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Cricket correspondent of the London Daily Herald since 1938, Charles Bray has reported almost every Test played by England since the war, making nine overseas tours, four to Australia, three to West Indies and two to South Africa. A journalist by profession, he was London Editor of the Belfast Northern Whig from 1922 to 1935 and he played as an amateur for Essex from 1928 to 1938, at times as captain.
While there is evidence to show cricket was played in Essex as long ago as 1776, the county club was not formed until one hundred years later. It was on January 7, 1876, that a notice appeared in the Chelmsford Chronicle under the names of I.E. Perry Wallington and James Round calling a public meeting at the Shire Hall on Friday, January 14, to consider the desirability of forming a county cricket club with a ground at Brentwood.
Mr. Round, a member of Parliament, was a cricket enthusiast. It was he who piloted the new young club through its many teething problems. A ground of some nine and a half acres was rented on the fringe of Brentwood, then, of course, a tiny country town. The rent was £38 a year. The club, however, had the right to sub-let. Ten years went by with the new cricket fledgling growing apace in size, success and ambition.
To become first-class, which was the ultimate objective, a new headquarters had to be found. Brentwood was too small. A ground in a thickly populated area was essential and the committee set to work to find one.
In 1886, after some delicate negotiation, Leyton was bought for £12,000. It was part of the Lyttleton estate. A local report on the opening of the ground said, "it gave unwonted loveliness to a district which but for a short while since, presented an appearance of the abomination of desolation".
Quite obviously there were colourful sports writers in those days too. I played many times at Leyton. Never did I see anything lovely about it or its surroundings but it had character and atmosphere. There was something in its dirtiness, its ramshackle pavilion, its cow-shed along one side and those cold, grim, stone terraces which got under your skin. I don't know any Essex cricketer who played frequently at Leyton who did not come to love it. It was like a dirty urchin -- grimy, lovable, but not lovely.
It was the home ground of hallowed names: Charles Kortright, Freddie Fane, Charles McGahey, Walter Mead, John Douglas, Stan Nichols, Father Gillingham, Jack Russell, Jack O'Connor, Percy Perrin, the Ashtons, the fiery moustached Leonard Crawley and many others.
This ground of unwonted loveliness did the trick. Essex were granted first-class status in 1894 and entered the County Championship in 1895.
Their first season was disastrous. Not one of the ten county matches played was won but two years later, in 1897, the county, under the leadership of H.G. Owen, finished third. Undoubtedly Essex had a formidable team at this stage. Charles Kortright and Walter Mead were at their best; Charles McGahey was developing into a fine player. Percy Perrin was a youngster of great promise and F.G. Bull a formidable bowler.
There was a great win over Yorkshire at Leyton in 1897. Charles Kortright and Bull dismissed them for under 200 in each innings. Then Kortright and Mead won the match by hitting off 39 needed to win when Essex had lost seven wickets for 93.
Two seasons later the county beat the Australians at Leyton by 126 runs. The famous visitors were dismissed in their second innings by Sailor Young and Walter Mead for 73, their lowest total of the tour. Young was chosen for the third and fourth Tests against them.
It was at Leyton that J.W.H.T. Douglas made his first appearance in championship cricket and was bowled by George Hirst in each innings without scoring. Few have got the dreaded pair on their debut.
In 1905 the Australians were beaten again. Here are the teams. Essex: F.L. Fane, Carpenter, C. McGahey, the Rev. F.H. Gillingham, G. Tosetti, P. Perrin, Reeves, J.W.H.T. Douglas, Russell (E.), Tremlin and Buckenham. Australia: R.A. Duff, J. Darling, C. Hill, M.A. Noble, C.E. McLeod, S.E. Gregory, A.J. Hopkins, D.R.A. Gehrs, A. Cotter, F. Laver and P.M. Newland. Scores: Essex 118 and 203; Australians 100 and 202.
This was one of Leyton's greatest matches, but not for Peter Perrin. He fell for a duck in each innings. Buckenham and Tremlin shared the wickets in each innings, Buckenham taking six each time and Tremlin four.
In 1911 Douglas became captain. By the time cricket restarted after the First World War the personnel of the Essex team had changed and several old favourites had gone the way all good cricketers go.
Percy Perrin, maker of the Essex record score of 343 not out against Derbyshire at Chesterfield in 1904, and Charles McGahey, the famous Essex twins, hung on for a little while but both were rapidly reaching the end of their playing days in first-class cricket. Johnny Douglas, on the other hand, was establishing himself as one of the world's greatest all-rounders.
