A fragile genius

Martin Williamson reviews Fred Titmus's autobiography

The two World Wars took their toll on cricketers. In both conflicts, a number of famous names fell, including two of the most recognisable players of their respective generations, who both happened to be slow left-armers. In 1943, Hedley Verity, still remembered for his role in bowling out Australia at Lord's in 1934, died in Sicily. Twenty-five years earlier, Colin Blythe was killed at Passchendaele. Both men were 38. These days, Blythe is largely forgotten outside Kent, but this is a remarkable story of an outstandingly talented bowler.
Legend has it that he hardly touched a ball before he was spotted by Kent aged 18 and recruited into their fledgling academy at Tonbridge. Two years later, he took a wicket with his first ball in first-class cricket, and became a key part of a side which dominated county cricket in the Edwardian era, if not in terms of titles, certainly in the public's imagination.
But Blythe, a talented violinist and a popular figure with colleagues and spectators, was a troubled man, unable to cope with the adulation success brought. How he would have dealt with the all-pervasive modern media is not even worth thinking about. He was generally assumed to have epilepsy, but acute stress appears more likely, and as his breakdowns coincided with England appearances, he played far less than his talent deserved.
Blythe was no shrinking violet. He was prepared to take on the autocratic Kent committee over financial matters, and at the outbreak of the Great War he was one of the first to enlist, despite his mental problems. He survived more than three years before being killed, aged 38, by a blast which also left Claud Woolley, his county colleague and Frank's older brother, seriously injured.
Christopher Scoble's biography is something of a mixed bag. He was faced with a daunting challenge, as Blythe left few traces (even his memorabilia was lost in a burglary) and in the circumstances he has done a good job in knitting together the pieces and presenting a colourful image of the man himself. The paucity of information means that some parts of the text are, inevitably, little more than blow-by-blow accounts of matches.
But while his descriptiveness is a plus, the author has a tendency to go off on personal tangents, a few of which do add to the story, some of which just serve as an irritating distraction. Most people who buy a biography want to read about the subject, however heartless that might appear about what was clearly a cathartic exercise for the author.
Perhaps those were a degree of padding, as even with these diversions, the book barely passes 200 pages. If so, then the lack of any detailed statistics on Blythe's remarkable career is even more unforgivable.
In his time, Blythe was one of the most famous players in the land, as evidenced by his huge benefit. Perhaps his most lasting legacy is in Albert Chevallier Tayler's famous painting, commissioned to celebrate Kent's first Championship title in 1906. Lord Harris, the county's eminence grise, gave only two instructions to the artist. One was that the setting had to be Canterbury; the other, that the bowler had to be Blythe.

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo