Godfrey Evans

EVANS, THOMAS GODFREY, CBE, died on May 3, 1999, aged 78. Godfrey Evans was arguably the best wicket-keeper the game has ever seen. Debates about wicket-keepers cannot be stilled by statistics in the way that a challenge to Don Bradman might be. What is beyond question is that Evans was the game's most charismatic keeper: the man who made the game's least obtrusive specialism a spectator sport in itself. His energy and enthusiasm brought the best out of other fielders, whatever the state of the game. But he added to that a technical excellence that has probably never been surpassed.

Evans was born in North London, but moved to Kent when he was a baby and was brought up by his grandfather after the death of his mother. At Kent College, he was an all-round sportsman, and played in the school team mainly as a batsman: the games master thought wicket-keeper was a good place to hide one of the team's less mobile fielders. He made his Kent debut in July 1939 as a batsman, but kept wicket in three of his next four games before the war came. His reputation only flourished when the former England captain, A. E. R. Gilligan, saw him in a Services match in 1942 and ensured that he received invitations for the major wartime matches.

By the end of the first post-war summer, Evans had displaced Paul Gibb as England's wicket-keeper, after an excellent performance for the Players at Lord's when he did not concede a bye. He let through one on his Test debut at The Oval, which irritated him years later: "a silly little blighter" from Jim Langridge, outside off stump. That kind of perfectionism ensured that there was no serious challenge to his pre-eminence for the next 13 years. At Sydney, in 1946-47, he began standing up to Alec Bedser, at first only for the old ball, then all the time. His menacing presence there made the bowler better and more confident; above all, according to Bedser, it ensured that he bowled a full length. Bedser got the idea from Herbert Strudwick, who had stood up to Maurice Tate; he insists that Evans's fingers were never even marked by the experience. "He was so quick, and had such wonderful hands, you see."

Evans was not ashamed to tumble, perhaps making the comparatively easy look difficult. But he also executed stumpings with lightning speed, making the difficult look absurdly easy. He was one of the most theatrical of cricketers but, as with all the great performers, the apparent ease masked a self-discipline that the audience never suspected. His greatest secret was the meticulously observed lunchtime siesta ritual, which enabled him to keep fresh and focused. This gave him the ability to conduct the team like an orchestra, and he could flog life from the tired limbs of his teammates at the end of the hottest day. He had a remarkable physique: strong, sturdy, squat and astonishingly resilient, plus a keen eye, remarkable concentration and sharp reflexes. Evans might have taken up boxing for a career: he flattened several opponents before the Kent authorities intervened and told him to choose between the sports. He chose.

At home, he missed only five Tests in 12 seasons between 1947 and 1958, and in all played 91. After the 1946-47 tour, Bill O'Reilly wrote that wicket-keeping was the only department where England matched Australia. In 1950-51, according to Trevor Bailey, Evans did not miss a chance, and took one at Melbourne that still amazed Bailey years later, when he caught Neil Harvey standing up to Bedser "one-handed, horizontal, and airborne down the leg side off a genuine leg-glance." But Evans's value to his side and his popular appeal also hinged on his batting. At Adelaide in 1946-47, he famously batted for 97 minutes without scoring, to help Denis Compton to his second century of the match, and avoid likely defeat. More often, his batting was as flashy as his wicket-keeping: highlights included a century in the Old Trafford Test of 1950 and another against India at Lord's two years later, when he scored 98 before lunch.

He remained on his pedestal until 1959 when he was felt to have lapsed against India, and lost his place to Roy Swetman. The need for "team building" was cited. He promptly retired. There is no evidence that he did so too early. In 1967, just short of his 47th birthday, he made a comeback during Canterbury Week while Alan Knott was playing for England and there was no available deputy. Huge crowds saw him keep - according to Wisden - "superbly". The England bowler Mike Selvey, now the Guardian cricket correspondent, played with him nine years later in a fun seven-a-side at The Oval. "My experience was an education. Late out-swing just whispered into his gloves. I slipped in a full-length in-swinger on leg stump - the most difficult to take - and there he was, down the leg side as if by telepathy, flicking the bails away as the batsmen changed feet." Selvey said he had never seen a better display of wicket-keeping.

