April 2007 - Arthur Wellard

Cock of the Somerset walk

David Foot
David Foot holds a host of West Country characters in high affection but first among equals is Arthur Wellard of the mighty sixes, delivery leap and strolling sophistication

David Foot holds a host of West Country characters in high affection but first among equals is Arthur Wellard of the mighty sixes, delivery leap and strolling sophistication

One of Somerset's greatest bowlers, only Farmer White took more wickets for them © The Cricketer International

To someone embedded so incorrigibly in the ways, wonders and human oddities of West Country cricket over the decades the choice was one of wavering loyalties. It could have been Harold Gimblett for those instinctive, understated skills, Horace 'Nutty' Hazell for his jovial demeanour and evocative portly waistline, Reg Sinfield for his Tommy Trinder chin and battered boxer's nose or Bill Andrews, so often my confidant, who gave me gossip without a trace of malice. My affection was unbounded. But in the end I went for Arthur Wellard.

The earliest impressions never go away. I still see him strolling off the field at my hometown ground Yeovil in the late 1930s when Lancashire were the visitors. Winston Place and Eddie Paynter, names vaguely familiar to me, were playing but I did not notice them. It was Wellard I wanted to see up close. I ran across to the modest pavilion at the close of play. He was tall, manly, his dark hair greased back around the centre parting, thick, bronzed arms around the neck of a team-mate half his size. What a cricketer, I decided. I already knew he hit sixes and took wickets for a living.

That was my first sight of him. The second, again at a Yeovil ground, was at a Sunday benefit match. In the tea interval I anonymously patrolled the surrounds, in the hope of a fleeting moment of doting proximity. Then suddenly here he was, approaching me. No one else about. If only he would say: "Hello son, enjoying the cricket?" Anything, in fact. What he did say was: "Hey son, where's the bogs round hure?"

It was not the most romantic of conversational gambits. I stammered a response and pointed in the right direction. He thanked me and was on his way, no doubt to dispose of a little of the pre-match cheer. The voice, I discovered, carried the suggestion of regional vowels, acquired over the past 10 years or so after Kent had been tardy about signing him and Somerset found him digs in Weston-super-Mare.

Wellard was one of Somerset's greatest bowlers and only Farmer White took more wickets for them. He played in two Tests and would have gone to India in 1939 but for the war. My schoolboy contemporaries, like me, loved to ape his leap in the delivery stride. We collected the action pictures and chuckled over the way he seemed occasionally to tuck his left arm behind him at the same time as if scratching his back. In fact the action was orthodox. He consistently swung the ball away from the right-handers; his break-backs were renowned. Many of his wickets came when he clean-bowled startled batsmen - just as well perhaps; too many catches went down ritualistically in the slips from the county's successive clutches of transitory amateurs.

'The voice, when not inclining to Taunton and the Blackdowns, was more cockney than Man of Kent' © The Cricketer International

When, after the war, the limbs ached more, he turned to off-spin. There was still native cunning: after he had surreptitiously brought in another slip he would unexpectedly let go an oldstyle seamer. His fielding, full of sang-froid, was at times as comical as it was intrepid. On hot days he took out his teeth when stationed at silly midoff. It changed his appearance considerably and, according to several of the pros, his improvised dentistry bordered on gamesmanship.

One of the county scorers worked out that a quarter of Wellard's runs came from sixes. He dispensed entertainment and there were groans when he was quickly out, not just from West Country crowds. His routine was to play back the first half a dozen deliveries with mannered coaching-school correctness. After that, whether the bowling was fast or slow, he aimed for the clouds. A succession of coaches encouraged him to hit straighter. Mostly they let him get on with it. That meant denting the Taunton tombstones or re-arranging groundsman Cecil Buttle's runner beans beside the car park.

Arthur, one felt, should have been a jokey extrovert. In fact, he was surprisingly laconic. The voice, when not inclining to Taunton and the Blackdowns, was more cockney than Man of Kent. "Come in a bit at cover, cock," he would say. Everyone was "cock". He got animated only when he went racing. That was something he did, perhaps a little too often on a Somerset pro's frugal salary.

Andrews idolised him "even though he always bowled with the wind behind him and I suffered at the other end". When the newcomer arrived from Kent, Bill was in awe of his appearance: his gaudy ties, check sports coats and pointed shoes. Not that Wellard was flashy but he carried an aura of self-contained sophistication. Yet he was basically an uncomplicated man. When it rained, he produced a pack of cards. He left the majority of the professionals, fledglings when it came to poker - or, more often, brag - out of pocket. Bill used to say: "He could remember the position of every card in the pack - he was out of our class."

So he was in most cases when it came to cricket. In his first season for the county he took 131 wickets. Three times he did the double. Twice at Wells he belted five sixes in an over, scattering the dreamy young theological students seated at long-on. Oldies claim he could hit the ball farther than Guy Earle and even Viv Richards. Those who saw his hundreds at The Oval and Old Trafford would agree.

Everyone liked Arthur. That included Harold Pinter who wrote affectionately about him and probably considered it a coup when Wellard agreed to play on occasions for the playwright's Xl. Like most of my fellow Somerset friends I was outraged when Somerset chose in 1950 not to re-engage him.

David Foot has followed Somerset for more than 50 years and writes on cricket for The Guardian