WILLIAM EWART ASTILL, like his fellow cricketer, Kennedy, whose portrait also appears in this issue of the Almanack, has for many seasons been one of the best all-rounders in the country, yet singularly enough neither man ever played for England against Australia, nor was invited to visit Australia with an English team.
Astill was born at Ratby, Leicestershire, on March 1, 1890. There was no organized cricket at the school to which he went, but he had cricket in his blood, his father being one of the leading lights of the village club.
At the early age of fifteen Astill was engaged by Leicestershire. He had been doing great things for the Mutual Sunday School League and in the following season -- 1906 -- he played his first match for the county, against Hampshire at Southampton.
It should be mentioned that apart from that played by the County, his first cricket of senior class was that for Leicester Temperance, in the Town League, his father being captain at that time.
Having appeared in the county eleven in the one game in 1906, he took part in every match for Leicestershire for the next four years -- a very remarkable performance. During that period -- in 1907 and 1908 -- he headed the bowling averages; he was second in 1909 and fifth in 1910.
Already then he had justified his early inclusion and it was quite obvious that in him Leicestershire had discovered medium-pace spin bowler of more than usual skill. In the course of time he has not altered his style very much and still bowls with a nice, easy action and ability to turn the ball either way, though at the present time his arm is not so high as formerly.
In 1911 he had a sad falling away in form and could not retain his place regularly in the eleven, but he regained his position the following year when he stood fourth in bowling. He fell away again the next season, while in 1914 he took only three wickets. He served during the war and gained a Commission in the Army. He played only three innings in 1919 -- the season of two-day matches.
When normal conditions for cricket had been restored, Astill took, as it were, a new lease of life, and his batting powers, which had been very slow to ripen, showed a quick and vast improvement. In 1920, for instance, he was fourth in batting and second in bowling and the following year accomplished, for the first time, the feat of taking over a hundred wickets and scoring over a thousand runs. He played two innings of three figures and obtained 152 wickets for twenty-five runs apiece.
In the next two seasons he again performed the double feat and, after a slight set back, he headed the batting in 1925 and was second in bowling but, although he scored over a thousand runs, he did not take a hundred wickets.
He was again nominally top of the batting the following summer, only Hayes, who was then coach at Leicester, being above him as the result of some good scores in the five games in which he took part. In the meantime Astill's bowling was seldom anything but good and he continued to be really the mainstay of the attack.
So, with fortune varying only slightly, his name, right down to last season, was to be found somewhere near the top of either table of averages. Few men with such a lot of work thrust upon them have retained their form so consistently over a long career.
It can be said with safety that day in and day out Astill, since the war, has been the best all-round player in the Leicestershire team and probably had he played for a county occupying a higher position in the Championship he would have achieved even greater distinction. Over and above his batting and bowling, he has frequently shown himself to be a very good slip fielder.
In the winter of 1927-28 he was a member of the M.C.C. team to visit South Africa when honours were even in the Test Matches. He and his colleague in the Leicestershire team, George Geary, did very steady work as bowlers, but he himself met with no particular success in batting.
He also went with the M.C.C. teams to the West Indies in 1925-26 and 1929-30, while in 1926-27 he went to India under the captaincy of A.E.R. Gilligan with the M.C.C. team who toured that country but it is as a County cricketer that Astill has made his name. He may with justice consider himself unfortunate never to have played against Australia.