Some memorable Varsity matches, 1937

Recollections of Oxford cricket

H.D.G. Leveson Gower

The Editor of Wisden has paid me the compliment of asking me to give some reminiscences of Oxford Cricket -- a compliment that I naturally appreciate very much and an invitation that I readily accept.

Perhaps my chief qualification to do this is that since the beginning of this century I have had the pleasure of getting up Teams against the Universities, both at Oxford and Cambridge, for over twenty years at Eastbourne, and the last three years at Reigate.

While there is always a certain amount of responsibility and at times anxiety in collecting sides, the reward is great, for it has enabled me year after year, not only to keep in touch with the different generations of 'Varsity cricketers, but also to retain the friendship of those who were good enough to play for my Elevens.

I would like to thank most sincerely the members of the Eastbourne Cricket Club and Sir Jeremiah Colman, the President, and members of the Reigate Priory Club for the use of their famous and picturesque grounds.

My reminiscences of Oxford cricket date back to 1893 for although, before I went up, I had with keen and boyish delight followed the fortunes of the University Matches at Lord's since the early 1880's, it was when I got my Blue in 1893 that I may be said to have become intimately connected with Oxford cricket.

As now, so in the past, I think every boy had his cricket heroes. My two heroes, funnily enough, were Cambridge -- A.G. Steel and C.T. Studd, two great cricketers. If at any time they failed -- and it was seldom they did -- I took their temporary lapses as a personal matter!

I had the good fortune to get into the Oxford Eleven as a Freshman; and here I may say what I think is the general opinion that luck plays a very important part in getting one's Blue, particularly as a batsman, as a Fresher.

The Summer Term is so short -- a bare eight weeks -- that unless one strikes form almost immediately, one is up against very strong opposition. I make mention of this from my own personal experience, for this fortune was on my side.

I have before me a list of some of those who played in the Freshmen's Match of 1893:-- G.O. Smith, G.B. Raikes, M.J. Barlow, P.F. Warner, B.N. Bosworth Smith, H.K. Foster, F.G.H. Clayton, G.J. Mordaunt, H.A. Arkwright -- and myself. Of these only Mordaunt and I succeeded that year in getting into the Eleven; we had the luck of a good start in the Trial Matches.

Of the four University Matches in which I took part, those of 1893 and 1896 provided incidents. In 1893 C.M. Wells and in 1896 E. B. Shine gave away eight runs while bowling to prevent Oxford following-on. Being captain at Oxford in 1896 I was naturally very interested in the decision reached by Frank Mitchell in giving orders to E.B. Shine to bowl no balls to the boundary in order to prevent my side from going in again.

In my opinion the reception he and his team received from the members of M.C.C. and when his team went in to bat from the spectators, was quite unjustifiable. His motive, no doubt, was to do what he thought was best to ensure victory; whether his policy was sound or not was entirely a matter for him as captain to decide.

Personally, I should not have done it; I do not say this because we won. The moral effect of following-on in a University Match is great, and the Cambridge Eleven had not had an over-strenuous time in the field. Of all the players on both sides only G.J. Mordaunt and myself took part in both these incident matches.

TRIUMPH OF THE LAST CHOICE

I may perhaps be excused for going rather fully into the match of 1896. Naturally it is the ambition of a captain to win his 'Varsity match, and once again Dame Fortune did not forsake me. I had the luck at the last moment of making the right choice for the last place in my side. I left the selection till the morning of the match. G.O. Smith and G.B. Raikes, both old Blues, were the candidates.

I had practically made up my mind to play Raikes. He was a good all-round Cricketer -- useful bowler, very good slip and a sound bat. What made me alter my mind was this: when I inspected the wicket I did not think that another bowler, unless an exceptional one, would make the difference, and I decided to play the better bat of the two, G.O. Smith. Experience had taught me that you can never have too much batting in a 'Varsity Match.

I took the risk of going into the field against a powerful Cambridge batting side with only four bowlers. It meant that I should have to work these extremely hard. F.H.E. Cunliffe and J.C. Hartley, my two chief bowlers, sent down no fewer that 88 and 92 overs in the match respectively. The last choice won me the match by a superb 132 when we were set 330 runs to win.

Thus, G.O. Smith followed the example of Lord George Scott in 1887, for Oxford and Eustace Crawley, of the Cambridge Eleven, in the same year. The former contributed 100 and 66; the latter 33 and 103 not out; both were last choices. P.F. Warner had a most unusual experience in this 1896 match, being run out in both innings.

Another incident during this game that I recall is a personal talk I had with an onlooker, who apparently came to watch the' Varsity Match like one might The Derby, to spot the winner with advantage to himself. During the lunch interval on the last day, when I was none too happy of our prospects of victory -- three good wickets were down for just over 70 -- this spectator approached me and said, "I'm afraid Oxford's prospects of victory are very poor. What do you think?" My answer, given rather abruptly, was "We shall win all right." "What?" said my interrogator, "are you sure? I have been laid 8 to 1 against Oxford, shall I take it?" "Certainly," I said, anxious to get away from this rather adhesive person.

