The men who keep county cricket alive, 1975

The willing workhorses of first-class cricket

Basil Easterbrook

To do my best with bat and ball

From twelve o'clock till evenfall.

Maintain a length, avoid a blob

Is what I call an English job.

The passing of half a century or more since these simple lines were penned has not affected their truth or their tribute to all those who will never be selected for the Five Cricketers of The Year section of this Almanack. Should anyone find any incipient jingoism in the last line let me hasten to add you can substitute Australian, West Indian, Pakistani or any other country except that it will not scan anything like so well as the word English.

Bob White will never be a great player but he is typical of those willing workhorses without whom there could be no county cricket. He is not the bubbling, extrovert type of Cockney but he is, like all his kind, armoured against the hard knocks life hands out so lavishly. For all but a handful of cricketers the one opportunity to come their way for any real material reward for their skills is a benefit. Most players can expect one after ten years service with a first-class county, a few fortunates get one in less but for others like Robert Arthur White, the Nottinghamshire beneficiary in 1974, circumstances make the waiting period seem an endless affair.

"It took me twenty-one years from the time I started, but I'm lucky in as much as at least I did get a benefit. Some players and good ones never do," says Bob, known to his friends and peers as Knocker for a reason no one seems aware of. "I can assure you it's not because I owe anyone money."

He was born in Fulham nearly thirty-nine years ago, the son of an engineering worker and he went straight from Chiswick Grammar School to join the Lord's ground staff in 1953. He did not make his debut for Middlesex until five years later and in between Bob says, "I would like a £1, even at its present value, for every evening from five to seven I spent bowling in the nets to M.C.C. members. It was all part of the day's work for a groundstaff dogsbody but it helped me to develop as an off-break bowler as well as a left-hand bat so I'm not complaining."

He progressed steadily with Middlesex and won his cap in 1963 when he made 1,355 runs; then he dropped out through injury and when he recovered there was no place in the team for him. Nottinghamshire came along in 1966, took him on special registration and were satisfied enough with the bargain to award him a cap the same year.

"A man came up to me once and said, 'You are the fellow I saw on TV at Southampton take three hours making 35'. What he failed to say was that Notts were 22 for five when I came to the wicket." White is always likely to encounter this kind of situation in the ranks of such an unpredictable outfit as Nottinghamshire. Against Surrey at The Oval in 1967 he joined Mike Smedley with the scoreboard showing Notts 66 for six. When they were parted their stand of 204 represented what is still the record seventh wicket partnership for Nottinghamshire and White's not out 116 is his best score. In nineteen years of county cricket Bob has made around 10,000 runs including five centuries, picked up over 400 wickets and held about 150 catches.

He did not bowl seriously until he joined Nottinghamshire and those who have seen him are immediately struck by the similarity of his action to Fred Titmus. If you watch White you have seen Titmus. "Yes, but only up to the moment of letting the ball go. There is a slight difference you'll agree in that Fred has taken about 2,200 more wickets than I have," says a rueful Knocker. White, who obviously could not expect to bowl for Middlesex with a world class off spinner like Titmus in the side, says he is not conscious of being a dead ringer for the man who played in 49 Tests for England, lost four toes in a boating accident in the West Indies, came back to bowl as well as ever and was dramatically recalled to the international scene for M.C.C.'s tour of Australia and New Zealand last winter.

"He is such a great bowler and I saw so much of him at close range that I suppose my subconscious mind decided I should bowl like him." Derbyshire must have thought they had encountered Titmus at Ilkeston in 1971 when Knocker dismissed seven of their batsmen for 41 runs. White would like to stay in cricket and fancies exchanging the white flannels of the player for the white coat of the umpire when his active career comes to a close. Not long after he joined Nottinghamshire he was playing in a match when an approaching storm darkened the sky over Trent Bridge. The cricket writer of a local evening paper sent over the time honoured line for the stop press -- Bad light stopped play. The female telephonist was new to the job and unfamiliar with cricket terms and the message reached a somewhat intrigued sub-editor as Bob White stopped play. "I've often brought play to a standstill with my batting but I was not guilty on this occasion," cracks this likeable Londoner now permanently settled in the Midlands, a man clearly never lost for an answer.

