The simplicity of George Cox's career is not misleading in the slightest. Rather it suggests a deep attachment to Sussex and Sussex cricketers which lasted more or less from Cox's birth in Wernham in 1911 until his death in Burgess Hill in 1985.
He was a good enough batsman for his many supporters at Hove to talk up his England prospects, but as things turned out he played all but seven of his 455 first-class game for Sussex and scored all his fifty centuries for his much beloved county. Those other matches were festival encounters and five of them took place at either Eastbourne or Hastings.
So much, so unremarkable, you might say. After all, Cox made his debut in 1931 and played his final County Championship game in 1960. It was an era in which cricketers were expected to stay local and show loyalty. But Cox took things further: after a stint helping Hubert Doggart with Winchester's first eleven, he returned to Sussex as coach and later as president of the county's Junior Cricket Festival and its Cricket Society. He skippered the second team when well in his fifties and even led the side against Middlesex when three months short of his sixtieth birthday. He sat on committees; he spoke at dinners whenever he was asked. And even now, the story is nothing like complete.
For there are the little matters of the poem, the Memorial Service and the Garden.
The poem "A Cricketer in Retirement" begins as follows:
The marine and the regency, sea frets
And somewhere the Downs backing a station
Like a Victorian conservatory. I come upon
A scorecard yellow as old flannels and suddenly
I see him, smilingly prowling the covers
In soft shoes, shirt rolled to the forearm,
Light as a yacht swaying at its moorings,
Receptive to breezes.
Alan Ross published only ten poems about cricket. Six of them focused quite directly on Test players such as Walter Hammond, Len Hutton, David Gower and Richie Benaud. Another considered an 1852 engraving of Alfred Mynn, "the Lion of Kent", who died 16 years before England lost to Australia at Melbourne. But the Sussex cricketers of the 1930s were Ross's "First and Last Gods" and his bond to them never wavered.
ALSO READ: This Cox is a Pippin (1961)
After the war Cox became a friend whose glorious hospitality he would enjoy at his farm on the edge of Ditchling Common, where they would talk of the Sussex cricketers they both knew. They would recall the county's famous kinships and shake their heads at the team's skittish form:
One apart, yet part all the same,
Of that familiar pattern of families,
Parkses and Langridges, Tates and Oakes and Gilligans,
Griffiths and Busses, Sussex is rich in,
The soft air phrased by their fickleness.
"A Cricketer in Retirement": For George Cox was one of the readings chosen for Cox's Memorial Service, which took place at Hove Parish Church on May 7, 1985. It was read by Johnny Barclay, then the Sussex captain, and it followed an address given by Dennis Silk, the Warden of Radley College. Silk began with a series of images those attending the service would know well:
"George was a man of Sussex, with cricket in his blood and a gift with people of all ages that I have never seen equalled. Wherever he went there was sure to be laughter, a feeling of mellow well-being and a mischievous sense of fun. Crowds sat up in their deckchairs at Hove and the Saffrons when George walked to the wicket. When his turn came to speak after dinner there would be a ripple of excitement, whether it was at The Hilton or in Ditchling Village Hall."
But Silk knew very well that Cox had struggled in his early seasons at Sussex, not managing a fifty until nearly two years after his debut and only making his first century, 162 against Hampshire at Southampton, in 1935. Another two summers were to pass before Cox could be sure of his place in the Sussex team but his 1891 first-class runs in 1937 included four hundreds. He then scored at least a thousand runs in every peacetime season until his effective retirement from first-team cricket in 1955.
"George Cox was a lovely cricketer - in many ways he personified summer days at Hove." John Woodcock
"Not many cricketers gave more pleasure to more people than did George," said Silk "and most of his finest innings were played against the toughest opposition: Yorkshire before the War, Surrey after it… He could be downcast by failure. Which cricketer isn't? But he had all these emotions under control, though he used to say with whimsical wistfulness that there wasn't a county ground in England in the lavatory of which he had not cried his eyes out having made nought."
Gradually the tears would give way to shy smiles and raised bats at Hove, Eastbourne and Hastings. Cox's batting flourished and his fielding at cover point revealed the athleticism that had once enabled him to play professional football for Arsenal, Fulham and Luton Town. He would make four hundreds against Lancashire and take another six centuries off the powerful Yorkshire attack. The pick of the latter was probably his 198 in 200 minutes in the final county match before World War Two ended Championship cricket for over six years. However, Cox had to share the top score in Sussex's second innings; he and Harry Parks both made nine as the home side were bowled out for 33 on a wet pitch. Hedley Verity took 7 for 9 in the last first-class match of his life.
The runs continued to flow for Cox in the first peacetime summers. Yet again there was talk of an England cap as delicacy and nous were added to power and yielded 2369 runs in 1950 when he turned 39. Yet journalists noticed that while the best teams brought the best from him, struggling sides were often presented with his wicket. "Indulgently negligent against parachuting spinners," wrote Ross of the batsman whose 754 first-class innings included 98 noughts. "I cannot think of anyone who was as good a player as he who seemed to lose form for such long periods," added David Sheppard in Parson's Pitch in 1964. Some 21 years later it would be the Right Reverend Sheppard, Bishop of Liverpool, who would conduct that memorial service at Hove.
"In many ways he was my closest friend in cricket, and I learned a great deal from him, not only about the technique of the game, but about the whole approach to it," he had written. "If cricket wasn't fun you felt George would have no part in it. He has always been intensely interested in people and their problems. He used to go regularly to coach in South Africa and it was he who first started me thinking seriously about problems there."
It is a mistake to judge the deceased by the presence of good people at their funerals or memorial services. Obligation frequently trumps everything and some thorough skullduggers have been given virtue-scented send-offs. With George Cox, however, it was the real thing. There was a bishop, a headmaster, a duchess, a bevy of writers and a fine collection of establishment figures at Hove that day, but also the villagers for whom Cox had always made time and who now took a final opportunity to make time for him.
The cricketers remembered the batsman and the rather useful bowler of slow-medium floaters who frequently apologised to batsmen he had dismissed. His father, Old George, had taken 1843 first-class wickets, most of them in cricket's first golden age. Young George managed 192 victims and might have taken more had he approached the business more seriously. Yet he was ever the professional who played like an amateur. "He could have bowled respectable medium pace as well," said John Woodcock. "George Cox was a lovely cricketer - in many ways he personified summer days at Hove."
And so a garden seemed - and seems - a fitting memorial to a player that most of those attending a match at Hove today will never have met, let alone seen walk out to bat, his cap set at a permanently rakish angle. Originally it was a spacious affair from which members of the Cricket Society could watch a game and hold their Annual Party. But when land was needed for the indoor nets in 2002 the garden was reduced to a narrow rectangle - some call it a corridor - wedged between the outdoor and indoor practice facilities deep in the north-west corner of the ground.
It is easy to miss. The more fanciful might suggest it is like platform nine-and-three-quarters in the Harry Potter books; one doesn't see it unless one has been inducted into the gentle magic that informs Sussex cricket. Yet there is no more tranquil place on the circuit than Young George's garden. The foliage is sometimes so abundant that on quiet days you could sit on the bench at the far end and not be aware you were near a cricket field at all. Cox, of course, might be rather amazed that anyone has sought to commemorate his life in this way. For him it was always Sussex, and whether he was playing, coaching or speaking that devotion remained gently absolute, woven into his personality like Wealden wool in a fine suit.
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