He was the first of an Essex trio, Douglas-Nichols-Bailey, who were to hog the all-rounder position in the England team for almost half a century. Douglas played his first Test in 1911 and his last in 1924 -- in an he played in twenty-three. Stan Nichols had only fourteen Tests, but what competition there was in his time. I venture to assert that in his prime he would have cake-walked into the present England team. He ranged from 1929 to 1939, and the inimitable Trevor Bailey represented England in sixty-one Tests from 1949 to 1959.
At the risk of being accused of looking at Essex players through rose-tinted glasses -- and why not -- I claim this record to be one of which the county has every reason to be very proud.
Of Johnny Douglas I have written much in my time. He nursed me into first-class cricket. He had faith in me as a cricketer when I had lost it in myself. So I'm completely and utterly biassed as far as he is concerned. Yet nobody can deny he was a great cricketer, a great fighter and a grand personality.
Stan Nichols, like Douglas and Bailey, was born and bred in Essex. He came from that lovely little village of Stondon Massey, but played most of his early cricket at Wickford. Douglas did the double five times in his career. Trevor Bailey achieved it for the fifth time last season but the big lion-hearted Stan Nichols did it no fewer than eight times, the last five in a row. Yet Nichols played in fourteen Tests compared with Bailey's sixty-one. There are, of course, many more Test matches played nowadays.
Bailey's record is the best. It is a great pity that the dour, tenacious Trevor was not a contemporary of "Johnny Won't Hit Today". How proud Douglas would have been of Trevor's tremendous fighting spirit which makes him an infinitely better player when the strain is on and when the tension is at its greatest.
I'm glad to have it recorded in Wisden, for the generations to come, that the season the selectors decided to sack the man who made a habit of pulling England out of the cart was Bailey's best. Last season was his Golden Year. He scored 2,011 runs and took 100 wickets, although at the beginning of the season he could not bowl because of an injury sustained in Australia the previous winter.
Two people could not look less alike than Bailey and Douglas, yet their outstanding quality was the same -- guts. Throughout his brilliant Test career -- and the more you study the figures the more impressive it becomes; 2,290 runs, 132 wickets -- this great all-rounder, Bailey, played to win the hard way.
He was never the selectors' blue-eyed boy. Far from it. They took the first opportunity of dropping him on the flimsiest of excuses or hardly one at all. We will have to dig deep into the records to find a precedent for sacking a Test player during his best season.
Let us return to Essex between the wars -- a colourful period in the history of the Club. Cricketers good, bad and indifferent appeared and disappeared, financial crises were as frequent as the flowers in spring, and the county see-sawed between fourth and sixteenth in the Championship, only missing the fifth and eleventh positions.
The first sensation of this era was the sacking of John Douglas as captain. After he underwent an operation for appendicitis in the winter of 1925-26 his cricket skill seemed to desert him. He hung on, tenacious and determined as ever, but 1927 confirmed the fear that he was past his best. At the end of the 1928 season, which was my first for the county, the committee asked Douglas to resign. He refused. The committee appointed H. M. Morris to succeed him.
It was a bad choice. Morris, having accepted the position, was disinclined to play regularly, which meant somebody else had to do the job and it frequently fell upon my shoulders.
Team selection was bad. There was little or no continuity. In 1928 no fewer than thirty-eight different players were called upon, twenty-six of them bowled. In one season seventeen amateurs played. Fortunately there was a solid professional nucleus of Jim Cutmore, Dudley Pope, Laurie Eastman, Jack O'Connor, Jack Russell and Stan Nichols.
Denis Wilcox and T.N. Pearce, both to become successful captains, appeared on the scene and made their mark. The august contingent of amateurs included Leonard Crawley, Nigel Wykes, Claude and Hubert Ashton, Frank Gilligan, a most useful wicket-keeper, and, when business permitted, Harold Palmer, H.T.O. Smith, Hopper Read, and, of course, that magnificent human specimen and England fast bowler Ken Farnes.
Throughout their history, Essex have figured in many remarkable matches far too numerous for me to go into in any detail in this brief review. One, however, must be mentioned for two decisive reasons. First, it still stands as a record and is unlikely ever to be beaten, and second, as Walter Robins once taunted me during a heated discussion, it is one claim to cricket fame... I was captain of Essex in the famous match in which Percy Holmes (224 not out) and Herbert Sutcliffe (313) of Yorkshire scored 555 runs for the first wicket.
This match took place in 1932 at Leyton, where the scorers used to sit directly under the scoreboard and consequently could not see when it went wrong. It erred on that fateful morning.
