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The endearing eccentric

RJO Meyer was one of the most colourful of county cricketers. Here David Foot expands on his exploits and unique outlook on life

David Foot
RJO Meyer was one of the most colourful of county cricketers. Here David Foot expands on his exploits and unique outlook on life.

Jack Meyer: 'could charm the hairs off a gooseberry' according to Harold Gimblett © The Cricketer
If he'd spent less time in India and then not applied his idiosyncratic and innovative skills to the development of Millfield, Jack Meyer could probably have played for England. His quirky brilliance, more cerebral than physical, was too rarely seen on the Somerset grounds.
His batting, especially the straight- and on-drives, could be a joy. The daring variety of his bowling, during which he could summon up late swing and bamboozling medium-pace legbreaks (often six different balls in an over), was inclined to look more of a lark -- though not to despairing wicketkeepers like Wally Luckes. He softened confusion and burgeoning neurosis around him by acts of kindness. "Sorry I can't tell you in advance, Wally. Never quite know myself. But I'm going to make it up to you. I think you're the best in the country and I'm going to start a special collection for you." And he did.
In the same spirit, he once held up play against Northants to offer his apologies and hand Arthur Wellard a £1 note, after putting down Dennis Brookes in the slips off the Somerset bowler. Plagued by lumbago - many of us retain the image of RJO limping between overs, one hand instinctively massaging his back - he just couldn't bend for the catch.
The pros never quite knew what to make of him when he was in charge in 1947. He was everlastingly experimenting: with his field placings, rotation of bowlers, batting order. Just once, in a tetchy moment, he ordered an extra net session as if he were up-braiding some of his wayward boys at Street. For most of the time, he had a warm relationship with his team. He taught them poker (well, perhaps not that adept cardsharper Wellard), miraculously rustled up substantial meals from apparently empty hotel kitchens late at night, and once pulled the communication cord on the Manchester express when he wanted the guard to arrange for refreshments at the next station.
He had too much charm to incur the statutory £5 fine. Harold Gimblett used to say: "That man could charm the hairs off a gooseberry." The sad Gimblett, indeed, had reason to appreciate that particular quality. Depressed and out of work after a brief, abortive spell of farm-labouring in Wales, he applied for a job at Millfield -- to help with the cricket coaching and drive the delivery van. RIO, with the sentimental sense that would intermittently surface, took him on. He compounded the generosity, after a one-minute interview on the spot, by accepting Gimblett's son as a pupil. Such recruitment was based firmly on the Robin Hood principle. Peter Roebuck turned up in search of a free scholarship and clinched it by the way he held onto an orange hurled at him in the headmaster's study by RJO.
A large number of Somerset cricketers arrived from Millfield more or less the same way. Graham Burgess told me: "My sport had been virtually limited to soccer when my father took me along. We thought the application was too late. Instead RJO took a look at me and twice had me taking running catches with a cricket ball. Then he got me bowling . . . at a golf flag."
Jack Meyer dreamed up ideas, academic and sporting, as he prowled the grounds at Millfield. Almost always he carried a golf club with him. He liked to chip the ball through a downstairs window of his house. Eccentricity came naturally, endearingly to him. He rather enjoyed the stir he caused. When once I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about his whims, I wasn't at all sure how he'd react. I was relieved when a postcard arrived. "Bloody good," it said. Journalists don't usually get much complimentary feedback.
The trouble with RJO was that he couldn't resist a bet. When his back trouble was at its worst, he turned up at Cheltenham in a specially commissioned ambulance. He liked local point-to-point just as much. He passed on occasional tips to masters and favoured boys. He had a fateful fascination for the gaming tables. But we shan't go into that. Maybe he'll have something to say about that and his embarrassing departure from the famous school he founded in his posthumous autobiography (which he first told me he was working on 15 years ago).
I've just retrieved some personal notes he wrote in the early 1950s when Somerset didn't have a 2nd XI. He passionately thought they should: "I'll continue to press for this until I get my way or am silenced with an axe. I should perhaps confess that all my life I've been a rebel and often have been wrong. 'Baying the moon', like an expletive in a bunker, may let off steam but it also deposits poisons in the blood and, in any case, butters no more parsnips than soft words ..."
Strange, highly personalised phraseology from one of cricket's great individualists. As a maverick he sometimes earned a public rebuke himself. 'Bunty' Longrigg was less than pleased when RJO went out to field under an umbrella because he thought the conditions were too bad. There was one kerfuffle when aggrieved pros claimed he'd given them a poor tip and done another horse himself. With the backing of his players, he took on Middlesex captain Walter Robins, who became quite petulant over a technical argument about the use of a 12th man.
He wasn't really fit enough, of course, to lead Somerset in that one post-war season. But he left behind a legacy of rich and often embroidered stories, to do with the theories, many of them unworkable but wonderfully imaginative, that he introduced to county cricket. He played only 65 times for Somerset: yet no wonder that they needed five different captains the summer after he'd left.
Jack Meyer had the fecund presence of five men. Who would wish to be petty enough to devalue his one double-hundred, against Lancashire in 1936 - even though the whispered, retrospective evidence does firmly suggest he offered a contribution to Jack Iddon's benefit fund if some of the bowling was a little less than combative? A cursory glance at Wisden can surely be dismissed with an affectionate smile.