Former Middlesex and England slow left-armer Jack Young recalls starting life on the MCC groundstaff

Jack Young: 'We were certainly not over-coached, and nets were rare' © The Cricketer
It was a grey March day in 1932 with the lumpy clouds overhead looking, as a friend of mine once said, `like school potatoes', that Laurie Gray and I had a trial at Lord's for the M.C.C. ground staff. We had been recommended by Jack Durston, and when Mr. Ronnie Aird, the Assistant Secretary met us he quickly put us at ease with his quiet charm, and asked us to bowl to him. The wicket was matting on concrete, and we bowled away industriously as the cold wind whistled through the tea gardens. After ten minutes of coping most courageously with a very hostile Laurie, Mr. Aird invited us both to join the M.C.C. ground staff.

Some weeks later we reported to the ground staff room by the Nursery Clock Tower. Here we were received by our future colleagues with considerably less courtesy than had been shown by Mr. Aird. There was no cricket gear in sight, but there were plenty of cloth caps, grey flannels, and old mackintoshes. The place seemed dampish and smelled vaguely of old hymn books-although there weren't any hymn books there.

Harry White

For us there was very little cricket to begin with, instead we pulled the heavy roller, sold match cards, and became very handy with the besom. You had to prove yourself in this place under Harry White, the head groundsman. Harry was an old Hertfordshire batsman, and I remember he used to play cut shots with a cricket stump he always carried as we hauled the heavy roller up and down with Ted Swannell, the present head groundsman, `in the shafts'. Harry's word was law, and, since the clock ruled everything in those days, latecomers, and they were few, got the rough edge of his tongue, and only one man ever defied him. This offender strolled up one morning an hour late - then, watched by the dazed roller crew and an open-mouthed Harry, he prodded the turf with his umbrella and remarked, genially, `Nice wicket you've got here, White.' The outraged Harry leapt profanely in the air slicing his adjectives all over the square, as 'Doc' Gibbons, the offender, later to become a fine Worcestershire opening bat, moved off to change.

We were certainly not over-coached, and `nets' were rare, but there was plenty of fielding to be done. As the great county players emerged from the gloom under the Father Time Stand for a go at the nets, they would give a nod or a smile, while still maintaining a certain dignified aloofness. We stared, admired, and wished. The Nursery became a Wonderland as we fielded to the Giants - and cricket had made us its slaves. One of the chances for recognition came with the annual two-day Young Amateurs v Young Professionals match. How desperately we tried to impress George Fenner the M.C.C. coach.

A Great Friend

There was quite a bit of cricket to be had by now, and apart from the Sunday matches I had for the Lord's Nippers (who took their colours from a spearmint packet), and for the Odney Club at Cookham, there were the M.C.C. `out' matches, Middlesex Club and Ground and the Second XI. That great friend of the young pro, Jack Durston, ran the Club and Ground and the Second XI about this time, and, although we gave him many anxious moments, he saw many of us through to the County side.

Going over to the first-class M.C.C. bowling staff was a great day. Now you lived with the Middlesex side, called them `Patsy' or `J.W.', and bowled at the nets to M.C.C. members with the rest of the bowling staff, many of whom were Minor County players. Life `on the rank' as we called this, certainly sharpened the wits because members had varying ideas as to how long a net should last, and the size of the tip that went with it, so it took time to form a mental dossier of this important information. Of course the old pro's could tell what they paid, to the nearest sixpence, by the car numbers. The old pro's would occasionally put you on to a good `turn' they saw approaching, but they had to be pretty exhausted themselves to do this.

Memories of George Robey

Sir Charles Aubrey Smith: would never miss his net when over from Hollywood © Getty Images
I can remember seeing the late George Robey, a very good club cricketer, walking past the gaping `rank' with two old pro's marching protectively on either side of him. He was worth ten shillings each, a few funny stories, and a drink at the bar on the way back. It was said that these two pro's could see George Robey get into a cab in the West End, and hear him say `Lord's.'

The bliss of hearing that sentence `You're playing for the County tomorrow', for the first time cannot be described. I played my first match against Cambridge University at Fenner's. I caught and bowled D. R. Wilcox, and returned to Lord's mighty proud. Len Muncer swears to this day that I never gave him back the two shirts I borrowed for the occasion.

The great C. Aubrey Smith would never miss his net when over from Hollywood. I recall seeing him once striding across the middle towards the Nursery wearing a panama hat, blazer and cummerbund all emblazoned with M.C.C. colours. He was escorted by two young pros who were on a certain five bob each. That day the net wickets were decidedly `sticky'. For five minutes, before a big crowd, the great man struggled with the conditions against the medium-slow deliveries. As he played the classic back stroke and cocked the left leg he was struck in various parts of the anatomy. Finally his iron control left him as he was struck in the pit of the stomach. He dropped his bat and roared that he had not travelled ten thousand miles to see how well they bowled - didn't they know what a half-volley was?

Patsy Hendren's Advice

Getting into the County side in those days was well nigh hopeless unless one was blessed with extraordinary talent. If you did get in, the word of the senior pro was law. Before going out to field against Hampshire, about a year later, Patsy Hendren (he was the senior pro) drew me aside and said that the occasional quick one I bowled was no good against these experienced players and was worth fourpennyworth most of the time, therefore cut it out. I promised faithfully that I would do this.

Eventually I was called upon to bowl by Nigel Haig to the great Phillip Mead. The wicket was near the Tavern, and from a group of my relations, enthusiastic applause greeted my first two maiden overs. Encouraged by this I foolishly let my quick one go the first ball of my next over. It went `up the hill' a little, Phillip Mead got an outside edge and the ball flew past Patsy's right knee for four against the Pavilion rails. At the end of the over I was given a dressing-down by Patsy in midwicket, watched approvingly by the captain, while my relations thought Patsy was apologising to me for not catching it!

Patsy Hendren: the word of the senior pro was law © The Cricketer
We still spent a lot of time at the nets, watched the young men who followed us on to the ground staff, and getting used to it all. Altogether life consisted of great companionship, much laughter, and very long winters. There was always a chance to succeed if you stuck to it. on looking back I am proud to have pplayed under F. T. Mann (M.C.C. v Civil Service) and F. G. Mann for Middlesex and England, and that takes a bit of doing. Middlesex won the Championship in '47 with a great batting side who always made enough runs for us to bowl at, and Laurie Gray and I are two members of that side who won't forget.

That same summer, nine of us, including Bill Edrich and Denis Compton, were returning from a County match in the days when beer was scarce. We were looking for a certain pub which Bill knew as he was stationed in the area during the war; the pub, according to Bill, was run by the greatest poaching publican in the shires. We found the pub at last and nine of us went in. The bar was lit by oil lamps and the publican, who wore a hairy cap, took a lot of persuading before he began to draw nine pints. As he worked he kept his eye on Bill, saying repeatedly `I know you.' When recognition came he fairly flung his arms around Bill and the tension and the flow of beer were eased. The old publican pointed to a small wooden urn with a silver shield on it, standing on a shelf in the bar.

`A team from Lunnon give us that for beatin' em', he said proudly, then added with feeling, `Cricketen - that's the finest game a-goin'.' And nine of us who had started `Cricketen' years ago `From the Nursery End' looked at each other and reckoned that the old boy was right.