Thursday, 30 March 2017

Cricket & psychogeography number 2: the fast bowlers of Hartley Wintney

This lightning tree stands in the fields between Elvetham and Hartley Wintney, at the North-East tip of Hampshire. Across the same fields, long before the tree was seeded, strode a cricketing thunderbolt, a man who would change the fabric of the game. His name was David Harris, and he bowled fast. Here's what it was like to face him:

'He left fingers ground to dust against bat, bones pulverised, and blood scattered over the field.'

He was born in Elvetham in 1755, and he emerged into a changing world. In 1744, the two stumps that made up a wicket had been raised to twenty-two inches in height. In 1775, when Harris was twenty years old, came the match at the Artillery Ground when Lumpy Stevens 'bowled' John Small three times, leading to the addition of the middle peg. The target suitably established, David Harris went to work.

 Elvetham was listed in the Domesday book with a yearly rent of thirty shillings and enough woodland to support ten swine. The Seymour family arrived in 1426, and in 1535 Edward Seymour entertained his brother-in-law Henry VIII there. Elizabeth I visited in 1591 as the guest of the Earl of Hertford, and brought an entourage of 500 with her. The fields and woodland around the hall were unchanged by the time of David Harris and some have barely changed now. Harris happened to be born in exactly the right place, as well as the right time.

Hartley Wintney cricket green, viewed from the Elvetham side

Cricket was played on this green in 1770, when David Harris was fifteen years old, and it has taken place there every season since, making it one of the oldest continuously used grounds in England. Although the name David Harris appeared on a scorecard for the first time on 27 May 1782 in a game at Odiham between Arlesford & Odiham and a Hampshire County XI, the case that he was bowling here, a mile or so from his home, some years before that is irresistible.

Looking from the square towards Elvetham

Harris' method, the ball raised to the height of his forehead 'like a soldier at drill' before he delivered, produced a spearing underarm delivery that kicked up from the pitch, a new and apocalyptic development for batsmen used to a ball that stayed low or ran across the ground. 'Length', as it became known, forced through the new style of bat and a new style of batting, the one being refined by Billy Beldham a few miles to the south in Farnham.

But Harris did something more important than that. He introduced a psychological dimension to the game that wasn't there before, he broadened its hinterland. He brought in the notion of fear, of peril. He reinforced the idea of the batsman as being alone in a hostile universe. It was the other half of Silver Billy's model of batting as something beautiful, the aesthetic heart of the game, and together they formed something modern and new.

Here is the playwright Frederick Reynolds on how it was to face David Harris: 'I felt almost as if taking my ground in a duel... and my terrors were so much increased by the mock pity and sympathy of Hammond, Beldham and others round the wicket, that when this mighty bowler, this Jupiter Tonans, hurled his bolt at me, I shut my eyes in the intensity of my panic and gave a random, desperate blow'.

David Harris and Billy Beldham first faced one another in 1784, when Farnham played Hambledon, and they would appear as both team-mates and opponents from then on, two shaping forces, flip-sides of the same coin. A third man linked them, another archetype, this time of the autocratic administrator. His name was Lord Frederick Beauclerk, and he lived in Winchfield, the next village along from Hartley Wintney, in Winchfield House, a glorious pile that still stands.

Beauclerk's crib, Winchfield House

Ostensibly a cleric with a parish in St Albans, where, when he appeared his sermons were legendarily dull, Beauclerk made his money from playing and betting on cricket, and he was one of the game's great enigmas: courageous on the field but malicious too, a bearer of epic grudges, priggish, disdainful, haughty, both a maker and bender of rules and a man who had no problem with saying one thing and doing another. His betting came mainly in small-sided games, into which Billy Beldham was often co-opted.

Beauclerk would have loved to have hold of David Harris too, but his star shone briefly. He was a quiet country boy, with, as Nyren recorded, 'a remarkably kind and gentle expression', a potter by trade who never married and who would be dead at 45. Gout afflicted him so badly that he used crutches to walk and had to sit down between overs, and after his last games in 1798, 'was latterly a cripple'. He's buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Crondall, not far from his home in Crookham.

As John Major wrote in his book More Than A Game, 'The name of David Harris does not convey the magic of a Sydney Barnes, a Harold Larwood or a Shane Warne, but his role in changing the face of cricket was greater than any of theirs'. 

