Norfolk cricket and Bill Edrich -- and surely strawberries and cream are not more synonymous -- have in common an abiding endurance. There are some threads of evidence that a cricket club existed in Swaffham as far back as 1700 which means that the game has been played in this part of East Anglia for about 275 years. Nearly 100 years later Swaffham was just one of many cricket clubs in the county -- Castle Acre, Downham, Norwich, Lynn, West Lexham, Brinton, Dereham, for a generous half dozen.
David J. M. Armstrong of Holt, son of the Rev. H. B. J. Armstrong, one of the most notable of Norfolk cricket enthusiasts and a legend at Lakenham for his anecdotes and humour, privately published a history of Norfolk County Cricket in 1958 in which he records a team calling itself Norfolk taking the fields for the first time as far back as 1797. The match was played on Swaffham Racecourse in the presence of an immense number of spectators from all parts of the Kingdom between England and 33 of Norfolk. The county, despite their preponderance in numbers, were beaten by the eleven England cracks by an innings and 14 runs and in the two Norfolk innings there was but one solitary double-figure score of 14 and as many as 35 ducks!
This monumental humiliation of local talent served only to whet the appetite for cricket in Norfolk and the first quarter of the 19th century was a tale of continuing growth culminating in the formation of the County Cricket Club on January 11, 1827, at the Rampant Horse Inn, Norwich, with Lord Suffield as president. Mr. Armstrong's opening chapter of early days in Norfolk cricket is studded with tales of club matches played for side stakes, some of them distinctly peculiar. One match in 1811, for example, was played for 22 bottles of cider and 22 pounds of cherries, another in 1823 between eleven married and eleven single ladies for eleven pairs of gloves. Three years before this second game Norfolk went up to Lord's to play M.C.C., and included in their team a man whose name had become immortal -- Fuller Pilch.
At the formation of the County Club it was agreed to start with four matches the following summer, one each at Norwich, Yarmouth, Swaffham and Gunton. So great was the enthusiasm that just over five weeks later some ardent cricketers at Diss took time by the forelock and opened their season on February 20. The mere at Diss was gripped by a frost of unusual severity and two teams played what was reported as a bona fide match on skates! The game drew a crowd of several hundred, began at 10 o'clock in the morning, and was continued until half past five.
By 1831 Norfolk were described in one periodical of the day as "Now the next club to the Marylebone." Certainly the previous summer both Norfolk and Norwich had beaten the M.C.C. at Lord's although M.C.C. won the two return matches at Norwich and Dereham.
There came an historic moment in September, 1833, when Yorkshire played their first-ever game and their opponents were Norfolk. The match took place at Sheffield and the Tykes immediately established the habit of winning that was to bring them 31 outright championships. The scores were Yorkshire 138 and 196; Norfolk 67 and 146. A year later Yorkshire were soundly thrashed at Norwich by 272 runs, Fuller Pilch making 87 not out and 73 in the two Norfolk innings. In 1835 the match with Yorkshire was left drawn because of rain but not before Pilch made 157 not out in Norfolk's second innings.
Now came an unexpected swing of the pendulum. The public at Yarmouth and Gunton withheld their support and in 1836 Pilch was lured away to Kent on the promise of £2 a week throughout the year. He took with him another leading Norfolk player called William Stearman. Next, Lord Suffield was thrown by his horse and killed and the drive faltered both on the field and in the committee room. The decline in the 1840's was unchecked and the County Club folded up in 1848. It was revived briefly in 1862 but by 1870 it had failed again.
It is perhaps necessary at this point to digress slightly and consider the character of the East Anglian. Local patriotism is strong in all parts of England but it is doubtful if the people of East Anglia are not the proudest of all. Progress has done less to destroy the essential character of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire than any other part of the United Kingdom. Their landscape, villages, churches and great country houses still retain the qualities for which they were valued in earlier centuries and even the towns are generally traditional and unspoiled.
Blickling Hall and Castle Acre Priory -- where else would architectural monuments be found to surpass them? It was an early cricket match at Blickling Hall that inspired some forgotten poet to pen the lines:
Weary of play, some summer eve perchance
You will come running in from dewless lawns
The long day's sunshine on your countenance.
But there is more to Norfolk than stately piles and old monuments. The ancient wind and water mills, the harvest fields in autumn, the fishing fleet leaving or entering Yarmouth, the Broads -- and driving the iron into the soul of the Norfolkman -- the sea; an ambivalence brought about by a remoteness and isolation which can be both cherished and deplored. This is still splendidly evoked by Swinburne's lines:
A land that is lonelier than ruin;
A sea that is stranger than death;
Far fields that a rose never blew in,
Wan waste where the winds lack breath;
Waste endless and boundless and flowerless
But of marsh-blossoms fruitless as free,
Where earth lies exhausted, as powerless
To strive with the sea.
