A county of character and characters, 1964

Following Leicestershire

Brian Chapman

My first recollection of Leicestershire cricket still remains one of the most vivid, far back though it is. One morning in the summer of 1911, my father took me to the Aylestone Road ground to watch the County play against Yorkshire -- even to a boy of nine renowned as paladins of the game.

We arrived just before lunch to meet the crowd streaming away. The match was over, Yorkshire beaten by an innings and 20 runs. Jack King, with his awesome black moustache the very paragon of an Edwardian professional, had ensnared Yorkshire with his left-arm spinners (ah, bliss of uncovered wickets!), finishing them off with a spell of seven for none.

Much, much later, only half a dozen seasons ago, I sat with Wilfred Rhodes during a Leicestershire-Yorkshire game at Grace Road, he sightlessly reading events in the middle, I an entranced listener.

I asked the great man if he remembered that distant day. Not only did he remember, but he filled in details with fascinating clarity. Then he chuckled: "I said to Jack King, 'I'll give you some stick next time.' And I did!" I checked that claim later. Rhodes indeed scored 92 at Bradford and King took 0 for 50.

Is this touch of personal reminiscence out of place in the present brief sketch -- a sporting print, as it were -- of Leicestershire's history? One hopes not, for if the joy of cricket is not shared intimacy it is a vain thing.

To the writer growing up at the time, first-class cricket is impressionably the names of Geary and Astill, those pillars of the temple between two wars. It is sentimentally the delicate tracery of well-loved Aylestone Road pavilion, seen through the sunny haze of youth, with sandwiches and tea in a medicine bottle, the whole washed down with giant cherry ciders.

If you scan tables, or your fancy is to browse upon title-winning statistics, the County whose badge is the golden running fox may not detain you long. Yet it is surely not entirely a rose-coloured view that bestows on them a special quality. They were always a County of character and characters. Their ups and downs match the rolling landscape of the Quorn, with perhaps more downs than ups.

About one of the stalwarts, Sammy Coe, a left-hander like King and still holder of the County record with 252 against Northants in 1914, Neville Cardus has written: "See an innings by Coe, of Leicestershire, and you ought not to be long guessing from the smack of rotund nature about it that he has passed the main portion of his days in the sun on a field with rustic benches running intimately round."

Another boyhood hero, Albert Knight, of the flashing square drive, the punitive throw-in and the unforgettably blue eyes, seemed somehow remote from other men, yet one of the originals of the game. So, later, was Alec Skelding, whose salty music-hall pronouncements, both as player and umpire, have passed into the folklore of cricket.

Once at Lord's, Alec thought a fast bowler was making overmuch fuss in the placing of pyramids of sawdust. At last, after much delay, the bowler was ready for action. Skelding dramatically halted him three parts through his run, walked solemnly to the farthest mound of sawdust, picked up a PINCH of it between finger and thumb, minced back to the stumps and deposited it to form his own mock foothold. Then he gravely announced: "Play!"

Knight wrote a sadly neglected masterpiece called "The Complete Cricketer" which can still be -- and ought to be -- savoured. The Izaac Walton of cricket writing!

More recently, one of the County's shrewdest captains, C.H. Palmer -- he led them briefly to the top -- revived the lost art of the donkey drop with results embarrassing for batsmen as distinguished as Worrell and Kanhai. Who could capture, with seeming amiability glinting through rimless spectacles, 8 for 0 against the Surrey Champions and, with Laker's world record of 8 for 2 at his mercy, ignore the frantic advice of the crowd: "Take yourself off, Charlie!" The queerest quirk was that Palmer intended only one over, to change his bowlers round. But he sent Peter May packing -- and persevered!

What is the rarest and maybe least known double? Well, in 1888, Leicestershire won the Second Class Championship and beat Australia. There's unexpected glory for you! It was with much quiet pride that local enthusiasts noted in last year's Centenary, Wisden that they shared with Northamptonshire (among Counties now rated first-class) the honour of first forming a county organisation in 1820.

Much earlier Leicestershire was stirring and bustling with interest. Sides like Melton Mowbray, Barrow-on-Soar, Mountsorrel and Barwell (where George Geary first saw the light) bristled with challenge.