Harris had a reputation for being incorruptible, 'a man of so strict a principal', not pragmatic enough for Beauclerk. Instead, Hartley Wintney was to throw up another rapid-fire merchant for him, Thomas Howard, born in the village in 1781, a man who would take part in a contest of such infamy it would lead to a radical change in rules, and to a feud that cost careers and lasted a lifetime.

It involved Beauclerk of course, who could not believe his luck when he found a left-arm length bowler of Howard's talent emerging just up the road from his country house. Howard appeared in the inaugural Gentleman versus Players matches at Lord's Dorset Square gound in 1806, where Beauclerk captained the Gentlemen and recruited Silver Billy and William Lambert as 'given men' [Billy swapped sides for the second encounter, during which Howard dismissed Beauclerk for an ultimately decisive 58 in the Gentlemen's first innings].

By 1810, when Beauclerk asked Howard to play with him in a money match against William Lambert and George Osbaldeston, Howard was established as a leading player of the day. The bet was for £100, and it was a gamble - Lambert was to vye with Billy as the premier batsman of the age, and Osbaldeston was a skilled all-rounder, a swashbuckler known as the 'Squire of England'. When Osbaldeston fell ill at the toss, Beauclerk saw his chance and refused Lambert's request to postpone the game. He told Lambert to play or pay up and Lambert responded by bowling so wide of the wicket that Beauclerk's hair-trigger temper duly went off and the match was lost.

Beauclerk's vengeance was lifelong. A year later his hand was behind the institution of a Law declaring a one-run penalty for a wide delivery. In 1817, Lambert was accused of trying to fix a match between Nottingham and Beauclerk's All England XI. Beauclerk was struck on the finger during that ill-tempered game and almost died after the wound became infected. When Lambert became embroiled in a row during a match at Lord's the following season, Beauclerk called him in front of the MCC committee and had him banned from playing for a year. For Osbaldeston he had to wait a little longer, but revenge came when he resigned from MCC in protest after an argument during another single-wicket game and Beauclerk refused to readmit him. The Squire's cricket career fell terminally away.

Here have stood giants...

Hartley Wintney is a thriving club [and a ground I conquered myself once or twice] and each year they host a charity game, generally with Hampshire's beneficiary, so the great and the good continue to stand on earth that connects them to cricket's deepest history. It's quite something to be a part of.

The dastardly Lord forever remembered in Winchfield

Next time, to London for more from Beauclerk, and then Tilford, for the last days of Silver Billy...

Friday, 17 February 2017

Cricket & psychogeography number 1: Holt Pound

It's the morning of 23 August 1791. In the field behind this gate, George Finch, the ninth Earl of Winchilsea, has been dismissed hit wicket for four while batting for Surrey against Hampshire. His opening partner Charles Anguish is out for nought. Harbord, the number three, goes for a duck too, and Louch at number four manages nine. Two of the three Walker brothers, Tommy and Harry, fall quickly, for nought and two. By the side of the pitch, among the crowds, William Beldham, 25 years old and perhaps already the greatest batsman in the land, awaits his turn. He's down at number eleven, the last man in.

The bowling is underarm, each over consists of four deliveries. On Holt Pound's rudimentary wicket, staying in is hard, making runs harder. When he gets to the crease, Billy Beldham scores nine in the first innings and 17 in the second - and Surrey win by 17 runs. In the first-class season of 1791, Billy finishes with 532 runs, the most in England and almost 150 more than anyone else. Despite being run out for a duck in the second innings and completing a pair, George Finch is third with 345.

Billy came from Wrecclesham, a hillside village to the south of Farnham and a community that was said to spend its sundays 'in scenes of profanity and vice', drinking and gambling on games of marbles and pitch-and-toss, no doubt a terrifying sight to the metropolitan elite. William was a handsome country lad, tall and with long fair hair that won him the nickname 'Silver Billy'. He lived in Yew Tree Cottage on The Street, Wrecclesham's main thoroughfair, a winding strip that boasted five pubs along it and another three nearby. The Holt Pound ground lay behind one of those, an establishment currently known as the Forest Inn, at the top of Wrecclesham hill.

