Astill, Turnbull and White, 1978

Three studies in greatness

Basil Easterbrook



A man's destiny unfolds in strange ways for which there are no possible explanations, the story of Ewart Astill being a good example. He was born at Ratby in Leicestershire on St. David's Day, 1890, the son of a star player in the local village cricket team. No cricket was played at the school Astill attended but the game was in his blood and it was soon realised at Ratby that he was going to be a better player than his father. Leicestershire took him on their staff when he was 15 in 1905 after some remarkable performances in a local Sunday School League. His promise was such that at 16 the county gave him a solitary taste of first-class cricket.

It was against Hampshire at Southampton towards the end of August and the stripling bowled 32 overs in the match, took three wickets for 76 runs and batting No. 10 made 12 not out in one innings and a duck in the other. Leicestershire lost the match by six wickets but they did not take the field without Astill once in the next four seasons. Twice in those four seasons he headed the bowling averages and once he was second. He could bowl either off spin or leg breaks, varying them between slow and medium pace and at the start of the 1911 season had a countrywide reputation of being a bowler of considerable skill and cunning.

And then it all began to go wrong for Ewart Astill just after his twenty-first birthday. After four years of being an ever present he was actually dropped. He got back into the side in 1912 and did just enough to justify himself but in 1913 had another poor season. The summer of 1914 was a personal disaster for Astill. He took just three wickets. He was washed up, through, due to be sacked at the end of the season and no one knew it better than Ewart. Then on August 4 the first World War began and Astill along with the rest of the youth of a tragic generation was swept into it. He served in the army with such distinction that he gained a commission -- a considerable feat sixty years ago for a man who earned his living at sport in peace time.

Ewart's lack of success in cricket in the three seasons leading up to the war was a malaise of the mind and spirit rather than a loss of skill. He had come to the top too quickly, perhaps too easily and became jaded, with a consequent loss of concentration. In 1919, a season of two-day county cricket, Astill played only three innings. Then came 1920 and normal conditions for cricket and living were restored. The effect on Ewart Astill was little short of extraordinary. He seemed to realise that he had survived intact the war that had killed, maimed and broken millions of other men, that he had been spared to savour again the game and way of life that had made him well-known and admired a decade before. What then he took for granted Astill now found infinitely precious. His batting which had been very slow to ripen showed an improvement that was as vast as it was quick. Even Wisden felt obliged to say, "Astill took, as it were, a new lease of life." In 1920 he was fourth in the Leicestershire batting and second in bowling and in 1921, for the first time, accomplished the double. The ennui was gone and it never came back. Between the two world wars he and George Geary were to all intents and purposes Leicestershire. In all he was to do the double nine times and few players with as much work as Astill had thrust upon him retained their form so consistently for so long. Wisden honoured him in 1933 by making him one of their Five Cricketers of the Year and the notice included the following sentence: -- "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."

Apart from his unfailing reliability with the bat and ball Astill was frequently called upon to field in the slips, possibly because Leicestershire had no one as good in that responsible position as he was. He went on M.C.C. tours to the West Indies twice, to South Africa and India but it was as a county cricketer that he found his true forte. We all have our disappointments however successful, and Astill's was that he never played against Australia, his nine Tests being against South Africa (5) and West Indies (4), all abroad.

In seven years the only break Astill had from competitive cricket was the winter of 1928 and, fair and slight, his strength was never more than moderate. An extremely good amateur billiards player, he was once champion of the British Army of Occupation on the Rhine. He was immensely popular and when he gave up regular first-class cricket in 1938 he took on the role of county coach. Les Berry once told me, "He was a good coach for he had a happy way of instructing and correcting faults." Ewart played two final first-class matches in 1939, bowling 18 overs for one wicket and scoring 21 runs. A whispered farewell.

A few weeks later the 49-year-old Astill found himself donning officer's uniform again. Ahead of him lay a six years' stint of further military service throughout the Second World War. When that was behind him Astill took the appointment of cricket coach to Tonbridge School in 1946 but now over thirty years of non-stop activity and travel presented their account. His health began to fail and Ewart had to give up his post at Tonbridge. He could look back on career figures which will keep him for all time among the company of the great all-rounders -- 22,468 runs, 2,428 wickets and 402 catches. When he died in a Leicester hospital three weeks before his fifty-eighth birthday in February, 1948 I like to think they were a source of comfort to him in his last days.


(Cambridge University and Glamorgan)

Major Maurice Joseph Turnbull of the Welsh Guards was killed in action near Montchamp in Normandy on August 5, 1944 at the age of 38. During an attack his company got cut off and it became vital that a reconnaissance should be made. An officer of field rank is not expected to undertake that kind of job and he could have ordered a lieutenant or a sergeant to do it. But Turnbull jumped up and said, "I'll go." They were the last words he uttered. A concealed sniper shot him through the head, killing him instantly. Ironically the Germans were at their last gasp in Normandy. A few days later they were streaming out of France back towards their own frontier. One could understand J. C. Clay, that great father figure of Glamorgan cricket, writing of Turnbull's end in these words -- "It exactly describes his leadership of Glamorgan in the days of peace and shows that in his greatest Test of all he did not alter his style but played his own game to the end."

