First-class cricket before the war

Last men in

Robert Winder

Most days, John Manners strides out of his house in Hungerford, splashes a drop of water over his tomatoes and crosses the road to buy The Times. Occasionally, he marches up the High Street for a pint of milk or something from the butcher. Anyone watching might think he is doing well for a man his age, for there is a crispness in his stride. But few would guess that he made his debut for Hampshire in 1936, and celebrated his 100th birthday on September 25, 2014. He is the oldest living member of MCC, and very probably the oldest first-class cricketer in the world today.

Leo Harrison is not far behind. And, following the death last year of Northamptonshire's Ian Philips, he and Manners are the only two men alive to have played first-class cricket in England before the Second World War. Born in Mudeford on the south coast in June 1922, Harrison made his first-class debut, also for Hampshire, as a 17-year-old in the summer of 1939, as the storm clouds were massing over Europe. Today he still lives only a mile or two from the Bournemouth ground where he made that debut, in a house he and his father built with their own hands, using the £3,000 he netted from his benefit season in 1957.

Manners and Harrison came at the game from different angles. Manners was an amateur who played only 21 first-class matches before he retired in 1953, Harrison a solid professional who enjoyed a busy career in the days before wicketkeepers were expected to score big runs. He managed 8,854 of them in 396 games at an average of 17, held 578 catches and made 103 stumpings. In 1952 he scored 153 against Nottinghamshire and, in 1966, as a member of the coaching staff, he pulled on his gloves one last time in first-class cricket, got rid of John Edrich and Micky Stewart, and scored 23. He was famed for his lightning-fast leg-side stumpings off Derek Shackleton's strangulating seam.

Though they played for the same county, they did so only once, against Essex at Colchester in July 1948. And they opposed each other too: at Aldershot a month earlier, Harrison turned out for Hampshire, Manners for Combined Services. Harrison, batting at No. 11, made 15; Manners nought and, with his team following on, six. But, late in life, they were a unique partnership: cricket veterans with rare memories of a lost time.

For modern players, a county debut is usually the climax of a major commitment to the game over many years. It was not always like that. When Manners played his first match for Hampshire, against Gloucestershire at Portsmouth's United Services Ground, he had literally stepped off a yacht. He took a deep breath, and buckled on his pads. He remembers it vividly. "Quite a few of us amateurs would come in during August in those days - schoolmasters, university men, people like that. I was serving on the Royal Yacht in Portsmouth, and since the King didn't want to go to Cowes that year we had nothing to do. Someone said: 'Hampshire have a game - you must play.' Some poor fellow was asked to stand down for me, and that was that."

Such is the tenacious grip exerted by cricket memories. "It rained a bit on the first day, but I was still there at lunch on the second. Then the captain said we had to get a move on. I cracked a ball hard into my foot, and it trickled slowly back on to the stumps." Manners had scored 81, and the bowler was off-spinner Reg Sinfield (who two years later, in his only Test appearance, removed Don Bradman). An 80-year-old dismissal can still rankle.

Manners made a strong enough impression to be selected three more times that year, making 39 against the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram's Indians, 48 against a Surrey side including Andy Sandham and Alf Gover, and 38 against a powerful Yorkshire. He was soon off to sea again (the America and West Indies Station). And then the world turned upside down. He played whenever he happened to be back in English waters. But his maiden first-class ton, for Hampshire against Kent, came in 1947. He can still see it today. "Doug Wright bowled a full toss, and I was in two minds whether to pull or drive. I drove, and we ran three. Only just got there."

Harrison has a looser sense of such details, perhaps because his Hampshire career was so long. His first-class debut, against Worcestershire, at Bournemouth'sDeanPark,was followed immediately by the visit of Yorkshire. "Got about 13, I think [he made nought and 16]. No idea how I was out. I expect I was big-headed enough to think I could win the match on my own. The ground was packed. It was the end of the season, festival week, and the whole of Yorkshire was down on holiday. I couldn't say who I faced... We lost by an innings."

Not many would forget the day they faced Bill Bowes and Hedley Verity, but Harrison is not one to dwell on such things. As a player he was famous for his genial chit-chat: "Hard luck, mate. It ain't half a bloody game, is it?" He has the same throwaway manner today: "Yes, I got hit a few times. Knocked a bit of sense out of me - or into me, more likely." His father kept scrapbooks and, though he cannot read the columns himself (his eyesight has faded almost to nothing), he still chuckles to hear the way the papers reported his early doings: "Fighting innings by Harrison... Junior makes his mark... Magnificent batting at a critical time."