Since I took my first tentative steps in cricket writing in 1939 I must have produced copy, adequate or indifferent, on most of the great players of my own time and the past, but if they have my unqualified admiration, my heart is with those who soldier on year in, year out with little reward beyond their own virtue. I write about the Bob Whites and Len Hills of the game because I have affection for them. The perceptive will recognise a fellow feeling no doubt.

There are those who believe in the osmosis of the spirit, that is to say, the qualities of someone admired being passed on to another human being. When Leonard Winston Hill was born in the little rustic Monmouthshire town of Caerleon some three miles from Newport in the spring of 1942, Hitler was holding down some 400 million people and Nazi Germany was at the peak of its bid for world domination. The hope that they would eventually fail centred around the personality of one English statesman -- Churchill. Mr. Hill, the caretaker of Caerleon's local secondary school, and his wife chose their son's second name from the Prime Minister and Len has certainly shown the same determination and stickability as Churchill. He was awarded his county cap by Glamorgan on August 20 last year after scoring 90 in the incredible defeat of Hampshire, the champions, at Cardiff, a defeat which denied them retaining the title in 1974. What was remarkable about the award was that it came more than ten years after Hill had made his first-class début. Until 1974 his best score was 80 against Oxford University in The Parks in 1970 and the most games he had played in succession in any one season came to six.

The reason was simple. Len Hill was from 1963 to the spring of last year a professional footballer with Newport County and Swansea City. As inside forward or wing half -- I am too old and unregenerate to employ terms like striker or midfield man -- he played in well over 400 League and Cup matches scoring 73 goals. He was never free to join Glamorgan until early May and by mid-July he had to report back for soccer training. Halfway through his last season Len realised he was no on longer enjoying his football and being the man he is, could not carry on just for the money. He decided that at 32 he might have five or perhaps ten years of good cricket in him and for the first time, in 1974, he put in a full season. Glamorgan in a period of transition after losing such stars as Don Shepherd, Peter Walker, Ossie Wheatley, Tony Lewis and others in a short span of years were as delighted with Hill's decision as he is himself.

He has all the best Welsh qualities -- courage, loyalty, and the quiet fire that burns inwardly. His devotion to sport and his talent for it were born from sadness and compassion, two more words known to all Welshmen. When he was ten Len's father died in 1952 and his brother Royston, 14 years his senior became father as well as brother to the small, defenceless boy.

"He used to take me everywhere -- to watch Glamorgan's home games and soccer and rugby in Cardiff and Newport. For years from the age of ten onwards he used to bowl to me in the backyard of our home. He was a good village cricketer and I tried harder for him than I ever would for any coach."

Len attended the school where his father had been caretaker and when the time came for him to leave, his brother apprenticed him in electrical engineering. He never liked it and he will never return to it but like that other Winston the word quit was not in his vocabulary. Rather than fail his brother he served the whole five years of his apprenticeship.

He goes into the 1975 season yet to make a century. He reached 96 against Gloucestershire at Swansea early last June but the last man got himself out so "I shrugged and said to myself 'Back to the drawing board, Len, mate'".

He is determined to be a good batsman over the course of the next few years. "I'm learning all the time, even now. One of the things I find I still have to work at is self discipline. I tend to move about trying to get into line behind the ball too quickly, anticipating where the bowler is going to put the ball instead of keeping still until he has delivered."

Len believes a man should know his depth and stay in it. "I'll try and stay in cricket and for a bloke like me that means something like groundsman or umpire. I'm sorry I've no anecdotes, no exciting adventures. I must be the worst subject you've ever had." As a matter of fact, Len, I'd say you were one of the best, in every sense. As long as our society can throw up characters like Leonard Winston Hill, the late arrival who was named after one of the great men of history, maybe there's just a chance it might survive.

There is no game to compare with cricket when it comes to honouring its hacks. They know they can never attain comparative wealth. M.C.C. tours are as far away as Mars but these are the men who don't opt out. They are paid to play, but their joy in belonging and the fun they get out of five months in every year means as much to them as the money.

"You cannot get closer to the real heart of Devon than a name like mine. Why, there was even one of my tribe on the old grey mare with Uncle Tom Cobley in the song 'Widdicombe Fair.'"