In his admirable History of Leicestershire (to which all chroniclers are deeply indebted) Mr. E.E. Snow places 1744 as the earliest Midland mention -- lines recited in praise of the game as desired by the Gentlemen of Barrow. By May 1780, ardent spirits met to give gentlemen an opportunity of becoming members of a Cricket Club in Leicester founded upon eligible principles.

Three months later comes the first recorded match, Loughborough beating Leicester by more than 50 notches on St. Margaret's Pasture, that most kindly nurse of the County's growth. Right until 1825 most of the big matches were played there.

Those were vigorous masculine times, not less disputatious than some today. Leicester's first encounter with Nottingham in 1781 was a no-decision affair, the umpires (not entirely unprejudiced) falling out on a point of law and calling the whole thing off.

And what a set-to with Coventry, staged half-way between the two towns at Hinckley in 1787. The neutrality of the scene failed to calm passions (there were one hundred guineas at stake). The victorious Leicester players, quaffing and regaling, fell foul of defeated supporters. The Hinckley shopkeepers having shut their windows, a scene of bloodshed ensued, scarcely to be credited (what had become of those gentlemanly eligible principles?).

Leicestershire's fame, and that of neighbouring Rutland, spread abroad, attracting representative sides within their borders. Playing for All-England against Hampshire at Burley-on-the-Hill, near Oakham (one thousand guineas the stake) Silver Billy Beldham collected a pair.

After the turn of the century, cricket's hold was established so firmly that public and players looked about for better accommodation. Things started to be organised; the modern era could be dimly decried. Leicester New Club had the temerity to humble Leicestershire Gentlemen in 1820 with scores of 65 and 72 against 61 and 30.

In 1825, a new ground was taken over in Wharf Street. It has long since been submerged by repeated waves of builders and developers. Then it was hailed as more extensive than any except Lord's.

Among visiting celebrities was 18-stone Alfred Mynn, who, listed as Number Ten for South against North, managed to hit 21 and 125, both not out. The finish was unhappy. Mr. A. Mynn strained his leg (no wonder!) and being unable to endure the agony longer, begged Lord Beauclerk to accompany him to one of the marquees, there showing his leg to his Lordship. Lord Frederick instantly sent for a fly to convey him to the stage coach, upon which he proceeded to London.

That was 1836. As the years rolled past, the cricketing fox found new coverts and hunting grounds. Derbyshire Gentlemen, Birmingham, Manchester, Stamford and Rugby appear in fixture lists. Wharf Street passed under the hammer in 1860. Nobly, its final game drew Daft, Caesar and George Parr. Nobly, 22 of Leicestershire humbled these immortals of All England by an innings.

One can imagine the blow dealt by this loss of the centre and being of local cricket, and indeed enthusiasm languished for some time. It was six or seven years before a square (as the moderns say) was levelled in the centre of the old racecourse on windswept Victoria Park (later a turmoil of interlaced club matches on Thursdays and Saturdays, where one cub reporter somehow covered eleven games in the afternoon). As it proved, this was a makeshift arrangement and the next major move was to Aylestone (now Grace Roads) in 1878.

What a send-off to be sure! Leicestershire (not yet officially such) went the whole financial hog, being the only club to guarantee Murdoch's Australians a lump sum. They were rewarded with a crowd of 13,000 paying spectators on the second day, which stood as a single day record until Bradman's all-conquering farewell 60 years later.

Bannerman's batting and Spofforth's bowling proved decisive, but a fast left round-armer, Bobby Rylott (somehow that name always calls to mind Sherlock Holmes' grim adversary Dr. Roylott), later to do great deeds, proved that home-bred talent was not so homespun.

Imagine the spur such crowded scenes afforded to those at the head of affairs in town and county! It must have been a jam of horse brakes hired for family outings, smart dog-carts of the gentry, and the cloth caps of the stockingers mixing with Corinthian bowlers and tie-pinned cravats round embroiled entrance gates.

Little time was wasted. On February 25, 1879, a meeting at the Bulls Head Inn (a recent pious pilgrimage found it, alas! silent and shuttered) was sponsored by the Leicester Cricket Club Company. Preliminaries cleared out of the way, a fully-fledged meeting with full powers took place in Friar Lane. There the Leicestershire County Cricket Club officially came into being.

