The man behind Fenner's peerless reputation, 1982

Cyril Coote - a Cambridge legend


As you leave Cambridge for Huntingdon you will see on the left of the road, lying between the assertive new buildings of Fitzwilliam College and the cosy villas of Storey's Way, a College playing field belonging to Trinity Hall. In the early part of this century this ground was sedulously and jealously cared for by one Ernest Coote, a groundsman with a strong personality and a national reputation.

It appears to have been accepted without question that Ernest's three sons, Claud, Cyril, and Leslie, should embrace their father's occupation; and all three were put through the mill on the Trinity Hall ground in the days when mechanisation was not far advanced and weeds had to be removed by hand. In due course Claud took over the Trinity College playing fields and Leslie those of Peterhouse, which his father had laid out.

The middle member of the trio, Cyril, was not only an apt pupil in the arts of groundsmanship, but also a versatile sportsman. In spite of a footballing injury at the age of fifteen which left him with a fixed hip joint, he was remarkably agile. He was an aggressive and successful left-handed batsman, being from 1932 until 1949 the mainstay of Cambridgeshire's batting and in eight seasons their captain. He also reached high standards of performance in lawn tennis and squash, became a first-class shot and a fisherman of considerable skill.

Cyril was the heir apparent to succeed his father at Trinity Hall. But meanwhile, on the other side of the city, arthritis was bringing to a close the long reign at Fenner's of Dan Hayward, brother of the illustrious Tom. In 1935, when Mr. J. W. C. Turner was appointed Senior Treasurer of the Cambridge University Cricket Club, he treated as urgent the question of Hayward's replacement. Turner was a Fellow of Trinity Hall and thereby aware of Cyril's talents, and he believed that, although Cyril was only 25, he could cope with the job successfully. Overtures for his release were accordingly initiated with Trinity Hall.

These, at first, were not at all sympathetically received, the Master, Professor Dean, expressing outright opposition. To do the Master justice, this was not exclusively a matter of self-interest on the part of the College. He knew from Turner that the Cricket and Athletic Clubs, who shared the use of Fenner's, were in perennial financial difficulties and that Cyril would be exchanging a job at the College with modest rewards but good security for one with modest rewards and some degree of risk for the future. In due course the accuracy of his judgment was fully vindicated.

On the other hand, Fenner's at that time catered for three University sports - cricket, athletics and lawn tennis - and Cyril would acquire not only an independent rôle but a good deal of prestige. The Master therefore relented on condition that Cyril remained in the Trinity Hall pension fund and, like Dan Hayward, retained the concession for catering and bar services at Fenner's. He was accorded the title of Custodian to demonstrate that he bore responsibilities beyond those of caring for the playing area.

This was the beginning of a notable term of service extending over the next 44 years, during which Cyril's functions, official and unofficial, far outstripped those of the average groundsman. His position at Fenner's was influenced by a number of factors. For one thing University clubs do not employ paid officials. The officers normally hold full-time appointments in the University. Unlike the secretaries of county clubs and their assistants, they can spend only a limited amount of time at the ground. The day-to-day incidents - anything from a drunken member to a request for a cash advance from a visiting side - have in the first instance to be dealt with by the man on the spot; in the case of Fenner's by the Custodian, who becomes in the eyes of most visitors, suppliers and spectators the normal spokesman for the club.

Secondly, Cyril became very interested in the techniques of cricket. As he supplemented his own experience of Minor Counties cricket with many opportunities to observe and analyse the methods of the top-class batsmen and bowlers who visited Fenner's, he felt competent to contribute to the coaching of University sides. Here he had no formal status, but many Cambridge players have profited from treating seriously his comments and advice on their technique.

At Cambridge University captains bear sole responsibility for the selection of teams, for the tactics employed on the field, and for any other activities designed to improve their team's performance. They vary greatly in the extent to which they seek advice and, if so, from whom. It is only in very recent years that the club has appointed a coach who maintains contact throughout the University season. Before this, coaches merely spent a fortnight in April at the nets and practice games and disappeared as soon as regular play began. Especially when this period coincided with wet weather, some captains doubted the value of spending money on such coaching, and the upshot was that in some years Cyril filled an obvious gap. Certain captains became disposed to consult him on such matters as the potential of candidates for Blues and on team combinations. He has even been seen in an avuncular rôle, smoothing over tensions within the group of regular players.