The Forest Inn, glimpsed from the far side of the ground

In the spring of 1791, Lord Stawel, the ranger of Alice Holt forest and the captain of Farnham Cricket Club, had employed Billy and his brother John to create a newer, more permanent ground behind the pub to cash in on the growing interest in cricket. Land in the forest was being cleared to produce wood for the Royal Navy, and the arena that  Billy and John produced was described by Charles Grover in his book My Native Village: 'It was banked and level and free to all parties, and as the game is considered a most manly one, all classes engaged in it most extensively.  At this time few counties or towns could cope with Farnham and more particularly the little village of Wrecclesham, which could boast some of the most clever and celebrated at the game, as well as one of the best grounds. Matches would often last three or four days and when there, would assemble thousands of spectators, and carriages very numerous'.

Silver Billy's vision

Billy was schooled in the game by Harry Hall, a gingerbread maker from Farnham, and the Walker brothers of Churt - Harry Walker is usually credited with creating the cut shot. Farnham were a powerhouse of a team, and Billy debuted in their first recorded match, on the field he'd turn into Holt Pound, on 13 August 1782. They played Odiham, and Billy Beldham was 16 years old. Between that debut and the summer of 1791, Billy became a giant, one of the first men to play forward with a high front elbow, a style that demanded a new shape of bat and a response from bewildered bowlers.

George Finch first saw him play when Billy scored 43 for Farnham against Hambledon in 1784, and the following Spring visited him in Wrecclesham with an offer to become his patron. From then on, and for the rest of his playing career, Billy earned good money from cricket, and what's more, invented the notion of batting as something beautiful, an aesthetic pleasure. He made the batsman, rather than the bowler, the lone existential hero of the game.

John Nyren, son of the great yeoman Richard, landlord of the Bat and Ball at Broadhalfpenny Down, and from whom we know most of what we know, would write of Silver Billy in his pomp: 'It was a study for Phidias to see Beldham rise to strike, the grandeur of the attitude, the settled composure of the look, the piercing lightning of the eye, the rapid glance of the bat, were electrical. Men's hearts throbbed within them, their cheeks turned pale and red. Michael Angelo [sic] should have painted him...'

Imagine it's a sightscreen...

Billy struck one of the first hundreds on Thomas Lord's ground at Dorset Square, and appeared in both of the other first-class games played on Holt Pound, Surrey's two famous wins over Lord Frederick Beauclerk's All England side in 1808 and 1809 - turning out for Surrey in the first and England in the second. It's easy to imagine how he felt, a boy from nowhere who drew thronging crowds and the patronage of lords to the ground outside of his village, setting men's hearts athrob as he went...

Billy wasn't the only shaping force to appear at Holt Pound. George Finch, ninth Earl of Winchilsea, began playing at the age of 33 and thereafter 'would go anywhere for a game of cricket'. His bat was reputed to weigh 4lbs 2oz, which perhaps contributed to his erratic form. It was away from the pitch that his presence was felt. He was a founder of MCC, the club that would soon become the focus of the game, and he offered Thomas Lord the patronage that helped him construct Dorset Square, shifting cricket from country to city.

The lane beside Holt Pound

To find Holt Pound today, drive through Wrecclesham, past Yew Tree Cottage, which still stands on the Street, and on up the hill, where you'll pass a garden centre and a sawmill and then cross the border from Surrey back into Hampshire before you reach the Forest Inn, and the tumbledown little laneway beside it that leads to the ground. It's a prosaic place now, administered by Binstead council, a bare and unloved field with just a dog-walkers' track across the middle. Farnham left it behind after 1851 for their existing ground on Folly Hill, and save for a brief revival after the first World War, Billy's oval at Holt Pound receded into history, unknown now to the cars that fly by on the A325.

There should be a blue plaque, at least, if you could bolt one to the gate...

A view from the middle

We'll return to the story of Silver Billy when we visit Tilford, but next in the series it's Hartley Wintney, for a meeting with a demon bowler who Billy often battled, and the oddball Lord who seized hold of the Laws of the game...

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Mourinho and fear

Given a different life, Jose Mourinho would make a fascinating cricket coach. Last night Manchester United drew 0-0 with Liverpool and had just 35 per cent of possession in the game, the lowest figure since Opta started recording the stat in 2003/4.

The usual modifier to use would be 'despite having just 35 per cent of possession,' but Mourinho considers possession of the ball differently to most football coaches. When I was working on The Meaning Of Cricket, I wanted to write about fear and anxiety and how it can impact on both batsmen and bowlers, and I came upon Jonathan Wilson's brilliant piece for The Blizzard magazine, The Devil And Jose Mourinho.