Ten days afterwards I received a registered envelope with a sapphire pin enclosed -- and the following letter:-- "Thank you so much for your very valuable information. I collected a very nice sum but I knew it was a certainty as it came from 'The Horse's Mouth.'"

With the conclusion of this match my cricket career at Oxford came to an end. Of the four Oxford teams that I played with, I think the 1895 one was the strongest; although we lost this 'Varsity match, H.K. Foster played a magnificent 121 out of 196.

It was during this match that I received a rather doubtful compliment from an uncle of mine, Sir Edward Chandos Leigh, who was President of M.C.C. in the Jubilee year of 1887. I had made 73 runs in Oxford's first innings, and on my return to the pavilion my uncle, who was seated near the entrance gate, greeted me with these words: "Well done, Schwimp" (he could not pronounce his R's). "Capital, capital, you played just like I used to."

I was somewhat ignorant of his ability as a cricketer beyond what he had from time to time told me so I proceeded to look up his record in 'Varsity matches. It was: 8 in 1852, 0 in 1853, 0 in 1854. A certain limited success!

Knowing that anything written for Wisden is handed down to posterity I was anxious to refresh my memory on some subjects and A.H.J. Cochrane, the Oxford Blue of the 'eighties, placed at my disposal helpful and interesting information for which I am much indebted.

With regard to facilities for cricket at the Universities, the wickets at Fenner's and at Oxford are easy. The Parks wicket has improved enormously since the War and has the reputation of being almost the easiest-paced in England.

It has been said that despite its loveliness The Parks is the only first-class ground in England where it is impossible to get a bath in the pavilion, that the woodwork of the pavilion has not been painted for 25 years; also the practice wickets are very moderate, surrounded by children and perambulators and with a very difficult background to the bowler's arm. In these respects Fenner's has a distinct advantage and another is that a gate can be taken there, which is not the case in The Parks.


A MATCH PLAYED ON TWO GROUNDS

The Oxford University ground was first used for cricket in 1881. The second fixture of that season -- against the Gentlemen of England -- was transferred at the last moment to the Christ Church ground where entrance fees could be demanded.

The Gentlemen went in on a wicket described as having been hastily prepared. The Oxford fast bowler was E. Peake, whose efforts were marked by pace rather than precision. He got out three batsmen who were no doubt relieved to escape alive, and finally he laid out a prominent amateur with a severe blow on the side of the head.

The game was then stopped and about three o'clock in the afternoon another start was made in The Parks. This time Oxford won the toss and in the course of a drawn match 1,064 runs were scored for 36 wickets.

The Christ Church ground can provide an admirable wicket and the engagement with the Australians has taken place there since 1882. Here it was that in 1884 Oxford for the first and last time beat an Australian eleven.

Fifty years ago one joined the O.U.C.C. and paid, if I remember right, thirty shillings subscription. The annual grant from the M.C.C. to the University Cricket Club dates from 1881. I think at first it was £150 and has been for the last few years £500. In addition to this each University has received for 1936 the equivalent of a half share of the sum given to each first-class county from the profits of Test Matches.


INTERESTING UNIVERSITY MATCHES

It is a long time since a 'Varsity match yielded a close finish. The two runs win by Cambridge in 1870 and the six runs success of Oxford in 1875 are now very distant memories. In the last decade the only thrill that one remembers was when, a few years ago, the last two Oxford men managed to stay in until the finish and had the minor satisfaction of annoying their opponents though they could not defeat them.

During the present century the nearest approaches to a level result were the matches of 1908 and 1926. In the former game Oxford got home by only two wickets, while in the other, the margin in favour of Cambridge was 34 runs.

Often enough we have seen reversal of public form. The side supposed to be the weaker nearly always confounded the prophets not only by winning, but by winning easily.

In 1881 Cambridge, with A.G. Steel, Ivo Bligh, the three brothers Studd and other great players had what looked like an invincible side. Steel, practically on his own one may say, had already beaten Oxford three times and was confidently expected to do so a fourth time. But the side failed completely against the fast bowling of Evans, the Oxford captain, and were beaten by 135 runs. In 1895 Oxford, with a splendid eleven, were never in it from start to finish and lost by 134 runs.

Almost every boy who has gone up to Oxford or Cambridge with a big cricket reputation has established himself in University cricket. When the famous Harrovian, F.S. Jackson, appeared depressed by doing badly in the trial matches, S.M.J. Woods, the Cambridge captain, told him that if he was worrying about his Blue, he could have it at once. Whether such bold policy would always pay may be an open question; it certainly paid in the case of Jackson.


A MATCH OF FOUR DAYS

Like so many historic engagements, the University Match is more difficult to finish than used to be the case. From 1827, the year of the first match played, until 1898, there were 64 matches, and of these only two were drawn.

In 1888 on the Monday the weather was so bad, with thick darkness and continuous rain that there was never the remotest possibility of play, and on the two following days, though cricket was possible, progress in the mud was so slow as to make it soon evident that a draw was inevitable.

