Dying of the dark blue light
Stephen Chalke meets Mike Eager who played for the last great Oxford University side
"I'd never have got either if I hadn't done National Service," he says. "I'd had three years between school and university and, when I joined the Navy, I was posted to the Ministry of Defence so that I could play top-class club hockey." Having learned Russian, he had to read Pravda and make notes on the leading Soviet admirals. "If I saw a picture of one with a drink in his hand, I'd write, `Probably an alcoholic'. I'm not sure what it achieved. My successor told me he couldn't read my handwriting and had to start again."
He played hockey for Surbiton, cricket in Navy matches at Chatham. "When I went to Oxford, I was playing the same level of hockey but the cricket was a big step up." In his second match, while he struggled against accurate Hampshire bowling, their keeper Leo Harrison coached him and he top-scored with 34 and 80. Then, in the next three matches, facing the legspin of Freddie Brown, Bruce Dooland and Richie Benaud, he hit a century and two fifties. "I always think of 1956 as the last really good year of legspinners and I loved playing them. I liked to come down the wicket and I could read them in the air."
With a fifty in the Varsity match, his name crept into the national averages. "I was about 20th but August was wet, it was Laker's great year; by the time the season ended, by not playing I'd risen to seventh."
He was above Peter May, Colin Cowdrey, even Neil Harvey, and his uncle on the Gloucestershire committee approached him.
"They wanted to groom me for the captaincy." So the following July he stepped into the world of county cricket.
|The 1959 Oxford team, EW Swanton reckoned, was good enough to finish in the top half of the Championship table|
"It struck me immediately that I'd walked out of a conservatory and into a working business. I was always talking theory at Oxford. But there was so much that the professionals knew: about things like using the crease when bowling and how spinners don't spin every ball. I realised that there was a hell of a lot for me to learn."
George Emmett, ageing captain of Gloucestershire, quietly advised him against the captaincy, and he returned to two more summers in a rapidly improving Oxford side. "We didn't have any coaching to speak of and at the public schools all the coaching was of batting. So the university sides never had any bowling. Then suddenly we had a really good bowling side." On a memorable day in May 1958 the seasoned Jack Bailey and the very fast freshman David Sayer bowled out the New Zealanders for 45.
From 1952 to 1955, a period that included Cowdrey's three years, Oxford played 57 first-class matches without a victory. Yet in the next six years they won 22 matches, 12 of them against county sides. The 1959 Oxford team, EW Swanton reckoned, was good enough to finish in the top half of the Championship table.
With several of the side hailing from grammar schools, a wind of change was beginning to blow. Soon the university would stop giving places to less academic sportsmen like Cowdrey, and perhaps later Geography undergraduates would have to do more to gain second-class honours than MJK Smith. "He had to go away in the middle of a match for a viva and he came back with a broad grin. They'd asked him what relative humidity was and he was really stuck. Then one of the board said, `Would you be more likely to put on a swing bowler when it was overcast or when the sun was shining?'"
Meanwhile the Gloucestershire captaincy passed to Tom Graveney and, amid controversy, on to the Old Etonian Tom Pugh. Suddenly in August 1961 Eagar, now a master at Eton, was summoned: "I'd had one village match all summer and I got a telegram. Would I come and play at Pontypridd?"
His return was not a success. His laboured 29 was slow-handclapped by the Welsh crowd. Back in Bristol, when he misfielded on the boundary, the spectators jeered `Go home, jazz-hat!' Then at Canterbury, as 12th man, he fielded while the veteran Sam Cook rested a sore finger. "About three o'clock Sam brought out the drinks. `I reckon I could bowl this lot out,' he said to Tom Pugh, and I had to go off with the tray. There was a hell of a row. Les Ames, the Kent manager, came on to the field and, when I reappeared later with a sweater, the crowd slow-handclapped me. So in three games I got barracked three times. It's probably the only record I achieved."
Times were changing. With cricket becoming wholly professional, the role of the universities declined. Excluding the Varsity matches, Oxford won more first-class games in Mike Eagar's four years there than it has done in the last 40. "I never became a star player but in many ways I played in the last great years of Oxford cricket."
This article was first published in the March issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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