The piece listed Mourinho's seven-point plan for winning big matches:

1. The game is won by the team that commits fewer errors.

2. Football favours the team that provokes more errors in the opposition.

3. In away matches it is better to encourage mistakes rather than try and be superior to the opposition.

4. Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.

5. Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of a mistake.

6. Whoever has the ball has fear.

7. Whoever does not is thereby stronger.

Never was this strategy more evident than last night, a result Mourinho described as "a point that stopped them winning three". He negated Liverpool's on-trend 'high press' with the simple tactic of having his goalkeeper boot the ball up the field rather than pass or throw it out to his defenders.

What I found most interesting about Mourinho's rules was his bald acknowledgement of the role fear plays in big games and tight situations, and how he develops tactics to manage that fear. It's rare in sport that the word 'fear' is used, such are its connotations around notions of courage and professionalism, and yet as Mourinho knows, it exists in myriad ways.

 In T20 cricket, fear has almost disappeared, partly because the length of the game attatches less weight to individual failure and also because the whole mindset is about the acceptance of risk. In the longer game, where small mistakes can have a big impact, sometimes days later, things are different.

Mourinho, I suspect, would be brilliant in his analysis of these attritional moments, when a 'negative' tactic, like playing on a batsman's nerves by keeping the ball wide, or drying up runs from a favourite shot, can impact on ego, self-image, anxiety, fear...

There are far more such nuanced siuations in a long game like cricket than a short one like football. Mourinho's understanding that sometimes, handing the ball and the 'advantage' to an opponent can often make them crack, would I'm sure have its effect, especially when a single mistake can be fatal for an individual.

Sunday, 17 July 2016


In the mid-1700s, the men who would emerge as the premier batsmen of their age were coming to a realisation. Tom Sueter, the great left-hander of Hambledon, broke free of the "heresy" that a player should stay back in his crease to ward off the many dangers of fast underarm bowling on pitches pitted with mud and stones, and began stepping forwards towards the ball. As John Nyren would write in Cricketers Of My Time, 'Egad, it went as if it had been fired'.

And in the fields around Farnham, 'Silver' Billy Beldham was taught by Harry Hall to present the bat to the ball with the left elbow high and play through the line rather than across it, and Billy became, in Nyren's words, 'safer than the bank'. At Churt, a few miles up the road, Harry Walker hit upon the cut shot (and Harry came from an inventive family; his younger brother Tom is credited with being the first to bowl roundarm).

Batting was making its response to the ball's early dominance. The shape of the bat standardised and handles were spliced in, rather than carved from the same piece of wood as the blade. The next great challenge would come when round-arm bowling became overarm, and Grace came to meet it as modern batting's overwhelming conceptual force.

The history of the game can be seen as the history of bat versus ball, one ascendent and then the other fighting back. Now, after a couple of decades in which almost every bowling record was broken, in which both spin and swing were reinvented, we have entered an era of the bat. Driven by the dawn of T20, it has been nothing short of a revolution in both mentality and technique, the greatest shift since Grace's famous declaration that he "determined to test" the conventional wisdom of defensive batting.

There is a tendency to view the era that you're living in as the apex moment, the point of the arrow, when in fact a better analogy is that the game's past, present and future is a river into which you dive at a random point, swim along for a while and then leave. The balance between bat and ball has always been contentious, from the Massive Bat Incident of 1771, through Bodyline, uncovered pitches, reverse swing and lots of other responses to one getting on top of the other. And yet the balance has always self-corrected as the generations come and then go.

The MCC Cricket Committee's report, Balance of the Game, (available here) is a more rounded document than the issue that it has been reduced to, and yet it doesn't really mention this ever-moving history. It's an apex moment document in that regard. It lays out the statistics of the new era of the bat (in Test cricket in the 1950s one ball in every 4,127 was hit for six, now it is one in every 189*), it considers anecdotal and scientific evidence (a study by Imperial College using recreations of bats from different eras) that the balance may have shifted, and examines the reasons why.

Those reasons cannot be unknotted from one another: techniques have changed; players are fitter and stronger; their intent is different; the bats are better... It is impossible to come up with some sort of ratio that allocates weight to each of these factors. Players cannot be limited in how they train or play or think, and so the only variables that can be adjusted are the bat, the ball, the pitches or the playing conditions. Of those, by far the easiest to change are the bat or the ball - and there's an interesting, somewhat overlooked section in the report on what manufacturers think they could do with the ball in terms of making it seam or spin more.