Naturally, rôles of this kind could be occupied only by someone capable of gaining the confidence of young people. Cyril was always able to make young men feel that he was on their side. He did not scruple to speak his mind to them or to deny unreasonable requests, but this seldom generated resentment. The same qualities led him to enjoy instructing young assistants in the practice of groundsmanship. Fenner's was the training ground for a succession of young groundsmen who, after several years service, moved on and soon acquired grounds of their own. Of these the most celebrated is Bernard Flack, now the consultant on groundsmanship to the Test and County Cricket Board after distinguished service at Edgbaston.

Groundsmanship can't be a nine to five job. Things must be done when they need to be done. That's the first lesson a youngster must learn. Timing, Cyril maintains, is at the root of high-quality ground maintenance. You have to have an instinct for when the normal things like top-dressing, fertilising, seeding and heavy rolling should be done.

It was not long before Cyril's handiwork gave Fenner's a peerless reputation for true batting wickets - especially in the years following World War II. It was in this era that the celebrated, if somewhat farcical match took place between the University and the West Indian touring team when over 1,300 runs were scored for the loss of seven wickets.

Certainly the wickets at Fenner's were easy-paced and unhelpful to the bowler; and from time to time Cyril was under pressure to make them less tranquil. He always resisted such proposals on the grounds that, while the undergraduate bowlers might take more wickets, any advantage would be cancelled out because county batsmen would cope with the wickets better than their opponents. Better to have wickets on which learner-batsmen, if they play well, can get 250-300 and thus both build up their confidence and give their bowlers runs to play with.

No less than its pitches the Fenner's outfield has been famed for its dependablility. The fielder can swoop on the ball secure in the knowledge that it will neither pop nor bobble. This was a great asset when in 1962, to reinforce the Cricket Club's finances, the University Hockey Club began to play all its matches on the ground. A few years later they were joined by the Association Football Club, who play there in the Michaelmas Term. The admirable playing surfaces made opponents eager to visit Cambridge; and Cyril rose triumphantly to the annual task of restoring the playing areas to high-class outfield in the space of about five weeks.

As a groundsman Cyril has his individual quirks. He likes to retain worms rather than exterminate them (they aerate the soil); prays for hard frosts in winter (they lift the soil evenly so that the roller binds it in the spring); opposes deciduous trees (they're very pretty, but the leaves make a lot of work). He had a deep affection for an old pre-war Aveling-Barford roller which he would not relinquish long after spare parts were out of production.

He thinks David Sheppard was the most accomplished batsman he has seen at the undergraduate stage, while admitting that his contemporary, Peter May, might have overtaken him after their Cambridge days. The best individual innings was by Majid Khan against Worcestershire in 1972 - a score of 70 not out on a hard wicket briefly rendered unplayable by a heavy shower and ensuing sunshine, when no-one else could begin to cope with the bowling. He would also rate Majid as the best captain of the club he has known, recognising that Majid had the advantage of Test match experience before coming up to Cambridge. Cyril is also a great admirer of Majid's father, Jahangir Khan, who played for All-India as an undergraduate and was in the first Cambridge side following Cyril's appointment to Fenner's.

Like most others who have supported the University since the War, he would put Ossie Wheatley, later captain of Glamorgan, as the best undergraduate bowler of the era. (His 80 wickets in a University season in 1958 has never since been approached.) He has, too, great respect for Gamini Goonesena's performances from 1954-57 as a leg-break bowler on unhelpful wickets. He thinks Phil Edmonds had outstanding talent, uncovered almost by chance at Cambridge, but never fully optimised.

No account of Cyril's career at Cambridge would be complete without underlining his qualities as a person. First, the visual impression. A big head with strongly marked features; stocky build, the lower half foreshortened by the damaged leg; a resonant voice, an air of authority, but not aggressive in style. Not someone to take liberties with, but in no way forbidding. He has, of course, enjoyed some psychological satisfactions. He has had virtually complete control over his own time and effort, over his assistants and over the resources the club can afford. More, he has been treated as a pundit. If academics are people who would rather be right than rich, a University was a proper employer for Cyril. He likes to be proved correct. He expects his judgments and opinions to be respected and, by and large, they have been. In running the services in the Pavilion, Cyril enjoyed yeoman support from Mrs Coote, whose friendliness and good nature endeared her over the years to hundreds of members and visitors.

Great servants do not always reap the harvest of appreciation they deserve. It is gratifying to record that Cyril was accorded certain gestures of recognition. In 1971 he was awarded the British Empire Medal for his services to groundsmanship. And on his retirement in 1980 an appeal to members and old Blues for funds to supplement his pension arrangements met with a response greatly in excess of what such ventures normally elicit. The debt which the clubs owed him had not been forgotten, even if it could never be fully repaid.

© John Wisden & Co