January 2006

No Brylcreem or ballyhoo

ESPNcricinfo staff
Unpretentious and always happy to warn a batsman he was about to bowl a bouncer, Brian Statham's dignity won over Gillian Reynolds

Unpretentious and always happy to warn a batsman he was about to bowl a bouncer, Brian Statham's dignity won over Gillian Reynolds

Statham: 'a beautiful bowler and a brilliant one' © The Cricketer International
I thought first of Denis Compton. I was so smitten with him when I was 12 that I kept a photo of him, cut out from the Brylcreem advertisement in the newspaper, under my desk lid. But was Compton, of Middlesex, Arsenal FC and England, really my favourite player or just my preferred Dad model? Difficult.

Then I thought of David Sheppard, magnificent cricketer, true gentleman, probably the best Bishop Liverpool has ever had, may (given the state of the Church of England) ever have. But was I thinking more of Bishop David's powerful work in the world and the city rather than David Sheppard, captain of Sussex and England? Hard to untangle the two because of the grace he brought to both.

So I knew it had to be Brian Statham, Lancashire fast bowler, one of the best in the history of the game, accurate, determined, consistent. In the days when he was in his full glory it always seemed to me he was being eclipsed by Fred Trueman and Frank Tyson. They got all the attention for being fiery and typhoonish. Statham got on with it, whether for Lancashire (including 13 seasons of 100 wickets) or England (252 Test wickets). Born in Gorton, one of Manchester's grimmer districts, in 1930, he died in leafier Stockport in 2000. His playing career began when he was 18, lasted 20 years, gave him a living if not much to live on afterwards. He was loved, respected, acknowledged. He was quiet. He was a hero.

Let us consider why people of my generation consider quietness to be a virtue. We know players today employ agents (press and otherwise) to make sure as much public noise as possible is made about them. We recognise that the making of such public show is logical. Cricket is sport and sport is business and business needs constant promotion. It is even desirable, since it may ensure that fewer great sportsmen face drastically reduced circumstances the minute their playing days are over. The annals of cricket are jammed with agonisingly true stories of past service unrewarded and only memories of summer triumphs past to see good family men through the long, hard, hard-up winters that followed. All the same, isn't there still a difference between just reward and constant ballyhoo? Or is that just because we grew up when a cricketer doing an advertisement for Brylcreem was as much ballyhoo as the general public found tolerable?

Which brings us to heroes. Heroic, in my book, doesn't mean being flash. It means doing what you do with strength and the will to win but doing so with grace, thought, care for others, being sportsmanlike. This attitude is not fashionable. Its very lack of fashion is what has finally put me off football. If you were brought up on Billy Liddell and Albert Stubbins you cannot warm to Wayne Rooney, wouldn't, even if he played for Liverpool (a possibility, I am glad to say, as remote as Mr BenĂ­tez turning to me for advice on the subject). Statham would actually warn players if he were about to bowl a bouncer. Yet he could bowl against South Africa at Lord's in 1955, take 7 for 39 and give England a victory no one could have predicted. That's heroic. It's also great sport.

Given, however, that current fashion favours the unsporting I have begun to fear for cricket. I could not believe the chaps on the radio before the final Ashes Test this summer, saying they were praying for rain. It's not what any hero, and not just of my variety either, would want. Imagine Brian Statham among the rain prayers. Or for that matter Fred Trueman, Frank Tyson, Denis Compton or David Sheppard. It's impossible.

Heroic doesn't mean being flash. It is doing what you do with strength and will to win but with grace and thought for others

Statham became full-time captain of Lancashire in 1965. He wasn't that good at it, they say. But he was still a beautiful bowler and a brilliant one. England called him back to play against South Africa in the last Test that same year. He took 5 for 40 in the first innings. He worked his socks off for Lancashire, right through to the end of his playing career and his two years (1995-97) as president.

I never saw him play except on television, when he made the news. Girls didn't go much to cricket then. I heard about him on the radio. I read what the Manchester Guardian and the Liverpool Daily Post said about him. I bridled whenever he was bowling with Trueman and Trueman got all the glory. He seemed to me quite like my other Lancastrian hero, Will Mossop, self-effacing boot-making genius in Harold Brighouse's great comedy Hobson's Choice. I followed whenever Statham was fielding because the radio said how brilliant he was. I worried whether he would ever get used to hot-weather tours. I didn't discuss this with anyone for fear of showing my ignorance of how he had developed from fast-medium to fast and why his style was not considered classical.

During his cricket lifetime I went from schoolgirl to wife to mother. I always loved his reputation for being easy-going, for getting on with everyone, for very, very seldom losing his temper. When John Brian Statham died in 2000, seven days short of his 70th birthday, the reaction from around the world showed he wasn't just my favourite, either.

Gillian Reynolds is radio critic of the Daily Telegraph and comes from Liverpool