Wisden Cricketer / Features

August 2005

The Way It Was

Alan Townsend relives with Stephen Chalke his 130-mile round trip by bike as a 12-year-old to see the Headingley Test of 1934

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Alan Townsend relives with Stephen Chalke his 130-mile round trip by bike as a 12-year-old to see the Headingley Test of 1934



Don Bradman cracked a brilliant 304 in the Leeds Test © Getty Images
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"Sometimes I have bad dreams about that journey," Alan Townsend says. "In those days, as a kid, you accepted things as they were but now I look back and it frightens me to think about it." From 1948 to 1960 Alan was a popular and successful all-round cricketer with Warwickshire, the outstanding slip fielder of his generation. But he grew up in the north-east where his father Charles, a clerk in a builders' merchants, played his cricket for Thornaby in the North Yorkshire & South Durham League.

"He used to take me with him to matches, ever since I was short. He used to do without his tea and come and throw a ball at me. And I'd be wearing a little straw hat, like all the boys did. So naturally I took to cricket."

Each September there were day trips by train from their Middlesbrough home to the Scarborough Festival but the journey that stays clearest in his memory took place on Monday July 23 1934: to Headingley, to see England playing Australia.

Four years earlier on the same ground the young Don Bradman had set a new Test record with a score of 334. In the meantime Wally Hammond had eclipsed it with 336 in New Zealand. Now Bradman looked set to regain his place at the top of the list, leaving the field on Saturday evening with 271 not out. He had put on 388 with Bill Ponsford, in front of a crowd of 38,000 spectators, "packed" - The Times reported - "solidly but cheerfully one against the other, with the more adventurous sitting on the sharp-angled roofs of sheds and swarming up trees". With the series all square, excitement was high.

"On the Sunday Dad said to me, `I'm going to Leeds tomorrow to the Test match. Would you like to come with me?'" Leeds was 65 miles from their home in Middlesbrough and Alan still a month from his 13th birthday. But he was already sufficiently in love with cricket to say yes.

At half past five he was woken by his mother. "She said, `Your Dad's going now. Do you still want to go?' She'd packed beef sandwiches for lunch, tomato sandwiches for tea and she put them in a haversack which I carried."

They mounted their bicycles. "I didn't have any gears but Dad had this Remington that had been advertised in the Sunday paper and it had these three-speed gears." Soon they were in the countryside. "The sun was coming up, shining brightly. The birds were twittering. And the country lanes were ever so quiet. I don't suppose my dad could afford the bus and train fares and of course it was door to door on the bike."

His father was a keen cyclist. "He used to take us out biking on Sundays. I'm sure that's where I got my strong legs from. All the years I played county cricket I never had any trouble from them." They arrived at Headingley to find that play had already started and there was quite a queue outside the ground. They parked their bicycles against the wall - "We didn't even lock them up" - and got in just in time to see Bradman complete his 300. A new world record was drawing close.

Then there was a great roar as, according to The Times, "Bowes, with a ball that must have come back inches, knocked Bradman's leg stump almost into the wicket-keeper's throat." After six hours of cycling young Alan longed to sit down. "But we couldn't get a seat anywhere in the ground; we had to stand all day." The atmosphere was humid, building up towards thunder, and it was only at teatime, as a few people started to leave, that he found a pair of seats. "I put my haversack down, went back for my dad and, when we got back to the seats, I went and sat on the blooming haversack. I had this great wet patch on my backside from the tomato sandwiches, and I couldn't do anything about it."

Whether standing or sitting, he was absorbed by his first sight of Test cricket. The Yorkshire crowd cheered their own bowlers, Bill Bowes and Hedley Verity, who shared the wickets as the Australians tumbled from 517 for 4 to 584 all out. Then, with England facing a first-innings deficit of 384 and most of two days still to play, the two of them watched with admiration as Worcestershire's Cyril Walters opened the innings: "He was very stylish." And they saw Tom Wall race in with the new ball for Australia: "I was like all youngsters. I wanted to be a fast bowler when I grew up. And Wall fascinated me. It must have been dusty. Whenever he bowled and the ball pitched into the crease, all this dust came up."

The great names of English batting came and went: Walters and Walter Keeton, then Hammond run out just as he looked set to play a great innings and the captain Bob Wyatt bowled behind his legs by Clarrie Grimmett. At this stage England were 152 for 4 and for most of the evening session Maurice Leyland and the 45-year-old Patsy Hendren battled doggedly for survival. At close of play the deficit was still 196 runs and, in the words of The Times, ``Australia had all but won the match."

It would be another 23 years before Alan caught a second glimpse of Test cricket. In June 1957, returning early from Bristol with the Warwickshire team, he saw the final session of the Edgbaston Test in which Peter May and Colin Cowdrey - with a partnership of 411 - smothered the threat of Sonny Ramadhin. "I remember standing in a long queue at the bus stop afterwards, and - to my great embarrassment - Cowdrey pulled up in his car and gave me a lift home."

But there was no such easy journey home from Headingley. "It was very hilly coming out of Leeds and it had been a hot day. So Dad stopped for a pint. `I'll go in and have a drink,' he said, `and I'll bring you out a bottle of lemonade.'"

Then the cycling began in earnest. It was nearly eight o'clock, there were another 60 miles to go and the sun was fast falling in the sky.

"I never want to go through that journey again. I'm sure it did me mentally. I'd been standing all day in the heat. And somewhere - I can't remember where we'd got to - this thunderstorm came and it belted down. It was so dark and lonely on the road. We never saw a soul, just miles and miles of blackness. And Dad kept saying to me, `Keep going, lad, keep going.' I'm sure I was asleep. I was that wet and miserable, really soaking, fed up and tired with the heat.

"`We're not far off Thirsk,' he said. `If we get into Thirsk by midnight, we'll catch the fish-and-chip shop open. And I'll buy you some fish and chips and a bottle of pop.' I suppose it was a spur to keep me going."

In the summer of 2004, 70 years on, he and his wife Hilda had occasion to drive through Thirsk and he was shocked to find the fish-and-chip shop still there. "And all the memories of that night came flooding back."

"There was a big clock in the square and, sure enough, just before midnight, my dad and I got there and we bought some fish and chips."

There were still another 25 miles to be cycled and once more they rode on, passing through just a few small villages as, away to their right, invisible in the night, the Cleveland Hills rose above them. "The hardest part of it was the loneliness. There were no cars in those days, not after night-time. We just cycled along, with our capes over the handle-bars. It was well after two o'clock when we finally got home."

It was a round trip of more than 130 miles, in the middle of which he had stood for several hours in the heat. He had ridden it on a bike without gears and he was only 12 years old. "I met Bill Bowes years later, when I was playing for Warwickshire and he was a reporter. I told him that I'd seen him bowl Bradman that day and how we'd got there. And he couldn't believe what we'd done."

On Tuesday the storms returned to leave the match at Headingley drawn but neither Alan nor his father was there this time.

© The Wisden Cricketer

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