For me, the foregoing makes it clear why two failures were brushed aside and the dogged, uncompromising men of Norfolk started up their county cricket club once more on October 14, 1876. It certainly makes the Edrich clan entirely realistic and acceptable.
John Edrich in his book Runs In The Family -- one of the better cricket book titles -- begins his first chapter with this paragraph:
"My grandfather, Harry Edrich, of Manor Farm, Blofield, a village near Norwich, spent his days farming, cricketing and raising 13 children. One of his sons became my father, Fred, and another the father of Geoff (Lancashire), Brian (Kent and Glamorgan), Eric (Lancashire) and Bill (the famous 'W. J.' of Middlesex and England).
What odds, one wonders would the newly arisen betting parlours on our first-class grounds offer against some future family providing players for five of England's first-class counties with two of them becoming Test stars? The greatest of them, not with-standing John's admirable service to England, is Bill.
Lack of inches never stopped him from doing the things he set his heart on. Playing, flying, living, he extracted the last ounce from all of them, with enough success to make any two normal men envious. To see him come through the gate at Lord's and walk out to the middle was to see the personification of self-confidence and aggressiveness. There was nothing of the brute in his intelligent features but the pugnacity was unmistakable. He walked with chest thrust out like the human fighting cock he was, but as light on his feet as a girl going to her first dancing class.
He might have been a star winger with Tottenham Hotspur but his talent at cricket was so outstanding that he wisely soon gave up his soccer. He did not play professionally for Middlesex until 1937 but in less than a season he established himself as one of the most promising players in the country in a period when there was no shortage. His fleetness of foot and his utter fearlessness made him the kind of batsman we have so often sorely needed in the years since he returned whence he came, to Norfolk, where, as late as 1970, coming up to his middle fifties, he played 18 innings and easily topped the county's batting averages.
The bowling could be nasty, fast and the ball rising but Edrich either hooked it off his eyebrows or got right behind it.
Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith would not have got under Bill's skin although I fancy he might well have got under theirs. In the war he became a pilot in Bomber Command and won the D.F.C., for a daylight attack -- not the easiest way to earn this major decoration. Between establishing himself in first-class cricket and the outbreak of the Second World War, Bill Edrich was granted just one year -- 1938, the year of Munich. Edrich seized his solitary chance characteristically to make 1,000 runs before June 1st. He was the sixth man to achieve it and to date the last. Perhaps it will never be done again, although Edrich's feat was the fifth of its kind in the space of eleven years. Fin de Siécle?
There were two other remarkable facts about it -- it was done in the same season that Bradman did it for a second time, the one occasion it has been performed twice in the same May, and all Edrich's runs were made at Lord's. His innings included 104 for M.C.C. v. Yorkshire, 115 for M.C.C. v. Surrey, 182 for Middlesex v. Gloucestershire and 245 for Middlesex v. Nottinghamshire. When he was out against Nottinghamshire he needed just 19 more runs for his 1,000 with eight days of May still stretching ahead of him. Nottinghamshire were beaten by an innings and Middlesex did the same in the next match against Worcestershire. For Edrich it was three wasted days.
He hit a return catch to Bob Crisp the South African without scoring -- his first failure in what was, for those who set store on such things, his thirteenth innings of the season. That left him two possible chances of getting the 19 runs he required, for Middlesex met the Australians on May 28, 30 and 31. All Saturday the players watched the rain falling as straight as stair rods and it did not let up on the Sunday. On the Monday play was possible all day but these were no conditions for batsmen.
The Australians, who had made six scores of over 500 in seven innings, were put out for 132 and Middlesex, battling all the way, reached 188. Edrich's share of obtaining this lead of 56 was 9. He was then bowled neck and crop by O'Reilly and when Bradman and McCabe came together in the second innings in what was the Australians' only real stand of this rain-riddled fixture Edrich seemed certain to end the month with 990 runs. Then with less than half an hour to play out the formalities of a hopelessly drawn game, Bradman declared and said to Edrich: "See if you can get those 10, Bill." There was just time for half a dozen quick overs shared by McCabe and Waite and Edrich got those 10 and helped himself to 10 more for luck. He had made 1,010 by May 31, with an average of over 84.
Edrich had his detractors, especially for the extended period he was given in the England team before he succeeded at Test level. They, the ubiquitous they, said it was only because of his Lord's background. Well, perhaps Lord's did help him, perhaps if he had played for Somerset or Glamorgan his path to the top would have been longer and thornier, but that he would have got there in the end there can be no doubt.