The bat, though, is the focus of the game, a totemic and potent object invested in part with the hopes and dreams of the player holding it: the batsman is alone with it when all's said and done. When, at the tail-end of the 1970s, the Scoop and the Jumbo saw the first real changes in its shape for a hundred years or so, it became obvious by the reaction to those bats that there is an emotional connection as well as a physical one. It's this connection which has perhaps made the debate more heated.

However much it may want to be, cricket is not isolated from time. The primary equipment in almost every sport has improved exponentially. Tennis no longer has wooden rackets, golf clubs aren't made of persimmon any more, footballs aren't of the cannonball leather sort hoofed by Bobby Charlton, and so on. It's unrealistic to think that cricket bats would not follow the trend, and their dynamic reinvention has improved the game. And bats and their materials are more closely governed by the Laws than most other bits of sporting gear, to the point that any sort of virus that affected the English willow Salix Alba in the way that Ash Dieback or Dutch Elm Disease affected other types, would decimate the industry.

The science in the MCC report is debatable: as someone who knows told me, "[it doesn't] want to say anything definite because of too much noisy data". The laws of physics cannot be cheated, and bats are not heavier now - if anything they're lighter. According to Imperial College, the biggest sweet spot on any of the bats they tested came from the 'scooped back' - ie a bat conceived in the 1970s. Instead, performance of the willow has been pushed to the max by good design and different pressing techniques. For every leading edge that flies over third man for six, there's another that carries to slip or is caught in the deep.

Yet there is merit to MCC's points about safety in the amateur game, especially for umpires (I've seen two hit by straight drives this year), and common sense says that there should be some kind of limit to the depth of a bat if there are limits on its width and length. Batmakers may have sighed wearily at the science, but many are relieved that the pressure to keep pushing a natural material to its absolute limits will abate. As Chris King of Gray Nicolls told me when I wrote about bats for EspnCricinfo: "If I have two bats of the same weight, same grain, that pick up pretty much the same and that sound the same when I knock them up with the mallet, the pro will always choose the one with the bigger edges. Always will. It's psychological."

Now that psychology can be contained by a maximum size. No-one with any insight believes that the way batting is going will change because of it. The ball will continue to be hit higher, harder and more often than ever before, because that's the intention of the players doing it. It will go just as far from a 35mm edge as a 40mm one because the performance of the bat will barely alter. What will change batting is a response from the bowlers of the next generation.

But the argument is settled. It's the right decision taken for the wrong reasons in our post-factual times.

* One six in every 189 deliveries = one per 31.5 overs, or not that often...

NB: Forgive the plug, but I've written about the bat and modern batting, along with other stuff, in The Meaning of Cricket, out now...

Saturday, 30 April 2016

From the lake of dreams (Sussex) rises Merlin...

Bryson DeChambeau is the latest golden hope of American golf, low amateur at the Masters followed by a T-4 finish in his first tournament as a pro at Hilton Head, and just the fifth player to win the NCAA and US Amateur titles in the same year - the other four were Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ryan Moore.

It's not just the golf, either. The Americans are well stocked on Boy Wonders, what with Spieth and Fowler and so on. DeChambeau, once a physics major at Southern Methodist University, is trying to rip up some of the game's conventional wisdom, playing with a set of clubs that he conceived and helped to design. Instead of gradually decreasing in length towards the wedges in the regular way, all of DeChambeau's irons have the same 37.5 inch shaft, his theory being that he can make exactly the same swing on every shot - a swing he has tailored very specifically to his body type. Because the clubs are all the length of his six iron, his swing is anachronistically upright, and when coupled with the flat cap he favours, gives him an old-school, deeply marketable look.

It started in 2011, when DeChambeau's coach told him to read The Golfing Machine by Homer Kelley, published in 1969, a book described by Golf Digest as 'an arcane, science-based tome' and blamed by some for what the magazine called the "high-profile flame-outs" of Mac O'Grady and Bobby Clampett (O'Grady in turn is now an equally controversial swing instructor who plays scratch golf both right and left handed). Dechambeau's revelatory flash came upon him when he read 'Chapter Ten, Component 7, Variation A', which dealt with the notion of what Kelley termed the 'Zero Shift Swing'.

