenting that "if he will be content to go slowly for 30 runs, he should make some larger scores . . . He is at present spoiling the consistency of his length by bowling too fast." In contrast, he earned more glowing comments for his prowess at fly-half for the school's 1st XV, and after their match with Cranleigh in 1925, the schools rugby correspondent of The Times reported how "Gabe-Jones stood out head and shoulders above the rest and has all the makings of a great player".
It wasn't surprising that, after such praise, Gabe-Jones joined Cardiff RFC when he left school and went into business in South Wales. In all, he made 96 appearances for the rugby club between 1927-28 and 1933-34, mostly at fly-half, and often with Maurice Turnbull as his scrum-half partner. Gabe-Jones also captained the club's 2nd XV for two seasons and was appointed the 1st XV captain in 1933-34. However, he wasn't invited to lead the team the following winter and shortly afterwards, Gabe-Jones announced his retirement from club rugby. At the age of 28 his somewhat unusual sporting career came to an abrupt end. He died in 1965 at the age of 58.