Jack Davey was 30 last September, a six footer with a sense of humour as lively as his left-arm fast medium seam bowling. Sharing the new ball with a world famous cricketer like Mike Procter is something Jack regards as both an exciting privilege and a help. "The batsmen are so mentally apprehensive about how to deal with Mike they don't bother about the swede basher at the other end and often I manage to flatten a couple of them in consequence." This, like so many of Big Jack's remarks was made lightly but it is no less than the simple truth. When Gloucestershire won the Gillette Cup in 1973 the two new ball bowlers collected 18 wickets in the competition, eight falling to Procter but ten to Davey.

Davey was born at Tavistock, the son of an auctioneer's clerk who in his spare time served the town's cricket club as player and secretary for nearly thirty years. Dad made occasional appearances as an off-break bowler for Devonshire in the Minor Counties competition, so Jack, which is his baptismal name, grew up with the game in his blood and surrounded by its trappings. To the surprise of his father he bowled and batted the wrong way round. Like Sinatra, Jack did things his way and received no coaching until he joined Gloucestershire. At Tavistock Grammar School and in his early club cricket Jack aspired to be a slow left-arm spinner. One day Milton Abbot, the village he played for, found themselves short of a seam bowler. Jack, a stripling not yet fifteen, was given the new ball and told to do the best he could with it. "I'm not going to boast about what I did to the opposition that afternoon. Just let's say I have never bowled slow again."

On leaving school Jack served and completed a five year apprenticeship as a compositor on the Tavistock Gazette. He has a highly skilled trade at his finger tips but Jack thinks it unlikely he will return to it. "How can I ever go back to an indoor job? I'm like a Dartmoor pony. I've smelt the summer turf and felt it under my feet, I've travelled and got the taste for it." When he is forced to stop playing, Jack fancies a business of his own, but he is aware of the uncertainties of the time and he might continue as a lorry driver which is how he has spent the past two winters after obtaining a Heavy Goods Vehicle license. He found he preferred driving around Wales and the South West to earlier winters working as a representative for a carpet firm in Bristol, the city where the Daveys have made their home. His wife, Melora, is also a Devonian. She comes from Princetown, the little village like a Klondike settlement after the gold rush had ended, whose only excuse for existence is the penitentiary at the top of its main street known all over the world -- Dartmoor.

As Gloucestershire conquered Glamorgan, Surrey, Essex, Worcestershire and finally Sussex to win the Gillette Cup in 1973 no one in cricket knew that Davey was kept going by pain killing injections in both knees. He has since had an operation for the removal of lumps of fat under both knee caps. Looking at Jack's long, lean frame one could not imagine a more improbable complaint.

In terms of figures his best bowling was the six wickets for 95 he took against Notts at Gloucester in 1967, but the piece of bowling he is prouder of is conceding only 22 runs in 11 overs against Lancashire in the famous Gillette semi-final at Old Trafford that finished at five minutes to nine when a motorist driving without side lights on would have been pinched. He also cherishes a Benson and Hedges semi-final at Leeds against Yorkshire when he gave away only 6 runs in nine overs, seven of which were maidens with Boycott at one end.

His top score in eight years on first-class fields is the 37 not out he took off the Indian tourists at the old Wagon Works ground, Gloucester, last summer. Until then he could never get past 17. He made 17 against Lancashire and Leicestershire at Cheltenham both in 1967 but it was the 17 not out he made on the last day of the 1973 season which he regards as his supreme moment with the bat. When he came in Gloucestershire were 210 for nine, needing another 57 to beat Glamorgan. "I never thought we had a price when I walked out but when they did not get my wicket quickly I decided to try to keep it going for "Mort" at the other end."

John Mortimore took command and made the winning hit which also gave him a not out half-century, his only one of the season, but Davey, a Crown Prince of No. 11s, dealt with 94 balls. If that was his moment of delight his most embarrassing was splitting his flannels while fielding at third man before a big crowd at Romford "spectacularly and with a noise I thought they must have heard all round the ground."

We have a Londoner who made good in the Midlands as an all-rounder, a batsman to represent Wales and a bowler from the far West. Perhaps in conclusion we might look at a fine young cricketer from the North East. At 24 years of age Peter Willey had shown enough character, skill and fortitude to shrug off two cartilage operations both to his right knee, to finish second in the Northamptonshire batting averages in 1973 and make his first centuries in the county championship.