The ins and outs of the Zero Shift Swing are for the pointy heads of golf mechanics, but it's worth noting that what DeChambeau has done is not prescriptive: he believes that the golf swing is entirely individual, and that everyone can play: "It's not talent, it's just practice... If I wanted to learn Arabic or Russian, I could. Or tie my shoes in a new way, I could. Why? Dedication. I'm not really smart, but I'm dedicated. I can be good at anything if I love it and dedicate myself."

DeChambeau is already picking up significant amounts of TV airtime when he plays, and he's a telegenic guy. He's far better known than 150 or so veteran tour pros, and the differences in his swing ensure that every time he's on, one of the commentators will talk about his clubs.

Golf clubs have, like the cricket bat, been through their transformative moment: the difference is that they can to a degree keep pushing forwards with new materials and gimmicks. Willow will always be willow, with all of its beauty and constraints. But If DeChambeau is right, and he has found an alternative way of playing the game, then he's offering manufacturers an entirely new market.

Cricket will not have that luxury, at least while the rules on what materials can be used in the bat remain (and maybe there's a case that they shouldn't). When I wrote about bats for cricinfo a couple of years ago, Chris King, who makes them for Gray Nicolls, was working on designs that would make the player feel better, the willow itself having been pushed to the edge of its useability.

I've been thinking of DeChambeau, and of Chris' ideas since I've had hold of Newbery's new bat, the Merlin. Two seasons ago, entirely out of the blue, I got one of the greatest emails of my life asking if I'd like to try out the then-new Kudos, a blade that has since joined my personal pantheon. When it became Newbery's fastest selling bat, the link was obvious*, and I couldn't get down to Hove fast enough when the offer of the Merlin came along.

In appearance the Merlin is classically understated, a beautiful bat with slender shoulders and sweeping lines. The toe is squared off, which seems in vogue at the moment, and the bat is pressed slightly differently (the result of a mistake on a prototype, apparently) giving it a flatter, apparently broader face. Looking down on it, it has a sort of sultry power that, a few years ago, you'd associate with much bigger, less sophisticated cudgel (I may be overthinking all of this, but Chris King is onto something - a bat must make you feel good when you look at it in your stance... whatever 'good' means to you).

The twist to the bat is in the top of the handle, which is hollowed out in order to drop in a plug of lignum vitae, a dense, heavy, green wood designed to act as a counter balance. It weighs a few ounces, and is there to make the bat come down faster once it's at the top of the backlift, a very DeChambeau type of idea that probably has something to do with the moment of maximum inertia.

I was somewhat skeptical about this, but in pick-up the bat does feel slightly unorthodox. I've only used it three times, twice in the nets when I hacked away (I hadn't batted for so long I could barely see the ball, let alone hit it) and once in a game (on an artifical pitch last weekend, where it was so cold it was also quite hard to actually see) when I managed to middle a couple (the bat has that deep, satisfying sense of prolonged contact when it happens). I felt as though I was at the ball early a couple of times (any excuse...) so perhaps I was swinging it a little faster.

It's a fascinating idea that has a psychological impact as well as a physical one (maybe more so, in fact, certainly for me). With a material like willow, which in the modern bat is worked to within an inch of its life, expanding its development takes imagination and flair and the Merlin has both.

There is a trend trend for global sports 'brands' (uurgh) mostly concerned with selling trainers to sticker up bats and pay big-name pros lots of money to use them (and good for the pros, make it while you can) but these are not the bats that you see out on the club pitches of England. Bat making at heart is artisan and individual. You know a Newbery bat by its look and feel, in the same way that you know a Gray Nicolls, or a Salix or a Woodstock, a Millichamp & Hall and so on. These are the bats that people want, because they are bats that the owner can make a connection with.

*I'm joking. It is obvious though.

NB: also obviously, and in full disclosure, Newbery gave me both the Kudos and the Merlin. The last bat I bought before that was a Newbery. They make great bats that suit me. Like all good makers, you can go along to see them and talk about the bats they've got, probably until you're blue in the face and they're edging you towards the door. You don't buy often, so when you do, make it a good one...

NNB: If you needed any more confirmation that cricket bats are sexy, Gordon Lee, Newbery's CEO and a man as happily obsessed with the product as everyone else there, used to work for Ann Summers and Wonderbra. Now that's what you call a CV...

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

What was it like to see overarm bowling for the first time?