The grandest thing that came out of these early days was a lifelong friendship with John Arlott. "I was a teenager, and Arlott was the local policeman. Every day he would walk to the ground and watch us in the nets. That's how I got to know him. We became best friends." They holidayed together, drank wine and talked cricket - all in the same mellow Hampshire accents. In Harrison's benefit year, Arlott wrote a privately published monograph on him which now sells (as part of a signed limited edition) for anything up to £360. Every now and then they went fishing, though Arlott was by no means a natural. "One time we were after sea trout right here in Christchurch, and John flicked his rod and somehow sent his hook through someone's window. We had to crawl up and ask for the spinner back. First time I ever saw someone catch a bungalow."

Cricket before the war exists, in many a mind's eye, as a black and white scene from another time. But Manners can still remember fielding on his Hampshire debut, against Gloucestershire in 1936, when Wally Hammond came out to bat: "He was out twice in the day, and everyone could see he'd been on the tiles and was three sheets to the wind." Manners also faced Verity that summer at Bournemouth, recalling him as "accurate but not particularly penetrative". This may be a touch unkind: Verity claimed nine for 90 in that match off 46 overs. But, true, he didn't dismiss Manners, who fell cheaply to Bowes in the first innings, and scored 38 in the second before he was caught and bowled by a whippersnapper named Len Hutton, two years his junior.

It was a different world, a different game. The stumps had polished brass ferrules, lending them a military air, and the boundary was little more than spectators' toes. Equipment was built to last. "I only ever had one pair of pads," says Manners. "That did me, my whole career." Harrison reckons he had only three bats in his life, all of them 2lb 2oz. "We'd scrub 'em with glass at the beginning of the season to clean 'em up. These days they get through a couple an innings, far as I can tell." And, of course, there were no helmets (after the war, Harrison wore glasses). Following Bodyline, bouncers were not cricket at all, dear me no.

The uncovered wickets were "unplayable, some days", which meant plenty of dreary afternoons hanging about in pavilions waiting for the pitch to dry. Things that would raise an eyebrow now were less surprising back then. "At Hampshire we had a medium- pacer called Creese," says Manners. "The first thing he did when he came on to bowl was bend down and rub the ball in the dirt."

Harrison relishes the story of a colleague who finally broke his vow of abstinence by paying for the team's wine, and was rewarded next day with a century against Surrey. And Manners, playing for Incogniti, once watched John Badcock edge a ball on to his wicket, only to see it trickle between the stumps - a splendid joke! Fielding was a side issue. "There were many more older players back then," says Manners. "Look at Rhodes. And Hobbs was 42 when he got all those centuries in a season. They were pretty sluggish in the field, some of these fellows. Even the younger ones stopped the ball with their foot sometimes. You don't see that now."

The four Championship innings Manners played in 1936 put him top of the Hampshire averages. The following summer, MCC waived their usual qualification rule to admit him, recognising that it was hard to turn out in Bristol when you were stationed in Madras. It never occurred to him to play as a full-time professional: there was no need. It was easy for talented amateurs to have it all: a distinguished public life and lashings of top-class cricket. A young naval officer such as Manners, fresh out of Dartmouth, could play for MCC, Hampshire and Combined Services, while also enjoying country-house cricket for society XIs.

"It's easy to smile now, but it was marvellous. Two-day games in these wonderful places - like Stansted Park, near Chichester - with great players, a black-tie dinner in the middle, bands playing... You played for fun. Fun and friendliness."

Manners came from what he calls "a family of empire builders" (his father, Sir Errol, was an admiral and a theologian), and by the time he notched that 81 in Portsmouth he had already served on HMS Hood. But, when war came, it was still a shock. He was in Singapore, aware that "things were beginning to hot up", and faced a long voyage home. Soon he was on destroyers off Malta, before heading north to escort Arctic convoys out of Scapa Flow - one of the bitterest duties in the war. On one trip, his 43-ship convoy ran into a line of German submarines and a sky full of Luftwaffe bombers: 13 were sunk. "The sky was black with planes," he recalls. "Heinkels and Junkers, about 50 of them, their wingtips almost touching."