The sixth Earl of Lanesborough, a cricketer in his own not inconsiderable right, was elected President. All officials had one welcome quality in common. They, too, were cricketers, not guinea pig names. Among the committee were W.H. Hay, already a member of county sides; R.W. Gillespie-Stainton, of the Harrow XI; and Canon E.H.L. Willes, of Oxford University, Hampshire and Kent, then vicar at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, on whose rural ground, conjuring up the jousting spirits of Ivanhoe, the County still enters the lists each season.

It cost one guinea to join and the first match was an Easter friendly against 22 Colts. Wisely guided, the County found favouring winds. They beat Northamptonshire twice by an innings and Sussex twice, Rylott adding to his growing reputation. Stronger opponents were sought and the young County was certainly not discouraged by achieving two draws with Yorkshire in 1883 and beating Surrey by 7 runs.

Leaner seasons were in store (as too often in the future), brightened by the emergence of one of the outstanding names in Leicestershire history. This was A.D. (Dick) Pougher, known to more than Midland fame by his amazing 5 wickets for 0 for M.C.C. against Australia in 1896, when a side boasting S.E. Gregory, Hill, Trumble and Darling was dismissed for 18.

Contemporary pictures suggest a lean, tall figure and a somewhat withdrawn manner (which perhaps explained absent-minded failings in the field). His best ball was a medium pace off break of high action rising sharply to the bat's shoulder, but he could move the ball from leg as well. Pougher was good enough to trouble the best, no mopper-up of nine, ten, jack.

Bobby Abel esteemed him the most difficult of all bowlers, an opinion reinforced when he and Rylott, bowling unchanged throughout, skittled Surrey for 26 and 83. Six times Pougher took 13 or 14 wickets.

He died at the cricket ground hotel, Grace Road, in 1926 -- the year in which his most notable successor, George Geary, was helping England to regain the Ashes and long-lost national pride. (Woodfull, caught Geary bowled Larwood 0, Macartney, caught Geary bowled Larwood 16, we read gloatingly in the stop press from The Oval. Sheer poetry! The best words in the best order!)

Just over the horizon was that wonder year of 1888. Though mauled by Yorkshire, Leicestershire skittled Australia for 62 and 87 on a bad wicket to win by 20 runs. With 10 for 71 in the match, Pougher began his habit of treating Australians almost contemptuously as his rabbits -- if that term can be applied to victims like Bannerman (twice), that mighty hitter Bonnor, Turner, Blackham (then opening with Bannerman) and McDonnell.

Leicestershire had to wait seven more years before they were elected to first-class status. They were piloted to promotion chiefly by the inspiring leadership of C.E. de Trafford, who bestrode their fortunes as captain for 16 years from 1890 onwards. Without troubling about the niceties of getting to the ball with his feet, de Trafford certainly got to it with his hands.

A huge and unhesitating hitter, he seldom bothered about gloves and once struck a four off his knuckles. Another feat was to break the committee room window at Lord's (what more uncompromising way of attracting the attention of the selectors?). It can be conjectured that Leicestershire did not lack the sort of aggression and vigour that Mr. R.W.V. Robins would heartily applaud.

He was fortunate in bringing on men with big reputations to build. Men like Arthur Woodcock (a bowler of almost scaring pace) like King and Knight, and rising batsmen of the class of Coe (firmest of off drivers) and, especially, C.J.B. Wood.

Like Pougher, Woodcock rather fancied himself against Australia and in 1902 dismissed Duff, Hill and Gregory for one run. Still, cricket in the top class was a battle rather than a primrose path and the County usually finished well down in the championship table.

The new century brought migration to Aylestone Road (too far for the horse trams was the verdict on Grace Road) and there Leicestershire remained until 1939. Topping over 2,000 in 1901, Cecil Wood gave a foretaste of the triumphs he was to achieve as possibly the most determined, consistent opening bat in England. He was not exactly graceful to watch, but defence was often enforced in his sheet-anchor role. We boys found him a figure of fun as a bowler, mimicking an unclassic style with whoops of delight. But he took wickets!