Keeping alone could not account for his popularity. He made his highest score, 144, at Taunton in 1952. Afterwards, it was announced that there would be a collection for Somerset's beneficiary, Harold Gimblett. Evans at once volunteered to go round with the box, which he did with his cheery smile and banter, making the takings far larger than they would have been. He was always generous himself for good causes. He was equally famous for his night-time roistering, some of which would - in a sterner age - have got him into terrible trouble with the tabloids. His standard shipboard party piece, as Carmen Miranda leading the team in a fancy dress conga, has never quite been forgotten. Many who knew him well believe that behind the extrovert lay a rather sadder figure: he never quite settled into steady post-cricket employment. "For all that Godfrey was a cricketing Falstaff," said his biographer Christopher Sandford, "there was a touch of Hamlet too. He thought and fretted about life more than he let on."

But any sadness was well hidden, in later years, behind exuberant mutton-chop whiskers. He became best-known as resident expert for the bookmakers Ladbrokes, reassessing the odds at each twist and turn of a Test match, usually getting it right, but, at Headingley in 1981 when he offered England at 500 to 1, famously getting it wrong. He also worked in the jewellery trade, and for some seasons was involved in a sponsored wicket-keeping award. He remained - even for cricket-lovers too young to have seen him - a symbol of some of the happiest times for English Test cricket, on the field and off it. His CBE, he blithely proclaimed, stood for Crumpet Before Evensong.

Frank Keating tribute
ON THE DAY Cyril Washbrook died, I tried to ring his old confrère Godfrey Evans. Kent's wicketkeeping eminence and Lancashire's trenchant opening batsman were each fundamental to a golden passage for England in the immediate postwar years. Evans was still a fixture behind the stumps when Washbrook made his famous comeback, aged 41, against Australia in 1956. Anyway, I couldn't get through, and with the deadline rushing at a lick the Washbrook memoir was cobbled up and dispatched without a sad but relishable quote from old friend Godfrey.

That was Wednesday April 28. Just five days later, on Bank Holiday Monday, May 3, Evans himself was dead. Godders had gone to his God, his smile switched off just like that. It was hard to believe that a man of such invigorating oomph and vitality was stilled for ever. For those of a certain age, Evans had remained an ebullient icon long after he unbuckled his pads for the last time and tossed those scarlet-palmed gauntlets into the boot of his second-hand soft-top Bentley precisely 40 summers ago. Evans would have been 79 this August.

That telephone call would have served two purposes. I am diverted each week in the backwaters of The Guardian's sports pages with a column of reminiscence and anniversary. This year offered a chance to celebrate Evans- it was not only 40 summers since he retired from cricket (at the very top, and as soon as England dropped him for the young Roy Swetman after 91 Tests in 1959), but fully 60 since his first match for Kent in 1939.

That was at Blackheath, against Surrey, and Evans did not keep wicket. But in the following game, when Derbyshire came to Gravesend, his mentor, the veteran Hopper Levett, proudly stood aside for his protégé. It must have been a touching scene that morning as Hopper helped the agitated youngster buckle his pads. While doing so, the middle-aged man whispered assurance: `Don't give a fig about byes or any missed chances, just be on your toes and bristling ready for the next ball.'

This was to remain Godfrey's philosophy not only in cricket but also for the rest of his real life - which itself, for sure, was also to include a fair few negligent byes as well as missed chances.

Great expectations indeed. At Gravesend that day he began as he was to continue. Off the second ball of the second over Evans announced himself to the wider world with an exhilarating full-length leg-side swallow-dive to catch, left-handed, the Derbyshire captain RHR Buckston off Norman Harding. He was up and, well, diving - and earmarked his first mention in Wisden 1940 two games later when Lancashire came to Dover: ` Evans, 17, kept wicket specially well on the first day.' In fact, that match was played a week after his 19th birthday - and only days before the outbreak of war, Godfrey joined the Royal Army Service Corps.

Although he was to be deified at Canterbury and Kent's out-grounds, Evans was neither a Kentish Man nor a Man of Kent. He was born in Middlesex, in Finchley, but was less than a year old when his mother moved the family to Margate. The boy was to see little of his father - an electrical engineer permanently touring the Empire - and his school holidays from Kent college were mostly spent with his grandfather, a stock broker who sported a grand pair of Edwardian mutton-chop whiskers, a style the boy himself was to cultivate throughout his later life. At school, boxing vied with cricket as a passion and, when he left, he even took out a professional licence as a welterweight. He won all three of his novice bouts before a badly broken nose made him think again - as did an impressively merry century for Kent 2nd XI against Gloucestershire at Tewkesbury. He stuck to cricket.