With the total 555 Sutcliffe, with the new record achieved, took a terrific swipe at a ball from Laurie Eastman and was clean bowled. The two batsmen posed under the scoreboard for the Press photographers and then the balloon went up. The scorers declared the total to be 554 and not 555.
A very worried Charles McGahey, then Essex scorer, came to me in the dressing room. Would I agree to the total being changed? The umpires (what accommodating people they are) said a no-ball had not been recorded. There was no doubt in Charles's mind an extra run was being found.
I told him I thought the two batsmen had put up a magnificent performance and it would be cruel luck if they were to be deprived of the honour of breaking the record because our scoreboard had gone wrong. If the umpires said a no-ball had not been recorded it was O.K. with me. Charles went away happy.
The Essex bowling figures are worth recalling. Nichols none for 105, Daer none for 106 and Peter Smith, then an up-and-coming spin bowler, none for 128. Even Bray bowled one over.
The following season (1933) Tom Pearce took over the captaincy until mid-July when he handed over to Denis Wilcox. This arrangement worked admirably for several years. It brought continuity and good captaincy, for both were excellent batsmen and natural leaders.
In 1933 Essex finished fourth in the Championship. Thirteen matches were won. O'Connor scored nearly 2,000 runs; Cutmore, Eastman, Nichols, Pope and Taylor all over 1,000. It was the first time six members of the team had topped 1,000. Nichols did the double. Peter Smith obtained his 100 wickets showing that he had become a googlie and leg-break bowler of top class.
From 1934 to the outbreak of war few counties could command so many fast bowlers as Essex. I remember going to play Notts when bodyline was very much in the air. When Arthur Carr came into the dressing room for our team, Tom Pearce said with a grin: "Here it is, Arthur. We've got four fast bowlers. I take it it's going to be a friendly game?" And we did have four good'uns -- Stan Nichols, Ken Farnes, H.T.O. Smith and Hopper Read.
The mercurial and entertaining J.W.A. Stephenson also began to hurl himself about the field in the interests of Essex. His career was all too short. What would we not give for a Stevie these days.
The season of 1934 saw the tragic death of Dudley Pope, killed in a motor accident. In 1935 a game that must go down in Essex history as Nichols' Match took place at Huddersfield. He took four Yorkshire wickets for 17, Read snatched six for 11 and Yorkshire were all out for 31. Then Nichols went on to make 146 out of a total of 334 and took seven for 37 in the second innings. Nichols actually made 16 runs more than Yorkshire did in the match.
He put out Len Hutton for a duck in each innings. Essex won by an innings and 204 runs and Nichols sent me a telegram, "Revenge is sweet". I did not have to be told to what he referred.
At the end of the 1938 season the county suffered a severe shock for Tom Pearce announced he would not be able to continue as captain the following summer. After much thought and negotiation J.W.A. Stephenson took over, assisted by George Unwin and Denis Wilcox.
It was not a good arrangement, but this time the team did not suffer. It was so strong. It had the best opening attack in the country in Farnes, Stephenson and Nichols, with Ray Smith, Peter Smith, Taylor and Laurie Eastman in support. The batting was powerful. The county finished fourth.
The war knocked a nasty hole in the Essex team, as it did in other counties. For one reason or another, half the players who had finished fourth in the Championship in 1939 were unavailable. Ken Farnes had been killed; Laurie Eastman had died; Jack O'Corron had secured the excellent post of coach at Eton; Stan Nichols was in his middle forties and was too old; and Reg Taylor had decided to give up professional cricket for a business career.
On the other side of the balance sheet was the return of Tom Pearce as captain. His value to the county in those difficult seasons following the war cannot be fully assessed. His experience, his unfailing good humour, his batting consistency and his quiet determination to mould a new young side all helped materially at a time when it was not easy to repair the ravages of the war years.
His opening attack -- almost for the first time in the history of the county -- was woefully weak. Ray Smith had to shoulder the brunt of it. His cousin Peter, now an experienced slow bowler, was frequently called upon to bowl for long spells. It did him some good. He was chosen to go to Australia at the end of the 1946 season.
Some good young batsmen began to appear. Dickie Dodds, playing as an amateur, made a 1,000 runs. Sonny Avery was most consistent and Tom Pearce and Denis Wilcox were always good for runs. Tommy Wade, who first played with me as a bowler, became a wicket-keeper. Ray Smith was a colourful all-rounder who believed in hitting the ball hard and often.