For a dozen years or more, he drove bowlers to near-despair. Proof of his watchful and indestructible technique is that seventeen times he carried his bat. More astonishing -- and unlikely ever to be equalled -- he brought off this feat twice in one match against Yorkshire -- curiously, the occasion of Rhodes' personal tit-for-tat against King. The score card read: Wood not out 107, Wood not out 117. The bowlers? A few trifling tyros, name of Hirst, Booth, Haigh, Rhodes, Bayes. No wonder Hirst, even though he claimed nine wickets all told, exclaimed in exasperation: "Next time, Maister Wood, we'll SHOOT you out with a gun."

Not until 1904 did Leicestershire really challenge in the championship race. That season, they stood fourth half-way, but could not quite keep it up and finished seventh. Next year was still better -- fifth in the list, a position they were to wait many a long summer to better. Wood was in good nick, as they say nowadays, with 1,765 runs, average 43. With their knack for unearthing fast bowlers, the county found still another top performer, Thomas Jayes, born at Ratby, a notable nursery.

Jayes would now be compared, in smooth run-up and action, with E.A. Macdonald or R.R. Lindwall. Lung weakness ended his career just short of the heights. Veterans who remember him will not hear of Jayes being rated below England class, but the only time he was picked -- against Australia at Lord's -- he was the one to be omitted on the eve of the Test.

Unfortunately, the County's high hopes of better things were not sustained and in the nine years until the First World War they never rose above tenth. Standing out like a peak above much that was inclined to be featureless was their record 701 for 4 against Worcestershire in 1906 (Wood 225, Harry Whitehead 174, Knight 97, V.F.S. Crawford 102). Yet they still produced characters like Bill Shipman, swarthy, strong-built fast bowler -- again a Ratby man.

Once, at the Oval, Bill was handed a telegram as he went out to field. It announced that he was the proud father of a bouncing boy. He proceeded to clean bowl Hayward, Hobbs and Hayes and capture the first nine Surrey wickets. A stripling called Astill, possibly feeling that parental pride could be carried too far, nipped in with the tenth.

Then there was Pecker Mounteney, mighty if un-Spoonerish hitter. Meeting the powerful Kent team he decided it was impossible to hit the fabled Colin Blythe off his length. But you could, with luck, hit the person of Blythe. He did just that. A slogging straight drive struck Blythe on the thigh, the ball cannoned to MID-OFF, who made the catch!

Relating the incident with a raconteur's zest, Aubrey Sharp told me: "So old Pecker was out, caught Humphreys, bowled Blythe. But so was Blythe. They retired to the pavilion together. If you don't believe me, its all in Wisden." (It is!). See Wisden 1913, page 301. But Blythe took l5 for 45 in that very match.

Sharp himself was in the dozen best amateur batsmen of his day and is, besides, in the C.B. Fry class as a demonstrator and critic over coffee and cigars. A solicitor-soldier, he got a summons to join the colours in August, 1914, when Leicestershire were playing at Northampton. "We only wanted 90 to win so I left it to them," he recalls. "Actually we lost by 4 runs. The point is I left my boots and bat behind. They were handed to me when we went back to Northampton in 1919."

Now Sharp takes as much pride in following (or presiding over)the fortunes of his village team at Scraptoft as he ever did in leading Leicestershire or hitting 216 against Derbyshire.

One glimmer -- perhaps even a dawn -- was vouchsafed of fame to come. I still treasure a faded cricket annual that first mentions the names of Astill and Geary. William Ewart Astill (so a brief entry runs). There is a Gladstonian ring about his name that alone should spell success. How true was that prophet in his green covers and yellowed pages! Already, in 1914, Geary captured 117 wickets at 20 and a bit. Fulfilment was postponed; it was not ultimately denied.

From 1919 the County almost WAS Astill and Geary, and Geary and Astill were Leicestershire. Bradman has described the surprise, almost shock, of encountering Geary's leg cutter, then unfamiliar to him, though he later came to think that Alec Bedser's was more deadly. No doubt, it was Geary's most potent ball, but he was armed with all the weapons of medium-fast attack -- zip off the pitch, concealed change of pace, perfect and unwearying control.