Turnbull was born at Cardiff on March 16, 1906, the son of a Yorkshireman who captained Wales at hockey for many winters. Maurice learned all his early cricket at the famous Roman Catholic public school, Downside, where he was five years in the eleven, in the last three of which he established a great reputation as a schoolboy batsman. In 1924 when 18 he made his début for Glamorgan at St. Helen's, Swansea, scoring 40 and 16 against Lancashire on a bowler's pitch, contributions which helped the Welsh team to a totally unexpected victory by 38 runs.

During his first season at Cambridge it was noticed that he was mainly an on side player with a tendency for the left wrist to be behind the handle. Missing his second summer at Fenner's because of a knee injury sustained at rugby, Turnbull went away quietly to work on the problem of his top hand and -- to use his expression -- changed himself into a fairly normal player. His leg-side play fell into desuetude and soon he was standing forth as a fine off-side stylist. His first century, 106 not out, was made for Glamorgan against Worcestershire at the old Arms Park ground at Cardiff. In 1929 as captain of Cambridge he scored three centuries and in the winter of 1929-30 went on the first tour of New Zealand under Harold Gilligan when four tests were played, a solitary victory being enough to give England the rubber.

Turnbull was on is way to sporting greatness. He was made captain and secretary of Glamorgan in 1930; he played cricket for England, rugby and hockey for Wales and added the squash rackets championship of South Wales to that formidable list of achievements. The 40 he made in his debut for Glamorgan in 1924 was top score for the county as was the 156 he made against Leicestershire in his last match in 1939. By the time he was 33 Turnbull had scored 29 centuries, aggregated nearly 18,000 runs and held over 300 catches.

Wilf Wooller has said that in his opinion Turnbull was the best player of his generation who never captained England. The great John Clay was fascinating on the subject of Turnbull, for he had known him from the day he came to Cardiff in July, 1924 to have a net in readiness for his début the next day against Lancashire. "He was so nervous and did so badly that he suggested it might be best if he stood down. Luckily for him and for Glamorgan I was able to talk him out of it with some nonsense about a bad dress rehearsal guaranteeing a successful first night." He stood up to Ted McDonald, Dick Tyldesley and Parkin at their best on a pitch favouring bowlers with a maturity worthy of one double his age. Only a year later when Glamorgan were playing in London Turnbull showed the same confidence and maturity beyond his years when he sent for the forbidding-looking wine waiter of a large hotel and rebuked him on the quality of the claret. Autres temps, autres moeurs.

Not the least of Turnbull's achievements was that he was the first man to justify Glamorgan's elevation to first-class status in 1921. By 1929 they had already had the wooden spoon three times under no fewer than seven leaders. When Turnbull took over they were indeed a bedraggled flock without a shepherd. Turnbull linked Monmouthshire with Glamorgan, ran a Minor Counties side, improved the membership and by 1937 the improvement had advanced to a point where Glamorgan won 13 matches and finished seventh, in the top half of the Championship for the first time.

Turnbull not only launched a financial appeal and organised dances and functions in most remote villages of South Wales -- he attended them personally. Clay said drily, "If the figures were known, the number of miles he danced for Glamorgan might be favourably compared with the number of runs scored by some of the side!"

By 1939 Turnbull had converted a shambling, shamefaced bankrupt into a worthy and respected member of society, which could actually boast a credit balance at the bank of £1,000. Turnbull played in Tests, but he was never an accumulator, never made runs unnecessarily. He did not give a fig about raising his average. He was a d'Artagnan, always attacking the bowling, a member of a line of Corinthian sportsmen already doomed to die out. He was at his best when others were failing or when runs were needed against the clock like the 119 he scored at Swansea against Charlie Parker and Tom Goddard to see Glamorgan home against Gloucestershire with ten minutes to spare.

The Glamorgan professionals of the 30's described him as a grand boss to work for. One said of him, "Maurice was a quiet captain. There was no fuss, no gesticulating, no shouting on the field. He never got rattled or irritable, and always continued to make you feel that, although the scoreboard said otherwise, you were really doing pretty well." Clay paid him this tribute -- "I always bowled much better for him than I ever did for myself or anybody else." Turnbull scorned playing for safety, but often decisions of his which looked foolhardy at the time turned out to be extremely well calculated risks. As a fielder he was out of this world and began the Glamorgan tradition of being superb at short-leg. He was well read, appreciated good wine and co-operated with Maurice Allom in a couple of books. The Army's description of Turnbull was -- "Quiet, confident, thinking always of his men."

When Michael Carver published his book on the battle of El Alamein in 1962 he wrote a poignant final sentence -- "As in all battles the dead and the wounded came chiefly from the bravest and the best."

The terrible futile waste of war claimed Turnbull, a man who had been pencilled in for high rank in post-war cricket administration, certainly as a future Secretary of M.C.C., possibly as chairman of Test selectors. Nothing was beyond Turnbull's reach until that moment an unknown German with his eye to a telescopic sight took second pressure on the trigger of his marksman's rifle.