In these circumstances it was pointed out by a strong body of outside opinion that there had not been a draw for over forty years, and perhaps in order to obviate such a novelty the M.C.C. agreed to allot a fourth day to the match. As it happened there came a further downpour and the game had to be abandoned unfinished, after all.

The University match probably has lost something of its old interest and popularity, but this idea may be more apparent than real. Before the Mound stand was built a ring of ten or fifteen thousand people was about as many as Lord's could hold. Given fine weather you might get ten thousand spectators a day at the University match, but with the accommodation at Lord's increased to Test Match requirements, this is a mere sprinkling and the ground looks somewhat empty.

But, while this contrast is not much to go by, it remains true that are not the coaches and carriages, the arbours and the luncheons, at the match that there once were. It is curious that the attraction of matches like Eton and Harrow, or Eton and Winchester, seems to increase as the years go by; as opportunities for social gatherings they become more patronised every season. But, if as a cricket spectacle it holds its own, as a society function the University match is not what it used to be.


SOME COMPARISONS

How cricketers of today compare with the generations of thirty or forty years ago is subject always likely to provide plenty of argument -- I personally can see very little difference.

Many able critics of the game deplore the decadence of modern cricket, and sigh for the glories of the past when bowlers bowled a length, and batsmen hit sixers instead of pottering about and stopping the ball with their pads. Have there not always been hitters and slow players, stylists and pad-players, steady bowlers and erratic bowlers?

One must allow that shortly after the War a style of batting came into fashion which seemed to most of us far from an improvement of methods of the older school. The player moved in front of the stumps, facing the bowler, and with a short lift of the bat pushed the ball to either side of the wicket.

The style was quite distinctive and many batsmen exploited it with much skill. Its advantage was that it involved close watching of the ball, but the limited swing of the bat meant a loss of power, while against fast bowling the two-eyed stance, as it was then and is still called, was less effective than the usual position with the left shoulder forward.

All this was fifteen years ago, but in 1936 the two-eyed stance or anything approaching it was less in evidence. Men like Mitchell-Innes and Yardley are typical high-class University batsmen, playing in what surely should be the correct style -- the style handed down by tradition and coaching.

The status of the University player in relation to other first-class cricket has not changed much in the last half century. The Universities meet the first-class counties as equals, and most Blues would be worth a place, or at any rate a trial, in all but the strongest county teams.

This, it may be contended, has always been the case, but what is more curious is that the proportion of Blues who, after their undergraduate days are over, have the inclination and the opportunity of taking a prominent part in public cricket has also hardly altered at all. If you look at the score of any Oxford and Cambridge match, whether in 1885 or 1895 or 1925, you will find four or five names familiar in county or other first-class cricket. Hawke, Key, O'Brien, Bainbridge, Marchant, Fry, Woods, Jackson, Jessop, Warner, the Fosters, Ranjitsinhji and A.O. Jones, of the earlier decades have their counterparts in Allen, Jardine, Chapman, Robins, Holmes, Duleepsinhji, Turnbull and others of our own time.

It is pleasant to notice that the longer first-class programme, with its exhausting calls upon a young man's leisure, and the economic conditions, with their even more exacting demands on his resources, have not stopped this valuable supply of test-match captains and county captains and players.

Space will not permit of my trying to describe what I might think were the best teams that played for Oxford and Cambridge during the time I was connected with University cricket and afterwards. But I would say that the best Cambridge side that I played against was that of 1893. Of individual players, there are obviously many that I would like to mention but again space will not allow me to do so. Are they not to be found in Wisden?

Let us examine finally University cricket as a stepping-stone to Test cricket. If we restrict our enquiry to matches against Australia and South Africa, as being contests in which for many years we have in this country chosen absolutely our best teams, we find that since 1880, when we first played Australia over here, 63 amateur cricketers have appeared in England elevens. Of these, 33 have been Oxford or Cambridge Blues.

The distinction of being selected while still in residence at the University is uncommon, and only seven of the 33 have enjoyed it. And yet four of the five English teams sent out to Australia since the War have been under the leadership of University players, A.E.R. Gilligan, A.P.F. Chapman, D.R. Jardine and G.O.B. Allen. If I had to choose a combined University eleven of Blues since 1919 -- and what a difficult task! -- my nominations would be the following twelve:-- G.O.B. Allen, H. Ashton, A.P.F. Chapman, K.S. Duleepsinhji, A.E.R. Gilligan, E.R.T. Holmes, D.R. Jardine, D.J. Knight, C.S. Marriott, Nawab of Pataudi, G.T.S. Stevens and G.E.C. Wood.

The older one gets, more precious must be one's memories. Very precious to me are the memories of my Oxford days and my connection with Oxford cricket -- happiest of cricket days. Never shall I forget the kindness shown to me by one to whom Oxford owes more than she can ever repay with regard to University cricket. That is A.J. Webbe, who for so many years brought teams to play against the Universities. It was the example he set that I tried to follow and if in any way I was successful it is to him that I give my grateful thanks.

Long may the Universities continue to be the stepping stone of Cricket -- long may University cricketers continue to keep up the high tradition handed down to them by famous cricketers of the past.


© John Wisden & Co