Cricket Nostalgia

I misspent much of my youth watching county cricket. (Maybe not misspent. Where else could I have learned about skill, subtlety, chance, patience, honour – in other words ‘playing the game’?) At that time Essex didn’t have a single venue, but travelled around the county, holding ‘cricket festivals’ in Romford, Brentwood, Ilford, Leyton, Chelmsford, Colchester, Southend and various other municipal parks. I cycled to all of them, on my trusty Rudge Pathfinder. Seating was carried around the county in lorries, plus a scoreboard mounted on the side of a van, and a double-decker bus converted into a toilet. There was a printing tent, where detailed scorecards were kept up to date by old-style type setters, with future scores and wickets left for us to fill in as the game progressed. They always progressed for three days. This was real cricket, not the instant sort that was introduced later, for people with restricted attention spans. I carried my own scorebook – the lines printed green on cream paper – and kept up with the game, entering in runs, no-balls, wides, wickets, wicket maidens (the best – you joined up the dots with a big ‘W’) religiously. During the breaks for lunch and tea I ran out with the other boys (only boys, I think) to plead with my heroes for their autographs. On rainy days we sheltered under the trees, waiting for play to resume. It didn’t matter. We were in Elysium.

My greatest heroes were Trevor Bailey and Douglas Insole. Both of them died recently – Bailey in a fire at his home in Southend, Insole just a few days ago. Bailey was a legendary all-rounder: a great defensive batsman – they called him ‘Barnacle Bailey’, though I once saw him straight drive a six over the sightscreen – and a cunning medium-pace bowler. His most famous feat was a heroic stand he shared in with Willie Watson to save a Test against Australia. He later became a fine radio commentator. Insole was an unconventional batter, who was sadly neglected by England, I always thought, though he got a few games, and scored a century against South Africa; a cavalier stroke-player very much in the mold of Dennis Compton – and the antithesis of, or complement to, Bailey. He captained Essex, and later became a distinguished cricket administrator.

There were others: Dickie Dodds, an opening batsman who always tried to hit his first ball for six, went prematurely white-haired, and retired in protest against having to play on Sundays – he belonged to some odd religious sect; Ray Smith, a bowler who went in at number 11 but often scored the fastest century of the season from there; Ken Preston, a fearsome quickie; Roy Ralph, a fat ex-tailor who only came into the team at the age of 40 when it was realized he was also a cunning spin bowler; Michael Bear, an average batsman who kept his place because of his phenomenal fielding, which was reckoned to save the side 40 runs a game… I may add more as I remember them. But for the moment it’s only Insole and Bailey who come into my mind as I reminisce about those blissful days in the sun. (It’s only the sunny days I remember.) And this wonderful verse by Francis Thompson; modified to fit my memories of Essex (Thompson’s were of Lancashire):

For the field is full of shades as I near the shadowy coast,

And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,

And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host

As the run-stealers flicker to and fro,

To and fro: –

O my Insole and my Bailey long ago!

(‘At Lords’)

That brings tears to my eyes too, as I ‘near the shadowy coast’ myself. Younger and non-cricketing readers probably won’t understand.

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13 Responses to Cricket Nostalgia

  1. Pingback: Essex | Porter’s Pensées

  2. TJ says:

    Ah, waves of nostalgia Bernard, for I did exactly the same, following Essex in the late 50s and early 60’s, visiting every ground, even Clacton which was quite far. Bailey was grittier, played to win at all costs, perhaps less popular with the pros, Insole more cavalier with bright cricket played to a finish if possible and the friendlier – walking around the boundary talking to the kids. Although Bailey and Insole were traditional ‘amateur’ captains, they actually ran the club administration in a totally dedicated way. Bailey was public school, but rather unconventional, Insole Walthamstow grammar school boy. Other names I recall: Bill Greensmith LBG bowler,Taylor the wicket keeper, and Gordon Barker, a diminutive opener.

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    • Remember them well. Also Horsfall, Paul Gibb (WK) … Both Insole and Bailey played for Cambridge University too, together I think. When I get back to England I must look through my old Essex CCC Yearbooks and New Chronicle Cricket Almanacs. (I couldn’t afford Wisden.) – We might have bumped into each other!

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      • TJ says:

        Quite likely we did, I always sat on one of the front benches with a score book like yours for literally a whole day 11am to sometimes 7pm with a few sandwiches and a bottle of fizzy drink. Happy days! I remember ‘Typhoon’ Tyson virtually unplayable at Valentines Park Ilford but Dodds hit for six first over if not first ball. You might be interested in ‘Runs in the Memory: County Cricket in the 1950’s’ by David Chalke which is mainly the testimony of players of the time, captures the atmosphere well, if you can hold of a second hand copy.

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      • Just ordered the Chalke book – £28 S/H. Many thanks!!

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      • TJ says:

        By the way, Dickie Dodds was in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and the early grey hair may have had something to do with that and perhaps his style of batting. Later he became a member of ‘Moral Rearmament.’ He published his autobiography in the 60’s but hard to find now.

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  3. John Field says:

    I’m your non-cricketeer reader par excellence, Bernard. But I can relate wholeheartedly to your sense of ‘the game’ well played and warmly remembered. My meager firsthand exposure to cricket? London, summer 1970. Wife and I walked onto edges of match in progress on grounds of Hatfield House; I knew enough to step aside of long-hit ball chased by fielder. For years I saved a brief clipping describing a match abandoned because of spectators demonstrating their displeasure with a judge’s(?term?) ruling by throwing refuse on the pitch(?term?). So much for me and cricket. Baseball is the comparable passion for this American.

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    • Thanks! ‘Umpire’, not ‘judge’. ‘Pitch’ is right. I thought that spectator violence was unknown in cricket. You don’t remember where it was? India, possibly?

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      • John Field says:

        Nope, not elsewhere, right there in London as I recall. The item, from the Times probably, was the briefest, tongue-in-cheek notice, referencing paper bits sailing onto the pitch. No violence as such suggested. I should have been clearer.

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  4. Very nice piece, Bernard. Highly evocative of a lost world.
    You do not mention – for reasons of modesty perhaps – if you played seriously yourself.
    I remember Trevor Bailey being anathematised in Australia during the 58-9 tour, when his ultra-slow batting almost single-handedly destroyed Test cricket in this country. It took a Harlem Globetrotter-style tour by the West Indies the next season to bring the game to life once more. I have an idea too that the rules were changed to prevent that kind of ultra-leg theory bowling you refer to, which Bailey practised so excruciatingly.

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    • Thanks! Not sure about Bailey, though. He usually came in at no. 6 or 7, and only blocked if the situation called for it. Bill Laurie, coming in No. 1, was far more boring. And ‘ultra leg theory’ – no. That could only describe dangerous fast bowling aimed to hurt (‘bodyline’). Bailey was never that fast. And a decent batsman can always counter leg-side bowling, even with all the fielders on the leg side, by taking a step back. (Or, today, with the reverse sweep.) I take it the new rule you refer to was the one prohibiting this kind of field. I’m sorry the Aussies didn’t respect Bailey. But you were always great whingers when it came to cricket. (Sorry!)

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      • PS. My son – married to an Aussie – will be in Oz for the next Ashes series. Melbourne. A wonderful ground. I love the Gents’ toilets, where the stalls face the game, high up, and you can look through little windows while you’re peeing, so you don’t miss anything.

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      • Bill Lawry was also ousted from the Test team because he was too boring. Bailey liked to block to antagonise the impatient Australian crowds.

        And Bailey himself was a tremendous whinger as a commentator: it was part of his charm.

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