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