He won England honours both at home and on tour. For his County he took over 100 wickets eleven times, with 10 for 18 against Glamorgan in 1929 his personal best. He was, besides, a very present help when runs were needed, a slip little below the Hammond class, and a willing encourager of young players which Charterhouse -- and Peter May -- found of inestimable value later on.

Seventy in Wisden's centenary year, George was until recently turning his arm over in the winter nets. He can still make'em fizz a bit, the new generation had to acknowledge.

Astill, of the handsome aristocratic looks, possessed an easy, almost lazy approach to the wicket that concealed off spin wicked on a helpful wicket. Almost, he cajoled batsmen to their downfall. "Somehow, he wheels'em up and wheels'em out," said one old pro. There was nothing plebeian about his batting; Astill did everything with an air. Yes, the lad with the delicate air, the touch that made him superb at billiards.

He was Leicestershire's supreme all-rounder. Nine times he accomplished the double, in consecutive seasons from 1921 save for 1927. News of his death, which reached an M.C.C. side touring the West Indies in 1948, came as a real sense of loss.

It was still pretty hard pounding in the championship. A meritorious ninth in 1919 was followed by uneven standards leading to lowly positions. Tommy Sidwell, a little prince of wicket-keepers in the Strudwick mould and worthy of that comparison, gave stout-hearted support to the two non-pareils. Alec Skelding kept up the fast bowling tradition. For half a dozen overs his glasses flashed lightning.

Charles Bray, doyen of cricketer-journalists, recalls opening at Aylestone Road for Essex in his first match. His partner, A.C. Russell, turned to him with words of ghostly advice:

"Mr. Bray, there are two bowlers you are just going to face. One runs a mile and bowls medium. The other takes six strides and let's her go. That's Skelding and he's almighty quick."

A break-through to seventh enlivened 1927. The attack was varied and E.W. Dawson (a Cambridge acquisition to the batting) and Geary and Astill were all picked to tour South Africa. All three enjoyed repeat performances in 1929 -- Dawson 1909 runs, Geary 152 wickets at 19.6 each, Astill 121 wickets at 20.9.

Another prolific batsman, L.G. Berry, advanced to the front with 232 against Sussex in 1930. Jinks Berry, a dedicated cricketer and footballer (he kept goal for Sheffield Wednesday, Bristol Rovers and Swindon Town) claimed a distinguished record both for his County and the R.A.F. For Leicestershire he scored more runs in a season than any other player -- 2,446; more centuries -- 45; more thousands in a season -- 18 times; and highest career aggregate -- 30,106.

Perhaps the achievement that gave him most pleasure was batting through the innings against Nottinghamshire at Ashby in 1932 with Larwood and Voce in full flight and winning the match in a last-wicket stand with wicket-keeper, Corrall.

Team-wise, old faults crept in and the final indignity -- bottom place for the first time -- chastened spirits in 1933. It needed the bold step of promoting Astill as first professional captain to send Leicestershire riding high. Under him the side did not lack authority and maturity. That season of 1935 they shot up to sixth, with a record number of 11 matches won.

That season also stands out as the debut of C.S. (Stewie) Dempster, forming with Willie Watson (imported later from Yorkshire) the only couple of genuine world-class batsmen who have won the County's green blazer. Even the New Zealander's accomplished batting (a rippling century at Hove springs delightfully to mind) failed to check a renewed decline which sank Leicestershire to bottom in 1939.

War, and the ugly encroachment of industry, spelt the end of Aylestone Road. The story is told of George Headley affecting to believe that falling smuts were black snow! A return was made to Grace Road, thenceforward the County's headquarters.

The fame -- and burdens -- of Geary and Astill now rested on the broad Australian shoulders of Jack Walsh and Vic Jackson. Berry took over the captaincy and, says Wisden, "his leadership and experience proved of immense value to the younger members of the team."

In 1947, Berry, a hard-hitting opener of unruffled temperament, scored over 1,000 runs for the fifteenth time and Walsh had a magnificent season, taking 152 wickets with his unorthodox left-arm bag of tricks. Better still, this immensely popular player raised the bidding next season to 174. I remember Bill O'Reilly, sitting in the Press box behind Walsh's arm, nominating the wrong'un with expert infallibility. The batsmen were not always so successful.

