When three-day cricket was worthwhile

Tris Bennett

Tris Bennett was in the Harrow XI for five years, 1917 to 1921, being captain in the last year. He gained his Blue at Cambridge for cricket in 1923 and in 1925 when he was captain. He also kept goal for Cambridge in the Association football University match of 1925.

Why is first-class cricket losing its power of attraction to the British public? Sometimes I hark back to the days, not, at any rate to me, so far distant, when Surrey or Middlesex against Yorkshire used to be played before full houses, with the gates closed against many hundreds of would-be watchers. Nowadays such games draw little more than a handful of spectators and those mainly members of Yorkshire "exiles."

The reasons for dwindling attendances are many and various. Firstly there is the difference of approach to the game by the participants compared with the old days. Few could deny that there is an almost entire lack of glorious adventure, as evidenced by the general unwillingness of captains to take a chance of bringing off a need some leaders with the outlook of Percy Fender, Beverley Lyon and Stuart Surridge, great skippers of years gone by.

There is, too, an absence of characters such as we used to have in such men as George Gunn, Leonard Braund, Cecil Parkin, Patsy Hendren and Alec Skelding, to name but a few. In my time a leavening of professionals with the great amateurs was for the good of cricket. For that reason I have never ceased to regret the passing of the best match of all, Gentlemen v. Players at Lord's.

The current prevalence of gamesmanship is often exposed by the leisurely rate at which overs are bowled, with unnecessary pow-wows between captain and bowler and time wasted over minute alterations in field-placing. In this regard, too, I cannot help feeling that the tremendously long run-up of some bowlers is more for psychological reasons than anything else, for the pace at which the ball is delivered is nothing like commensurate. My 1925 Cambridge team, described by Wisden of the period as probably the best sent up to Lord's by either University since the War, maintained an average of about 20 overs an hour, though I admit that we possessed no bowler of great pace. Now it is deemed necessary to impose a fine upon counties averaging fewer than 18½ overs an hour during a season. How odd that players should, for fear of losing money, be virtually forced to do what should come naturally to them -- and what an implied commentary upon the moderns!

One great personality of the past who could not have tolerated the unethical approach to cricket of today was Sir Stanley Jackson, immortalised in the Harrow song-book by A Gentleman's A-bowling. He was an inspiration and an example to all both on and off the field, especially to Harrow, Cambridge and Yorkshire, to say nothing of England, for whom he played in 20 Test matches between 1893 and 1905. He was the greatest cricket aristocrat of them all. I feel sure that many of the problems of the game would be solved if a man of his character still graced our cricket fields.

It is a long time ago, but I think that I am right in saying that it was about 1918 or 1919 that Sir Stanley played his last match, when he captained I Zingari against Harrow. The visiting side always used to enter the Sixth Form ground from the Field House Club. I recall that, when Jackson went in to bat, everybody stood, among them A. J. Webbe and A. C. MacLaren, who raised their right arms as if in a final valediction. Alas, Sir Stanley was yorked for 0.

Bad examples set by leading cricketers have their effect upon youngsters, who are always quick to ape their elders. Hence, maybe, the disappearance of the phrase one applied to a doubtful action: "That's not cricket," virtually an essential part of the English language.

What a contrast with the folk I encountered when I went with the Hon. F. S. G. Calthorpe's M. C. C. team to the West Indies in 1925-26. The spirit of both players and spectators was remarkable and the crowds levelled far more criticism at their own cricketers than they did at us. Instead of having, as is sometimes the case nowadays, to avoid flying bottles, the deep fieldsmen were frequently offered a swig from a bottle of rum by an onlooker! I recall with glee one match in which the Hon. Lionel (later Lord) Tennyson was fielding at third man when a coloured woman of extremely ample proportions dashed on to the field and said to him: "How would you like to be a fat old bitch like me?" Lionel's response was to give her a resounding kiss, to the cheers of the crowd.

From time to time the authorities have tinkered with the Laws without much beneficial result and, of all changes, that which shortened boundaries is the one I most dislike. I know it has been partially rescinded, but the very distant boundaries have virtually gone. It has proved specially discouraging to slow bowlers, for on quite a few grounds a batsman earns six runs from a stroke which formerly could well have resulted in a catch for a deep fieldsman.

I am also irked by the registration rule which permits players to flit from county to county like so many migrant swallows. The argument advanced in favour of this is that the players concerned would otherwise be lost to first-class cricket; but do we want to adopt in cricket the transfer system which results in the over-pricing of Association footballers? I am strongly against this, as I would have been, had I been alive at the time, at James Southerton, father of a former Editor of Wisden, appearing in one season for Sussex, Hampshire and Surrey. No, give me the rigid ruling of Yorkshire, who include in their ranks only players of Yorkshire birth.