Dick Horsfall, a Yorkshireman, became successor to Jack O'Connor, but never lived up to his early promise. Ken Preston was a new, young and most promising fast bowler who unfortunately broke his leg playing football. When he recovered he found he could not bowl so fast and he had to change to a fast-medium swing bowler. Frank Vigar, an all-rounder of much promise who had made his debut in 1938, was a regular member of the side. He never quite made the grade.
During these troublesome seasons Tom Pearce and the Essex committee had their eyes sharply focused on two Cambridge University under-graduates who looked as if they were right out of the top drawer. They were Trevor Bailey and Doug Insole. Both were in the Light Blues side in 1947 and 1948. Insole was Cambridge captain in 1949, when they won a great victory in the Varsity match.
As Bailey was given a job on the county's administrative staff and Insole, in due course, secured a business appointment which enabled him to play regularly, these two became the back-bone of the Essex team for the next decade. I have already referred to Bailey's brilliant Test career. Insole's does not compare with it but he had played for England nine times and was a highly successful vice-captain to Peter May in South Africa in 1956-57.
Few counties in post-war years have been so fortunate with their captains as Essex. After Tom Pearce's long and successful spell there was Insole to take over in 1950 and carry on where Pearce left off--both fine cricketers, both good, intelligent and popular skippers.
In addition, throughout this period Essex had the best all-rounder in the country in Trevor Bailey. Yet the county finished more frequently in the lower half of the Championship. Only in the last two or three years have the players made their presence felt. In 1957 Essex finished fifth, in 1958 sixth, and last season ninth.
Gordon Barker, who made his debut in 1954, continued to improve and became one of the best opening batsmen in the land. Les Savill, having done his national service, is fulfilling early promise and Brian Taylor, a wicket-keeper batsman who failed to take the golden opportunity offered him by a tour of South Africa in 1956-57, has recaptured his best form.
Bill Greensmith, a leg-break bowler who might easily make the Test grade, and Micky Bear, one of the best fielders in the game today, are other members of the present young Essex team who could hit the headlines, but my eye is on young Barry Knight who came within five runs of doing the double in his first full season with the county.
Will this twenty-two-year-old fast bowler and attractive batsman follow in the footsteps of Trevor Bailey? He could well do it.
In a review so short as this there are bound to be errors of omission both regarding players and matches. I should like to refer to one of two games in recent years. There was that never-to-be-forgotten day at Southend in 1948 when the Australians, led by Don Bradman, hit 721 runs in six hours, a record unlikely to be surpassed in first-class cricket. After Bill Brown and Don Bradman had made hundreds Sam Loxton and Ron Saggers did the same, putting on 219 in ninety minutes.
Then there was the remarkable match against Derbyshire at Chesterfield the previous season, which Essex won by five wickets. Peter Smith, going in last, made 163 and Essex from being 65 for six finished with 417. The Essex batting order is worth recalling. It was Dodds, Cray, Avery, Crabtree, Vigar, Horsfall, Wilcox (captain), Bailey, Insole, Smith, R., Smith, P. No, I have not forgotten the wicket-keeper. He was Doug Insole, who had kept for Cambridge. The last wicket added 218, a record for the county.
In more recent times an outstanding match was that against Surrey at Clacton in 1957. Surrey had a comfortable first-innings lead of 133, thanks to centuries from Bernard Constable and Ken Barrington. Essex, however, shot out the champions for 119 in the second innings and were set to get 253 in four hours.
Insole played what was in truth a captain's innings. He hit sixteen boundaries in making 115 and with help from Savill and Bear won the match with twenty minutes to spare. And Surrey had their full England attack, Alec Bedser, Loader, Laker and Lock, as well as Eric Bedser.
Those who played in the match and those who saw it will not easily forget the victory which came to Essex by two runs over Northamptonshire at Ilford last season with one minute left. Essex, put in, scored 336 for seven, declared, Trevor Bailey and Les Savill making hundreds. Northants were dismissed for 193. Then Essex were bowled out for 127 and Northants wanted 271 in four hours.
The sensations came in the last over for it looked as if Northants were home. They wanted only three more runs and had three wickets left, but lost them all in four balls, Denis Brookes (109) running himself out in his anxiety to win the game.
The return match at Northampton had a similar finish. This time in the last over Northants needed four runs with four wickets in hand. They made only two, lost three wickets and a thrilling contest was left drawn. While such endings to matches continue to occur there is not much to worry about. Mind you, the game would have greater attraction if more of the excitement and sensation could be brought into the first and second days.