Looking back eighty years, 1973

Shillings for W.G.

Sir Compton MacKenzie

Wisdenis privileged to have received the last article by Sir Compton Mackenzie. It arrived a week before he died in Edinburgh on November 30, aged 89. In the last few years of his life Sir Compton was almost blind and only last summer he had a spell in hospital which left him with periodic fatigue. During his life he wrote about one hundred books. His work included novels, biographies, histories, travel books, essays, stories for children, besides numerous broadcasts and television appearances. He was born Edward Montague Compton in West Hartlepool and was educated in London at Colet Court and St. Paul's School before going to Oxford University. After coming down he studied law before turning to writing and then he assumed an old family name, Mackenzie.

Cricket is a pastime I have always enjoyed. I do not suggest that I was ever a good cricketer. I suffered, in my opinion, from the handicap of being a left-handed bowler and a right-handed batsman. I could bowl without disgracing myself, but as a batsman I was hopeless.

How well do I remember the summer of that sunblessed year, 1893. I was ten years old and eager for fun. There was the cricket match between the small boys of Broadway and the visiting team of small boys in which I took five wickets. This was a pure accident. So much embarrassed was I when put on to bowl that I concentrated on bowling straight and in order to do this I thought the surest way was to swing my arm directly over my left shoulder. The result was a series of half volleys which an experienced batsman would have hit over the boundary by stepping out and treating the delivery as a full pitch. As it was, the inexperieced batsmen I bowled against stepped back and their stumps were spreadeagled. I was entirely at a loss to understand my success as a bowler and not in the least elated by it. Only when I held a tough catch at cover-point at the very end of the innings, which left the boys of Broadway victors, did I feel elated. The echo of that "well caught" from the spectators still rings in my mind's ears from eighty years ago.

I recall the Scarborough cricket week of 1893 when I was taken by Frank Goodricke, the eldest son of the manager of the Spa, to see the South of England eleven playing Yorkshire. Well do I remember the venerated figure of W. W. Read, the Surrey batsman, in his chocolate coloured cap; we were too much in awe of cricketers eighty years ago to pester them for autographs. I recall dark handsome Tom Richardson, the Surrey fast bowler, and fair handsome Lockwood; I recall the burly figure of Sir Timothy O'Brien making terrific swipes of the redoubtable Yorkshire bowler Peel, I recall F. R. Spofforth, the demon bowler, with his heavy drooping moustache; finally, I recall J. J. Ferris of Gloucestershire, a small left-handed bowler from Australia who only played a couple of seasons for Gloucestershire and went back to Australia in 1895. I have an impression that he took the wicket of the famous J. T. Brown; I certainly saw him take one Yorkshire wicket.

I fell into disgrace with Frank Goodricke because from where I was sitting in the pavilion I could see a football match going on. I can hear him now turning to me and saying "This is the last time I'll bring you to the Scarborough cricket week if you want to look at football." Frank Goodricke did not know that the ten-year-old boy looking at football, when the paragons of cricket were performing, was anticipating what the whole of the British public would be doing twenty years later. Two years earlier Somerset had been added to the eight first-class cricket counties. It was the bowling of S. M. J. Woods, or as we kids called him Sammy Woods, and the perfect batting of the brothers L. C. H. and R. C. N. Palairet which kept Somerset as a new first-class county.

The summer of 1894 I spent in Brittany with several other small boys to be coached for scholarship examinations and for entrance to H.M.S. Britannia for the Royal Navy. What I recall from that wet summer was the destruction of my butterfly collection by the customs officials who insisted on my opening the cigar boxes, in which I was carrying them back, and scattering them all over the wet ground. So wet a summer was it that we felt we had not lost much cricket but I do recall our surprise that the top of the batting averages was Brockwell of Surrey with 39 runs an innings.

However, the year 1895 was to become a remarkable one in the history of cricket. The prodigious performance of W. G. Grace in scoring over 1,000 runs in twenty-two days in the month of May inspired the whole country with a tremendous interest in cricket and cricketers. There had been nothing like it and, moreover, more than thirty years passed before it was repeated by another Gloucestershire stalwart, W. R. Hammond, in twenty-five days.

There must have been three of four periodicals produced in 1895 devoted to cricket records and the personalities of the various cricketers. It may have been due to this interest at this time that, as I remember, five were promoted to first-class counties that year. These were Hampshire, Derbyshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire and Essex.