It wasn't his only close shave. When he took a day's leave to get married (in St John's Wood church, next to Lord's), his hotel on Hyde Park was hit by a bomb that failed to explode. "We would have been in its crater if it had gone off." By 1943 he was back in the Mediterranean for the invasion of Sicily, launched by the cricket-loving Field Marshal

Montgomery with a characteristic speech about "hitting the Germans for six". Manners himself never knew, until the autumn of 2015, that Verity himself perished as a result of wounds sustained in that assault. Manners ended the war in command of a destroyer - HMS Viceroy. In April 1945, with the Allies closing in on Germany, he was guarding a convoy in the North Sea when sonar picked up an echo; then the SS Athelduke was hit. He released his depth charges, jumped when his own ship "leapt a foot or two into the air", and watched as debris from a German submarine came bobbing to the surface. There was a cylinder in the icy waves carrying 72 bottles of brandy, and Manners packed one of them in a presentation box and sent it as a gift to Winston Churchill. His own prize was a Distinguished Service Cross, awarded for "gallantry, determination and skill".

Harrison's war was quieter: he never left Britain. And, though he immediately joined the RAF, he failed the pilot's eyesight test ("I always had trouble with my eyes") and was sent to Slough to train as an engineer. He spent the rest of the war making instruments for Bomber Command. "My shift was 8pm until 8am, which wasn't much good for the eyes either." It is sobering to realise that his endlessly poor sight, though not bad enough to stop his wicketkeeping, probably saved his life.

If he did not see action himself, his work on airbases in East Anglia and Yorkshire brought him achingly close to those who did. "It was awful, awful. Manners packed the brandy in a presentation box and sent it to Churchill You see, the air crew were just marvellous. They'd always invite us to their parties and give us their sweet ration - because they were given extra, the flyers. But what could you say? You knew that half of them wouldn't come back, and so did they."

Few modern cricketers can claim to have sunk a submarine or helped build a Lancaster. But the perspective of war work allowed this rare sporting generation to accept the amateur-professional divide with a grace that seems odd now. Hardly anyone could afford to play without being paid, so the status of the amateur was maintained only through a charade of fake jobs and expenses. But no one wanted another fight. "What could you do?" shrugs Harrison. "In the holidays the amateurs would come in and we professionals would have to make way. We didn't like it, but there it was."

Manners echoes him: "You look back at the players with their different entrances and changing- rooms, separate travel arrangements and so on, and it seems extraordinary now. But we didn't question it: it was just the way things were." Arlott regarded Manners as a vivid advert for the role of the amateur, even in the modern game. In the 1990 county yearbook he wrote: "No player in Hampshire's history is more intriguing... not only was he potentially prolific, but his strokeplay was brilliant." He appeared for both the Navy and the Combined Services (scoring 147 against Gloucestershire in 1948), but as a serving officer he was never more than an occasional performer. Fortunately, amateur cricket was still prestigious and serious: thanks to national service, the armed forces were full of top players. "The RAF took the best," he recalls, "so they'd get a shock when they turned up expecting an easy game and ran into Peter May."

As a full-time professional, locked into a game in which only amateurs were felt to have the leadership qualities necessary to captain a side, Harrison could not pick and choose. His father's scrapbook contains a telegram from Lord's in 1955, one of many, which sounds like a military order: "MCC committee invite Harrison replace Evans in Players side Wednesday." The reply, scribbled on the cable sheet, was concise: "Harrison available and honoured play Wednesday." Professionals were expected to jump to it when they were bid.

In Mudeford today, Harrison winces at the thought of that match. "Alec Bedser was bowling and, well, I'd never kept to him before. The first ball swung down the leg side and went for four byes; so did the second. That damned inswinger. I wasn't too popular after that." Of all the world-class batsmen he played against, the one he most admired was May. "He never seemed to get less than a hundred against us. I remember that all right. Sometimes two hundred."

In his final game for Combined Services, in 1953, Manners, a naval officer in his late thirties, was caught by Tom Graveney for 45; barely a week later, representing Free Foresters in the Parks, he came up against another youngster, Colin Cowdrey. Who could have wished for more? He still follows the game on television, marvelling at the quicksilver fielding and lush outfields ("they always seemed to be brown in my day"). But he doesn't wish things had been otherwise: he has had, as the saying goes, a pretty good innings. MCC threw a lunch in honour of his 100th birthday, and his only cricketing regret is that he never came up against Bradman.

Nor did Harrison. "I was supposed to play him at Southampton in 1948. But Desmond Eagar dropped me. They brought in Jack Andrews instead." He still shakes his head at the memory. But, as it turned out, Bradman missed the game too. It is rather a pity the two never met, but pleasant to imagine the affable Harrison whispering to the Don, after yet another hundred before lunch, "It ain't half a bloody game, is it?" - then inviting him to nip over to Mudeford for fish and chips and a pint.

© John Wisden & Co