Obituary

Les Ames

AMES, LESLIE ETHELBERT GEORGE, CBE, who died suddenly at his home in Canterbury on February 26, 1990, aged 84, was without a doubt the greatest wicket-keeper-batsman the game has so far produced; and yet, at the time he was playing, it used to be said there were better wicket-keepers than Ames, and that he was in the England team because of his batting. If this was so, would Jardine, for example, have preferred him to Duckworth in Australia in 1932-33? Surely not.

When fully fit, Ames was England's first-choice wicket-keeper from 1931 to 1939, when he virtually gave up the job. For Kent, he was an integral part of their Championship side from 1927 to the first match of 1951, when a sharp recurrence of back trouble, which had dogged him for so long, brought his career to an end while he was actually at the crease.

By this time he had amassed 37,248 runs, average 43.51, made 102 hundreds, including nine double-hundreds, and passed 1,000 runs in a season seventeen times, going on to 3,000 once and 2,000 on five occasions. He had had a direct interest in 1,121 dismissals, of which more than 1,000 were effected when he was keeping wicket. His total of 418 stumpings is easily a record.

Born at Elham near Canterbury on December 3, 1905, Ames went to Harvey Grammar School in Folkestone and at seventeen was brought to the notice of the Kent authorities. It was the county coach at the time, G. V. J. Weigall, who persuaded him to take up wicket-keeping as a second string to his bow, and a year or two passed before the young man began to appreciate the soundness of this advice. However, in 1927, Ames's first full season, his aggressive approach to batting and form behind the stumps repeatedly caught the eye. And all the time his famous partnership with "Tich" Freeman was being cemented. In 1928, these two astounded the world of cricket: Freeman took a record 304 wickets and Ames, making 122 dismissals and 1,919 runs, achieved the wicket-keeper's double for the first time.

A year later he repeated what had been a unique achievement, but with a record 128 dismissals, and in 1932, when he was in superlative all-round form, he scored 2,482 runs, including nine centuries, at 57.72 to finish third in the national averages and made a record 64 stumpings in a total of 104 dismissals. In 1933, a batsman's year, he enjoyed an annus mirabilis. Far from feeling stale after a gruelling tour of Australia, he discovered an even greater appetite for runs, scoring 3,058 including three double-hundreds and six other three-figure innings.

He also made the highest score of his career, 295 against Gloucestershire at Folkestone, and two separate hundreds in a match for the first time, against Northamptonshire at Dover. To cap it all, there were another 68 dismissals. Ames's innings of 295 was an excellent example of the tempo he regularly maintained once he was going; it took a little over 240 minutes and contained a six and 34 fours. It is probably true to say that he scored at around 50 runs per hour throughout his career, and it is hardly surprising that a player of his calibre should have won the Lawrence Trophy twice, in 1936 and 1939, both centuries being made in under 70 minutes.

When Kent made 803 for four declared against Essex at Brentwood in 1934, Ames contributed an unbeaten 202, ensuring that the declaration could be made at lunch on the second day. In the season of 1937 he was as busy as ever, passing 2,000 runs for the third time and effecting 74 dismissals, though no longer with the help of Freeman, who had retired.

Ames represented England in 47 Tests, making 2,434 runs, including eight hundreds, and 97 dismissals (74 catches and 23 stumpings). He toured Australia with MCC in 1928-29 as reserve wicket-keeper to Duckworth, and would have played in the final Test at Melbourne, purely as a batsman, but for breaking a finger keeping to Larwood. Instead, he made his d├ębut against South Africa at The Oval in 1929 and toured the Caribbean under F.S.G. Calthorpe in the following winter.

In the second of the representative matches (since granted full Test status) he helped Hendren in a match-winning stand of 237 for the fourth wicket in England's second innings, his 105 being the first century by an England wicket-keeper. In the fourth and final match, at Kingston, he hit his highest Test score of 149. Against New Zealand in 1931, Ames (137) and G. O. B. Allen (122) put on 246 together for the eighth wicket at Lord's, which has remained a record in Test matches for that wicket.The runs, which rescued England from a paltry 190 for seven, were made in under three hours, while at Christchurch in 1932-33 he and Hammond "flogged the bowling all over the ground" to the tune of 242 in 144 minutes for the fourth wicket.

More restraint was expected of him at Lord's in 1934 against Australia on the first afternoon, when he and Leyland came together and added 129 in what was to prove a crucial partnership. Failure then, and England instead of Australia would have been caught on the sticky wicket so brilliantly exploited by Verity. Ames used to say that he was more proud of this innings of 120 than of all his others; Wisden simply described it as "inspiring". In 1935, against South Africa at The Oval, he made 123 before lunch on the final day, a tremendous effort and still the most runs in the morning session of a Test match. In 1938 at Lord's, Hammond (240) and Ames (83) added 186 for England's sixth wicket against Australia, and that winter in South Africa, on his last major tour, Ames again helped his captain in a major partnership. At Cape Town, in the Second Test, the pair put on 197 in 145 minutes for the fourth wicket, both scoring hundreds. Ames finished the series with an average of 67.80 and a career average in Tests of 40.56.

Ames was a correct player with a fluent classical style; a magnificent driver, especially when moving out to the pitch. When set, he employed the lofted drive over the inner ring of fielders with rare judgment and skill, and he could turn good-length balls into half-volleys on lightning feet. Woe betide any bowler who started dropping short: he would be hammered to the cover boundary, or despatched to leg with powerful hooks or pulls.

On the Bodyline tour he took the thunderbolts of Larwood and Voce with quiet efficiency. His style was unobtrusive; there were no flamboyant gestures. He saw the ball so early that he was invariably in the right position without having to throw himself about. His glove-work was neat and economical, his stumpings almost apologetic.

During the Second World War, Ames rose to the rank of Squadron-Leader in the RAF and played a little one-day cricket, even taking a hat-trick against Epsom CC with his slow spinners. In the five post-war seasons before his retirement, playing now as a batsman, he enjoyed an Indian summer, adding nearly 10,000 runs to his already formidable aggregate. In 1947, and again in 1948, he made seven hundreds, his total of 2,137 runs in the championship in 1947 being reminiscent of 1933.

In 1950 he reached his 100th hundred in brilliant style to win the match against Middlesex during the Canterbury Week, becoming only the twelfth player to achieve this milestone. His batting had lacked none of its old virility and panache, but that winter, captaining the Commonwealth team in India, he was often worried by the back trouble which was soon to end his playing days.

Well versed in man management and administrative skills from his war service, he was given charge of three MCC tours -- the 1966-67 Under-25 team to Pakistan, and the senior sides to the West Indies in 1967-68 and Ceylon and Pakistan in 1968-69 -- and he was a selector from 1950 to 1956 and again in 1958, the first professional to be appointed as such. From 1960-74 he was secretary/manager of Kent, a post he filled with conspicuous success, commanding the respect of the players by his sense of discipline and absolute fairness. From years of failure Kent improved steadily until they won the Championship in 1970.

The county's second great partnership, with Colin Cowdrey in charge in the middle and Ames working behind the scenes, had had its reward at last, and by now Kent were becoming one of the dominant forces in the limited-overs competitions. Ames was an honorary life member of MCC and was in time elected to the Club's committee. In retirement he remained fit and active, spending many pleasurable days on the golf course, where his natural sense of timing stood him in good stead. If ever there was a true Man of Kent it was he. The attendance of a thousand people at his memorial service in Canterbury Cathedral was a worthy tribute to him.

© John Wisden & Co