The watcher from the ringside, however diligent, is always open to at least two charges, (a) that he had his favourites and (b) that he never played at top level and therefore his judgement is open to doubt.
Speaking personally, I accept those charges even if the motives behind them are often malicious so I sought a friend of both Edrich and myself who had played with him and against him. No one, I think, would question Trevor Bailey's status as a player or deny that he is a shrewd assessor now that he has become a writer on the game.
"I have always maintained that seeing this little man hook Ray Lindwall was one of the most exhilarating sights I have ever witnessed on a cricket ground" Bailey told me, adding that he rated Edrich as a great player who would have been an automatic choice for a world eleven at his peak.
In company with most small, nimble batsmen Bill was very quick on his feet against the spinners and his cutting was of the very highest order. He also perfected a lofted stroke wide of mid-on, which was a cross between the on drive and the 'cow shot' which brought him a vast number of sixes on even the largest of grounds. As the years went by Bill lost some of his freedom and though, because of his sound technique, he was never easy to dismiss, it was possible to keep him relatively quiet by bowling a full length on and just outside his off stump -- something which could never have occurred during those memorable days of 1947.
Memorable days indeed with Middlesex winning the Championship by continuous all-round cricket of brilliance and character. It was, although none knew it at the time, the last great pyrotechnic display before the game was overtaken by our egalitarian times. 1947, when Compton, Robertson and Edrich scored 32 centuries between them for Middlesex alone. 1947, when a county fixture could draw 20,000 for a day's play.
The memory of that exceptional summer of weather as well as cricket reminds me of a day when a modern player of some renown was at considerable pains to explain to Jim Sims how much more scientific the game had become since his playing days.
"Yes, mate," replied Jim Sims, "but we drew the crowds."
And why did they draw the crowds? Did they come content just to watch Compton, Edrich and the rest making their big scores? No, for while they scored heavily they still believed in the feasibility of having 400 on the board shortly after tea. Edrich was a man who knew instinctively about time and its value. Were not the last words of Elizabeth the First reported to have been: "All my possessions for a moment of time?" And there was Shakespeare lamenting "I wasted time and now doth time waste me." Whether batting all day or providing the impromptu cabaret at an all night party, Bill Edrich believed with Bacon that a man that is young in years may be old in experience if he has lost no time. Or as Quarles ended a famous passage -- "One to-day is worth two to-morrows."
Edrich was always for me the living symbol that a man does not have to stand six feet two in his stockinged feet to be a great cricketer. I think that it was no accident that when he finished with first-class cricket Edrich made a clean cut. Other great players like Compton, Benaud, Brown, Dexter, Yardley, Peebles, Bowes, Fingleton, Laker, Bailey and Gover -- an eleven of nearly all the talents -- kept in touch by writing, broadcasting or commentating on T.V.
What Edrich did do, most logically and sensibly was to combine a life in commerce with playing and captaining Norfolk in the Minor Counties Competition. To give what you have to give in the right place at the right time is surely the art of living. As recently as 1970 the memories come rushing back when he made a brief reappearance at Lord's when Norfolk came to H.Q. on Gillette Cup business.
Cardus, of course, has not permitted such a player as Edrich to escape his matchless pen. "Edrich the born fighter, battling on with his batting, a great little driver who, on his day, could bowl fast. He would run so fast to bowl that after release of the ball his follow through propelled him somewhere near, or between, cover and gully -- as though he had been sucked forward by the wind or draught of his own bowling. He was the most gallant and fearless of batsmen, whose only misgiving was that Denis Compton might any moment run him out."
Sir Neville, like myself, never had to bat against him or bowl to him and as Trevor Bailey put it as he cast his mind back more than a quarter of a century -- "I did and Bill did not exactly inspire Lyrical prose in my breast at the time. In those days bowling against Middlesex was more of a problem than bowling against many Test teams. Bill was a complete batsman with a magnificent defence. Few in my experience have watched the ball so closely. And, it goes without saying, he had a very wide range of attacking strokes. The harder you hit him, either with bat or ball, the greater became his determination. I never remember him flinching."
"It is hardly surprising to know he had a distinguished career in the war, not in some quiet little sinecure far removed from the main scene of the conflict but at the sharp end."
"When hostilities ended, Bill, with his D.F.C., a decoration never lightly awarded, returned to Middlesex and after one season decided to become an amateur. It was the early days of the social revolution when it was still considered essential to have an amateur captaining England. At that time it seemed quite probable that Bill, who was an automatic choice as player, might lead England when Wally Hammond retired. For a variety of reasons, including a disregard for the hierarchy, a certain wildness and impetuosity and an unconventional outlook he never achieved this particular honour. However, his decision to join amateur ranks undoubtedly cost him at least a ten thousand tax free benefit."