I must mention, too, two other constant sources of irritation to me. One is the reluctance -- or inability -- of the vast majority of batsmen to use their feet, with the result that they are practically crease-bound. Then there is the questioning of umpires' decisions, both on and off the field, a custom in which some members of the Press, T. V. and Radio, and indulge much too frequently. Such a thing most assuredly was not done in my day. We felt that the proviso in the Laws: "if in the opinion of the umpire" forbade such actions, in addition to the fact that they did not coincide with our idea of sportsmanship.

The subject of pitches must not be overlooked. Far too much currently goes into the preparation of some of them, with the result that in normal circumstances they grossly favour the batsman. Conversely, they have for long imposed a heavy burden upon the bowler. Hence, instead of bowling at the stumps as once they did, bowlers have endeavoured to restore the balance by exploiting leg-theory, off-theory and bumpers. I favour a return to more natural pitches, despite the argument that they would not stand up to the wear and tear of five-day Test matches -- which in my view are too long and lead to slow non-chance-taking batting.

There is at present an acute shortage of highly specialised slip fieldsmen to add to the troubles of bowlers. Alec Bedser most ably set forth his views in an article on the bitter harvest reaped in Test matches. When I was at Cambridge, Braund had me out morning after morning practising catching for half an hour at a time, first with the right hand and then with the left, until he made me, I was told, a first-class slip -- a fact with which I feel sure that G. O. Allen, an old Cambridge Blue and fast bowler and captain of Middlesex and England, would agree.

My time at the University was rightly termed The Golden Age of Fenner's. During the first fortnight of the 1925 season the professional players engaged as coaches were L. C. Braund, E. Hendren, J. W. Hearne and A. S. Kennedy, all at the request of the current captain. What a fine job they did, especially Braund who, thanks to the generosity of my father, stayed on for the whole term. Picking the team for Lord's was no easy matter, not because of any shortage of talent, but because of a superabundance of it, especially in batting. When the eleven was announced, I remember being asked by a distinguished cricket writer: "Why on earth A. U. Payne when there is so much other talent available?" the answer was simple: "Payne was the equal of any fieldsman in England and his presence was very much appreciated by the bowlers." This was really a classic case of a man being played for his fielding -- a remark sometimes passed about a player who achieves little as a batsman and takes nought for plenty as a bowler.

In N. B. Sherwell, I was able to call upon a splendid wicket-keeper who, like Strudwick, of Surrey and England fame, never blinded his slips. Today the acrobatics of some wicket-keepers horrify me and I shudder to think what Braund would have said about them. After all, he was one of the world's best slips.

As regards K. S. Duleepsinhji, he was one of the greatest batsmen of all time. One writer of note on both cricket and Rugby football suggested to me that a young man from Cheltenham was worth watching. What a masterly under-statement about this nephew of the legendary K. S. Ranjitsinhji! Duleep or Mr. Smith, as Duleepsinhji was affectionately known in cricket circles, drew the crowds like honey attracts bees. The records speak for themselves, but they do not indicate his unfailing kindness and courtesy on and off the field. He went on to play 12 times for England and I cherish the story of him, when, appearing for the first time against Australia at Lord's, he hit 173. When at length he was caught in the deep field from a rather rash stroke, his uncle remarked: "He always was a careless lad." What a pity that ill-health, against which he had battled for years, foreshortened Duleep's cricket career. Incidentally, he was one of the first to acknowledge and praise the help and advice of Braund.

H. J. Enthoven was one of the best all-rounders of his day. We were together at Stanmore Park when the Rev. Vernon Royle, a Cambridge Blue in 1875 and 1876 and shortly afterwards an England player, was headmaster, and later at Harrow. What a friend and what a player was Enthoven. He scored hundreds in the 'Varsity matches of 1924 and 1925 and he performed the hat-trick for Gentlemen v. Players. Incidentally even Denis Compton must be envious of his attempted run-outs!

R. J. O. Meyer, who gained a double first in classics and went on to become the highly successful headmaster of Millfield School, was a great swing bowler and a Jessopian bat at No. 10. To give us a good start to the innings were T. E. S. Francis, also a Rugby Blue and capped four times at football for England in 1926, and E. W. Dawson, who later performed with distinction for Leicestershire and England. L. G. Crawley, another excellent batsman and golfer, was also a magnificent fieldsman in the deep. I always liked the story of him in one University match when, fielding at third man, he stopped a cut from Jack Meyer's bowling and returned the ball to Ben Sherwell. Upon which a girl in the ladies' stand exclaimed: "How clever--and with only one hand."