Evans had another Wisden mention in 1946. Gents v Players in July: ` Evans kept wicket well holding five wickets [sic] and not giving away a bye in the match.' By the last of the three Tests against India he had replaced Paul Gibb behind the stumps for England, after just one-and-a-half first-class seasons for Kent

In a rain-ruined match on a difficult Oval pitch, India scored 331 in their only innings- and Godfrey let through a solitary bye. He would remember it to his dying day 53 years later. `Do you know, I still wake up sometimes cursing myself for that wretched, idiotic little bye. Jim Langridge, twirly left-arm, Sussex, remember him? He floated down this silly little blighter outside off stump; it might have kept a bit low, but I took my eye off it for a fraction and it scuttled through. I didn't half swear at myself. Still do.'

In the next two Tests he played - at Sydney and Melbourne on Walter Hammond's 1946-47 tour - Australia made 659 (for 8) and 365, and Evans did not allow another bye to be entered in the book. Those two Aussie innings set a new record - no byes in 1024 runs, but it would have been even higher (1355) but for that `silly little blighter' of Langridge's at The Oval.

So he was on his way, with knobs on and the bunting en fête, especially when Bill O' Reilly, by then a provocatively bristling Sydney columnist as opposed to a ditto bowler, publicly stated during that first postwar tour: `The only department England match Australia is behind the stumps, where Evans keeps equally as well as our own great Don.' That's leathery nonpareil Don Tallon, not Bradman. It was quite a compliment: to the end Godfrey would extol Tallon as the best he ever saw.

During that Sydney 659, Godfrey began standing up to Alec Bedser. `He needed me to. He knew it made him twice the bowler. But it made for a lot of bruises on my arms and chest, especially up into my armpits'.

In that innings, Don Bradman and Sid Barnes each made 234. `Sid got himself out. I said Sid, why not just one more single to beat Braddles? he said, Because I want to be remembered: if I'd got 235 I'd have been booed off for beating his score.' [Shades of Mark Taylor's 334 five decades later.] Evans concluded: ` Braddles was the phenomenon of all time: it was his eye and his concentration.'

In the fourth Test at Adelaide, with Denis Compton going for his second century of the match, Evans battled for 97 minutes (and 98 balls) before scoring his first run. It was a triumph of patience which would stay in the record books till his death - just. Next year's millennium Wisden will log it as being beaten only this March by NZ's Geoff Allott against South Africa at Auckland (101 minutes, although he received only 77 balls).

So Evans flew home established, indeed famed, as a global Test star. Actually `flew' understates it a bit: `Denis, Cyril [ Washbrook] and dear old Bill [ Voce] joined me in the flying boat ... Darwin, Rangoon, Karachi ...treated as emperors... At Cairo we landed on the Nile, then launched off, black tie, to dine and nightclub before leaving at dawn the next day. Bliss. We touched down on Poole Harbour on April 1, having left Southampton on the Stirling Castle on August 31.'

In the next dozen years he was dropped by England only for two Tests, an astonishing permanence for a concentrating specialist. Billy Griffithtook over in South Africa in 1948-49: Godfrey would chortle and say that the brief demotion was probably warranted on account of `too many late nights at the Kelvin Grove Club in Cape Town with Denis'. Then he admitted, more seriously, `The selectors were still a bit unsure of me then; don't forget I'd had a real stinker at Headingley the summer before [when he missed three stumpings] and I'd also dropped Neil Harvey when he was 4, and he went on to get a hundred.

They were errors which determined him more on Hopper's advice: just concentrate on the next delivery. A mischievously carefree century out of the carnage of Ramadhin and Valentine and the West Indians at Manchester in 1950, and a florid and gay 98 not out before lunch against India at Lord's in 1952, helped seal the certainty of a whole generation's adoration for him. With his buddy, the worshipped Compton, he was a national hero for most every schoolboy. Many great men make ordinary men feel small; those two great men made ordinary men feel great. I can still recall, in my mind's eye, every exact detailed of one of the first pictures I pasted into my scrapbook: Godders at work as he raucously whirled, in a blur of musketeer's gauntlets and frightened little bails, towards the square-leg umpire in a request for a stumping off Laker. What rapture! Evans was our very own stand-up comic.

Denis was dashing, debonair; Godfrey was a barrel of brilliance. That forgotten writer AA Thomson elegantly phrased our schoolboy nous: `The word brilliant is the most shop-soiled in the language. But for Evans the word is semantically exact ... to Evans showmanship was natural; it was his bravura way of doing things. If he occasionally made an ordinary catch look spectacular that was only his fun. His true merit was that by utterly quick-silver instinct he could take catches at distances and angles not dreamt of in ordinary cricket's philosophy. There is no harm in the plumed cavalier's hat so long as the hat has a head inside it. Evans had both the head and the plume.'