It was a batsman's year. W. G. Grace was in his forty-eighth year and he had taken considerable pains to get himself into the best physical condition possible. He was by far the heaviest player taking part in the great matches and he was in his thirty-first season in first-class cricket. Moreover, he played many long innings without a mistake: 288 against Somerset at Bristol in five hours, twenty minutes; it was his hundredth century; 257 against Kent at Gravesend and The Champion was on the field during every ball of the match.

Enthusiastic crowds flocked to see him wherever he appeared and he finished that memorable summer in making 2,346 runs, the largest aggregate of the year. He was entertained at banquets in London and Bristol; a National Testimonial was organised and the Daily Telegraph, the paper with which I was later to have some connection, collected £5,000, by means of a shilling subscription. Shoolboys all over the country were invited to contribute. I can still recall from eighty years ago our determination not to let our pocket-money of sixpence per week be given to cigarettes until we had the necessary shilling for W.G.

One summer's evening in mid-July of this year of W.G., when I was in the Recreation ground a friend came along Gliddon Road and shouted to me to open the gate for him.

"Archie McLaren has made 424 against Somerset," he announced as he passed through the gate.

"You liar!"

"No, really he has, and Lancashire have made 801."

I was speechless and stood gazing at the hands of the golden school clock nearing eight on that golden evening, Lancashire 801! Archie McLaren 424! What a chap Archie McLaren must be! It was always our custom to talk of some famous cricketers by their Christian names -- Archie McLaren, Sammy Woods, Bobby Abel, Tom Richardson and of others by their initials -- L.C.H. and R.C.N. (Palairet), W.W. (Read), and of course the mighty W.G. A year or two later when Worcestershire was added to the first-class counties, thanks to the redoubtable batting of old Malvernians like H. K. and R. E. Foster, it was considered a great joke to call Worcestershire, Fostershire.

Sadly for me I did not see any of the cricket of the Scarborough Festival of 1896 because I succumbed to what was called at that time inflammation of the lungs, which meant the agony of being painted with iodine and the irritation of being told by the doctor that I was imagining the pain. My mother at this time decided to buy a bungalow called Canadian Cottage on the outskirts of Alton in Hampshire; instead of going back to school in September I went down with her to Canadian Cottage and felt myself well rewarded for the pain of that wretched iodine by the pleasure of reading at last three or four schoolboy weeklies, among them, The Captain, later edited by P. G. Wodehouse. A redoubtable player called Jessop was making large scores for Beccles College in East Anglia. G. L. Jessop! How lucky Gloucestershire and Cambridge University were to have him whom we used to call The Croucher. Another of our heroes of that time was C. J. Kortright of Essex whom we believed to be the fastest bowler who ever bowled a ball.

Now with the memory of K. S. Ranjitsinhji and C. B. Fry batting at Hove and of what seemed Ranjitsinhji's ability to make it look as easy to hit the ball to the boundary as it was back to the bowler, I shall move on to 1901 when I went up to Magdalen College, Oxford. It was now being realised that golf was a menace to cricket. Instead of practice at the nets, members of the Varsity XI were going off to play golf at some place called Hinksey. At the same time junior cricketers were playing golf at Cowley long before Cowley became the heart of the Morris motor works. Then on top of the threat of golf for the future of cricket came the addition of lawn tennis, which we used to call pat-ball in those days, real tennis still being considered the only kind of tennis fit for recognition. When a half-blue was awarded for lawn tennis, professional cricket did not seem to have anything to fear from either golf or tennis.

In 1939 when war with Germany was obviously drawing nearer the second National Government invited various people to speak round the country to step up recruiting. I was invited to address the City of Bradford with Herbert Sutcliffe as my partner. I had been warned by Auckland Geddes that Bradford could be as difficult an audience as Manchester had been for him the previous week when it kept chanting "Tripe! Tripe!" When I stepped forward on the platform of the Alhambra on that Sunday evening I said I hoped the citizens of Bradford would not suppose that I was a representative of the National Government: What I think of the National Government could not be said on any platform or in any pulpit on a Sunday evening. When I sat down Herbie Sutcliffe turned to me and said:

"Oh my, how I wish I could speak like you."

"You don't wish nearly as much that you could speak like me as I wish I could bat like you," I replied.

As I bring to a close these reminiscences of cricket as I recall it from eighty years ago I hear on the radio that Rhodes is drawing near to a century of years and I am back hearing of the feats of Rhodes and F. S. Jackson for the White Rose of Yorkshire against the Red Rose of Lancashire.

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