What was it like to be there for the big one, the shift in the axis of the game that was the change from round arm to overarm bowling? How would that have looked and felt the first time it happened?

Jonathon Green, estimable maestro of slang and the man who uncovered the gruesome details of the match between the men with one arm and the men with one leg, has sent a report from the Satirist & Sporting Chronicle of Sydney, 11 March 1843, a single paragraph headed simply 'Cricket'.

It tells the story of 'monday last' when a match between the Australia and Victoria clubs was settled in favour of the 'natives' - Australia - 'by a majority of 142 runs.'

'This is attributed entirely to the bowling of Still, on the Australian side, which was considered by many old Cricketers to be decidedly unfair; most of his Balls being thrown over his shoulder. This is NEVER ALLOWED in the Clubs at Home, nor is it right it should be, as the severe contusions most of the Victoria Club received while batting to it, shows that it is not only unfair but dangerous'. 

'The Australians must not boast of their achievement,' the Satirist's man goes on, as 'without Still they were basely beaten'.

There is a rather sad coda, in which four Victorian batsmen go in against Still in 'a second match' to 'make up the deficiency', which 'showed much spirit but great want of judgment'. They lost again.

Roundarm bowling had been legal for eight years when Still left Victoria beaten and bruised, and the famous confrontation between Edgar Willsher of All England and umpire John Lillywhite at the Oval was still nineteen years away. Those who watched Still bowl overarm in 1843 saw the future rushing towards them, shocking but maybe alluring too.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Him Indoors

As a kid I owned the audiobook version - on cassette - of Fred Trueman's salty autobiography Balls Of Fire (double entendre most definitely intended), read by the great man himself. Fred had been retired for many years even back then, and the audiobook was an extension of the persona he was building up on Test Match Special, that of the world's Greatest Living Yorkshireman: hard-bitten and hard done by, triumphant despite the best efforts of 'all t'other boogers' who were out to get him.

The bit that stuck in my pre-adolescent mind was a description of the breakdown of his marriage to Enid, caused, he reckoned, by his long absences on tour: 'She must have known I had had the odd bird...' Fred intoned regretfully (well if she didn't, she did once she'd listened to Balls Of Fire).

Around that time, Fred had another string to his bow, presenting the Yorkshire TV series The Indoor League. The genesis of this is covered quite brilliantly in Dan Waddell's new book We Had Some Laughs, a memoir of his father Sid, who conceived and produced The Indoor League. Dan makes no secret of the fact that, in Sid's eyes, one of the great advantages of The Indoor League was that it was staged entirely in a pub, a sort of working man's Olympics based around darts, arm-wrestling, skittles, bar billiards, table football, pool and Sid's personal favourite, shove ha'penny.

Dan provides some magnificent detail; from the man known as Buffalo Bill, the shove ha'penny exponent who dresses in cowboy regalia for all of his matches 'complete with holster and a cap gun' to the fact that the darts was contested on a 'Yorkshire board' that had no treble segment, meaning that the matches went on for three times as long as normal. Even this paled when compared to the nine-minute table football match in which the ball remained invisible.

Supervising it all, and delivering 'menacing links' while clad in a cardigan matched with a wide collared shirt, smoking a pipe and holding a pint, was Fred. His early efforts had 'all the fluidity of a treacle sponge', and it fell to Sid to supply the linguistic fireworks via a script.

'I don't talk like this,' Fred moaned when he read it.

'You do now,' the exective producer told him.

So the character was born, not without some hilarity. Fred was called upon to describe one shove ha'penny player as 'the Spassky of the sliding small change', and when Sid recruited a former male model to the arm-wrestling contest, he drafted the line: 'the narcissus of the knotted knuckles', which emerged from Trueman's lips as, 'the nancy boy with the knotted knuckles'.

Series three of The Indoor League climaxed with a mass brawl that began when a table football player accidentally chinned his opponent while celebrating a goal. Sid was soon making his name on-screen while commentating on darts, while Fred went on to one other moment of television greatness when he appeared in an episode of Dad's Army.

Trueman's Indoor League sign-off, 'Ah'll sithee' has passed into folklore, and, as Dan's terrific book demonstrates, the show went a way to constructing the image that we remember as a legend of his time.

NB: I'm reading a proof of We Had Some Laughs. Amazon has it listed for publication in May - well worth picking up for your hols...