When I got to know him (when I was 40 and he was 60), I asked him his secret. ` Hooper's advice was first,' he said, `and after that it was a ham sandwich, a half of beer, and then a 25-minute serious kip on a bench or under it, in the lunch interval. The siesta was my unvarying and infallible recipe for my cricket.'

The famous gloves were just those `any club player could buy', with rubber-pimpled ping-pong-bat palms (invariably of red). He put a new pair on the ground and bashed them with a bat to make them supple. Suppleness was all for this true-great one-off gymnast. That and the kestrel-keenness of eye and the innate competitiveness which won him 46 stumpings and 173 catches for England, and 250 stumpings and 811 catches in all.

When he retired in 1959, he took a job in the jewellery trade. I had become a tyro producer with the fledgling ITV. We employed Godfrey a few minutes on outside broadcasts, once memorably at The Oval with a gloved England predecessor, old George Duckworth, who began, bless him, pulling rank and boasting about how he had kept to Larwood. `Yeah, standing back 50 yards,' chided the younger man, who, I dare say, would have considered standing up during the Bodyline tour.

`True-great one-off gymnast': Evans at work behind Don Bradman at Trent Bridge in 1948, with Bill Edrich at slip. Below Evans and those mutton-chops

Apart from that first one from Derbyshire's Buckston, Godfrey would say his best catch was off Bedser- another leg-sider, nicked by Billy Sutcliffe and caught one hungover Scarborough morning in the'50s. But aged experts reckon his finest was on the 1950-51 tour of Australia: Harvey at Brisbane, standing up to big Alec. And the stumping, fast and terminal as an electrocution, of Jimmy Burke at Lord's in 1956 was a picture that went round in the world needing just `WOW!' as a caption.

The life and soul to the end, he made the very best of retirement. Far, far better than many. Sometimes, on a quiet day in the press bar at Lord's, say, you would catch him in a brown study - doleful, even blank, and inwardly cursing the ever-oncoming arthritis. Moping for his extravagant youth, no doubt. But as soon as he caught your eye - or anyone's remotely familiar - he'd at once lighten up, smile on full beam: `What's yours, ol' boy?' He raged particularly against the death, in 1986, of Bill Edrich; of his beloved first mentor Les Ames in 1990; and particularly `dear Compo', two springtimes ago.

After jewellery, he kept a couple of pubs. But as his friend Ian Wooldridge happily remembered in a touching memoir in the Daily Mail, `Trade seldom picked up until after the legal closing time; then the blinds were drawn and the rounds came thick and fast while we waited to be arrested ... it wasn't that Godders defied the law. He didn't believe in it.

Evans was saved in middle age by marriage to Angela and employment by Ladbrokes, for whom he chalked the odds at the big cricket matches. There, back in his milieu of old, the whiskers got bushier and the eyes brighter; it was a generally contended old age. A couple of decades ago, for a glorious but short sponsorship, Godfrey ran a wicketkeeping awards scheme for Gordon's Gin, which entailed a stream of lunches and dinners at either the Savoy or the distillery's own boardroom. You had to allow two days for one meal, so riotously generous was Mine Host. It was the most resplendently bilious sponsorship in history. Very Gordon's and very Godfrey. The tonic personified.

Thomas Godfrey Evans CBE will remain a legend of grandeur in the pantheon. He now lies sixth on the Test-dismissals list, but that tells not half the story. His chivvying enthusiasms refreshed the longest and dustiest sun-baked days. He seemed sometimes to be worth three extra fieldsmen. Has any stumper ever attacked from behind the wicket with more enjoyment and ravishing zest? Evans and Compton were the two luminous musketeers who dashingly lit up their grey, still frightened demobsuited age. Together they were adornments to more than cricket.

Evans was loved both behind the boundary ropes and in front of them, out in the middle. The nearest he came to sledging was in the 1958 Gents v Players match. Young Raman Subba Row came in at No. 3 for the toffs, and immediately edged Statham through the slips. Chafed Godders: `As soon as you walked in, son, I had terrible doubts about you being a Gentleman ... and now I'm positive you ain't no Player either!' Subba Row went on to a century - and of course Evans was the first with the arm on the shoulder and hearty, smiling, genuine congrats.

Godfrey captained the Players in that 1958 Lord's anachronism. First morning at the umpire's bell, he stood up and pointedly told his team: `Players, it is time for us gentlemen to take the field.'

Godfrey Evans: true great Player, true great Gent.

© John Wisden & Co