"Bill lived hard and played hard. He believed that life was for living and was prepared to let to-morrow take care of itself, a view which his experiences as a combat pilot had helped to develop. I always felt that he needed a 36-hour day and inevitably there were clashes with authority from time to time, because he was a colourful, controversial and sometimes headstrong individual. I remember how he upset one rather sedate selector who simply could not understand the ethical gulf that divided the two of them, and never would. This selector was utterly and completely dedicated to cricket, to Bill it always remained a wonderful game, but he never allowed it to interfere unduly with his private life. As a result England went to Australia in 1950-51 without him, and this piece of selectorial folly could well have cost us the Ashes."
"Bill loved parties and he brought to them the same zest and enthusiasm which epitomized his cricket. He was also firmly of the opinion that a good one should never end before dawn. His party piece took the form of either a vocal, or a conjuring act."
"He had acquired his repertoire of songs during long forgotten nights in the mess and I think it is fair to say that his memory of the lyrics was considerably more impressive than his voice which was, fortunately, unique in my experience. It was an off beat, husky whisper but sufficiently penetrating to reach everyone in the room. He also had another favourite party piece involving an egg which was always far more entertaining when it failed than when successful, a view not shared by one distinguished cricket correspondent whose white tuxedo never looked quite so immaculate again."
When Trevor's fascinating reminiscences of a brother tourist came to an end I steered him carefully back to Edrich the cricketer. He saw nothing beautiful about his bowling action. A quick scurry up to the wicket followed by a slinging action (it reminded Bailey of a catapult) but he conceded Bill did propel the ball through the air at a considerable speed and with enormous zeal. Bailey, who took 2,082 wickets in something like 22 years in the first-class game, 132 of them for England, felt Edrich was essentially a shock bowler, to be used in short bursts, when he was always liable to surprise the batsman by his speed.
"His lack of height combined with his action ensured that he did not achieve much lift, in fact he tended to skid off the wicket." Bailey, a man not given to overstatement or facile praise, then added with a note of genuine admiration, the salute of one great craftsman to another -- "but for a few overs he was genuinely quick."
Bailey had now dealt with his contemporary as a batsman, a bowler and an individual. To dot the i's and cross the t's did he have anything to add on Edrich as fielder and captain?
"Originally a cover and a good mover, as one would expect from a professional soccer player, Bill gradually developed into a very effective and unspectacular first slip."
"His captaincy was in a similar mould to his slip fielding, sound rather than showy. He did not miss many tricks, but he was always willing to take a gamble if there was the slightest hope of victory."
This then was Bill Edrich who played 39 times for England and made six of his 86 centuries in Tests. In all first-class cricket he scored 36,965 runs and as in the case of his twin Denis Compton, Wally Hammond and Len Hutton one inevitably muses on what his figures would have been if he had been able to play at this level between 1940 and 1945. In the case of Edrich the years he lost covered the period between his 24th and 29th birthdays and he might well have retired in the company of names like Sutcliffe and Grace if not Hobbs, Wooley and Hendren. Robbed by fate as he was, he still accomplished not one but two seasons which will make his name imperishable as long as 22 men somewhere on the earth's surface can be found to play the game of cricket. Only three actual playing seasons after he achieved the now legendary feat of 1,000 in May he scored in 52 innings the remarkable aggregate of 3,539 runs which included twelve hundreds with an average of over 80. The fact that Denis Compton scored 3,816 in two innings less at an average of nearly 91 takes nothing from Edrich's Marvellous follow up to 1938.
When he played his last first-class season in 1958 he was already half-way to his 43rd birthday and few could have visualized him carrying on into his middle fifties as an adornment to Minor Counties cricket. As year followed year and his name and performances continued to shine out from the middle reaches of Wisden those of us to whom he had given such unadulterated pleasure at Lord's were glad to know the little war horse had a whinny or two left in him.
If he has a regret it is that on his return to the county that had sired him and given him his first chance he was unable to lead Norfolk to the championship of the competition it has not won for 60 years.
The Minor Counties Championship was inaugurated in 1895 and in its first year Norfolk headed the table, sharing the title with Durham and Worcestershire. Ten years later Norfolk were outright champions after a wonderful season. Losing their first match and held to a draw in their second Norfolk, captained by the Rev. G. B. Raikes, won their remaining eight fixtures. Raikes was still captain in 1910 when Norfolk took the championship again and G. A. Stevens made 201 in the challenge match.