The most lovable of all the members of my side was S. T. Jagger, an off-spinner subjected to much criticism by the Press. After we had drawn a match at Fenner's, I was having a drink with the reporter for The Times and he said to me very audibly in the near presence of Sam Jagger: "I cannot understand why you persist in playing Jagger." The only reply -- but a pretty effective one -- which I could make was: "Please report in your paper that S. T. Jagger has been awarded his Blue." The gift was justified by later events and made Jagger's career. Finally there was R. G. H. Lowe, a fast-medium bowler who, because Meyer and Enthoven nearly always opened, seldom received the chance to use the new ball. Lowe never uttered the least complaint about this and he was a staunch competitor.

I recall that when F. R. Brown was at The Leys School in 1925, it was arranged that he should come to Fenner's and enjoy the benefit of some coaching. I remember so well Hendren and Braund saying of him: "What a fine young man. With luck, he should make a name for himself in the game." Cambridge, Surrey, Northamptonshire, England and M. C. C. can testify to the accuracy of that prognostication.

Several Newmarket trainers took a vast interest in University cricket in my time and, as honorary members, came over to watch as in action at Fenner's whenever possible. Among them were the famous Jarvis brothers -- Willie, trainer for King George V; Basil, trainer of the Derby winner Papyrus, and Jack, who trained for Lord Rosebery, a great cricketer in his own right for over 40 years. The brothers regularly donated 100 guineas annually to the Club. There were also Noel Cannon and his brother, Boxer. On Sundays these trainers took visiting professionals to look over their stables and he entertained to lunch. That dour Yorkshireman, Emmott Robinson, a persistent friend of the bookmakers, always regarded this trip as the best part of his county's fixture.

In 1925 a fixture was arranged at Fenner's between the University and the Tramps' C.C., membership of which comprised trainers and jockeys. Among the jockeys to turn out were Charles Elliott and Harry Wragg. A splendid crowd attended to see these idols of the turf. As usual, the trainers were most generous to the ground-staff, the head of whom was Dan Hayward, brother of the famous Tom, of Surrey and England, and to the gate-men. I believe that was the only match of this nature ever to be staged at Fenner's. Charities benefited handsomely from the game. Not only did the gate go to them, but also the takings from the sale of beer, provided gratis by Dale's Brewery -- no longer a separate entity -- who specially brewed the audit ale for the Oxford and Cambridge boat race crews.

Another game that lingers in my memory took place a fortnight after the 1925 ' Varsity match. The late Admiral Sir Stuart Bonham Carter wrote to me asking if it would be possible for me to bring down a side to play the Royal Navy at Portsmouth, adding that we would be well entertained. This turned out to be the greatest under-statement since Nelson's time! My team all agreed with alacrity to make the trip, with the exception of R. G. H. Lowe, who could not play owing to a prior engagement. So the twelfth man, J. V. Hermon, later, alas, killed at Salerno while serving with the Grenadier Guards, completed our full complement. The match was a great success, cheered by many sober and inebriated matelots.

The Navy fielding was superb. Their side included C. A. Kershaw and W. J. A. Davies, the great England Rugby half-back pair, and K. A. (Monkey) Sellar and in our team was Francis. It could be a record that never before or since have so many Rugby luminaries appeared together on the same cricket field. Captain Bonham-Carter, as he was then, made 39, the top score of his career, thanks largely to some benign and totally undeceptive overs by Duleep. This was a game played for the sheer love of the sport -- a spirit which, I regret to say, is at present almost extinct.

Many people are under the impression that apartheid is a comparatively recent cult. This is not so. I am assured that his colour limited Ranjitsinhji's appearances in the 'Varsity match to one, in 1893. That is probably why Ranji played so much of his cricket on Parker's Piece for sides with no University connection. The feeling of his colleagues is illustrated by the photograph of the great man which still occupies a place of honour in the pavilion at Parker's Piece.

In my own time, I recall vividly the occasion when my team, playing on tour, received an invitation to attend the 21st birthday party of the daughter of a local civic dignitary. The invitation stated explicitly that the function was for whites only -- clearly an indication that Duleep would not be welcome. It was declined without thanks. The verbal reply of the late A. W. Carr, a member of the opposing team, was an astounding piece of unprintable oratory.

© John Wisden & Co