The news of his death came through while Glamorgan were fulfilling a wartime fixture at Cardiff, the scene of his very first century. The crowd rose unbidden and just stood there in the August sunshine in silence. Many must have seen in their imagination the well known figure out there on the field. After a decent interval the people sat down and play restarted. Glamorgan were carrying on. Maurice would have wanted that above everything.



John Cornish White, who died in the first week of the 1961 cricket season, having exactly completed three score years and ten, was one of the best left-arm slow bowlers of all time. From his first appearance in the Somerset side in 1909 when he was seventeen until he retired in 1937 he took over 2,350 wickets and only fourteen bowlers in cricket history have done better.

From 1921 to 1930 he played in 15 Tests for England and toured both Australia and South Africa. On the triumphant tour of 1928-29 when England beat Australia by 4-1 in the Test rubber he was vice-captain to Percy Chapman and never before or afterwards did he demonstrate his prowess or endurance to such effect. England won the first Test at Brisbane, which has been a postwar bogey ground for us, by the incredible margin of 675 runs. When sunshine followed rain in the night White took four prime Australian wickets for seven runs in less than seven overs. From the fourth Test at Adelaide England eventually emerged victors by 12 runs. In boiling heat White performed with an untiring skill matched by unflagging accuracy and endurance, sending down just on 125 overs and coaxing 13 wickets out of that shirt front pitch. They cost him 256 runs but on a batsman's paradise England got home by a whisker, thanks to White.

In the last Test Chapman was ill and White led England in a match which lasted eight days and was at that time the longest Test ever played. Weary and weakened England lost but as they had won the first four it was no sort of compensation to the Australians. Monty Noble, Australia's captain for most of the first decade of this century, said of White, "One of the most tireless workers with muscle and brain that this or any other England team has ever possessed. On bad, worn and good wickets alike White was always able to call the tune and compel the batsman to dance to it. A truly capable, modest, unassuming sportsman, Jack White."

Oddly enough no one in Britain ever called him Jack. He was known in the game and by the fans either as the Jasper or Farmer. He was in fact the son of a well-to-do cricket-loving farmer, being born at Holford near Taunton on February 19, 1891. Educated at Taunton School, he came under the influence of a former Somerset professional, E. J. Tyler, and said he learned much of what he knew about bowling from his coach and mentor, but as Tyler said, "A coach can only do so much." Greatness of the kind J. C. White possessed comes from inside a man.

At this point I must attempt to define what made Farmer a world-class left arm spinner by any standards at any given period in cricket's development. He took 100 wickets or more in a season fourteen times and even modern heroes like Statham, Trueman, Don Shepherd, Laker, and Alec Bedser never accomplished that.

Where to start? Well, he obviously had the two greatest virtues of his kind -- uncanny command of length and the ability to make the ball really spin. To these he added all the cunning and concentration of a nimble mind. If he got on a wicket that was doing a bit he pitched the ball on the leg stump of a right hand batsman and made it go fizzing across him. He used sparingly a faster ball that was invariably deadly because he never varied his approach or run up to the bowling crease. On hard pitches giving him no help he concentrated his attack on flight, varied with a slight swerve or wobble in the air and a tempting slow ball well outside the off stump to which he imparted an extra degree of real finger spin. He had an armoury to exploit every possible combination of conditions.

If the wind helped him he could make the ball dip disconcertingly and he swerved it late. If the wind was against him he could still make the ball swerve but so superb was his control that he could lessen the swerve. "You must guard against making the ball do too much" he used to warn young bowlers who sought his help and advice. He was blessed with an iron constitution that helped him to prolong his career until shortly before the Second World War. He remained economical to the end and his great haul of wickets cost him fewer than 19 runs each.

White was a regular in the Somerset side as early as 1913 and but for the First World War would probably have taken 3,000 wickets. By 1928 he was the Somerset captain and another aspect of his greatness then made itself apparent. He allowed his professional bowlers to pick the end they fancied, quite happy to operate at the other. Farmer of course was so good that he could take wickets from the end no one else wanted.

He was a long way from being a mug with the bat. He scored over 12,000 runs and in 1929 and 1930 completed the double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in a season, although he always roared with laughter at any suggestion that he was an all-rounder. "My ground fielding is shocking sometimes" he would say as justification for his mirth. It was not too bad when the ball was in the air, for he clung on to some 400 catches in his illustrious career. When England beat South Africa two-nil with three matches drawn in 1929 White was captain on three occasions. He once said to Gubby Allen "I can't think why they keep calling on me to do the job. Don't they know we've all got straw in our hair down in Somerset?"

One side who knew differently was Worcestershire. In 1919 he took 16 of their wickets for 83 runs in a single day at Bath. Two years later at Worcester he took all ten wickets in an innings for 76.

By the time cricket was started up again after the second World War the name J. C. White had no magic for the fans, but those inside the game would never forget him. For a time he served as an England selector and his counsel was always heard at Taunton with reverence. Fond of all forms of sport, he lost an eye in a shooting accident but his life was crowned in its final year when the county which had given him a chance at the age of 17 made him its President over half a century later.

© John Wisden & Co