In 1912 Michael Falcon became captain, an office he held until the end of the 1946 season. Norfolk won seven of their eight matches but the championship was left unawarded as floods prevented the challenge match with Staffordshire being played. Ironically Norfolk with a far less impressive record won the title the following year. In a wonderful game against Staffordshire, Norfolk won by 35 runs, despite a certain Sidney Barnes taking nine for 31 in their first innings.
The outbreak of World War I caused the Minor Counties' programme to be abandoned in 1914 and it was not resumed until 1920. Between the wars Norfolk, in the opinion of its able historian Mr. Armstrong, was at its strongest. Like all cricket lovers he succumbed to the temptation to pick his best eleven. In this case it is from the sides that represented Norfolk in the thirties and it comes as no surprise that three of the first six bear the name Edrich. All eleven of this team played first-class cricket at sometime or other, and here it is:
(1) D. F. Walker, (2) W. J. Edrich, (3) G. A. Edrich, (4) M. Falcon (captain), (5) M. R. Barton, (6) E. H. Edrich (wicket-keeper), (7) D. C. Rought-Rought, (8) R. C. Rought-Rought, (9) C. S. R. Boswell, (10) T. G. L. Balance, (11) G. R. Langdale.
In this period Norfolk played 96 matches of which they won 33 outright and a further 27 on the first innings. Only 12 were lost. Yet the title at the end of the season always eluded Norfolk. Not for the first time fate took a hand against them in 1933 when, just as in 1912, the county reached the top of the Minor Counties table and in the words of the understandably disappointed Armstrong only to be robbed, perhaps, of the title (who can tell!) by a misfortune over the challenge match, this time due to a miscalculation of points.
This is what happened: Yorkshire Second XI were credited with full points in a match with Staffordshire, when they should have had first-innings points only, the match having been reduced by rain to one day, and there having been a misunderstanding as to which of the two days had been rained off. These extra points had put Yorkshire in second place and they had then played and beaten Norfolk in what was supposed to be the Challenge Match. As a result of the victory, Yorkshire Second XI were put at the top of the table.
When the final table was being checked for insertion in Wisden it was found that the columns did not tally and on investigation the error was discovered. Wiltshire and not Yorkshire should have had the right to challenge Norfolk. The title was therefore left Undecided with Norfolk placed at the top of the table, champions in all but name.
Bill Edrich, a product of Bracondale school, made 20 out of a total of 49 against the 1932 Indian touring side and in 1935 distinguished himself against the South Africans whom he was to put to the sword in company with Compton 12 years later. At Lakenham he scored 111 for Norfolk in 165 minutes and two months later when selected for the Minor Counties he took a further 79 off the Tourists.
The degree of Edrich's virtuosity is surely plain to later generations when they learn that he continued to play for Norfolk until the end of 1936 -- just two years before he scored 1,000 by the end of May. Although the title continued to elude them, sometimes by maddeningly narrow margins, Norfolk went from August 25, 1932 until July 1, 1937 without losing a single Minor Counties fixture.
When 1946 came Norfolk faced the task of building an almost new side. Walker and Ballance had been killed in action in the Second World war, Geoff Edrich and Eric Edrich had become Lancashire professionals, R. C. Rought-Rought had retired.
After one season Falcon's wonderful career came to a close. From 1906 to 1946 he took 727 wickets and scored 11,340 runs --tremendous figures for a competition so limited in fixtures as the Minor Counties.
Norfolk soldiered on into the fifties without being able to gather together a side capable of making a serious bid for honours but Eric Edrich had returned from Lancashire and in 1955 John Edrich, soon to leave for Surrey and a professional career as distinguished as Bill, topped the batting averages. As a fitting finale to the season a Norfolk XI played an All Edrich XI in which W. J. hit a century.
Before the decade was out the same W. J. Edrich was back at Lakenham. He polished off the fifties, shone steadily through the sixties and greeted the seventies by finishing top of the Norfolk batting with an average of over 35 and second in the bowling, sending down 238 overs and taking 25 wickets. He was then 54 years and seven months old. The summer of 1972 marked the 40th year since his entry into county cricket. 1972 also happened to be the centenary of the writing of the immortal song of Harrow School -- Forty years On by Bowen. Noble words, a haunting tune and no Harrovian of my acquaintance would object I feel sure if I quote the first verse here in tribute to one of the outstanding cricketers of my time.
Forty Years on when afar and asunder
Parted are those who are singing to-day
When you look back and forgetfully wonder
What you were like in your work and your play
Then it may be their will often come o'er you
Glimpses of notes like the catch of a song
Visions of boyhood shall float them before you
Echoes of dreamland shall bear them along.