Sitting opposite me in the committee room at Northampton, this young man from County Durham tapped his right leg and said, "If I could chop this off and get a new one I'd be the happiest person in the world. I've never wanted anything from life except to be a cricketer and now I'm saddled with this which means I can kiss goodbye to my ambition of being a real all-rounder. But life isn't obliging, is it? Everyone has problems. You keep hearing of wealthy men all over the world who get themselves or their children kidnapped. I would not change places with them for all their money. I shall just have to make the best of this right leg of mine and I don't believe it will stop me making it as a batsman."

Willey was born in the small town of Sedgefield, about which he remembers nothing, the family moving to the nearby city of Durham when he was a baby, and then on to Seaham Harbour. His father, a gas fitter, was a club cricketer who in Peter's words "shoved a bat in my hands as soon as I could walk." This sowed the seed that was to lead Master Willey straight from school to the ground staff at Northampton. His first cricket memories are of working on the scoreboard at Durham. At fourteen, he played for Seaham Harbour's third team, at fifteen he was in their first team and in 1966, aged sixteen and five months, he made his debut for Northamptonshire at Fenner's against Cambridge University. Willey was sent in to face the first ball of the match which bowled him. Peter decided he could only improve on a start like that and in the second innings he took 78 off the Cambridge attack. Northamptonshire nursed him carefully until in 1970 he scored 923 runs. They gave him his cap the following summer.

Peter told a master called Douglas Ferguson at Seaham Harbour Secondary Modern that he wanted to play cricket for a living. What he did not know at the time was that Mr. Ferguson was a talent scout for Northamptonshire, who had sent many boys from the North East down for a trial with the Midland County. Ferguson passed on a favourable report and Northamptonshire wasted no time.

Willey is a self made player. "I am essentially an eye player. I like to hit the ball and as long as I'm middling it I'm happy. I believe it does not matter how you score runs as long as you get them. Coaching it all right up to a point, perhaps the point where it eliminates the bad faults, but it never makes a bad player into a good one. You either have a talent for a thing or you haven't."

He celebrated the award of his cap in 1971 with his maiden century, 158 not out against Oxford University in The Parks. Then came the first cartilage operation which caused him to miss half the 1972 season. The next winter he was asked to go to South Africa with D. H. Robins' side. In the first game in January 1973 he injured the knee again playing against Eastern Province. That meant another operation and the missing of the first six weeks of another English season. Willey is good North Eastern stock, tough spiritually as well as physically. Instead of moping he waited all over again to show what he could do. When his patience was finally rewarded Willey made nearly 800 runs in 23 visits to the crease including 156 not out versus Essex and 105 off Kent. Tall and upright, he also had undeniable usefulness as a seamer before his knee trouble, as his five for 14 against Middlesex at Lord's in 1970 proved convincingly.

Willey played football for Durham County schoolboys and had trials for Sunderland and Northampton Town as a right back. "Nothing came of them and after a short spell in local soccer in Northampton I packed the game in altogether. Even when I was trying to get taken on at Roker part and later by the Cobblers, I knew I was a man who preferred the sun to mud." He describes himself as a front foot batsman best on the off side, with the cover drive his favourite stroke. While confident that his knee will see him through if he sticks to batting he is aware of the possibilities of living under something of a threat. Peter treated me to that slow, attractive smile which those who come from Geordie country seem favoured with -- "When I have to give up, whether it is soon or late, I'd like to work at an outside job. Coach or groundsman would do me a treat."

You can never tell about people. They can surprise you -- and humble you. Last winter a young county cricketer invited me to his home for dinner. He was proud of his wife, her cooking and their home with every justification. During the course of that peaceful haven of an evening he took me on a conducted tour of the house. I had always thought of him as a good companion, a bit of a prankster but not much given to books or philosophic thinking. I was about to turn and leave the main bedroom with the appropriate word of approval at the decor when my eyes caught some lines of beautifully worked script attached to the inside of the door. Seeing my interest he said with an unsuspected diffidence, "It's what I've tried to base my life on. It was found in a church I believe in Baltimore and dates back to 1692. Copy it down if you wish but if you publish it anywhere please don't associate my name as its source. The lads would laugh me out of every dressing room in England in 1975."

I don't for one moment believe they would but I would be worse than a churl not to respect his plea for anonymity. I did copy it and I offer it here without comment --

"Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater or lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism."

"Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy."

© John Wisden & Co