Sadly, slipshod fielding and other weaknesses crept in and it was a case of rock bottom again in 1949, a gap of 16 points below the next worse county. So it was a heavy responsibility that Charles Palmer assumed as captain. Playing many good knocks with the fluent Maurice Tompkin, he just managed to lift the side out of the cellar. That was the rearguard action. They went two better next time, climbed to sixth in 1952. That was the battle course.

They really went over the top in the fine summer of 1953, which suited both the batting and bowling. Leicestershire, in their best-ever season, finished equal third with Lancashire. One splendid week-end in August they led the field, a fact which won Page One prominence in a national newspaper!

Palmer gained his place as player-manager of Hutton's tour to the West Indies. Tompkin's cultured driving, beautiful to watch, brought him close on 2,000 runs. But, again to quote Wisden, excellent team work under Palmer's leadership, which showed itself in many fighting recoveries, was the main factor in the county's success rather than outstanding individual brilliance.

Dismal weather induced a relapse to sixteenth, but Palmer led his keen side back to sixth the following year. The batting was spiced by the free-scoring style of Maurice Hallam, a fine slip catcher and an opener destined to spread delight across many English fields.

Palmer's out-to-win policy led to a spate of close finishes. He and Tompkin each hit a century on opposite sides in the Gentlemen v. Players fixture at Lord's. Palmer, mischievously put on to bowl when his professional colleague was in the nineties, found himself faced with divided loyalties, which he contrived to resolve satisfactorily!

The skipper capped a captivating year with that eight for 7 against Surrey, whose players, notably May, wryly remember Palmer popping his face round their dressing-room door and exclaiming with a cherubic grin, Sorry, gentlemen!

Leicestershire were decidedly no team of wet bobs and dismal summers plummetted them twice to the foot of the chart. Tompkin was pursued by ill health that showed its first symptoms when touring Pakistan for M.C.C. and died, a deeply lamented cavalier of the game, gay as a player, a model of quiet charm as a companion, a perfect ambassador for his country.

With Palmer retiring, and desperate to find extra strength, the Committee called in Watson as captain. His broad, punishing bat provided stiffening urgently needed; too often, however, he received feeble support. Collapses were liable to happen even on good wickets.

Leicestershire supporters watching at Lord's in 1960 were exhilarated to see Watson and Hallam put on 196 for the first wicket against Middlesex. Rejoicings were wiped out by a final 214 all out. Nothing more dramatically exposed fatal limitations, and last place was not unexpected or undeserved.

Unremitting search for extra solidity brought Alan Wharton from Lancashire and the attack, getting reasonable targets to bowl at, took heart of grace. The fast men, Brian Boshier (108 wickets at 17.8 each), Terry Spencer (123 at 19.5) and off spinner John Savage, were all grouped near the top of the national averages and consequently Leicestershire rose half-way up the table.

Next season's descent to the depths was hardly deserved. Watson was often away as Test selector and although Jack van Geloven achieved his double on the post luck was unkind. As consolation Leicestershire enjoyed much the better of a last-match draw against Yorkshire, avid for points to clinch the championship. One Yorkshire player, a trifle shaken, commented: "Yon lads must be best wooden spooners in ruddy history."

Now Leicestershire fight under an able and likeable leader in Hallam, one who (perhaps as well) bears adversity stoically and who cannot avoid cheerfulness breaking in. His label, "the best opener who never played for England", is currently popular and there is some logic in it.

His chance seemed to have arrived when he struck tremendous early form in 1959. Had a certain selector prolonged a visit to Grace Road the story might have been different. Hallam went on to hit two quick-time double hundreds. But his eminent audience had departed.

Leicestershire's energetic secretary, Mr. Michael Turner, and assiduous committee keep up the search for new talent. Two newcomers from Ceylon, Stan Jayasinghe and Clive Inman, have already made their mark. If determination -- and Hallam -- cannot command success it will at least be richly deserved. The County that pioneered Saturday starts and pilot-schemed the Knock-out Cup must, surely, be in the hunt. Hark forrard is the cry!

© John Wisden & Co